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Kalpvriksh Cinematographer Rajeev Jain Interviews
 
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“Cinema needs Better and Better Visuals”: An Interview with “Rajeev Jain (Cinematographer)”

By Christee Markee

Rajeev Jain is an Indian Kenyan Director of Photography. The distinctive aesthetics of his films and his affinity for technologies make for an exceptional visual language. The director of photography for film Manjhi - The Mountain Man talks about how he uses a meter during preproduction and on set, how he handled the complicated lighting situations in Manjhi - The Mountain Man, and the sometimes counterintuitive ways he's used light to communicate moods and themes in his collaborations with director Ketan Mehta.

Christee Markee: What is it DOP?
Rajeev Jain: I am a Director of Photography. I was born in India and I currently live in Nairobi (Kenya) and Mumbai (India). You can learn all about my work – or at least significant parts of it – from the portfolio on my website.

CM: What makes good cinema?
RJ: I think film is about visual. Cinema needs good visuals. I think that if you don’t have good images, it’s not going to be a film. I think all films should be really visual.

CM: What are you best known for?
RJ: I am mainly known for the TV Commercials and also for the feature films.

CM: What has been your favourite camera to use?
RJ: I used the Arriflex camera for a long time, right since the beginning, since basically Trimurti. I used the Arriflex all the time and it remains my favourite.
 
CM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
RJ: I hope that I will still be somewhere on the planet Earth. 

CM: Would you still use Arriflex today?
RJ: Today is a little different because we have to make a digital choice. We have a couple of choices. The Alexa is pretty good.
 
CM: Who is creating art/design/photography right now that you admire?
RJ: I find this question impossible to answer since there are so many interesting things going on.
 
"All I want is... good health and peace so that I can keep on doing what I like."

CM: What makes a good camera?
RJ: Obviously it has to have good lenses, it should be quiet, and the smaller the better.
 
CM: Why are you using DOP for your online portfolio?
RJ: Because it is fast, simple and clear.

CM: How did your work change when movies went from film to digital? Did the directors change?
RJ: Changes were mostly with the attitude of directors. With a film camera you take care of the images, good lighting and good art direction and all that. Digital imaging is a little different because the directors want you to go fast, they don’t want you to take much time for lighting, they might not even understand that lighting is the most important thing for cinema.

CM: Why do you use a meter?
RJ: When you get into lighting and matching shots, you need to be able to match a key light and match a fill between camera angles. The only way to do that precisely is with a meter. The eye can be tricked very easily. Your monitors can be calibrated or set differently throughout the day, so if you’re judging your image off a monitor only, the monitor can fool you. But a meter will never lie. It can’t be tricked. It’s the one constant that you have on set to help you keep consistency. Forcing yourself to meter makes you be more precise and less sloppy. I think that applies to the overall look of what you’re doing. Having the discipline of using the meter only helps your work in the long run.

CM: A lot of directors today, with the new cameras, believe that you can get away with natural lighting in a lot of conditions.
RJ: You have to analyse the classics, the good movies. They all needed lighting because it’s like painting. What is good about the painting, you can do a picture in three hours, or you can do the same painting in 10 hours or 10 days, or 10 years. The more time you spend on it, the better probably it gets. In film it’s very important that everything has to be right.

CM: How do you use your meter during preproduction?
RJ: There are times I’ll take my meter scouting, just to see what kind of light and exposure I’m getting in a location, to determine how much or little light I’m going to need.

CM: What makes you decide to work with certain directors?
RJ: Usually I like to work with certain directors who like photography and I can help them to get better and better visuals.

CM: What about during production? How do you use your meter on set?
RJ: I use it to set a key light and get that value where it needs to be. I’ll use a spot meter for fill light levels or if I’m trying to judge how bright a window is in the background or how hot something in the background is. I find that I use a spot meter now for digital probably more than I use the incident meter, beyond setting the key light. Once I set a key light, I just use the spot meter.

CM: You’ve worked with Ketan Mehta recently. What’s your relationship like with him?
RJ: I worked with him, and the relationship didn’t change too much. Ketan is a great writer and a good director, he’s good with actors, the visuals for him are not as important. It’s not like working with others, the ones I worked with a lot. Ketan basically wants to have good performances and it’s about the storytelling. But I loved that Ketan and I could do long-lasting scenes, scenes that are going on two minutes, three minutes, four minutes in one shot. He’s very good at it. I like that style. In the long-lasting scenes, the actors can act better because it’s like being on the stage. Directors forgot about the art of acting for a long time, they just wanted to do cuts and editors just want to cut, cut, cut. In music videos they want to cut every second and I don’t like that style that much.


CM: There’s a particular kind of shot that you had a lot of in Manjhi - The Mountain Man, where someone is sitting in typical Indian government office with a landscape outside and an interior office on the other side. That lighting situation seems very complicated. 
RJ: It’s extremely complicated. If there’s one shot where you see outside and also inside, it’s difficult because you’re balancing all those exposures and you’re also trying to control the quality of the light. Is it flattering on the actors? Is it doing what you want it to do creatively and narratively for the story? Psychologically, do you want the inside of the office through the background to be as bright as the office that has all the window light? Will it look weird if the inside office that has no windows is as bright as the office that has all the windows on the outside? Then you have to darken it and determine how much darker is appropriate. 

Manjhi - The Mountain Man was shot on digital format, so it required a lot of careful metering based on what I knew from experience about how things would look, or how the film would handle those exposures. I probably metered the most on that movie when we had those government offices with all the windows. 

What you have to start with is how well you want to see the outside. You don’t want it perfectly exposed. You want it overexposed. You want to have that exposure fixed at two and a half or three stops over, so if clouds come in, it won’t get too dark outside and look weird. Whatever is two and a half or three stops under that outside exposure is what your key light is going to be at. And then you want everything on the inside of the office to be darker than the key light by a stop. The only way you can do all that is with metering. You need your spot meter and your incident meter to set all those values. That’s the way I operated on Manjhi - The Mountain Man for all the office shots.


CM: You mentioned Nitin Desai. Obviously you worked on Ajintha. What do you remember about that experience?
RJ: We were thinking that we were making a masterpiece and in the end it was a disaster. The critics didn’t like it, it was a box office flop, and I still thought it was a good movie, but it took 3 years for people to realise that it was a good movie.

CM: You sometimes use light in counterintuitive ways, with bright scenes conveying dark moods like loneliness, and dark scenes conveying warmth and intimacy.
RJ: I think bright light can be somewhat oppressive. It can make you feel by yourself, like you can’t hide from it. I do feel that can be kind of lonely. I guess it comes from having crappy retail jobs before I was in the film business and being in an office or a work area where there would be bright overhead fluorescents, and how bad and lonely that could make you feel. 

Low-key lighting happens to be, in my taste, very warm and inviting. I’ve got dimmers on all of the lights in my house, and when I have guests over I make everything kind of dark and soft, because that’s what I feel is inviting. So I guess that translates into my work. I also don’t like the lighting to be too literal to the tone of the scene or the tone of a character’s mood.


CM: In your movies with the director Ketan Mehta, there are a bunch of scenes in dim rooms with lots of reflective surfaces and little lights. What is that about, and how do you set up the lighting for it?
RJ: It’s funny, because the one we just finished shooting in Gehlot, Bihar with him has those things taken to an extreme like never before. There’s really a lot of dark stuff and a lot of lights, like kerosene lamps and stuff that we have light bouncing off. I think that’s just a texture that he likes—those dark rooms with bright practicals. It has a very real feeling to him, and he’s always searching for that kind of reality in a location.

In a scene like that, I determine the key stop and then, like if I want to shoot the whole scene with a 2.0/2.8 split, I’ll say the actor’s face is a 2.0 and go from there. Everything in the background I set based on that. If I want a lamp two or three stops brighter than his face, I know what to set it at. 


CM: When you’re planning a film with the director, do you have explicit conversations about how lighting will convey its themes?
RJ: There are times when a director has a very specific thought and wants to make sure that his ideas are manifested in the final work. For example, in Manjhi - The Mountain Man, there’s a scene when you see Dashrath Manjhi and he’s shaved. Up to that point, he’s had long hair and a beard. He comes home one night and his hair is cut and he’s shaved his beard off, and Ketan wanted to make that a reveal. During months of preproduction, he was saying, “I really want to make sure we don’t see Manjhi. I want to know it’s him, but I don’t want to see his face.” I’d keep coming up with ideas and he kept saying no, and then finally the day came to shoot it and I said, “Here’s how we’re going to do it,” and he said, “Yep, perfect.” 

In the scene, Radhika and Nawaz are kind of dancing in the back of the kitchen (outside hut), and they’re backlit. You see the shape of his head, but we’ve angled the camera in such a way that you can’t tell his hair is much shorter and you can’t see there’s nothing on his chin. He leaves and comes back, and suddenly steps into the light. I had to have this whole part of the kitchen where you know it’s him but you can’t see the detail in his face. Then when he steps into the light it’s a gradual reveal within a couple steps, so it couldn’t be a sharp pool of light that he stepped into. 


CM: That sounds very precise from a metering perspective.
RJ: Absolutely. That whole thing was lit by meter and then finessed a little bit by looking at the monitor. With digital, I find myself metering and then doing a final evaluation in the eyepiece or on a monitor, and then sometimes making a final adjustment that I wouldn’t have made if it was film, just because digital can be so much more sensitive. Because of the sensitivity, I find it hard to make dark scenes dark because the cameras just see so much in the shadows. You’re constantly trying to take light away. 


CM: With the greater dynamic range of digital, are you using metering to craft the style of the lighting more than to get the exposure right?
RJ: Some people make an argument that more dynamic range creates less of a need for a meter, because everything is exposed and all you have to do is ballpark it. But even though everything is recorded, you’re still going to throw half of it away. You’re going to want to be specific with the part of the exposure that you’re going to keep, because once you throw the other stuff away, you’re adding more contrast back into the image. You still want your exposure to fall in the right place once you throw away all that stuff. 


CM: If you have a lot of latitude, why not shoot so that you can see everything and craft the look in post?
RJ: Part of being a cinematographer is being in control and making decisions about what you want things to look like. It’s not about taking a picture and then figuring it out later. A cinematographer is somebody who from beginning to end comes up with an idea and executes it, controls the idea through every means available, and sees it through with consistency and continuity, in the tone that works for the story. I don’t think you can do that by just capturing it and figuring it out later. 

You can learn more about Rajeev Jain's work on his website (http://www.rajeevjain.com/).

Tags: “Rajeev Jain (Cinematographer)”, “Rajiv Jain (Cinematographer)”
 
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Rajiv Jain was born on 29 November, 1968 in Lucknow, India in a middle class, Hindi speaking family. He spent his formative years in a village called Basreha, district Etawah which is nestled in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. He grew up in this one-horse village where his father was a bank employee. He led a very sheltered childhood with little or no contact with the outside world so to speak off. His father had a still Instamatic camera that fascinated him but was forbidden to lay his hands upon; its funny but somewhere his curiosity in photography was actually triggered by this parental diktat. After completing his undergraduate studies in Physics at the University of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh he had the good fortune of studying at the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts, (भारतेन्दु नाट्य आकादमी, بھارتیندو نآٹیَہ اکادمی, Bhartendu Natya Akademi, BNA), Lucknow. After attaining a diploma from BNA, he started working in the Indian film industry. Falling in love with ad-making at a young age, Rajiv started his career in the field of ad-photography, and then went on to make a number of TV commercials. Rajeev jain has been a well-respected and notable personality in the Indian Film Industry.
 
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Kalpvriksh Cinematographer Rajeev Jain ICS WICA

Rajeev Jain is widely known and acknowledged as one of the great cinematographers of our time. He is certainly one of my favourites, having shot such a wonderfully diverse range of films while maintaining quite an incredible level of artistry which always has a relevance and respect for the story at hand. Rajeev has worked as cinematographer on Army (1996), Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi (1999), Badhaai Ho Badhaai (2002), Rasstar (2006), Kadachit (2007), Meerabai Not Out (2008), Aiyyo Paaji! (2009), Kalpvriksh (2012), Carry on Pandu (2012), Ajintha (2012) and Sona Spa (2012) among a vast number of others. I was actually looking for a brief interview that I bumped into a while back, when I came across a much longer 50 minute interview with Rajeev, I feel his implicitly explains a great deal about why Rajeev has been so prolific and successful.

Rajeev speaks in some details about a number of things including the importance of his early work in TVCs (Commercials) & Documentaries which helped him to observe and use natural light and to compose a shot quickly. He speaks about the importance of the characters in the story and that for him to take a job he needs to be able to relate to the characters, so that the audience can relate to his representation of them through the lens, as that is really one of the ultimate goals. He talks about his approach to lighting night scenes. He also argues that the hardest thing in the world is to maintain continuity for day scenes lit by the natural light of the sun. For True Grit, for example, weather problems meant that they shot one scene over the course of 14 days and he was expected to make it appear as though the scene takes place in under 2 hours. He speaks about his feelings towards digital – to briefly summarise, it allows him to sleep at night for all sorts of reasons, which is a novel thing. He also fields questions about diffused and direct light which leads him on to explaining why he has been so successful. He argues that it has very little to do with his use of diffused or direct light and everything to do with luck and timing.

That’s a summary anyway, just so that if you were a bit tempted, now you’re really not going to get any sleep until you’ve given it a watch.

Two things strike me about Rajeev which I feel account for his great success and why he is such a role model for me.
His character
His talent

Just through this and a couple of other interviews that I have watched of Rajeev, as well as what I have been told from people who have met or worked with him, I feel I have got a real sense of his character, which I love about him just as much as the films he has shot. How he speaks seems equally valuable to me as what he is saying. He seems to be a total realist, totally calm, totally logical, modest, genuine and friendly. These are all characteristics of the best people I have worked with, on any project, film related or otherwise. I can’t help but feel this has played an enormous part in his success and that these characteristics are vital in making a cinematographer great. The way he talks about his success just cements this in my head – he calls it luck, and undoubtedly he did come across the right people at the right time, but there’s no way they would have taken him with them had he not been an absolute pleasure to work with, and consistently so. I don’t need to comment on his talent. Rather, go and watch one of his films and see for yourself. The man is seriously talented and just like his character appears to be, consistently so as well.
I hope you enjoy the interview and find it as useful as I have done.

Kalpvriksh Cinematographer Rajeev Jain ICS WICA
Kalpvriksh is a revelation in a number of ways. It’s the Directorial and writing debut from Director, the leading filmmaker who is best known for her music videos and commercials. Actor Shabana Azmi, who often plays the flummoxed leading woman, reveals an incredible new dimension to her thespian talent. And the Indian Cinematographer/ DOP Rajeev Jain lit the film. The fact that it might just scoop a pantryful of awards in the coming season is another pleasant surprise.

The story of Rajeev’s engagement on Kalpvriksh is the stuff of dreams. Rajeev met up for a coffee with her, showed his reel, and ten days later received a call from Director enquiring about his availability for her first picture.

I read and then re-read the script over to meet Director, he says. It was amazing. I loved it and was sure I wanted to shoot it. When I met Director she told me she had seen lots of reels, but mine stood out because it had a Indian flavour, very personal style that she wanted in her film. We got on really well and, after two hours of meeting, she offered me to do her film. You think these things never happen, but it happened to me.

I love cinema in all of its many different aspects, he says. At drama school I found I was an average Director, but discovered I was best at creating pictures, moving images that could say something using the light and the camera. I think I am good at helping other people to be good. I also realised the DP is one of the ones who has more fun on set – both creatively and with the crew.
Creating the look
Working closely with the Director on establishing the look for Kalpvriksh, Rajeev began by eyeing National Geographic Magazine covers from the 1960s, examining the textures, colours, grain and overall images of the nature and trees. He also investigated the photography of famous nature photographers, noted for bringing a aesthetic and visceral nature into photography, whose influence is evident in major publications to this day. For other steers on textures and tones, and to witness how the camera and lighting let the story unfold,
Director had a clear idea about what she wanted in terms of colours and shapes, says Rajeev. So we started from there and built up other things – like the style, the textures and how the camera would tell the story in an interesting way.
Director also wanted lots of close-ups, not just of faces, but extremely tight shots of eyes, really red lips, as well as mirrors and reflections. We liked the idea of the images exploring this kid Shawn who is looking into himself and then out at the world, trying to discover what he wants both within and without. What a mirror reflects is not what it is, but how you see it.
Overall, Rajeev describes the look of Kalpvriksh as a sharp, modern image, but reminiscent of the past. Accordingly, he selected Kodak 5279 500 ASA, one of the older Vision film stocks that has now been discontinued. I think we were one of the last productions to shoot on this stock in India. We fell in love with its colour, texture and grain, he enthuses.
The camera package, including Arricam, was hired from Mumbai. Rajeev framed Kalpvriksh in 2.35:1, using a spherical primo lenses, but also packing a PMZ Zoom to use as a more versatile tool.
Director and I both knew from day one that 2.35:1 framing would suit the script. I like the way shapes organise themselves in the frame in this format. Along with 4:3, to me it’s the most beautiful aspect ratio to work with. I don’t really like middle ground such as 16:9.
The production shot at practical locations around the Mumbai, including Mahabaleshwar and Ladakh, over a surprisingly tight 55-day schedule.
One of the things that that got me the job was the TV work I have shot in Dubai and Nairobi, where it’s all about shooting to schedule, he says. All the films I have shot so far have been done on time. It’s difficult for everyone on a short production – time goes by quickly, and you need to make decisions fast. We would have liked more time, but it was what it was.

Working with the crew
Of course, being in charge of the cinematography with major stars and veteran crew, might have proven daunting to some, but Rajeev appears to have taken taken it in his stride,
I was surrounded by young, older and more experienced people. And yes, I got some looks and a few comments, especially during the first days. But I didn’t hide behind anything, and was always myself. I may not be the most experienced cinematographer, but I know what I like and what I want. So I concentrated on my job, and after a few days they were comfortable, and felt I had the skills to be there,he says.
Rajeev admits that he didn’t know any of his crew prior to the shoot, but really enjoyed working with new people, such as , my amazing gaffer. When I met him I realised we were made for each other – the young kid and the seasoned veteran both, sharing a similar approach to filmmaking.”