Cinematography Masterclass - Sunny Joseph On Shooting 'Piravi' & How He Designs The Look Of A Film!

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on January 08, 2016

Like a lot of us, veteran cinematographer Sunny Joseph was bitten by the filmmaking bug at an early age and he enrolled in FTII with the intent to become a director. Little did he know that destiny had other plans for him in mind. Unavoidable circumstances led Joseph to shooting director Mohan's much acclaimed Malayalam film Theertham, thus kickstarting his journey as a cinematographer. Since then, Sunny Joseph has shot over 55 feature films in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi.

He is widely known for his association with iconic directors such as G Aravindan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Shaji Karun among others. Shaji Karun's Piravi, G Aravindan's Vasthuhara and Unni, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu, Pamela Rooks's Train to Pakistan and KNT Sastry's Tiladaanam are some of the acclaimed films he has shot till date.

He has also won several state awards for his work. He's also directed The Dog And The Clown (an experimental film for which he had won the National Award) and public awareness films such as Maalakhappovu and Aksharam that deal with issues of sexual abuse and education of the girl child.

The Raqs Media Collective has a collection of some great interviews with K K MahajanAnil MehtaPC Sreeram, Ajayan Vincent, Ashok Mehta, V K Murthy and other great cinematographers.

Republished below are excerpts from an amazing interview (done by C K Muraleedharan and Raqs Media Collective) in which Sunny Joseph speaks about his early days, how he designs the overall look of a film, the use of steadicam shots and much more.

Tell us something about how you entered the profession? What were the first few projects that you worked on?

I am thankful to Shaji and Madhu Ambat for my first film. It was Theertham directed by Mohan. The project was entrusted to Shajichettan and due to unavoidable circumstances he was not able to do the film. So he talked to director Mohan and put me onto the film as DOP. But when I went to the location the director was absent and the producers were very reluctant to accept me as their DOP [due to my boyish – 13 years before- appearance, at that time no one would think that I am capable of even taking a still picture.]

Anyway without telling me the producers contacted Madhu Ambat and narrated the story. Since he knew me, Madhuvettan stood by me and categorically said that "Sunny will do the film." This is how I entered into the film industry. I am happy that I honoured Shaji’s and Madhu’s trust on me. I hope I will be able to work with Madhuvettan too when he directs his first film. That will be a unique achievement for me.

Were you attracted to the work of any particular cinematographer/s? If so, what attracted you to their work? Tell us something about the important cinematographic influences on you in this period? Have you found that in the course of time, these influences have varied, or have they remained the same?

I was always attracted to the school of source lighting and natural lighting. So cinematographers like Subrata Mitra, KK Mahajan, Seven Nykvist and Nester Almendros were my heroes. Somehow I wanted to be a cameraman whose work will be the least visible. I wanted my cinematography utmost transparent. In this regard I think, my work in Aravindan’s Vasthuhara as my best achievement.

Of late I also subscribed to the philosophy of the great Vilmos Zsigmond "An image can not be more beautiful than it’s meaning/content".

It was tough to resist the lure of the gallery, and even at the laboratory, technicians advised to me to change. All through this, Subrata Dada’s words gave me courage: "Sunny, I like your work because one does not see the lights, in your work". So I remained so. Once in a while, I get a congratulatory note from a far away cinematographer [This one was actually one of Fellini’s cameramen!]: "Sunny’s work is as good as age old Italian cinematography."

Or from a French critic, Yves Thoravil, who quotes me in his book, or from an unknown Martina from Paris: " I like your creations, your wonderful work in many films."  Or even the fishermen in Calicut who advised me that I should only do films like Piravi and Vasthuhara.

What are your preferences in terms of aspect ratios? What, in your opinion is enhanced, and what is lost, when you move form one aspect ratio to another?

I really prefer 1:1.33, because it is most suited to compose a human face. There will be no negative space. If one tries to compose a face in Cinemascope there will be so much negative space around the face. What a waste of space! I also like 1:1.85, which is good for emphasizing graphics, which I seldom wish for.

From a cinematographer’s point of view, what typically are the things most neglected and forgotten at the budgeting and production planning stage?

In almost all instances, production designers overlook the image quality. They don’t consider the time and expenses involved in creating the necessary image for a particular film. So the DOP struggles hard to create the image with limited resources and time. This will definitely affect the quality.

Does working in different aspect ratios have any relationship to the kind of lensing that you would go for? Compare between film and TV, and between 16mm, 35mm and Cinemascope.

Not anything particular. The change of format itself brings in a new relationship with the format and focal length of the lens. There again the lensing depends upon the mise-en-scene.

How much space is there for a cinematographer to intervene in video post-production – say in terms of colour rendition and image brightness? If a cinematographer’s presence is taken for granted in a film laboratory, why is he/she generally absent from the entire process of video post-production?

It should not be the thing to do. I don't know why productions do this. If we take that the DOP as the author of an 'Image', he should be present or at least consulted during the video post-production. I will add another instance. Tele-cine transfers of feature films. The DOP must be present at the transfer.

Given a choice between working in a studio and a location, what would you opt for, and why?

Given a choice I would like to work in a location, because its restrictions make you think in different patterns. In a studio, you have all the means to place a light from anywhere you want, which I feel is not that good.

When you begin thinking of a lighting design for a film, do you work towards an overall look for the entire film, or do you work out your lighting scheme in terms of different sequences, scenes and shots?

Of course, I try to fix an overall look for the film to start with and subsequently work with each sequence and each shot. It is important to understand the script very well as intended by the Director. Otherwise we may go wrong in the very first move. To think of it, it is not even the director who decides the visual look, it is the content of the film itself. I too believe that each film has its own independent growth beyond the intentions of the author.

It is no magic, but an incidental destiny. In my career, I have seen this happening with so many films, like Piravi, Vasthuhara, Sanabi, Train to Pakistan, Mangamma, Kahini etc. I am so fond of quoting Vilmos Zigmond in this regard: "No image can be more beautiful than its meaning/content". Within each scene, one of the primary concerns for me is the space.

How do you realise ‘the look of a film’ in your work? Please talk about this in detail, with examples in terms of lighting, framing, saturation, colour and movement. How do you begin to light a set?

A tough question! It will take so much time to explain this. But, I will try to just give some glimpses to the inner work of a DOP.

Let me talk about Piravi - From the very beginning Shaji and myself had detailed discussions on the script. It was rewritten many times, taking in to account the suggestions from others. In fact I never thought of lighting the film, I was only prepared to do the operation of the camera. Because Shaji never clearly suggested that I would be doing the lighting. Nevertheless, we had together prepared for the visual aspects of the film. [At that time I was the main assistant of Shaji].

One thing we wanted was the feel of the images in Tarkovsky's Sacrifice. In fact we two alone saw the film together in a big cinema hall. Shaji never said that it should be like Sacrifice, but we wanted similar force and weight of the images for Piravi too. I don't remember us discussing any details also.As I said earlier, the look of the film depends very much on the selection of the space and time of the year.

We spent seven days finding out the house [total shooting of the film in the house was for 18 days]. Add another four days in Trivandrum and the film was completed in 22 days. We were using 2 Mini Brutes [after a week all the bulbs got fused and never got replaced] and six M20s for day scenes, and six juniors and six babys for night scenes.

Since the walls of the house were dark, the characters stood out in the space. It was also easier to control the background. Obviously, I have experienced the space and light of such houses in my childhood and I was trying to recreate those impressions. In a subtle change, in the city the lighting is without character, flat to represent the emptiness of the souls in the city.

Rain was an important character in the film, so we had to use the presence of rain throughout the film. So we had to improvise and alter our shooting to the occurrence of the real rain. Except for the last part of the climax sequence, we shot the whole film in real rain. It was fun too.

Piravi                                                                                A Still From Piravi

For one of my recent films, MT Vasudevan Nair's Oru Cheru Punchiri (A Slender Smile), I had an interesting problem just opposite to Piravi. The theme of the film demanded a sunny illumination for both interiors and exteriors. Due to production problems, we had to shoot the film in the monsoon! There were heavy rains, so we started with interiors. I lit up the interiors, imagining bright sunny day outside. The house had such low ceilings, and placement of any lights inside the house was almost impossible. We finished the interiors and came out to shoot the exteriors. It was still rain. So we had to wait for little breaks to get a little sunshine and we had to literally run to catch that light. I had to even change from f2 to f16 in my exposure within a single scene! We had only day scenes to shoot, and we completed the film in 15 days.

Another film where, I had to approach the film with an entirely different way was Aravindan's Unni. He wanted a near to documentary style for the film. So I didn't want any feel of lighting. Amazingly, I shot the entire film with natural daylight. We did not even use reflectors. One scene I did use reflectors and the shadow crossing over the coconut trees behind the characters were too distracting. Hence, no reflectors were used henceforth. Even, in the interior scenes, I used lighting only in three night scenes in a house. We were using 250D[5297], and this experience prompted me to say 'Trust Kodak More Than Your Eyes'.

Consider the film Sanabi directed by Aribam Shyam Sharma. This film was also shot entirely by natural daylight. Here we were using 1:1.33 for the frame which we decided after much discussion. Aribam wanted frames where his characters and nature – trees and mountains – were in perfect integration. Suppose they were sitting under a tree. If it were to be say, 1:1.85, I would have to use wider lens or move away from the tree to get the top of the tree also. Then the scale of the characters would become smaller.

In a film like Venu's Daya, I was to create an Arabian nights /fantasy world, and for that we used lots of colour and very diffused lighting. It was also to feel like a fairy tale. Here again the spaces selected and costumes used and props arranged give the fine-tuning to the visuals.

nizhalkuthu1.2                                                                     A Still From The Movie Nizhalkuthu

In a film like Aravindan's Vasthuhara, I personally feel that I was able to reach to my own ideological positions about cinematography. Creating an ambience, still very unobtrusive. I feel that photography in films should be transparent. In that sense, Vasthuhara is my finest achievement.

Consider Malay Bhattacharya's Kahini, which I consider as the most technically perfect work of mine. Even though it took three schedules in two years. Here the compositions were to be important, and we used an aspect ratio of 1:1.85 coupled with mostly using a wider lens. Here also, I adopted a natural lighting pattern, but because of the compositional elements, it has become more than real, expressing the anguish and search of the protagonists.

Another interesting film of mine is Galileo directed by James Joseph. This film was shot entirely on the studio floor, except one sequence, within poorly constructed two 'L' shaped walls. So, how am I to create the 18 century Italian ambience? Nothing but to go for the lighting of painters of that time in Europe. So, every day before going to the shoot I looked at the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt for at least one hour. No, I was not copying the lighting. But, there was a style which automatically happened to the images, which had the echo of those times. I am sure that if the sets were also good I would have got a lot of mileage on this film. Remember that when I say, 'L' shaped flats it also means that I can’t even take counter shots.

What makes a location or a set interesting to work with in terms of Light? What can we say is the ‘feel’ of a location?

It is the story, which makes a location suitable for shooting. That is why it is important for the director to find appropriate locations considering the mise-en-scene he wants to create. One has to also consider a DOP's need for space in terms of placing the lights, height of the roofs, position of windows, possibility of camera mobility etc.

When you are thinking of revealing a space in your shot division or breakdown, do you prefer to work in terms of a series of camera set ups that move the viewer within the space, or do you prefer a fluid mobile camera on tracks and trolleys?

It is the story, which makes a location suitable for shooting. That is why it is important for the director to find appropriate locations considering the mise-en-scene he wants to create. One has to also consider a DOP's need for space in terms of placing the lights, height of the roofs, position of windows, possibility of camera mobility etc.

What is your opinion on the use of Steadicam shots that are increasingly evident in films today?

It is just a fashion. Unless you don’t need such a mise-en-scene, why use it at all? Most of the times you can take a handheld shot which looks better than a Steadicam shot.  Steadicam shots have an inorganic feeling, which reveals the machine. Handheld shots on the contrary have an organic feeling.

How do you work with the art director and costume designer to develop a colour palette for a film?

I do work within the basic mise-en-scene. In fact, a colour palette of a film is actualised not only by lighting. What is there in front of your camera also determines it. The art director and costume designer together give you the textures and colours to reflect your light. Unless this creation of the surface is not right no amount of your lighting skill will save the situation.

How much freedom do you give yourself in terms of changing your style? Or, do you work towards maintaining a consistent stylistic signature in all your films?

I work for each film differently. My consistent stylistic signature is my attitude towards cinema in total. And my effort to create the experience of being transparent.

Can an excess of technological gadgets sometimes be a hindrance to the practice of cinematography, and to creative freedom?

Yes. An Arri IIC with good lenses is enough to create an engrossing cinema. Technological development only improves the skin. The soul of a cinema is born from the heart and minds of all those working in a cinema. No technology can do anything in this matter.


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