Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi is an Indian cinematographer who has made waves after winning the “Best Cinematographer Award” at the recently-held Asian Film Festival in Los Angeles. Dehlvi won the award for his work in the sci-fi film, A Crimson Man (2017). He speaks to Guardian 20 about, among other things, the challenges of handling the camera in a sci-fi flick.
Q. You are the first Indian to win the “Best Cinematographer Award” at the Asian Film Festival in LA. How does it feel?
A. A Crimson Man was an extremely challenging film to make, and I’m happy to see it being received well. It is gratifying when all the months of hard work, planning, and filming culminate in a film that is enjoyable, entertaining, and has an emotional core. The award really is a validation of the work put in by the entire crew, particularly my Gaffer Charlie Hayes and Key Grip Ian The key references for the movie were some of the most memorable films of my childhood, like Raider’s of the Lost Ark and Alien—the process of building a unique look based on these was incredibly enjoyable, and the director and I bonded over our shared love of classical Hollywood cinematography.
Q. What were the challenges you faced while working on A Crimson Man?
A. The scope of the story of A Crimson Man was far beyond our means. We had a film that spanned canyons, beaches, military bunkers, stunt sequences, and choreographed fights; all with a child actor which meant shorter filming hours on each working day. Mike [Papa the director and writer], and I spent months scouting locations, driving up the Pacific coast north of Los Angeles, visiting old World War II bunkers and missile silos, until we found the perfect locations for the story. We scheduled all the exteriors around the tides and the movement of the sun, and this allowed us to achieve the look of the film while being able to move quicker, and work with a much smaller lighting package on set. The first assistant director, Dan Hartney and I pored over the maps of each location, sketching out where the camera would be, where we could hide the crew and equipment, and how we could shoot efficiently in the difficult conditions. One day our location was so remote that we needed to have a park ranger help us ferry the crew and equipment to the set in his jeep.
Knowing that we had limited resources, we storyboarded each shot, even going so far as to create an edited “animatic”, which was basically a shot-by-shot, stick-figure cartoon version of our film. This allowed us to see each scene laid out, identify potential challenges early on, and also to share our vision with the rest of the team. Of course, when we started filming, things inevitably changed and we improvised, but having this detailed planning was instrumental in being able to complete the film on schedule.
In addition to the young boy Wei [protagonist of the film, played by Maddox Henry], the other protagonist of the story is Red [played by Daniel Clarkson], an old war robot that suffers from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Red was played by an actor who wore a seven-inch robot suit made of foam and cloth painted to look like rusted metal. One of our biggest challenges was showing emotion on Red’s face, which was essentially a helmet with a fixed facial expression. We did extensive testing in pre-production and finally settled on installing light bulbs in his eyes. These bulbs could flicker and dim as Red spoke, and really gave the audience a sense of his emotions.
Q. How were you drawn to the art of cinematography?
A. Growing up, I spent a lot of time on film sets, both my parents are filmmakers and I was exposed to the world behind the scenes at an early age. I was fascinated by the camera, and even as a young boy could intuit its importance to the medium. My father kept the film in a plastic box in our refrigerator at home, and when my grandfather gifted me a camera one summer, I couldn’t wait to start shooting photos. I remember my father initially gave me some black-and-white film from his stock, telling me that I should learn on that before moving on to colour film. I continued to study photography in school, and later in college, and when I started working as a production assistant on film sets in Mumbai, I was immediately drawn to the camera department. I found work as a camera assistant and learned the ropes over several years in Bollywood, working with many talented cinematographers, observing their working method, style, and collaborative process with the director.
Q.Why did you decide to make your directorial debut with Seher Hone Tak: Till the Morning Comes, a film that deals with the subject of loneliness in an urban setting?
A. Seher Hone Tak…is a very visual film. The story is told with the tone, with colours, with the relationship between the camera and the protagonist, and without much dialogue. I think it was a good first step for me. I see the cinematographer’s role as a visual narrator, and so it was a natural progression for me to direct a tonal piece like this. I really enjoyed directing, The theme of loneliness is something I’ve long wanted to explore. I think as a film it is well suited to evoke and convey emotions. I’d definitely like to grapple with similar themes again on a future project.
Q. Instead of using dialogues, you made the audience empathise with the protagonist through images. Why?
A. One of the wonderful things about the film medium is that it can draw the audience into the world of the characters and the story. By carefully choosing the camera position, the lens, and the lighting, we can define and then modulate the audience’s relationship to the story. At times you want the audience to be in the room with the characters, feeling as though they are in the thick of the action. At other times the story is better served if the audience feels that they are distant observers. Using the visual language, we can guide the audience through the story and create There is also a more fundamental aspect to this feeling of empathy—the immersive quality of a film, the combination of strong performances, cinematography, music etc. help suspend the audience’s disbelief. When they’re in the theatre, they no longer see the movie as an artificial construct but are fully invested in the reality of the characters and their stories.
Q. How do you manage to approach cinematography using simple tools, and without too much digital jugglery?
A. My goal when starting any narrative project is to use my cinematography to engage the audience completely and to give them an emotional experience that connects them to the characters, and to the conflicts of the film. Often, the simple ideas work best: a small change in camera position, a flash of light, or a carefully crafted shadow can totally change how the audience reacts to a close-up shot of a character. Of course, cinematography differs from still photography in the sense that each image gains meaning from the images that surround it, so the overall visual design is important, with each shot building the language piece by piece.
Q. Your work as a camera assistant in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Vishal Bharadwaj’sKaminey was highly appreciated. How was that experience?
A. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with filmmakers who have encouraged my passion and curiosity for the craft, allowing me to observe their creative process and build an understanding of cinematography, and also of filmmaking as a whole. Each film has a different dynamic on the set, informed by the story, the creative team, and of course, by the director’s working style. Working in the camera department, I was able to observe the director closely, and learned a lot from both Ang Lee and Vishal Bhardwaj. One of the things I took away from those two films was that a masterful director has the ability to inspire, to draw the best work out of their cast and crew, bringing each person’s talent together to create a work where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Q. How important do you think cinematography is to a film? Which movies do you consider to be examples of good cinematography?
A. As a cinematographer, my primary role is to use the tools of lighting, composition, and camera movement to evoke the intended emotion in the audience. To do this, I need to have an intimate connection with the director and a shared vision for the On the set, we see the months of planning and pre-visualisation finally bear fruit, as the actors get ready to perform. I am the one looking at their performance through the lens, moving around them as they go through the scene—that is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, and I always try and channel their energy into the visual storytelling.