“No One Slept for 30 Hours Straight”: DP Siddhartha Nuni on Shooting Brahman Naman
Styled in the vein of American slacker and teen comedies, Brahman Naman is the newest film from Indian indie filmmaker Qaushiq “Q” Mukherjee. DP Siddhartha Nuni shot the film in 23 days in the city of Bangalore. Filmmaker spoke with Nuni about his love of Trainspotting, recreating ’80s-era India and capturing the “confused teenage mind visually.”
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Nuni: The director of the film Q was looking for a cinematographer who had an experience of working under the constraints with which Brahman Naman had to be shot in. Brahman Naman is an independent feature film, shot in live locations with a minimal crew on-set and needed a cinematographer who had the expertise in digital SLR cinematography. I had previously worked on a crowd-funded, independent feature film called Lucia in Bangalore, a city in the south of India, where Brahman Naman was primarily shot. Lucia was greatly appreciated for the visual style and aesthetics which added a lot of value to the narrative of the film. Lucia is a psychological thriller about lucid dreaming. I filmed Lucia with a Canon 5D Mkii with the Carl-Zeiss photography lenses. Q liked my work and approached me after watching Lucia. I followed Q’s work before Brahman Naman but we had never met previous to that. I always look for work which expands the limits of my skill as a cinematographer. I was pretty sure that I will have a great time working with Q considering how good his previous work is and the kind of subjects that he deals with through his films.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Nuni: Brahman Naman is the story of Naman, an Indian teenager and his bunch of quizzer friends growing up in the 1980s in Bangalore. The film deals with the misadventures of this group of nerds who are highly intelligent but socially inadequate and desperate to lose their virginities. Their adrenaline filled fantasy world is set against the canvas of the nothingness of the 1980s in Bangalore. It is quite a contrast. Our biggest challenge was to create a sense of dynamism through the visuals in this sober setup. Bangalore is no more the city that it used to be in the 1980s. It had become the Silicon Valley of India by the early 2000s. Hence, we had to move to a smaller city called Mysore which is about a 100 miles away from Bangalore. Mysore is the city that the older generations of Bangalore moved to after their retirement. It hasn’t changed much over the years. It has a similar landscape and architecture of Bangalore in the 1980s. We could shoot in live locations without having to create any new sets for the film. We stayed in Mysore for about a month before the filming began in order to understand the way life functioned in the 80s. We were pretty much living in the ’80s through the shoot and it helped us a lot with the authenticity of the visuals and created the mood of the film naturally. The film evolved in an organic way because of this.
The characters of the film needed to be shown in a way that they truly were. We wanted the cinematography to bring out their confused teenage mind visually. We did not want the frames to be subtle because these characters are not. They are quite loud about themselves in their little boxed world. We created their wonky world with the usage of wide lenses and boxed in frames throughout the film. We did not want to play safe by choosing normal lenses for these characters. We differentiated their world from the others in the film by employing this technique.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Nuni: We did a lot of research for creating the look of the film. Initially, we wanted to experiment with the visual style of the south Indian regional cinema of the 1980s. The films of those days employed the use of sharp, long zoom shots, track and trolley shots and used a lot of dramatic filters. We thought that it would be an interesting revival of sorts to create that kind of a world and explore that style of film making. We had shot a promo video for the film to see how that worked. But it somehow didn’t quite look like the right visual style to tell this story. We scrapped the idea and started afresh. We went referencing again. We ended up watching a lot of slacker comedies like Napoleon Dynamite, Clerks, Trainspotting, Human Traffic, etc. I always loved Trainspotting for the cinematography. Human Traffic was a good inspiration for us to create the look of Brahman Naman. We went ahead and shot some of the scenes during the workshops with these references and we finalized the look of the film after that.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Nuni: The biggest challenge in filming Brahman Naman was time. The number of shooting days was 23. The schedule was quite tight. The lighting had to be planned and executed like clockwork. Thankfully, we had a good amount of time spent at the various locations a month prior to the shoot. The lighting plan was prepared for all locations well in advance. We planned out the scene order keeping the lighting time in mind and executed the schedule. In order to stick to the schedule we had to run double shifts for a few days. But it went perfectly well in the end considering that the crew and cast were quite kicked about the project and worked extra hard to make it happen.
Thankfully, all the locations were well under control except for a couple of busy street locations in the heart of Bangalore. One such location was also considered a little dangerous. We went completely guerilla on those locations. The local police were also around to help us in case any untoward incidents cropped up. We rehearsed those scenes a lot before the actual shoot. On the day of the shoot, we just shot for an hour but we got the shots and got back.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Nuni: The film required a budget-friendly camera. The most effective camera that suited our needs was the Canon 5D Mkiii. I had shot with the Canon 5D Mkii on my previous project Lucia, and I was quite successful at creating good visuals using the DSLR. Q had used the Canon 5D on his previous films and he is quite comfortable with the camera. Although the camera is inexpensive the visuals created by the Canon 5D Mkiii are impeccable. I loaded Technicolor Cinestyle on to the camera which gave me a better dynamic range. I love the color space of the Canon 5D Mkiii. It is quite rich and sharp. It is very film-like. Also, most of the film was under controlled lighting conditions and indoors. So, I could exploit the camera to the most. One of the other great advantages of using the Canon 5D is that it reduces the setting up time. We could just shoot on the go. Another great advantage is the size of the camera. It helped us to shoot in live locations without any hassle.
I used the Compact prime lenses for the film. They have an interchangeable mount. So I could use the EF mount lenses on to the Canon 5D Mkiii. The lenses are light and easily maneuverable. The images are crisp and rich.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Nuni: My approach towards lighting is very dependent on the story and on the scene that is being shot. Also, the fact that we shot most of the film in live locations helped me evolve a very organic and stylized approach to the film. We were already creating a wonky mood to the film with the lensing. I mixed realistic lighting and contrasty stylized look across different scenes in the film. Some scenes required me to explore color tones, especially the scenes in night interiors. In the 80s, everyone smoked in bars. Hence, I had to create strong smoky visuals for one scene in a bar and on the other end of spectrum, a morbid flat lighting to scenes involving the daily lives of the lead characters. Hence, I went with the look of the scene and the location. I get influenced a lot from the architecture of the location. I generally work with it. It is quite organic and instinctive. The good part is Q has a distinct sense of visuals which are quite experimental. We pushed each other to get the best of what is possible.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Nuni: A set of scenes required us to push ourselves to the limit. The last day of the shoot involved some train scenes. It also happened to be the most expensive day of the entire shoot. We hired a whole train from the Indian railways stationed in a transit railway yard in Kolkata. It turned out to be the toughest shoot of mine to date. It was inevitable that we shoot in a real train as it involved some moving train shots. And a lot of scenes had to be shot in a span of 24 hours. We shot for 24 hours without a break and it was very hectic. Add on some Indian chaos and the dirt in the railway yard it was just so tough. We thankfully managed to finish everything on time. We just had to! We had no second chance at it. No one slept for 30 hours straight and did their best.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Nuni: I had worked on the film with Canon 5D Mkiii. It is one of the best cameras for DSLR cinematography. I had used Technicolor Cinestyle to give me greater latitude for tweaking in the post production. But most of the look of the film has been “baked in.” Even though it is possible to tweak the image in post-production to a little extent, I am quite old school in the way that I like to create everything on location and on camera. I am quite clear on what the final product looks like while shooting. The pre-production time helped me in achieving that without much of a problem.
- Camera: Canon 5D MkIII
- Lenses: Compact Prime Block lenses (15mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm) and Canon 70-200mm L series lens
- Lighting: 4K ARRIPAR(3), Kinoflo 10 bank(1), Kinoflo 4 bank(2), 5KW Seniors(2), 2.5KW juniors(2) & 65KW Silent generator.
- Processing: Full HD using Technicolor cinestyle and image cropped to 1:2.35 ratio in post-production
- Color Grading: Molinare, London.