Paiyaa Team
Interviewer : Inian & Daya Kingston | Camera : Ganeshbabu | Text: Daya Kingston
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MANOJ PARAMAHAMSA - MASTER OF SHADES!
Manoj Paramahamsa is the young cinematographer and the whiz kid who thrilled us with the eerie edge-of-the-seat sequences in Eeram. Now, he charms us again with Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa which is a feel-good romance that is creating ripples. As he carves a niche for himself in the world of cinema, we have a tête-à-tête where he shares his experiences, dreams and more.

How did you enter the industry?

My entry was easy as my father was my senior in the film institute. He passed out in the batch of 76 and learnt cinematography. However, he was interested in direction and has directed 8 to 9 Telugu movies. So I grew up in an atmosphere of cinema. From my 8th standard, I would accompany my father to shoots and was fascinated by cinematography, the mystery of the camera and lights. It was decided that I would get into the technical side. I took the Science group in +1 Science group and later worked for a cinematographer. That way, my entry into cinema was well-planned.

I grew up in an atmosphere of

cinema

Who are the cinematographers you have worked with?


I have only worked for Saravanan who has done a lot of commercial films. My first film with him was Pammal K. Sambandam. Piriyamana Thozhi, Arasatchi, Tirupachi, Madurai and a handful of Malayalam and Telugu films and one Hindi film followed later. In a 5 year span, I worked in 15 films with him. The advantage was that he worked with different directors like Suresh Krissna, Vikraman, Mouli, Perarasu, and Shaji Kailash in Malayalam which gave me a great deal of exposure and helped me learn too. It was a fantastic experience.

You had film connections, but for those aspiring cinematographers without them, how can they enter?

It’s very simple. If you have found that you have an interest in the field during your school days, choose the Maths with Science group and then enroll in the film institutes in Pune or Taramani or other private institutes like LV Prasad and Rajiv Menon. Many colleges offer Visual Communication too. It’s good to have a formal education but one must work with a cinematographer for at least 3 years.

How do you approach a cinematographer to be his assistant?

That is easy, many of them have sites. When you are pursuing your course, you can use your final project usually a short film to showcase skills. Many who approach me show me the stills or show reel they have shot to exhibit their talent and this makes it easy to shortlist. It’s better to be prepared before entering the industry and when you do a course, the basics are covered. If you do Viscomm, you have career options both in advertising and films.


Director Arivazhagan is my

classmate
How did you get the Eeram opportunity?

Director Arivazhagan is my classmate and he was working with director Shankar for Boys and Annian. When Sivaji was about to start, he left and spent 2 years for the script. We were good friends and spent a lot of time together. One day he asked me and my friend to shoot a trailer. I wondered why and he said
that he wanted to put the best shots and present it. We shortlisted 30 to 40 shots and shot them with domestic lights and small cameras, then fixed a tone and showed it to Shankar sir. He liked it and asked for a bound script which Arivazhagan made ready in 2 months. He took 3 months, analyzed and saw how the film would be viable and gave us a green signal. At that time, I had no clue I would be doing the film. I had got a break from Gautham Menon with Chennayil oru Mazhaikaalam. The opportunity came through my friend Manikandan and it was being shot in the gaps between Vaaranam Aayiram. Then, there was a break and it was at this time Arivazhagan approached me. I was reluctant and actually refused. I asked him to look for a senior cinematographer who could help shoot the film as visualized since both of us were new.

After hearing the story I was very interested. He is a very soft-natured person and I never expected a thriller from him. I was a little scared when I read the script as it was greatly dependent on the cinematographer. He tried with senior cinematographers and it did not work and he came back to me and my friends encouraged me to take it up. Then Shankar sir told me to take it up and gave me the confidence. Following this, I sought permission from Gautham and he encouraged me to go ahead. We did 6 months of homework.

How did you bring in the mysterious feel into the script?

The script had an eerie effect, ambience was already formed. Every scene was set before rain, after rain or during rain. We decided to fix the lighting scheme without sunlight and also had a specific color palette. Generally, in Tamil cinema not many have a color palette and even if there is one initially, it’s not maintained. In post-production, a tone is fixed. However, we fixed grey as the color palette.

The red tonic was used to

symbolize an instinct, like an

omen

The red tonic was used to symbolize an instinct, like an omen. Since, the whole film was in grey scale, this was highlighted. We had instructed the junior artistes not to come in warm colors but they did not listen. Finally we got all of their costumes stitched in our color scheme something no-one usually does.

To get the grey apartment building that we had visualized, we looked at 50 to 100 houses in Chennai besides Cochin, Hyderabad and Pondicherry. Finally we settled on Doshi Gardens, Vadapalani which had a grey exterior. In newer constructions, the car park is in the basement and the compound walls close, so we could not have the huge blocks we wanted. Initially, the flat owners were very strict and did not give us permission to shoot. However, Shankar sir stepped in and got us permission to shoot for 8 days and we worked with this constraint. However, the colors and atmosphere gave us that eerie feel. Our success is because of our homework.

Have you had any ghostly experience?

I have never felt it but once Aadhi left the tap closed while coming to work and when he went home he found the home full of water and was scared. A similar thing happened to me one day. I was in a hurry and there was no water in the tap. I left it open and when the motor was switched on the water spurted from it and it overflowed, my neighbors called me up.

What was the most challenging about the film?

The most challenging was the exterior shots. We used to joke that the previous film from the production house had Veyyil as its title and this is very easy as Chennai and Tamilnadu are very sunny, but for Eeram it was the opposite. We got stuck on the sets during rains so when we went outdoors, the sun was strong. For all the outdoor shots, we shot early in the morning before sunrise and gave it an overcast feel. It was tough to give that wet look to the outdoors.

I was very careful about the major murder sequences where the water CG appeared. In India, usually, the CG work is very obvious and this would make the water appear as a mere fantasy element which would make us lose the audience interaction. We wanted the water to be realistic and revealed as spirit only during the 2nd part.

We adopted the HDRI (High Dynamic Range Image) technology. It was very tough as even a simple shot called for 5 layers; in fact the whole process was complicated. We made a storyboard with virtual lensing. We shot for quite long to reach the level of perfection we sought.

What has been your experience working with director Arivazhagan?

After seeing the film, I received a lot of appreciation but the major credit must go to Arivazhagan, he was very particular and deeply involved in the cinematography right from the lighting. Generally when artistes perform, we give them lighting on the face, but he said he did not want so much detail, since they were new artistes he felt that if there was too much light, if they made a mistake, it would show.

He had this light control and made the shot divisions which made my job simple. Many ask me the question why only some films are visually good; I think the credit would go to the director. If you want to take a shot in the early morning for instance, organizing artistes, dialogues and other things are in his control. He was very co-operative; he helped the execution and organizing. There were lot of his inputs in cinematography and so I could maintain tone and we got a full-fledged visual project.

Tell us about the water CG?

The concept was that when the motor was off, a tap was left on and overflows. We made the total virtual set on 3D Studio Max and planned shots with a virtual camera. Arrow marks were made to show the water direction and HDRI gave realism to the water. In Arundathi, they had done water, even I got scared seeing it but they could not bring authenticity to it, it looked like CG and lost audience interaction.

The full film had dark tones. What gave you the confidence to go with this?

The confidence comes from what we know about audience psychology and body language. If there is a light and clear image that is easily identifiable, the body language would be a casual seating. However, when you have select lighting and shallow depth, the body language will be that of an edge-of-the-seat thriller. The audience will scan and pan the screen, this will bring down the distance between the audiences and screen. Any thriller or horror film will maintain dark tones to make the audience watch keenly and this is a worldwide theory. This Hitchcock theory makes the audience come closer to the screen and have a greater interaction. We have used a lot of white and blacks in equal balance in this film.



Gautham is like the CEO

How was it working with Gautham Menon?

One day while working as an assistant, I received a call from him for Chennaiyil Oru Mazhaikkalam which would have music by ARR. Actually, he had initially planned a big cinematographer like PC Sriram but with VA being shot, he wanted to do a quickie in between and if it was a senior cinematographer, dates would clash. He was looking for a new cinematographer and my friend recommended me. Assistants of big
cinematographers competed for this. However, there was a pooja and I was asked to do a test shoot, he liked my first shot as I had added a little extra without his saying it and he liked it. From that day till today he likes my work and supports me.

At the end of Eeram, VTV started and his script book was given to me. While reading it, I found it so interesting and inspiring. It was new and fresh. I had not seen a genre like that in cinema and it was conversational, something he also explained. He wanted a lot to be created visually and there would be great scope for visual and music. Working with him gave me the opportunity to have a lot of interaction with him. On the sets, he does not have the director feel, l have worked with many directors but Gautham is like the CEO of a company, very humble and quiet on the spot. No-one knows shooting is happening. He is so soft and gives freedom to execute something in the script if its justified.

For instance for the title shoot of VTV, we shot 200ft with crane up. When we saw the location I felt it would be good as a concept, he said ok though it was expensive. We had to hire an agela crane, take it to Kerala for just that one complicated shot to reveal the church. He gives a lot of freedom and inspires you a lot while narrating the scene or in the script.

He gave me the opportunity to use a lot of wide angle shots, scope and space for camera movements. This script he said it should be very visual and we made a color palette. Since I had already done this in Eeram, I was very happy to hear it from him and after doing so much dark, he wanted white, this gave me more energy. Usually, a love subject is colorful but he wanted white and first I could not understand. However, once I read the script, the character is Syrian Christian and many things about Jessie are white, the church white for instance. We searched a lot for white, the Thiruvanmiyur house gave us a white backdrop and so did the 450-year old Church where we got permission after a lot of persuasion and donation. Malta is an off white island city and this suited our color palette.

What was your best shot in VTV?

Going by the feedback, the Malta songs and New York were well-appreciated. In the Mannipaaya song, there is a lead scene, a night scene across the backwaters where Simbhu jumps over the wall to see Trisha and then they both sit on a lawn and talk. This is followed by an intense scene where they kiss and the song begins. He goes on the boat after this; we underplayed the moonlight and the place Allepey was new. Many appreciated this. I like this night effect scene.

How is Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa different from other films?

From the Tamil films I have come across, this has a very different screenplay and treatment. Usually, there are a lot of artistes, an action block and even in a love element; there might be vengeance and a lot of negative elements. Suppose they are not there, it would become a family drama. This script breaks all this. There are two characters and the only thing between them is love. The two characters keep talking to each other throughout the film, the supporting cast is very less, the cameraman character is the only major one and worked out well. Parents have a small role. This two character drama was new and interesting and it was wonderful working with artistes who had a lot of experience. I had a high energy level and confidence that I could give good visuals as it had such as structure.

How did you manage to give Simbhu an image makeover?

Many have asked this question. Trisha and Simbu look very good. We have done a lot of things that were not done in his earlier films. Basically, we decided his look. Hrithik Roshan’s hairstylist gave him the haircut. Nalini’s input was a lot and she gave him casual clothes generally middle class. She did not select them like a hero’s costume. Before shooting, his look was set and on my side, I planned and fixed the lighting pattern. The full film would be shot in sunlight



we never gave Simbu

and available light, back or direct. Even when scenes were shot at home, we decided to make it look like sunlight streamed in. White would look pure when the sunlight fell on it and shadows cast on it.

Unlike normal commercial films, we never gave Simbu special lighting but used a lot of available light, the reason for success of the makeover. In many places the duo were talking and the camera placed at a distance. In fact, many felt that it looked like two lovers who were captured on screen without their knowledge and this was appreciated. The reason is good planning without disturbing them with too much light and working in available light, maybe this looked fresh and new. Generally, for a hero, a lot of glow is used or he is given a backlight, both of which we avoided. Same goes for Trisha, her main scenes were done in available light. Only in the song sequences we have tried the glow because in his imagination we wanted her to look ravishing.

We selected good lighting conditions. I got enough co-operations from all three, Simbhu, Gautham and Trisha. When shooting in available light, when the sun’s direction changes, the continuity will change, usually, the sun will stay in a single angle only one or two hours but they completed the scene within that time frame. Generally other directors would take a lot of time and lot of shots, track movement and complicate it before finishing the scene. However, Gautham understood that would be good in available light and within one hour finished even big scenes. No rehearsals or retakes and many shots were okayed in a single take and this was good for the continuity and realism of the film.



Trisha is carefree artiste

How was it working with Trisha as an artiste?

When I was an assistant, I have worked with her in Tirupachi. Trisha is carefree artiste who is very jolly, with no stress and tension. Since she is from here, she had no problems with the dialogues, only Malayalam she found tough, Tamil was easy. Our entire team is a jolly one and it was very comfortable working with her.

Tell us about the camera you used?

VTV was shot on a regular Atrri Extreme 435. The lenses were very selective Optima Zoom a new one from Angenix and Storeye lenses. The lenses were useful in the blocks and DI. We had employed the best technology in today’s market.

What are your current projects?

I am waiting for Gautham sir. Ajith’s 50th film was confirmed for Cloud Nine productions but since he is going for the races, it has been postponed for 2 months. Meanwhile, we will be finishing a project that we have already started; a thriller by Gautham sir with Sameera Reddy, Tabu and two newcomers. This is the same as the COM but not with that title, some scenes have been changed too. The next could be Ajith’s project and Arivazhagan’s next followed by a film by Gautham’s associate Manikandan.

What is your dream?

My dream is getting fulfilled. It’s to do good cinema. I like surrealistic films. This is the trend in Hindi, in films like Omkaara, Kaminey and Fashion. Blockbusters are also experimenting, take Ishqiya for instance.



I like surrealistic films

 
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