ALEXA shoots Indian spy thriller

Set in the late 80s and early 90s, director Shoojit Sircar's new film MADRAS CAFE centers on an Indian intelligence officer who is sent to Sri Lanka to covertly disrupt rebel activity during the civil war, shortly after the withdrawal of India's peace-keeping force. Caught up in the fighting and political machinations, he meets a British journalist and begins to untangle an assassination plot. Captured with ALEXA, MADRAS CAFE was shot in Malaysia, Thailand, London and India by cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi, who recently spoke with ARRI about his work on the film.

MADRAS CAFE trailer

Set in the late 80s and early 90s, director Shoojit Sircar's film MADRAS CAFE centers on an Indian intelligence officer who is sent to Sri Lanka to covertly disrupt rebel activity during the civil war. Captured with ALEXA, MADRAS CAFE was shot in Malaysia, Thailand, London and India by cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi.

What were the factors that determined camera choice on this production?

 

Given the subject matter and the geography of the story, we wanted to create dark, gritty and realistic images to evoke the era without looking too 'period'. I believe in simplicity, which I learnt from my mentor Brian Tufano, BSC, and always keep that in mind; therefore my approach on this film was to record images that were as pure and clean as possible.

 

My camera preference might once have been an ARRIFLEX 435 or 235, but the nature of the movie meant that digital was a more practical option. We used a few different digital cameras, but I chose the ALEXA Classic for principal photography. We had limited time and we were supposed to shoot a lot in natural light; the ALEXA allowed us to move fast at a variety of difficult locations and the sensitivity of 800 ASA made things much easier. It was my confidence in the ALEXA that made me choose it; it works so well in extreme situations and I love the latitude.

What were some of those extreme situations?

I pushed ALEXA -- and myself -- in many situations where there was minimal lighting, both for interior and exterior setups. There is scene in a Madras safe house which takes place in very low light, and yet the blacks hold themselves elegantly and the highlights are beautiful. Another fantastic example of a low light situation was a scene in a prison cell, where two intelligence officers interrogate a prisoner. I had one 6K HMI light coming in through the very small windows of the cell -- that and a white bounce card did the job, creating a low key mood and yet holding detail in the shadow areas. It's one of the best lit scenes in the film.

There is a scene in the film when our main protagonist is injured and recuperating, and the director of Indian intelligence comes to meet him. Again we had a 6K HMI coming through a window, but this time making a strong backlight, with flare from the floor. The interior was all white and I wanted to keep it a clean white, with a bit of blue in shadows. The image we captured looks spectacular, with really good details in the highlights before they start to burn out. 

What recording solution were you using?

We were anticipating lot of VFX work, so I decided to get the best out of the image and therefore recorded ARRIRAW with a Codex Onboard recorder. [In-camera ARRIRAW recording with ALEXA XT/XR cameras was not available at this time.] I was constantly using zoom lenses and was handheld most of the time, so it was a pretty heavy setup with the Codex recorder. I asked Prasad Film Lab, our camera rental house, about alternatives for certain situations, and they suggested we use a Gemini recorder, which was a delicate baby but did its job. We also recorded quite a lot of shots in ProRes. 

Why did you choose to work with zooms a lot of the time?

I started my career by shooting a lot on High-Band and Beta camcorders for TV features and documentaries. For MADRAS CAFE, to capture the grit, the fight and the drama, I felt that going back to basics would help the visual dynamism. That's why I chose to primarily use Optimo zoom lenses. Apart from this I relied on ARRI Ultra Primes, which I like a lot and have been using for ages now.

It was my confidence in the ALEXA that made me choose it; it works so well in extreme situations and I love the latitude.

How were you looking at your rushes?

 

We didn't have a lot of time to be looking at rushes during the shoot. Once we established our workflow of acquiring images and sending them to Mumbai from the locations, things became easier to manage. Every day after shooting I would take stock of the footage, checking all the clips were safe on the hard disk. Most of the time I was looking at the images on the camera viewfinder, both while shooting and also for playback. It was physically not possible for me to be at a monitor, so we had to rely on our experiences and our confidence in the medium.

 

 

What route through postproduction did you take?

 

We used the ProRes MOV files for our offline edit. The offline was then conformed and consolidated for color correction with Kiran Kota at Prasad Film Lab. We used Baselight and it was a lovely experience, just like my first film VICKY DONOR. We took a DPX-out from Prasad and that was then sent to Scrabble for DPC Mastering. I had thought the workflow would be the same as the one I had tested for the trailer, but unfortunately I had no control over that and was taken a bit by surprise. Nevertheless, we managed to create decent digital prints after making a few last-minute changes before they were finalized. A number of film prints were also made, which looked wonderful.