ALEXA XT on Indian film BAJIRAO

"Every visual resembles a grand painting," wrote The Times of India, describing director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film BAJIRAO MASTANI, which since its release just before Christmas 2015 has become one of India's all-time highest grossing movies. Award-winning cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee selected ALEXA XT for the production, describing it as the only option to shoot this epic, period love story. Here, Chatterjee talks about the look, the challenges, and a Eureka moment when he realized the sky's the limit -- literally.

Trailer for BAJIRAO MASTANI, captured with ALEXA

Indian cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee worked with ALEXA XT and Master Primes on director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's hit film, BAJIRAO MASTANI.

The director endured 12 years of "development hell" before he could finally make BAJIRAO MASTANI. What kind of look did he want?


There wasn't a specific look when we started the prep; it developed as we proceeded. Sanjay likes to travel, spend time and talk at this early stage, so we drove out of town and looked around. We started by visiting the older cities of Maharashtra, picking up references from the old houses -- the Maharashtrian Wadas -- looking at the architecture and visiting museums.


As we explored we talked about the film. That's how we discovered in which direction both of us were going. I realized that Sanjay was in a visually simpler state of mind. He didn't want it very heavy on color, layered or complicated. He also wanted a certain spiritual transition in the look of the film; towards the end of the film everything becomes increasingly simple and less opulent.

This particular era in history is not well documented. There was some folklore and we picked up a lot from the novel RAAU, on which the film is based, though the novel didn't have much visual description. So the look came from our individual perceptions, whatever research material we got our hands on, and the way we wanted to tell the story.

At this point in time there is no other choice than ALEXA, in my view.

Why did you choose ALEXA and how do you like to use the camera?


At this point in time there is no other choice than ALEXA, in my view. I shoot with it pretty much the same way I shot on film, using my light meter. Previously, I knew film; I knew if I underexpose by three stops exactly what my fill side is going to look like, if I go seven stops over -- what the burnout is going to look like. And I have come to understand ARRIRAW in the same way. This is my fourth film with ALEXA, so I know how it behaves.


What are your views on the XT generation of ALEXA cameras?


On the film DHOOM we used an external Codex recorder to record ARRIRAW but with the XT that's built-in, which is very convenient. Aside from that, when I am grading XT footage I have a feeling that something has improved from the time that I was shooting DHOOM .The image seems a little sharper and has a 3D-like quality.

What were some of the more challenging scenes and locations on this film?

The war sequences were challenging. The Marathas used to attack largely at night, but lighting big open landscapes becomes very difficult if you actually shoot at night. We decided on the day-for-night option and went for a twilight look. We also didn't want to go complete night because of the visibility issue; Sanjay insisted that in war scenes, information should be very clear. However, shooting in the Rajasthan desert in the daytime came with its own challenges.

A lot of what you see out the windows is greenscreen. In fact, instead of greenscreen we used a lot of white screen. The song "Mohe Rang Do Laal" was shot inside the studio; if my entire set had been surrounded with greenscreen, where would my light have come from? We have sky all around, so light comes from all directions, not just from above. By using white screen I could bounce off it and get that unidirectional light. For all the war sequences in the studio, the background was white. I thought: if I could digitally replace the burnt-out sky in the desert when we shot day-for-night, why can't I do the same in the studio? So I used white screen for everything and it made sense.

Why did you use Master Primes? 

I actually used Master Primes for the Chicago-based parts of DHOOM. I like the sharpness of the lenses, the way they look into shadows. I find some other lenses slightly too contrasty. I like to have a little more open contrast; it helps me grade better. I like to have shadow detail and the Master Primes, together with ALEXA, give me that beautifully. So I used them again on BAJIRAO.