Bijon Das Gupta

Bijon Das Gupta

Q. Can you please tell us how did you begin your Initial Journey?

I am from Bangalore and it is from there that I did my graduation. However, films always fascinated me. The first film I saw in a cinema was Satyajit Ray’s “PatherPanchali”. Later, I met M.S.Sathyu and Zul Velani when I was studying in Bangalore. I would rate them as the two most important people who influenced me. During my school days, I had started working for M.S. Sathyu in Bangalore doing theatre and other related activities. I then started to work on a lot of Russian and Indo-Russian films as M.S. Sathyu’s assistant. It was in 1972 that I applied to FTII,Pune for its film direction program. At that time, I was involved in a Spanish flamingo group touring in India by doing lighting and sets for them. I could not enrol myself into FTII due to some problems from Kolkata and the seat was already taken. Thus, I came back to Bombay as I did not want go to Bangalore because I knew that my family would not allow me to get into movies; they were very against the field of cinema.M.S. Sathyu asked me to join Bombay Doordarshan. At that time television was coming up. During that time people did not have any idea in India of what television was all about. I joined Bombay television centre but I did not get into the art department. The German people were looking after everything. The government of India appointed M.S.Sathyu as its ad-hoc art director to train people. As he couldn’t make it there, he asked the Director of Bombay Doordarshanto let me to do the set. Thus I was compelled to do it. Hence, I started reading books about television like-three camera setup, line of crossing etc. I wanted to learn the basic grammar of television.

In this manner, Mr.P.V.Krishnamurty,director-Bombay Doordarshan asked me to become the scenic designer. For television, scenic designer was considered to be a very important post. My initials tasks included creating a workshop and to employ people on temporary basis. This is how I established the art department at Bombay Doordarshan Centre. It has been observed that in television media, the scene designer is linked with the property department and makeup department. For this reason, I looked after all those departments. Finally, I was employed on a permanent basis over there. I was the youngest art director at Bombay television centre. I worked over there for nine years. I think that it was the golden period of Indian television. We had some of the most amazing productions coming out of Bombay Doordarshan.Shukla Das was making super documentaries, dance programmes, programmes for children like ”Magic Lamp” based on the Sesame Street. Television taught me a lot as we had one studio in which we had morning recordings. Once the recoding was over, there were live programmes being shot over there. You had to learn to use the same thing, as there were few props, you had to change them continuously. One had to know about lighting and sound because when one is designing a set in television and making a plan, it may not be accepted because it goes through the production meeting and the engineer who is in charge of CCU, who will be looking in the lighting parts etc.

In a television studio, you always have lighting grids. Grids have plug points for each of the lights, which are dimmer, controlled. The sets have to be designed in such a way in the plan that the grid can come down and the back wall does not hinder its way. It should also have audio output points to enable audio to go in.

As one is using a three camera set up, as an art director, one should know which is the back light to some character, which will become face light for other character etc. Sometimes some lights may come into your camera frame so you have to be careful with your camera positions. One has to mark the camera positions and says this will be camera position A, camera position B and camera position C. One has to learn all the camera processes. So we are also taught that you had 1 to 10 grey scaleand everything you did was into 1-10 grey scale. The depth of field in a set was in terms of the colour gradation of the walls making it look darker, lighter, so that one could get the depth. In black and white, one can do a lot with your shadows by lighting to create an interesting visual.

All this experience helped me a lot in terms of understanding what lightning is all about, how lighting is done. For example if one has a boom, how does one position the angle so that boom shadow does not fall and your settings don’t disturb. While I was in television, I also got involved into doing a lot of advertising films. Actor Jalal Aga was very close friend of mine. “Amul” was the very first advertisement on which I worked. At one time, I was doing almost every advertisement in Bombay for people such as Kailsh Surendernath, Zafar Hai, Shyam Benegal, Deven Khote etc.To me in art direction, one’s own aesthetic sense is the most important thing. One cannot learn aesthetics. It is within a person. It is ‘what is the type of colour you like’, ‘what is the type of look that you like’.One also gets influenced by the people with whom one stays. When I came to Bombay, I was very lucky as I got to stay in Shabana Azmi’s house. She has a lot of aesthetic sense. I learned how one could pick up cheaper fabrics and make curtains out of them. One grows by watching people as being in somebody’s house, one gets to see that the kind of people with whom one is involved are different. SardarZafari would come every day, Muzaffar Ali used to sit there. Baba Azmi became my friend when I was working for Doordarashan.

Q. What is the Role of an art director in a film and how he helps the director in realising his vision?

Personally for me, art direction facilitates the writer’s vision and writing into celluloid. A writer pens scenes such as a big haveli or a rich man’s house. The writer does not describe that house in the same manner as it is done abroad in a fiction novel where the setting is described. A writer’s script is conceived to tell you in brief about scenes namely a villain’s house, a bar or a hut etc. One starts to visualize based on what the writer has written as when one reads that whole scene and one at least gets the basic idea of what one is looking for. The director tells you how he wants to do the scene. When I was doing films, we did not have proper scripts at all.

“Make a wonderful set”- that’s the only brief we would get. Make a“DhansuFloor” etc. This was the kind of language one always used. On most occasions, industry people would tell us that our sets worth two laks should appear as if they cost Rs. 25 laks. For them, art directors are not art directors unless they are able to achieve such a high level of perfection. In such a scenario, camera becomes the most important factor to everyone. When designing work is to be carried out, as an art director one should know the angles on the set are going be more than anybody else. As one knows about the angle for a long shot, one cannot keep crossing every angle in a set. This is also true for one’s low angle shot. Hence, one has to know in a studio the height until where the walls have to go. One should know where to put a little temporary ceiling because if a cameraman goes low angle then the light will be seen. If one has to remove the ceiling I should know how it will be removed. This is precisely the reason why I use skimmers. The skimmer should look like a ceiling and it can be lit and still be able to get a soft light. It is in this manner, one’s thought process works on angles, which are being visualised at the time of creating the sets. One also needs to start thinking about the source of lighting. This is why one puts windows, as the set has to have the depth of field. A set designer also thinks of backdrops. In the past, background paintings were made but these days there are no more backdrops. In current times, blue croma and computer graphics are used.

Q How can an art director help a DOP in creating depth and how do you go about choosing your colour scheme?

The whole depth of field on which one works in a film may not be in a house. For example one is sitting here and there is dead wall. If this was a set, I would have an opening here probably to see something there; may be a dining room or a passage. One may place a table lamp and try to source the lighting pattern. It is at this point that DOP comes and he may say, why don’t you give me some light in that area.  One starts to incorporate these things. The colour scheme of a set plays  a large role. In the past, sets were brightened up a lot because of the manner in which lights were used. Today the cameramen prefer darker walls. They prefer everything darker as they just want the artists to be lit. Personally, I find that photography has changed a lot. We have currently faster films with sensitive cameras and labs have also improved a lot. These days cameramen prefer to work in an environment where the actors are lit but the background is lit slightly as you keep everything more to a darker tone. This is one reason why the colour scheme of the set depends heavily on a DOP.

In black and white, we had 10 grey scales. I would create grey scale in colours. I would use different colours for different backdrops, just to give the depth. How big the window should be, because sometimes you make huge windows and the light cannot be placed, as it will be seen. Hence one needs to create number of walls so that the DOP can keep the lights there, hide them and do cross lighting. It is important to know what he will light up. For this reason, your sofa has to be there or something else which he can light. Keeping this in mind, I think that the entire working relationship of a DOP, an art director along with a costume designer is important .If I am shooting a scene involving a sofa set, what kind of a fabric would be used so that it would not clash with the background. It is very easy to make a wall very jazzy for any scene but the director has a very emotional scene for which he would like to keep set very low in order to enable the scene to come out well. As an art director, I might do a very Jazzy gold kind of background but the whole scene will die down as that background is being watched all the time. Somewhere an art director cannot go beyond the script. He has to play a very subtle role in the entire narration process unless one is doing a science fiction project.

Q What is the difference between old school of cinematographers and current generation DOP?

In the past, ifI would put a stuffed tiger somewhere in a room, a cameraman would put a bulb inside the eye. He might even put a red light on it. Many cameramen have done it. When the colour film came, cameramen thought that it would help if a lot of colour gel was used.

I remember having done a film called “Himalaya Se Ucha” for Prakash Mehra. We were shooting. I was putting up the sets of snow inside the studio using salts and marble powder. The cameraman was old school. The sunlight was hitting it and it was glaring. He asked me why I did not make it blue. He showed me “National Geography” to convey that it should look blue, but I explained to him that he could achieve that in his lighting. He actually put blue gel on the lights to make it look blue. He was not willing to understand.

However, today’s cameramen have changed. They have seen so many international films during film festivals etc. In the olden days, a DOP would light up the background wall red and since I had not made it red, they would put red gel on the light and make it red, put green colour gel on the light for a pillar. There was a time I was doing 10 films at a time. Today, I work on one film at one time. Today, I have to be present on the set all the time. When we are working on a long schedule film, there is much more concentration and you are able to utilise your resources properly. In present times, a DOP has realised how important it is that an art director has to be continually present on the set. He asks your help to make the frame more attractive.

Q. You have worked with various cinematographers. Why Ashok Mehta is consider as one of the great cinematographers.

I have worked with Ashok Mehta on many films like Kalyug, Gupt and many advertising films like Bombay Dyeing, MRF tyre etc. He was a dream DOP for an art director. He would light the set so beautifully. I have not seen a DOP taking so much pain in lighting. Ashok would be so concerned about highlighting a small painting in a frame. We use papers to make the set. The painter who is painting may have not seen the strokes of the brush or the paper joints and later we would start doing the texturing etc. Sometimes I would tell Ashok Mehta that due to shortage of time I could not complete some part of the wall properly. Ashok would do something to hide that untidiness and he would light it up in such a way that it would look beautiful.

I might have even put a small flower vase in frame but Ashok Mehta’s camera would even light thatto make it come alive. In one of the sequences of Prem, Boney Kapoor got Ashok Mehta to shoot. It was a sunset shot in the studio involving a romantic scene between Sanjay Kapoor and Tabu.Ashok asked me to get a mirror and place the mirror where the sunset can be seen and I placed a round mirror at an angle. Heput up a white skimmer on the top and started lighting up the skimmer with colour gel and the skimmer was reflecting into the mirror and creating a wonderful glow. He used Digel smoke machine and the moment smoke settled down to form amazing cloud shapes, he shot it.

There was a sequence in the film Khalnayak. SubhashGhai is a very economicalproducer. It is from Mr.Ghai that I learned how one could make a film economical and yet make it look bigger. Wewere shootingactress MadhuriDixit’s house at Filmistan studio. He told me that we would need a small hut type of thing and some field of crops in the background etc. The scene has Madhuricoming from the temple with a “Thali” .Inthe scene, the mother opens the door and actor Jackie Shroffcomes inand sits. Wemade painted steps in the backdrop, going into perspective higher up the mountain and there was supposed to be a small temple at the top. Ashok Mehta came and told me to put a cutout of the temple over there. He lit up that scene likeearly morning magic hour light and with smoke. The scene shows Madhuri Dixit coming from the edge of the background towards the house and Jackie Shroffisstanding there. SubhashGhai came and shot the whole scene outside rather than inside the house. He kept the house just as a backdrop and got the scene shot in themiddle of the studio with Jackie and the mother only due to the backdrop and the way Ashok Mehta had lit up the outdoor set and created a mesmerising atmosphere! It looked like as if there was a real temple on the mountain and that is what Ashok Mehta was really all about!!

There was another sequence involving a helicopter, which is coming down,and actor Sanjay Dutt is hiding insidean old house in a village. SubashGhai said that we would use sound effect. I used a storm fan as the helicopter was coming down and kept on increasing its speed. I moved the tiles of the roof. I made the tiles in such a manner that they would not fall on the actors’ head but when I would move the tiles, thelight coming through the shacks would give the feeling of the helicopter coming downdue to light streak movement inside. Ashok put the light on the top, whichgave aflickering feel inside on the characters’ face.

I have also done several films with cinematographer Baba Azmi. Baba does not light backdrops and avoids highlighting backgrounds. In such cases, I haveto think ofgiving depth in other ways. Hisframing is superb. This is what we learnt from a director called ” Bapu”. He would hardly use a crane. Heis one man who would break even a small scene into many shots-close up, mid shot. I have never come across a directorwho shoots an actress’ face so beautifully.He wouldfill up the walls so wonderfully and would keep asking me to fill the background.

Pravin Bhattis a person who could make even ugly women look so beautiful. I have done a lot of films withhim. There are also cinematographers known for bigger blocks with crowd. One lookat N.Chandra’s film like “Narasimha”, one would know how to put crowd in aframe to make it appear massive. Today all top cinematographers are conscious of what an art director is going to give them.

Most of my films are set based. Normally I would ask whether a crane would be taken on to the platform. I would ask if it would be moving on a track? In the past, most cranes assembled in India were very heavy. When the camera moved, theplatform would have a little vibration.Now days, due to progress, one uses beams instead of wooden planks to stop vibration. If one is doing a big set then one can have a catwalk and there won’t be a problem. If it is in a house or a smallerset up, one has to keep a loose wall, one has to fix and put a paper on the joint, orkeep a prop in the corner. One needs to keep it dark so that the joint is not visible. Ifthere is a wall and the DOP is lighting it and it is spilling on a certain area, which he will not be able to cut, I will put a black cloth in the background so thatleakage of the light is blocked. This is a kind of arrangement, which the art directorworks out with the DOP.

Q .Todaycomputer aided design are becoming popular. Is it an advantage for an Art Director?

Today computers are being used in a big way to help in the design domain. However, computer aided designs have both advantages as well as disadvantages.It hasbecome a mundane cut, copy and paste job. Itis really frustrating when people palm off other people’s work as their own. One can google and anything one wants is made available namely fashion shows, award functions. One can copy it, modify it with the help of “Auto CAD” and present it to the director. In the past, we used to copy the black book-bible of advertising people. They used to refer to it and would state that they need this look and that was it. Computer technology has its advantages too. Itis easy to dream the impossible. Today there is a set and everything else is computer graphics. It has enhanced the cost of production but itcosts a lot to do CG.

Q. What is the difference between production designer and an art director?

I think that in India we have not yet truly understood the concept of production design. I have done various international productions. Production designer is the first technical person hired by a producer abroad. He designs the whole production. He reads the script, sits with the director, discusses which locations have to be shot at and plans out the entire look of the film in terms of costumes and lighting etc. Then DOP comes in and the whole chart is presented to him. The DOP gives his inputs about location lighting etc. The production designer’s job is to transport the entire script to cinema with the help of the director. He employs an art director who constructs the sets; he employs a set decorator who decorates the set. If one observes, there are three Academy awards-one for production, another for art director, and one for set decoration. The set decoration will source out the property, furniture, particular kind of fabrics etc. You might say that he/she is the interior decorator who decorates the shell you have created.

In India we have an art director who is the production designer and will design the set and execute it with the help of his assistant and then interior decorator will decorate it with the help of Prop Department.

Q Can you share your experiences of some international projects which were great learning experiences?

I learned a lot while working with Paris based Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is famous with cinéphilesfor “El Topo” (The Mole).I worked withhim on “Tusk” in 1979. Wewere shooting a hospital scene where the actress had todeliver a child. Wewere shooting in Mysore in a big bungalow. The film’s DOP was Jean-Jacques Florifrom Paris who could not speak English. There was a porch with the railing. He asked me to get theentire bed out and create it there. I was wondering what he wanted to do. I did whatever he said. I took the bed out, putcurtains on the sides. He wanted a lot of green plants, hence, I put a lotofgreen plants. Later, he showed me on the video assist. Hetook a paper andexplained to me that at any given point of time 70% of the frame – is your art direction! Even if it is your tight close up, there is a blank screen left. Even if thereare two people in a close up, there is blank screen in the frame in the middle. Whatever you see besides your actors is the art direction.I think that it was the mostamazing thing a cameraman could tell you.Look at American films, the frame isalways filled. There will be lights hanging or something else so that frames lookvery interesting.

I did “Mighty Heart” directed by English director Michael Winterbottomstarring Angelina Jolie, with Marcel Zyskind as DOP. He is famous for his camera work for Danish director Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”. We rented asociety where everybody would be around that house. The director was very sure thathe didn’t want more than 5 people at any given point of time inside the room on set: cameramen, camera assistant, sound recorder, director and his assistantThe reason was that he wanted to shoot wanted in a documentary style. The director wanted his actors to go wherever there want. The cameraman told me that all my lighting would need to be with practicals. He asked me to give him the light sourcethere. As there was a curtain, I informed him that I would put my light inside thepelmet. Ifhe needed the light at some other point, hewould need to give the pointsource and hang the light from there as a lamp shade or something like that. No single wiring would be going on the wall. For this reason, all the wiring was concealed within the wall. Webroke the wall, put all the wiring through a pipe to the main box so thatany light which one wants to switch on, one can do that using it like a main switch board. No cable was running in the house. Hehad 2-3 lights whichwould movearound with him for the faces. It was amazing to see how a big Hollywood production can work so efficiently with a small unit !






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