He’s traversed treacherous terrains and come face-to-face with the fiercest predators. T. KRITHIKA REDDY catches up with famous wildlife cinematographer Alphonse Roy, who is just back after filming in Africa
Alphonse Roy is a rare species himself. He’s roughed it out in the wilderness for 23 years, facing charging elephants, shadowing fierce tigers and performing acrobatics with whimsical monkeys. But he doesn’t make a big deal of it. “If you want to get it, you have to be out there where it all happens,” says the unasuming cinematographer.
Back home in Vettuvankeni on the East Coast Road, after a schedule in the Dzanga Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, Roy relates his experiences with passion. “I was there for the shoot of an American film, ‘Oka Amerikee’, directed by Lavinia Currier. It’s based on the book ‘Last Thoughts before Vanishing’ by Louis Sarno. I took it up because it was an opportunity to work with Oscar-winning director of photography Conrad Hall Jr. In Dzanga Sangha, poverty hits you in the face. There are thousands of AIDS cases, because of which it’s difficult to spot people who are over 50. A variety of tapioca is their staple food. But for strange reasons, cyanide gets synthesised in it. So it is soaked, dried, re-soaked, dried and then made into flour. The diversity of wildlife in the rainforests is amazing. For a scene, we spent days following a majestic, 400-pound gorilla with our heavy Panavision camera. On the last day of the shoot, an elephant came charging from behind. It was barely 20 feet away. I escaped with some bruises and open cuts.”
But such risks are not new to Roy, who has spent years stalking tigers for films and documentaries. “My association with tigers spans 17 years and has taken me to different terrains in the country. I’ve seen generations — from gracious old ones to naughty cubs that pull at elephants’ tails! I’ve spent hours in the forest observing their behaviour. From their aggressive territorial instincts to their quirks and caring nature, I’ve captured them all on camera.”
Romance with big cats
Reminiscing about his romance with the big cats, Roy says, “You can’t shoot a tiger from the ground. You have to do it with the help of an elephant. But it invariably moves and the shot is not steady. So I would befriend a tusker, and after I was sure it trusted me, I would sit under its four legs and shoot. This proved to be difficult in the long run. So I designed an ‘elephant tripod’ — a 14-ft. tall stool. I would climb on the elephant and shift to the stool with my camera and shoot. It became an attraction for tourists. While I focussed on animals, they would take pictures of me!” he laughs.
Since a lot depends on shadowing the evasive creatures, wildlife cinematography is time-consuming. “You have to spend hours for a single shot. Sometimes, you even return without any. My first film on tigers took over four years to complete.”
Despite years spent in the wilderness, the shot of a tiger making a kill evaded Roy until last year when he invited Simon King, a predation expert to Bandhavgarh to guide him. The result was “Tiger Kill” in which Roy was able to freeze the scene of a predator hunting its prey. “I got so close to that fleeting moment and let it slip — several times. It was agonising, until it finally happened. Jungle craft is about patience and perseverance. You can’t tackle animals with strength. But you can handle them with psychology,” says the cinematographer, who wishes to make a film on the maternal instinct of a tigress. “There’s so much in their DNA. It’s amazing how a mother takes care of her cubs. She would hide her kitten-sized-cubs, roam many kilometres, make her kill and return to suckle the cubs. She would ward off male tigers by taking a detour to protect the cubs. It’s so beautiful, so instinctive. The more you spend time with them, the more you realise how little you know.”
Talk about conservation, and Roy muses, “Nothing can happen without political will. Today, our forests are fragmented. They are no longer uninterrupted stretches. Unless you raise the economic status of the people living on the fringes, you can’t expect them to preserve Nature. And the irony is most wildlife films/docus don’t reach these people who matter. We make them for a Western or an urban audience which doesn’t think beyond wi-fi and airports!”
Dabbling in films
Having studied at the Film & TV Institute of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, Roy dabbled in photography from a young age. Though his peer group persuaded him to give cinema a shot, he took the road less travelled — rarely taking a break to dabble in films. He’s worked for Lenin’s “Oorukku Nooru Paer,” which opened the International Film Festival in Bangalore in 2001. His work for “Aamir” was critically acclaimed. In “Anything for You”, he’s used the RED camera. “In films, unlike in wildlife photography, everything is under control. After having shot for years in available light, I wanted to see how this worked.” His ongoing projects include the Tamil film “Drohi” and UTV’s “Peter Gaya Kaam Se.” “Friends are amused I’m doing commercial cinema.” A meaningful pause, and he guffaws, “I guess it’s part of mid-life crisis.”
*Emmy Award for a one-hour film on Tibetan civilisation “Tibet: The
End of Time” for Times Television, USA
* Lifetime Achievement Award at Chicago International HUGO Film
Festival for film “Tiger Kill”
Some of Roy’s works:
* “Tiger by Night” for BBC Natural History Channel. Shot in the Bandhavgarh Forest.
* Film on tiger conservation with BBC’s Fiona Bruce. Was presenter for the Planet Earth Conservation series produced by BBC Bristol.
*“Pride of India”, a one-hour film on Gir lions for BBC Natural History unit.
*“Kingdom of Cobra,” for BBC Natural World.
*Cameraman and presenter of “The Great Cats of India”, a Discovery-Animal Planet co-production.
* “Temple Tiger” and “Elephant Mountain” for Living Eden series and
“Journey into Amazonia” for PBS America.
* “Once in a Lifetime Journey” for Reader’s Digest America.
*Three films for National Geographic on Columbia, Mizoram and Mongolia.
*Camerawork for a feature length documentary on AIDS directed by Rory
Kennedy (granddaughter of John F. Kennedy)
*Film on Kumbh Mela for National Geographic.