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Amal captures spirit of India in HD

Playback Magazine article by: Marcus Robinson
August 6, 2007

Director Richie Mehta was so determined to get his passion project made that he was willing to go all the way to India to shoot his debut feature using a prosumer camera that he could fit in the palm of his hand. But that was before he met cinematographer Mitch Ness, whose experience with high-def opened his eyes to the possibilities of the medium.

Based on a short film Mehta had shot in 2003, Amal constrasts the classes of the rich and the poor as seen through the fortunes of an auto rickshaw driver in New Delhi. The worlds collide when Amal (Rupinder Nagra) picks up a billionaire (played by famed Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah) who eventually dies and leaves him his entire fortune.
"The reason was very pragmatic," recalls Mehta of his initial choice. The director and DOP took a break in their color correct at Deluxe Toronto to talk about their ambitious HD shoot in New Delhi.

"We thought the smaller the camera, the less crowd - because we were going to be doing a lot of shooting in the streets with no crowd control. Then we went to Mitch and he vetoed that in about six seconds," Mehta says.
Ness had developed a long relationship with Rob Sim, cofounder and president of camera rental house Sim Video, which proved invaluable to the shoot.

"I said, 'Listen, we're going to do a feature. We don't want to do it on almost a prosumer, consumer-type camera. We want to have a little bit more control and also want to lay down a better signal,'" Ness recollects.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Sim suggested Panasonic's AJ-HDX900, a new HD camera at the time, which has the same CCD block (image sensor) as the top-of-the-line VariCam, and captures 720 lines of resolution with a top res of 1080 lines.

Despite the limited budget of $1 million, and because the filmmakers planned on a theatrical release through distrib Seville Pictures, the filmmakers decided to test some footage by doing a 35mm blow-up, which they screened at Deluxe.

"I was really shocked," recalls Ness. "Considering there's more compression on that camera than there is on the Sony HDW-F900, I was really impressed. Also the camera is about a stop and a half faster than the 900, and we were doing some night stuff where we just couldn't bring in lights. We were going to have to deal with a lot of guerilla filmmaking."

He was right. There were the times he found himself hanging out of a rickshaw in traffic, running with the camera on his shoulder down a blind alley, and facing a gathering crowd that almost enveloped their tiny camera unit when Indian star Shah was spotted on the street.

"The ultimate testament to our crew - and Richie's directing - is that you're going from the streets to a five-star hotel in one day," says producer David Miller, noting that the production covered an astounding 44 locations in 29 days. This was also achievable because of the camera package, which proved the right formula in a teeming city of 26 million people where the traffic is legendary.

The time of year was a major consideration for Mehta, whose experience on his previous shoot on a short film in India ensured the feature shot in December. "There's something about the light and the air in New Delhi - which was very different from what we're used to seeing here," he says.

Ness agrees. "You get this really magic [look] every day, almost like special FX with a fogger," he says. "You had a bit of a silking [effect] in front of the lens. Especially when you get onto a long lens, you're shooting stuff that's quite beautiful."

The DOP says that the best way to describe New Delhi is "desert-like, so there's dust everywhere. And everything is faded from the sun, [except] the brilliant colors of these women in gorgeous saris."

Longtime gaffer Mark Hewson managed to design a lighting kit using brightly colored fluorescent tubes which they found locally, and which are seen hanging everywhere in India.

"I love high-def and I love video especially for mixing color temperatures," says Ness. "I think it handles it really beautifully. And you really get some interesting looks from it. We would always play with that."

Ness cautions, however, that there are still inherent limitations with the medium that need to be acknowledged, regardless of where you shoot.

"[HD] still falls apart to a degree in its latitude," he says. "When you get into high-contrast situations, you have to make a decision."

Given his experience with the medium, he has developed something of a mantra, which he invoked almost daily under the hot sun and heavy shadows of India.

"Always protect your highlights," he says. "Especially for day exteriors, which are one of the hardest things to shoot on high-def. Protect your highlights and you'll be surprised at how far it will actually read into the shadows."

Although he was worried about what he was capturing on the day, and he erred on the side of underexposure, Ness has been pleasantly surprised in post-production.

"We had a pretty huge [contrast] range, and we've been able to pull stuff back or read into the shadows."
Adds Mehta: "One of the things we wanted was the look of the film to be defined by the environment completely. Let India tell you what to do."

Did the format allow or hinder that?

"It really helped," stresses the director. "Anything more would have hindered us on the streets. I really believe it was the perfect package."

Ness is almost Zen-like as he reflects on the unique experience of shooting Amal, and that despite limited resources, the film has been chosen by the Toronto International Film Festival to make its world premiere in the Canada First! program.