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Using film is a different way to capture reality, says ‘Manahati’ cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez

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Dani Sanchez Lopez gives us glimpses of the techniques of shooting ‘Mahanati’, and why he preferred film over digital

Spanish cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez comes across as a humble and grounded technician. He talks with the excitement of a child and wisdom of an adult while recollecting his one-year work on Mahanati (Nadigayar Thilagam in Tamil), the biopic on actor Savitri. The Los Angeles-based Dani visits India often to teach cinematography and was contacted by director Nag Ashwin who felt Dani would capture the life of Savitri well. “She was a superstar, so powerful, talented and became a legend. She was one of the first female actors to earn more than her male counterpart, and in a sexist society like ours, it became an issue. She even decided to direct a film with an all-female crew in the 60s,” he says in an exclusive chat with MetroPlus.

Dani says he shared a fantastic rapport with Nag Ashwin. The director sent the script to Dani and he could visualise while reading the script. Nag Ashwin was looking to capture the biopic in a special way. He had seen some of Dani’s work, in particular San 75, a political thriller set in times of emergency, and the music video he directed and shot for Detective Byomkesh Bakshi by Dibakar Banerjee.

Using film is a different way to capture reality, says ‘Manahati’ cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez

Shooting on film

Dani observes, “The collaboration between a director and his DoP can be convoluted, but both Nagi and I are people who set our egos aside and work for the best of the film. We wanted to differentiate the two main diegesis in the film — Samantha is a budding journalist investigating on the life of Mahanati Savitri (played by Keerthy Suresh). We tested different cameras, lenses, filters, colours and looks until we arrived at our final visual design. We decided to shoot on film to get the vintage look of the colours and grain of super16mm to capture the present in the film, which is the early 80s. We shot this section with hand-held camera and organic lighting, using sharp Zeiss Master Prime lenses with no filtration, to let the camera make the audience feel the spontaneity and naïveté of Samantha’s character.”

The cinematographer admits that this decision proved to be a challenge. “It’s been a few years since digital mode became the norm in India, and there are no companies making film in the country. We had to import the stock; we had some trouble finding a good scanning system. The biggest inconvenience was that the servicing of 16mm cameras stopped. At some point we had one camera for hyperfocal and one for the hand-held work. Fortunately, I was in a panel last weekend with cinematographers I admire, like KU Mohanan and Ravi K Chandran, in which Kodak announced they are re-opening their lab in Mumbai and promised to solve many issues we had faced on set. I am working on colour grading at Red Chillies, with Mak, one of the most talented colourists in India, and probably internationally, and we are both amazed at the stunning feel of the Kodak film. Since its inception, digital has always tried to look like film, but it is a chimera, it is a different way of capturing reality.”

Using film is a different way to capture reality, says ‘Manahati’ cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez

Technically speaking

The audience learns about Savitri’s life through the memories of the characters Samantha interviews. The team decided to use Alexa with different lenses and filters to encapsulate the epic journey. They also transitioned from spherical Master Prime into the grandness of anamorphic Hawke V-Lite lenses, from no filtration to glimmer glass, classic soft, and even vaseline at a point.

Dani reveals that they spent days talking about the colourpalette from the 1940s to 80s. “Psychology of colour is subjective, since we were talking about film and the life of an actress who took the gear-shift of her life, I brought to the table the figure of Natalie Kalmus, another well known woman, in film. She was the wife of the founder of Technicolor. We crafted an unpretentious, unequivocal colour palette that will appeal both in India and internationally. Swapna and Priyanka Dutt (producers) brought in some crayons and we divided them by sections of her life on the carpet in centre of the room, and everyone got the idea of how the film was going to look.”

Using film is a different way to capture reality, says ‘Manahati’ cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez

Colours of life

The colour palette changes as we move through Savitri’s life. They begin with earthy greens and browns to show the village life Savitri came from. Once she moves to the city, the colours bloom into warmer pinks, oranges and yellows and reds. As Savitri finds love, red and maroons start seeping into the frame. The rise of Savitri is traced by golden and brighter tones. Lighting becomes classical, and she becomes the one moving the baroque camera movements. Dani adds, “But alas, not everything that shines is gold, envy will grow in others and we see teals and greenshere and there. Like a bruise her red heart will turn crimson, mauve, purple, and finally darker tones tangle in blue to shade this new stage of her life. We decided to shoot on film to get the vintage look of the colours and grain of super16mm to capture the present in the film, which is the early 80s. Dani Sanchez Lopez CinematographerBlue is the colour of her weakness, of her limitation and fear. Low key lighting with deep shadows assist the whirls of a camera that now circles a hieratic Savitri, stagnated into the fountain, where there used to be a river. All these colours will reflect on Samantha, the journalist who is unravelling the real story of Savitri.”

As for recreating Savitri’s iconic cinematic moments, Dani tried to be as precise as possible to the originals. The original scenes are in black and white and he aimed to recreate the colours and lighting used at the time. Dani feels it the toughest parts of this film was to do justice to the wonderful films of Savitri’s career and her persona on screen, the way she was photographed then.

Mayabazaar

He avers, “These images are ingrained in the memory of the audience. We went through most of her films as Nagi was selecting sections to recreate, and we went into fine details. One of the high points of my career was when Singeetham Srinivas Rao, who worked as an assistant director for Mayabazaar, came to our set. He put his arm around my shoulders and told me that Marcus Bartley, the cinematographer, had a particular way of lighting Savitri, and that I had tackled it. I was ecstatic.”

Dani is aware he would be asked this question and be compared to Marcus, so he says, “Vilmos Zsigmond said cinematographers are usually foreigners to the land they shoot in. If you look at the Oscars, in the last five years the cinematography award was given to foreigners. After seven years of working in India, I am told I am more Indian.”

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 7:19:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/cinematographer-dani-sanchez-lopez-manahati-savitri/article23557144.ece

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