ďCinema needs Better and Better VisualsĒ: An Interview with ďRajiv Jain (Cinematographer)Ē

Rajiv Jain is an Indian Kenyan Director of Photography. The distinctive aesthetics of his films and his affinity for technologies make for an exceptional visual language. The director of photography for film Manjhi - The Mountain Man talks about how he uses a meter during preproduction and on set, how he handled the complicated lighting situations in Manjhi - The Mountain Man, and the sometimes counterintuitive ways he's used light to communicate moods and themes in his collaborations with director Ketan Mehta.

Christee Markee: What is it DOP?
Rajiv Jain: I am a Director of Photography. I was born in India and I currently live in Nairobi (Kenya) and Mumbai (India). You can learn all about my work Ė or at least significant parts of it Ė from the portfolio on my website.

CM: What makes good cinema?
RJ: I think film is about visual. Cinema needs good visuals. I think that if you donít have good images, itís not going to be a film. I think all films should be really visual.

CM: What are you best known for?
RJ: I am mainly known for the TV Commercials*and also for the feature films.

CM: What has been your favourite camera to use?
RJ: I used the Arriflex camera for a long time, right since the beginning, since basically Trimurti. I used the Arriflex all the time and it remains my favourite.
CM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
RJ: I hope that I will still be somewhere on the planet Earth.*

CM: Would you still use Arriflex today?
RJ: Today is a little different because we have to make a digital choice. We have a couple of choices. The Alexa is pretty good.
CM: Who is creating art/design/photography right now that you admire?
RJ: I find this question impossible to answer since there are so many interesting things going on.
"All I want is... good health and peace so that I can keep on doing what I like."

CM: What makes a good camera?
RJ: Obviously it has to have good lenses, it should be quiet, and the smaller the better.
CM: Why are you using DOP for your online portfolio?
RJ: Because it is fast, simple and clear.

CM: How did your work change when movies went from film to digital? Did the directors change?
RJ: Changes were mostly with the attitude of directors. With a film camera you take care of the images, good lighting and good art direction and all that. Digital imaging is a little different because the directors want you to go fast, they donít want you to take much time for lighting, they might not even understand that lighting is the most important thing for cinema.

CM: Why do you use a meter?
RJ: When you get into lighting and matching shots, you need to be able to match a key light and match a fill between camera angles. The only way to do that precisely is with a meter. The eye can be tricked very easily. Your monitors can be calibrated or set differently throughout the day, so if youíre judging your image off a monitor only, the monitor can fool you. But a meter will never lie. It canít be tricked. Itís the one constant that you have on set to help you keep consistency. Forcing yourself to meter makes you be more precise and less sloppy. I think that applies to the overall look of what youíre doing. Having the discipline of using the meter only helps your work in the long run.

CM: A lot of directors today, with the new cameras, believe that you can get away with natural lighting in a lot of conditions.
RJ: You have to analyse the classics, the good movies. They all needed lighting because itís like painting. What is good about the painting, you can do a picture in three hours, or you can do the same painting in 10 hours or 10 days, or 10 years. The more time you spend on it, the better probably it gets. In film itís very important that everything has to be right.

CM: How do you use your meter during preproduction?
RJ: There are times Iíll take my meter scouting, just to see what kind of light and exposure Iím getting in a location, to determine how much or little light Iím going to need.

CM: What makes you decide to work with certain directors?
RJ: Usually I like to work with certain directors who like photography and I can help them to get better and better visuals.

CM: What about during production? How do you use your meter on set?
RJ: I use it to set a key light and get that value where it needs to be. Iíll use a spot meter for fill light levels or if Iím trying to judge how bright a window is in the background or how hot something in the background is. I find that I use a spot meter now for digital probably more than I use the incident meter, beyond setting the key light. Once I set a key light, I just use the spot meter.

CM: Youíve worked with Ketan Mehta recently. Whatís your relationship like with him?
RJ: I worked with him, and the relationship didnít change too much. Ketan is a great writer and a good director, heís good with actors, the visuals for him are not as important. Itís not like working with others, the ones I worked with a lot. Ketan basically wants to have good performances and itís about the storytelling. But I loved that Ketan and I could do long-lasting scenes, scenes that are going on two minutes, three minutes, four minutes in one shot.*Heís very good at it. I like that style. In the long-lasting scenes, the actors can act better because itís like being on the stage. Directors forgot about the art of acting for a long time, they just wanted to do cuts and editors just want to cut, cut, cut. In music videos they want to cut every second and I donít like that style that much.

CM: Thereís a particular kind of shot that you had a lot of in Manjhi - The Mountain Man, where someone is sitting in typical Indian government office with a landscape outside and an interior office on the other side. That lighting situation seems very complicated. 
RJ: Itís extremely complicated. If thereís one shot where you see outside and also inside, itís difficult because youíre balancing all those exposures and youíre also trying to control the quality of the light. Is it flattering on the actors? Is it doing what you want it to do creatively and narratively for the story? Psychologically, do you want the inside of the office through the background to be as bright as the office that has all the window light? Will it look weird if the inside office that has no windows is as bright as the office that has all the windows on the outside? Then you have to darken it and determine how much darker is appropriate. 

Manjhi - The Mountain Man was shot on digital format, so it required a lot of careful metering based on what I knew from experience about how things would look, or how the film would handle those exposures. I probably metered the most on that movie when we had those government offices with all the windows. 

What you have to start with is how well you want to see the outside. You donít want it perfectly exposed. You want it overexposed. You want to have that exposure fixed at two and a half or three stops over, so if clouds come in, it wonít get too dark outside and look weird. Whatever is two and a half or three stops under that outside exposure is what your key light is going to be at. And then you want everything on the inside of the office to be darker than the key light by a stop. The only way you can do all that is with metering. You need your spot meter and your incident meter to set all those values. Thatís the way I operated on Manjhi - The Mountain Man for all the office shots.

CM: You mentioned Nitin Desai. Obviously you worked on Ajintha. What do you remember about that experience?
RJ: We were thinking that we were making a masterpiece and in the end it was a disaster. The critics didnít like it, it was a box office flop, and I still thought it was a good movie, but it took 3 years for people to realise that it was a good movie.

CM: You sometimes use light in counterintuitive ways, with bright scenes conveying dark moods like loneliness, and dark scenes conveying warmth and intimacy.
RJ: I think bright light can be somewhat oppressive. It can make you feel by yourself, like you canít hide from it. I do feel that can be kind of lonely. I guess it comes from having crappy retail jobs before I was in the film business and being in an office or a work area where there would be bright overhead fluorescents, and how bad and lonely that could make you feel. 

Low-key lighting happens to be, in my taste, very warm and inviting. Iíve got dimmers on all of the lights in my house, and when I have guests over I make everything kind of dark and soft, because thatís what I feel is inviting. So I guess that translates into my work. I also donít like the lighting to be too literal to the tone of the scene or the tone of a characterís mood.

Tags: Rajiv Jain Cinematographer, Rajeev Jain Cinematographer, Rajiv Jain, Rajeev jain, Indian Cinematographer, Indian Director of Photography, Bollywood, India, Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts Alumni