First published in Chalachitra, September - October issue, 1969, p. 6-12. Translated from the Bengali by Arindam Sen.
To make a film, various tools are employed at various times. Let us start with the cinematographic tool. And to make it comprehensible, let us also start with still photography. Within the caricature of a film, the visual design, referred to as ‘composition’ is created by stills. Through this, a host of arguments are communicated. I shall come back to this later.
First comes the question of ‘perspective.’ That is, what will direct the visual perception of the viewer. The reflexive intuition of the viewer is to direct his focal attention to meet a composition centrally. Anchoring of this inherent inclination gives birth to perspective. Perspective draws the viewer’s attention to the object of interest.
But the viewer has other intrinsic orientations. For example, the way in which he perceives the functioning of light and shadow. Within a composition, the focus is directed at the illuminated space. Through various permutations and combinations of perspective, a wide range of sensations can be triggered.
But the sense of movement in film aces all of these. In a ‘moving image’ as soon as movement registers in the most barely visible corner of the screen, our eyes are directed to it almost instantaneously. This is a given.
Thus at the heart of composing a ‘still image’ and a ‘moving image,’ lies a fundamental difference.
Alterations in motion.
Firstly, the pace in the movement of visible object or body.
Secondly, the motion of the camera.
Thirdly, Still motion.
Fourthly, Pace of the mind.
One by one let us scratch the surface.
The motion of the visible object: In a film, let’s say that a table or something else is suddenly set in motion, instantly our eyes are directed towards it. The camera is motionless. The stasis ensures that the camera’s presence is not registered. For the viewer, it becomes easy to immerse himself within the action and witness what is unfolding in front of his eyes.
In a similar manner, a person’s movement inside a frame makes us attentive to it. It is important to point out here that often referred to ‘techniques’ such as the vista shot, long shot, mid shot, close-up, very big close shot etc. commonly indicate only a basic distance, but are rarely used on a technical scale. In a static pose of a person, the gestures such as movement of the fingers, turning of a face, sets a kind of motion, but when two people move, come closer, move apart, cross each other, different patterns are created, and each person is at a different distance from the camera at different intervals of time.
This is when focus acquires a pivotal role. It is often useful to lead our attention, but in these kinds of specific composite shots, the focus decides upon the center of attention. In the same film five bodies are spatially separated at different lengths from the camera, among them one is kept in focus and the rest are blurred, the person in focus utters some words, performs some action and is then blurred out while someone else returns to focus. Sometimes the entire background is defocused from where the face of an actress is emergent, at other times by use of mechanical means and some particular film-stock holding everything into focus conveys something different. At such moments, everything from the horizon in the background to the swirling grasses in the fore are equally in focus.
After someone has spoken his lines, perhaps it is necessary to direct attention from one person to another. At that moment, nobody is moving, there are no spoken words or messages to be conveyed- the focus suddenly is shifted from one place to another. A still camera can also be imbibed with motion depending on what the camera is pointed at and how it is focused. The application of zoom lens does not enter into consideration here. That is part of the camera movement.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara, there was a conscious effort to displace people and capture them in long takes. This led to the number of shots in this film being less than in my other films. To ensure that the eyes are not strained while watching the film, or are rendered heavy by sleep I have infused every character with movement within a single shot. And in most of the shots, a single person is present within the frame. Hence I had to think of various patterns. Many times within the same shot, I had to shift focus. And many a times, I have kept two characters in and out of focus without registering any movement.
A few things need to be clarified here. Conventionally, a person turning towards another person or the extension of a hand or occurrences such as these with traceable motion provide the opportunity for the suitable adjustment of focus. This enables the altercation of focus to remain enshrouded from the viewer who often accepts this, submerged within the continuity of the plot. But sometimes it is important to make the viewer conscious of this adjustment. Then without changing the position of the characters within the frame, the focus is adjusted slowly or rapidly.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara when Nita comes to know of her tuberculosis, she finds adobe in the drawing room. While she is coughing, rounded-up in front of the camera, her mother arrives and leans on the door behind her. She poses a question. Nita is startled a bit, but manages to hide the cloth strained in blood before attending to her. For the entire duration, the camera is focused on the mother, even when Nita is responding to the question. (Usually when someone speaks, the camera follows the person because the viewer wants to direct his focus at the face of the person who is speaking. Here the opposite is done, intentionally). Subsequently, the focus is drawn on Nita’s face even though her mother continues to speak. This is not a deliberate stylization, a remark—it is born out of a deeply painful realization. I have felt that these choices for the camera were inevitable for what I intended to convey.
In a different form I have used it in Subarnarekha. To deliberate upon the entrenched rage and to disseminate the anger, almost ninety percent of the film is composed of universal focus, from the horizon to the extreme close up of Sita’s face, everything almost entirely can be seen in a sharp contrast. Because of this the camera demanded a certain kind of dexterity and use of specific film stock—all that I had to be very precise about.
If someone has seen the film, he or she will recall the scene where Sita (sitting) and Abiram (standing) are trying to get to know each other in the woods. There Sita with mischief in her eyes is rubbing her nose on the forearms—if you pay close attention then you shall notice that the camera is absolutely still and everything from Sita’s crumpled hair, the linear arrangement of trees in the forest, the endless field in the back, the cloudy horizon even further, contributes to articulate the simplicity of first love. Nature is testament to the fledgling feelings between two young people. So these contributing aspects deserve their fair share of attention. Hence such cinematographic choices are made.
Now I shall say something about different movements of the camera. Pan, or what is essentially revolving of the camera to the left or to the right, tilt, which implies raising/bending of the camera about a horizontal axis, track or trolley meaning the camera is mounted on something mobile to facilitate moving forward or backward, crane or to raise the camera from a lower height to an elevation or vice versa- the general audience now has a basic grasp of these terminology. Hence there is not much to convey for such movements of the camera. The real joy can be derived from using them. If these movements are orchestrated judiciously, they do not register with the viewer, and if their use is crude, the viewer, consciously or subconsciously, experiences discomfort.
The shutter-blade in my camera revolves clockwise i.e. from left to right. Hence, panning or tracking from right to left can be achieved at a certain speed. This gives rise to some distortions. If we can think the tool’s properties through, it aids in its suitable deployment. There is a similar thing which is the use of the zoom lens. When the scope of tracking is limited and it is required to quickly navigate from close space to something distant and vice versa, zoom is favoured. But zooming is not an alternative to tracking. Zoom has some of its own characteristics. Optically it triggers a different kind of experience. Suppose someone is walking towards you, the camera keeps him at a constant distance with a single magnification and gradually withdraws away from the person. This can be achieved by both tracking and zooming. But the lateral movement of the background registers with a peculiar difference. People who have used these techniques will get my point. The movement of the camera towards the person achieved through these varying strategies will also give rise to similar peculiarities.
Hence I was saying, let us transform these distortions into an artistic medium. Several times when we acquire the control of a camera we instill a certain pace in it without really thinking it through, the camera runs around like a horse in a race. There it becomes a toy in the hand of a child. Not only does the audience experience irritation, the artistic value is also considerably deprecated. Here I would like to draw an example from one of my own films. In my film Subarnarekha, I have only used this once. And this film is composed of many shots that are fragmentary, the opposite of Meghe Dhaka Tara. With the exception of Ajantrik, no other film of mine has so many shots. To make this distinctive use, I had withdrawn myself from the crane shot for the entire duration of the film. This specific instance is when Ishwar arrives drunk at Sita’s house and Sita commits self-immolation—Ishwar picks up the vessel and goes out tumbling under the influence of alcohol, Beenu and other witnesses stand motionless in fear—Ishwar’s background is covered entirely in the dark. Only Ishwar’s sweat covered face is lit up in hazy white light—he while picking up the vessel shrouded in blood utters a few noises in a robotic manner, he thuds to the floor with a jolt, the camera rises up acquiring a certain hurried pace immediately, subsequently it leaves the tumbling and falling Ishwar and comes down on the staggered, wide-eyed Beenu’s face.
The entire tragedy reverberates through Beenu, she was the one undecided all along; everyone around is in shock. This is what I wanted to convey through these camera movements.
Let us now talk about the stillness of the camera. Just as effective as it is to convey a contradicting sense, it is equally proficient in impeding the sense of motion in events that have occurred in the past or will happen in the future. Without resorting to technical manipulation, it is still possible to infuse stillness within a shot. This lies within the domain of motion. When we mentally desire motion, by depriving us of it at the same time, the filmmaker is granting us the secret way to a more profound realisation. This is rather commonplace in good films. Suppose that a boy communicates his deep withheld emotions to the girl, everything now depends on the response that he may elicit- but the girl is silent and still, the boy is holding on to his impatience and waiting- after a moment the girl breathes a sigh. Just at the same moment, the camera is set in motion. The couple is restless, the leaves in the background sway, the clouds start to disappear from the sky. Here withholding motion actually accentuates its effect.
Charulata (The Lonely Wife), 1964, Satyajit Ray
This aside, there are also some technical avenues. Like freeze-frame or the sudden arrest of motion in film. Many of us have seen Truffaut’s 400 blows. You surely recall the arrested frame of the sea waves. The last shot in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, or Mrinal Sen’s use of such technique. The opportune use leads to new signification as well as conveys the argument of the filmmaker. Here, though it may seem irrelevant, I want to add something since it is related somewhat to the movement of the camera. What is often referred to as the use of subjective camera.
P.C.Barua’s Uttarayan is a fantastic case in point. The feverish protagonist enters into the house and walks topsy-turvy. The camera quits following him and crashes onto the bed itself. The camera mutates into the protagonist.
Similar use in David Lean’s Oliver Twist is of the highest order. When Oliver, pertaining to his proximity to Fagin first tries to pick pocket, he is chased and he runs into a narrow alley, it is seen that at a certain place a person is standing with his fist raised. Oliver has no place to run. The camera leaves him and runs straight at the fist. The clenched fist lands on the lens. Fade out. Oliver is lying in the hospital.
In Ajantrik when Bimal is racing the mountain road on Jagaddal to find a trace of the abandoned girl in the next station, the camera wanders away from Bimal and the vehicle on to the surrounding trees and mountains to illustrate Bimal’s mental state.
Even in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, such techniques are employed in a fruitful manner. This use of motion here is in essence a racing mental state. This mental state is created by a person’s dream-thought—with the aid of camera and editing, music’s role is not insignificant either.
All motion emanate from a certain place. The movement of camera, the movement of people, stillness in everything—or the mutual coexistence of all these that creates a wholesome experience—are derived from dreams. The tools are no longer just mere tools, they transform into weapons for an artist, like the Sarode (a stringed musical instrument) in the hand of a Sarode-player or hammer in the hand of a sculptor.
The scope of this discussion is big, so it is best do restrict oneself while we are focusing on the camera. Everything is so overlapping that it is very easy to divert from the main topic. In my film Komol Gandhar on the banks of the river Padma the dialogue between Bhrishnu and Anusuya with songs etc. in the background is followed by the symbolic gesture of separation where the camera runs on the rail tracks and tumbles on the buffer-stop. Immediately darkness descends. This can be referred to as the subjective use of camera, but if it were not accompanied by the sound of everything being torn apart, would the effect be so satisfying or my argument lucid?
Apart from the suitable use of the camera there are other visually enticing strategies known as special effects. I am not devoting any discussion to it because they will bind us in further convoluted technicalities which is why I shall write a few lines on the basics of composition and the adequacy of the various uses of lenses.
I have already touched upon composition briefly. In a film it is a very important aspect. With the help of this, we can familiarize ourselves with the fundamental technique or allusions of any film. Any thoughtful filmmaker translates a story or its basic premise from its principal imagery into a specific form. Every filmmaker has his own modality of construction or style, but the underlying sense in a film acquires its beauty within this veritable structure. To strike a general balance in a composition, perspective et al. obviously play a role, but the real joy is in departing from these conventions. Though above all, to imply something we have to unearth a universal thread. This is an artist’s most intense meditational and devotional axis.
Aside from composition, set-up plays a very important role, it implies where and how the camera will be mounted and which lens is adequate at a specific situation. In the general textbooks it can be found that when the camera approaches its subject from a lower elevation, a sense of greatness is implied while if the camera approaches the subject from a higher elevation than that of the subject, he is in general looked down upon, his presence shrinks and if the camera meets the subject front-on from the same elevation, he is portrayed as is—(like 50mm lens is the standard that corroborates the general mood of the subject)—to move up or down implies a special significance. I am aware that these implications are rather rigid and fundamental. Under the aegis of a creative mind, these acquire rather complex dimensions.
Plotting the set-up and choosing a suitable lens are intertwined choices, be it composition or movement, to reveal something, the two are indispensable. In a commercial film the set-up and angle best suited to capture the faces of the main characters catering to an adequate visual appeal is something that keeps directors awake at nights. The same is true for more experimental filmmakers who try to radiate their feelings through the expressive faces of the characters. In Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita the young girl by the seaside café is framed from a peculiar elevation time and again—one can think of the ‘Umbrian Angel’ by Michelangelo Buonarroti in a similar vein.
In my film Komol Gandhar, I have tried to evoke some of Botticelli’s work through a few close-ups of Anasuya. Again the thought process related to the subsequent changes of shots directs the set-up, for example the expressionist lighting on the face of a woman is accompanied by a very big close-up, a quick transformation from low set-up to extreme long top shot. These practices are commonplace in worthwhile films.
Now let us ponder a while on the use of lens. Potentially this can be a long discussion. But the space is limited. Though it should be acceptable to mention here that (I have already said this before), the 50mm lens is multi-utility. A larger lens, i.e. 75 mm, 100 mm or above tends to short focus or telephoto, meaning that they bring objects closer. For Close-up we usually use 75mm or 85mm lens. Since the periphery of depth of focus is limited, the object in front has a certain haze as if coated with butter. Also there are other added values. The telephoto lens flattens out the object and makes it seem like the rear end is protruding out creating a distorted effect. If you concentrate on the newsreel footage of Cricket or some other sport, you will notice this distortion. This is deployed as a dramatic means in many films.
Another interesting aspect, if a shot is established from a certain distinctive angle, the moving object in front seems comically static and mobile at the same time like the rotation of a tram’s wheels about its axis without making it move forward. In my film Bari Theke Paliye I have frequently used this strategy.
The lens categories below 50mm—namely 40mm, 35mm, 32mm, 18mm or even lower are considered wide angle lenses. Their characteristics are completely different. The lower the scale of millimeter, further will an object in front of the lens seem. Taking a step will seem like taking five, the object in front will seem distorted which is commonly referred to as ‘foreshortening’; the diameter of focus will be multiplied, the objects on the sides of the frame will seem to collapse to the center, a little movement in the camera will result in a pendulum like motion across the frame, we can sense a certain signification within such a composition.
Among these, the 18mm is my favored lens. I have used this in almost all of my films, but probably most in Subarnarekha. One of the prime reasons is to achieve a universal focus, and to fine tune other aspects.
While I was staying in Pune, I have used the 10.5mm lens. The lower millimeter lenses are not available in this country. The foreshortening of this lens is radical and other characteristics are also present in equal proportion. I have heard that the lower millimeter lenses are available in Japan and elsewhere in Europe, but I have never seen them.
All these things help one achieve a mental illusion of motion. Though it is the duty of a filmmaker, but because it is inherently linked to motion, I will talk about the orchestrated movement of bodies and objects. Every scene has a binding essence. It acts as a pivot for editing and other arsenal related to motion. If the filmmaker is unable to conceptualize this essence, he will not be on firm ground. He will immerse himself into minute details corresponding to various constituent shots and the central theme will lose itself in the crowd and the entire take will falter.
On the other hand, financial burden, lack of time or lack of attention to details, whatever might be the reason, the lack of inclination to dissect a scene or thinking it through can render the scene unsatisfactory, such a thing is commonplace in many films. When a significant detail is capable of elevating a scene to a different scale, the lack of an eye for it will obfuscate what the filmmaker intends to convey. So even while one is thinking of movement, he or she has to find this anchor in a scene and hold on to it. But also this anchor is to be determined by thinking over the film through.
While constructing the plot and directing the actor I am confronted by these everyday practical questions. I assume it is the same for everyone. It will sound a bit strange, but in this matter I have acquired the most from Konstantin Stanislavski. People will be reluctant to believe me, but it’s true.