Pratik Shah, a talented cinematographer sheds light on how visual painting works into translating emotion onscreen while talking about Jubilee!
Have you ever wondered if the job of a cinematographer is limited to just capturing things visually or also making you feel something? Besides capturing things, they also paint visual poetry that takes you on a journey, and the best cinematography out there will transport you into another world without even making you realize the presence of a camera. Because the way a lens is placed to shoot a character or place or the way it moves makes you connect more towards what is being unfolded onscreen. And if you have been obsessed with the way Amazon's new series Jubilee looks, a lot of the credit goes to Pratik Shah, the cinematographer that blew us all over with each frame, and made us travel back in time only to fall in love with films all over again!
Though it is difficult when content takes the route of 'cinema within a cinema', it becomes all the more difficult if it's set in a different age altogether. Because there is fear of it being an exact copy or being just a caricature. But Jubilee is nothing like that. In fact, it has been crafted so intelligently that while it takes you back in time it doesn't feel like it's copy-pasted. He's shot black and white sequences of films balanced with color sequences, behind-the-scenes drama or Roy's office space, the studios or the refugee camp, the theatres jam-packed with audiences or tight close-ups with no breathing space to reveal a character's deep secret, and so much more so well! Pratik dives deep into how he did all of that. Why did he decide to shoot from a certain angle or decide on a particular lighting, frame, or color palette? He tells us all about that, his process, philosophy, and of course the art of cinematography!
Also Read: #BehindTheLens: Mithoon talks to us about being a music composer, working on Shamshera, and more!
And here’s what he had to say!
How do you feel now that the show has come out and people are noticing the camera work as well as appreciating it?
It’s nice because the goal is for people to feel like they're entering a world that they're immersed in and invested in. And that's the goal of every aspect of filmmaking, whether it's the cinematography, directing, or production design, all aspects are designed to create an experience and that's what people are responding to, it's a good feeling to hear that.
If I were to ask you to explain cinematography to a layman who probably thinks it's just a person sitting behind a camera, how would you describe what you do?
In a simple sense, it's a cinematographer's job to tell the story, rather, tell the emotion of the story visually. So under my purview are lighting, camera, color composition, camera movement, framing, and all those things. And so I have all those tools to tell the emotion of the story in the way that best fits the treatment that has been discussed and agreed upon with the director, production designer, costume designer, VFX supervisor, and all these people. We're trying to decide and figure out an early prep when we read the script, as to how we want to tell the story. So, when filmmakers are given a script, you can have 10 different directors see a script in different ways. But it comes down to the perspective that you bring on the treatment because that is what you choose with your team, your collaborators. And it's a cinematographer's job to figure out how to best convey the emotion that fits the treatment in a way that's emotional as well as immersive.
How did you end up as a cinematographer? What was it that brought you towards it?
I'm from the States, was born and raised there, and went to college in Washington DC for my bachelor's in fine art photography. And in this art school, which has been around for 100 years, there was pretty much every aspect of art that was being taught there except for film, which was not part of the curriculum in any way. But I independently of the program was getting internships in photojournalism at the Washington Post and the Washington Times. Because I was a photojournalism intern with the Washington Times and one of those younger people who were tech savvy I was asked to do some video work. And that was my first step into telling a story through motion picture rather than just still photography. And that led to a video journalism internship with Post back in 2011, when multimedia was just kind of emerging, and online journalism started to become a thing. So you would have the Washington Post, not just have their newspapers, but they would also have videos on their website that had just kind of started around that time. This led me to discover how much I really wanted to be involved in the cinema and moving images rather than still images, and eventually kind of explored that. It's a long journey, but long story short, eventually, I ended up in film school at U C L A for my master's studying cinematography over there.
How did you find yourself coming to India?
I finished my first year of the program at U C L A and I've been very active on Instagram as a means to create my portfolio in a sense, that's a great place for a photographer or a filmmaker to showcase their work and for people to just kind of get easy access to you. And I've been mostly posting photography on there when somehow an Indian production designer kind of stumbled on it, and she sent my profile to Vasan Bala. He loved my work and messaged me saying 'if you're ever in India, I'd love to meet you'. So I flew to India the next week and networked with some people out here, obviously met him and a full year later, one of the people that I had met, this writer who at that time was heading the horror and sci-fi division at Phantom reached out to me about a film that they were working on. So, in my third year of the program, I came to India for that project which didn't end up happening for various reasons. But I kind of waited around and prepped for a while in case it happened, but it never ended up taking off, and eventually kind of networked some more and got some other opportunities. And after some time, a couple of projects later I decided to come out and be based here.
So when did Jubilee happen to you amidst all this, and what was your first reaction when it finally all panned out?
So when the other projects fell with Phantom I was still in touch with them, and they had been aware of me, so when they were getting ready for Jubilee, I guess Vikram was interested in meeting with me and potentially working with me. To be honest, it's absolutely been a dream project for me. In a lot of ways, I came to India for Phantom, something that Vikramaditya Motwane was producing. As my favorite Indian film has always been his first film, Udaan. And as an Indian American my parents tried to give us as much of their culture as possible and we used to watch Indian films growing up but it wasn't until high school or that early time frame of college that Udaan or Gangs of Wasseypur or Dev D and came out and brought this new wave of indie cinema in India. I kind of took notice of that and in my mind, I was like, someday, who knows, it would be incredible to work with these guys. And so it was absolutely like a dream come true for them to reach out to me for Jubilee, for something that Vikram was directing. So, yeah, it has been just simply incredible!
How is Vikramaditya Motwane to work with?
He's one of the most intelligent directors in this country as he understands everybody's role so well. He reminds me of David Fincher in a lot of ways where Fincher is kind of a personality known for potentially being as good at everybody's job as the people that he hires because he really just is a lover of cinema. And Vikram, in the same way, puts a lot of trust in his collaborators and is not a micromanager. He really loves to discuss, hear people's opinions, and in prep allow everybody to kind of shape the project. Obviously, we understand his vision from the get-go and that's where we all come from with our ideas. But he's a dream to work with because his understanding of visual language is unlike any other director out here. I mean, he's somebody who understands the minute specifics of lensing like the difference in the emotion that a 40-millimeter lens will have compared to a 50-millimeter lens. He'll understand the difference in compression and what that says a lot when you're shooting a scene, so having somebody who's so visually aware, who understands pacing and understands nuance was just a dream to work with.
If I asked you what is the difference between 40mm-50mm lens actually is?
You have more compression in a tighter (50mm) lens. Look at it this way when you put the camera in front of somebody with a more compressed lens, then you're kind of isolating them from the rest of the world they are in so you're more in their world. But with a wider lens, you feel more of the surrounding. Sometimes you want a more compressed isolation feel and sometimes you want to not overstate the drama and be a little loose. That's the difference between the two.
How was the treatment of the show Jubilee decided? Because when you watch the series you are transported into the 40s-50s but from today's angle like the equipment you used to shoot. But it left us with the vibe of the previous era.
In the beginning, Vikram and I really wanted to shoot this series on film in order to create and capture the nostalgia that exists on the texture of the film. But this being an Amazon show and for a project of this scale, they really wanted us, to shoot digitally, and we also understood the limitations that we had and shot accordingly, still, we needed it to feel like you're immersed in that world. So we worked on the kind of look that we wanted to create for it. So how this works is that you create a certain look with your colorist in prep and every time you're shooting a scene that look is already what is being recorded on camera. It's not like you're changing or adding all of the things in the post, especially all the colors and textures. Those decisions are made in prep, in order to understand what colors need to be on the walls and what needs to be used for costumes because those colors are gonna react to the sensor and the way that it's translating in post.
We knew that we wanted to stick to the golden era but there's also the realism of the fact that in the forties and fifties, your source of light used to be a lot of sodium vapor which is a deep warm color, much warmer than tungsten while we also had a ton of tungsten sources too but the world we were creating was gonna have a golden orange hue. Then we also had theatres or cinema halls for which we had a sort of felt red look and for the office spaces, we wanted browns and green. So because of all this during the beginning of prep, I recommended a film called Beanpole, a beautiful Russian film, and discussed it with Vikram, the production designers Aparna and Mukund, and the costume designer, Shruti. And we came up with how we should really keep a limited world, sure, we're aiming for realism in a lot of ways but like inside a world created by us. And hence what we decided to do was remove blue from the equation and you will find very little blue in this entire show because the more you kind of limit your palette to certain colors, then the more immersed you get into that space, the more it feels like a different world you're diving into, it doesn't have to necessarily be the actual forties and fifties, but it's what we're calling the forties and fifties and it's definitely a different world than what exists today.
So by restriction in terms of hues that you have access to you automatically create something different. And that was a call we took early in prep and it affected the costumes that were being made, the sets that were being designed, and even the live locations that we had, as it came down to removing some of the blues that existed and changing the colors just so that the world could remain consistent. There's also the fact that in the post, we'd add a bit of grain texture to help accentuate that look and that era. We also had a black-and-white look so accordingly we made one look for our color space and one for black and white for all film stuff in which we use an even deeper grain structure, deeper softening filter, and diffusion filter just to help enhance the film within film look.
Did you actually watch films from the 40s and 50s for research?
I'd asked Vikram if there was anything he wanted me to see but he wasn't adamant about me seeing anything specific, and it's not like he wasn't saying it was important but he's just not the kind of filmmaker and neither am I about heavy referencing. I believe that organic creation comes from within, with your own understanding otherwise following specific reference just becomes mimicry and we didn't specifically want to be caricaturists. But he had suggested looks, and to get a general idea of what they were doing back then he did suggest me to watch Kaagaz Ke Phool and Pyaasa. So I just watched these two as they were strong references from a writing and music perspective as well. It was helpful for me to see, but it wasn't anything I ever modeled after. In fact, I tried to kind of just take a classical approach to the lighting and shooting of those scenes, and based them on generic films, and understanding of what classical lighting is.
Does it help that a lot of people haven't really watched films from the 40s and 50s and maybe don't know enough about the world that you have created? They might think that this is how it was!
At the end of the day, people are watching a fictional series on Amazon, so, everyone knows and is aware of that fact. But did it ever come into the discussion that maybe we wanna go very realistic or we want to create our own world? We were very much clear on what we wanted to create and it should not be exactly caricature with no direct references. If you're not referencing you don't ever fall into that question but if you start referencing, then you're gonna have the question. We were purely running off of the words on paper, off of the script, off treatment that we've devised, which is a mixture of just a bunch of conversations about emotion. We're not trying to celebrate or pay an ode to old cinema that's naturally there in the writing so it'll be there within the scene, but it's not something that we're enhancing or trying to do with like specific visual cues.
I just saw people repost the shot of Nilofeur and Jay in the rain, the silhouette, and they kind of juxtapose that to a shot from Shree 420. For me, there's a shot of the two of them in the rain, a classical shot and people can find these connections, so it's amazing. And that's the beautiful part of watching something original, you can have your own inferences and interpretations. That's what it should be about, it shouldn't be about like this has to be, you have to know that this is the reference of this and this is modeled after this and this is a recreation of this world. It should be an organic experience where some people might see something different than somebody else.
It's amazing how you mention not referencing because it's hard to miss on the easter eggs but it's also true that Jubilee approached telling the history of the era in the most contemporary way without making us realize that. How did you do that?
When I say we're not referencing what I mean is that you just have general rules you follow. Let's understand it this way, in the forties and fifties, they didn't have a steady cam, it came in like the late seventies to early eighties, so what that tells you is that when you're doing a film within film shot, you can't use a steady cam. It's just basic rules to follow like what existed at the time and what equipment they had access to, like they had a dolly on a track trolley rather than the kind of dollies we have. Now, for jib movements, they had the cameraman sitting literally on the jib rather than somebody operating off a remote head that creates a separate, specific kind of shake which we were aiming for. So it's not referencing a specific film, but it is just being true to the equipment and the general look that existed because of those limitations of what was there, and cinematographers had access to at that time.
As a cinematographer is this your general process with all the projects or was it specific for this project? What do you do first when you get a project? Do you create a shortlist or something else?
I start by reading the script and then meeting with the director to try and understand what their tone is, and what is it that they want to communicate with this writing. Because 10 different directors can read the script, and shoot in 10 different ways because of the personal tone or the treatment that they want to convey with this story is gonna vary from intellect to intellect. I just want to soak in that first, of course, after I read the material. Once I understand the director's vision then I'll start to kind of build images in my head. If the tone is straight drama and we want to shoot this as a little matter of fact then I emphasize that in my head, and accordingly start to visualize a wider show. A push to start visualizing things just starts to come naturally to me because subconsciously I've been doing this for a while, that's just really the process. You start to build a bit of an understanding of how to connect the tone to visual motifs, and when once you've built those you start working on color palettes and start thinking about lighting design that fits the treatment and the tone that you're trying to convey. Once you've built on to those things, then obviously, you're having meetings with the director, the production designers, and the costume designers and you're discussing and making sure everybody is on board with the same ideas.
As for shot listing it entirely varies from director to director, for instance with Jubilee both Vikram and I were on the same page about the fact that we don't actually need or want a shot list for most scenes, so instead what we did was we talked about our money shots or few scale shots if you wanna call them that. For example, cycling towards the back of the theatre where you see the sun flare and the big Bombay street set, we kind of built that set according to that shot, we knew that shot was something we wanted. We knew that shot would sell the idea that this is the 1940s-1950s Bombay. It's important for us to see the wideness of the space, but also let's do it through a character or do it through a story, hence those kinds of shots were definitely planned. Because they were planned to keep in mind the effects and in terms of the specific time to shoot it, so, we get the right kind of sun effects coming through the right flare into the camera.
But for a lot of the drama scenes, the process is you show up in the morning and you block with the actors. It's the director, myself, the first ad, and the actors and we just kind of watch them very roughly kind of walk through the scene and they figure out where they want to sit, where they want to stand, where they wanna move and Vikram will kind of watch it, do what they like to do and then maybe tweak things based on what he's seeing based on the emotions. I may suggest tweaking things based on just from a lighting standpoint. If I want a little less light on their face, I'll ask and see if it's possible to move them away from the windows, so that's how we'll discover the shot list generally on set during the blocking period of time. After the blocking is done, the actors go get ready with all costumes, hair, and makeup, and during that time, we're kind of fine-tuning the lighting and getting the camera ready. And then we shoot!
So since a cinematographer in a sense works in sync with different departments and a lot of things are decided according to the camera do you think a DOP comes very close to the role of a director as they have to be in touch with everyone and every department?
Anything being made is the director's vision and so they are more of an overseer. The key here is understanding that the director brings on people that they can trust to bring themselves on board as well, so they do want my perspective with my ability to execute. And majorly it's really not even about execution but more of a perspective. They'll bring people on board who have a perspective that they feel is right for the story, the treatment. And they can trust us to kind of understand what's needed for the scene from a storytelling perspective.
For instance, there is a pre-light for a set, let's say, Roy's interior office, so now we have his cabin, the reception area, and the accounting room. Those are the setups and one large set that we built, what we did was lit it on a pre-light day, Vikram would just do a set visit, come at the end of the pre-light, and kind of just see the elements, the props, and the set. He'd see what I've done from a lighting perspective and 99% of the time he would go "Great I'll see you all tomorrow" and roughly maybe talk about the scenes real quick. And then we'll show up on the day of the shoot and just start shooting, so it's just a matter of him seeing the space and understanding that ok, this place, this space that's been on paper for so long now I'm finally there, I'm in it. And if there's something is off for him from any perspective, whether it's a prop here or a costume there, or this chair that's gonna be sitting in or the amount of light that's coming through the window or any issues, then it's something we'll discuss at that time and sort.
The series is heavy on lighting and production design, and especially lighting was very different. We don't see that kind of lighting anymore. How did you manage that?
It's all about perspective and I've been fortunate enough in my first year of the master's program at U C L A to have a great mentor. So to give a little background, U C L A has a pro course as part of the cinematography program where they bring in one mentor for the cinematography students for the entire year. So you'd have a very intimate group of, say 10 to 12 people that are getting mentored by an incredible A S C cinematographer, Oscar-winning/ nominated whose perspective is gonna potentially shape how you see things. And in my first year, I was mentored by Bradford Young, the cinematographer of Arrival, Solo A Star Wars Story, Ain't Them Body Saints, Selma, and so many beautiful films. His perspective and belief are in single-source lighting which means if it's a day interior scene, then the source is coming from the window, you're not gonna ever put a light on the other side not even for like a little bit of like lifting up the face a little bit, you don't do it because it's not realistic of how your eye sees the space.
Similarly, I approach every scene from a realistic standpoint first and then think about how to be expressive within that space. Because cinematography is about visual expression not about making anything look pretty. A lot of times good cinematography is making things look ugly. It's important sometimes to expose all of the truths and secrets of a character, sometimes you want to see them with direct harsh front light because now you're understanding who they really are, you're seeing them for who they really are. Sometimes when you want a character to be hiding something or you want to see this in relation to another character hiding something, so you may wanna show them in silhouette. So it's understanding when to use light for certain types of emotion. And also with regards to lighting, it starts from a place of realism of these spaces that we're working with. I always tend to like the spaces and never the actors, the space that they're inhabiting, and then you work the actors in blocking to figure out the emotion of the scene so that it doesn't need to feel too dramatic. So maybe they can be a little closer to the window and you can catch much more light on their face and in a certain scene.
For example in an episode, I believe it was episode seven or eight when Roy confronts Madan about the affair with Niloufer he throws the magazine at Binod and then he kind of walks around the desk and it becomes this really stark contrasting silhouette at like a golden hour inside the office. And that was the only time we had that look in the office. Based on the emotion of that scene I wanted to savor that for that scene in particular because it had a certain intensity to it. It is also for the first time you see Madan starting to level the playing field in terms of power with Roy. So again, it's understanding like when to make certain lighting decisions based on the emotion of what's on paper.
With your favorite scenes from the project can you further explain how the camera translates an emotion on screen?
Wow, there are a number of them it's hard to select a few but there's this one I'd love to touch upon. I believe it's episode six or seven when Jay walks into the theater and a Taxi Driver is playing along with the Gambler. The camera is on these two posters and you see them side by side and in the reflection in the distance you see the door open, he comes in and there's a very slight dolly movement to the left and kind of stops in front of the posters. The Taxi Driver poster has a silhouette of or like a black kind of space within the poster and we blocked him so that he stops exactly where his face is overlapping with the black, which means if you light him, then it'll look like he is inside the poster. We added one light behind there hitting exactly that mark, where he landed. And so you have in that one frame Jay in the Taxi Driver poster, in real life, and him looking at the other poster of Gambler and you just see the relationship between him and Madan Kumar who has betrayed him in a lot of ways and, and you see the contrast in that one moment. That was one of my favorite shots to shoot as well because you're telling the whole story in one shot in one frame.
And how was your relationship with the actors?
Amazing because they're all very professional on a set. Vikram and I are both pretty mysterious people and I think the actors would probably agree to that. And it lent for a very professional set sure there were definitely jokes towards the end, once the comfort level grew amongst us all. But, it was a very fast-moving set since we had a lot to shoot, I am just friendly with all of them, and there's a lot of trust. There was never a moment where any of the actors wanted to see the monitor to check how they look, it wasn't that kind of a project at all. It was a project where everyone bought into what we're trying to do and there was a lot of trust in everybody's roles, so, it was great with everybody.
Were you ever completely bowled over by somebody's performance?
Multiple times actually but it mostly happened with Prosenjit Chatterjee. He's an absolute legend! He's the most incredible professional, never missed a beat in any of the scenes or any of the takes. It was just a master class to watch him on set, just seeing his ability, his acumen, and his talent, all play in front of you is just something you won't forget. There were definitely a few great scenes with Jay and Niloufer, especially this scene by the door, which was a bit of a nod to maybe subconsciously but a bit of a nod to Santosh Sivan's work just a stark contrast. And in that scene, Jay comes to the door of the studio and you have these two shots, where behind him is essentially white, behind her is black and you have this off-blue, a slightly blue door and it was the only time that we use blue, and I definitely had no problem with it there because it gave so much life, so much romance actually. That scene was very powerful just with the decision to hold that two-shot for so long cause there was a lot of emotion there.
Then there was definitely the shot of Sumitra standing by the car when she's leaving Roy Talkies that was a powerful scene to shoot, just kind of seeing the deterioration around her also this is the last time we see her until we see her death. But honestly, the only time we all teared up on set was when we wrapped the series Bombay's schedule with this big Bombay street set where we have all the scenes by the theatre, by the hotel, and that was a pretty big set that we built. We only had two days left in Sri Lanka, which we finished three months later that felt almost like a show wrap for us and just the rap itself being with everybody in that moment being on that set was very emotional.
Have you seen the show or are you someone who doesn't watch their projects just after they've done it?
I've seen the show many times because I've graded the show and so like seeing it done on the platform is not necessarily a new experience for me because I've seen all the episodes as I had to sit to grade them all while sound was being done through the process as well. But still, it's nice to see it finished in the platform and everything and I'm happy to watch it all over again because it's fun to watch it with friends and family and see their reactions.
Who do you look forward to working with within India or outside of it?
My dream is to work with the A24, the best production house in the world, that's definitely a goal of mine, hopefully in the next five years, we'll have to see. And in India, Vikramaditya Motwane was my dream director to work with, so now after him, I would say I would be very interested in working with Chaitanya Tamhane. I love to work with that with directors who focus on story and emotion because that essentially is the crux for me.
What's your favorite film or show right now that you really love watching or something you wish you were a part of?
There's this series called Trial By Fire by Prashant Nair, I was blown away by it, I have not met the guy but his work is incredible. The cinematographer's Runal Hattimattur, and Saumyananda Sahi work is incredible. I would love to work with Prashant as well, because of the way he has utilized silence and patience it just makes you hold. It takes a lot of maturity to say what they said in that show, especially in the way that they did. I was blown away by all the performances and, everything about it. So I think that's something that I was very envious of it but in a good way! I told him I was very proud of it when I congratulated them all, and said that man, I wish I was a part of this.
You mentioned how silence works in content and uplifts it and it's used a lot in Jubilee as well.
Silence is something that is used in all the best films and shows around the world because I can't name a single show or film that I like that doesn't have a great use of silence. In fact, even in the latest episode of Succession, there is an incredible use of silence, and even a fast-paced show like that knows when to use it. The strongest of the directors and storytellers understand the power of not saying anything because it's not about what you tell the people, the information you give but it's about what you make them feel and experience it.
Other than Succession, are you enjoying something else as well outside of India?
I just finished an amazing series called Swarm. It's a great series on Amazon Prime made by Donald Glover, who also made Atlanta, which is an incredible show as well but is amazing. In fact, one of the directors was a film school classmate of mine Adamma Ebo. It's a fantastic show everybody should go see that.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Personally, I've been heavily influenced by Bradford Young and also by Darius Khondji in terms of texture and emotion, those two tend to be my go-to. And everybody has a different opinion on this, but I do think it's important as a cinematographer to find your own voice and it doesn't mean you have one style, but it does mean you have a philosophy. And I would say my philosophy is the single source light philosophy which is very visible in my work. And it should be because otherwise then you're just kind of shooting you're not bringing yourself to it.
Maybe that's another challenge, some cinematographers like to explore and that is how they find themselves and it is kind of their style. But for me, there's definitely a kind of leaning towards what I've learned from people like Bradford, and from the works of Darius, those two in particular then also of course Gordon Willis as he is always there cause he is a legend to look at. Even while doing Jubilee he was there in my subconscious in a lot of moments like how Gordon's work can be seen in Godfather, similarly in a lot of Roy scenes in the office it was definitely present because that'll always be there cause it's such magnitude of a film that it can't escape your subconscious ever.
But I definitely stick to my philosophy of light that I follow which is single-source lighting that's set in a space of realism but finding expression within that. If it doesn't come from a realistic place, then you don't buy into this space hence you can't get past that and buy into emotion. That's just how I feel about it personally.
Your next project includes Chakda Xpress. What else can we expect?
I shot another film with Vikram, so when he was in the post for Jubilee, he was ready to do another feature, so we shot another feature together and just finished that at the end of February. The film's called Control with Ananya Pandey, it is a cyber screen life film, so, if you've ever seen Searching, it's kind of in a similar format that is in terms that the whole film being on a laptop screen. So we shot that feature and that was after Chakda. Those two are upcoming next after Jubilee otherwise right now I'm reading scripts and kind of trying to see what to do next.
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