Conveying many things in one shot is a rarity today: Vichithram director Achu Vijayan

The editor-turned-filmmaker on making his debut with the horror mystery, transitioning from celluloid to digital, working with actors in Malayalam cinema, and more
Conveying many things in one shot is a rarity today: Vichithram director Achu Vijayan

Another Malayalam film editor has turned director with Vichithram — a haunted house mystery that rises slightly above genre conventions and impresses with singular visual flourishes one rarely sees in a mainstream genre exercise. The Kochi native's career kicked off in Dulquer Salmaan's debut, Second Show, a film that gave the newbie spot editor confidence in his skills.

Achu had the fortune of starting with the film format, during its last years, before switching to digital. "It sure helped me understand the basics," he says, recalling the days when working with celluloid was a taxing endeavour. "It was expensive because it happens to be a physical medium, and when working with optical effects and other stuff, it posed some challenges. Back then, editors used to get a commission for doing effects shots," he laughs, observing that filmmakers focussed more on content back then. "They knew how to convey multiple meanings in one shot. There were two advantages to that approach: One, you can save money; two, the brilliance of your craft becomes evident. It has become a lost art now. Today, most people take one shot to convey just one thing. "

Edited excerpts:

I've often noticed that when most editors turn filmmakers, they bring a certain level of discipline to the scripting and shot conception -- a privilege they don't get while working under other filmmakers. I imagine it's the same for you, too.
Absolutely! I was thinking that if I had given Vichithram to some other editor to cut, I don't expect them to entertain the idea of retaining the lengthy shots we had in the film. I have done that in a few places because I had the confidence to do that.

Many shots give enough breathing space to the characters and are held for just enough time to allow the viewer to absorb all the details and atmosphere in that scene.

Usually, when someone narrates a scene, an editor or director will immediately figure out the shots, their divisions, and how to communicate certain things visually. With Vichithram, the idea was to give actors more freedom to move and do what they want to. Take the intro scene of Shine chettan, for example. We could've cut it and done it as separate shots, but we used a single take. People think pulling that off is easy; the opposite is true. It's very time-consuming — we have to consider many factors like position, focus point, look, timing, and coordination... all these have to be right; otherwise, it might seem done just for the sake of it. Everyone on the crew has to be on the same page about the execution of that shot.

Can you elaborate on why you used a single shot in such a simple intro scene?

I felt that was the best approach for an actor of Shine chettan's calibre. Considering the way the performer in him handles a scene, the best thing to do is let him loose.  For example, when you tell him that you should do this, do that, move here, move there, and so on..., he won't be doing that exactly,  and you have to tell him that you have only lit one particular area of the scene. And he'll say this approach restrains actors, and you should give them the freedom to move comfortably.

Only in Malayalam cinema do we have the practice of the camera following the actors. If we asked Tom Cruise to do a scene in a certain way, he knows it's the right one because he knows that's the illuminated area. In such a case, we think about making him look good. In Malayalam cinema, however, it's better to leave the actors to do their thing because that's how you can extract the best performances. In Vichithram, I went for a more rigid approach in places where I had to get the exact result I had visualised on the storyboard; in other areas, though, I had to make a few compromises for the sake of the actors. We can't always be stubborn about the shots we want. It's a process that involves discussion, convincing, and reaching a common ground.

I also found the lighting, especially in the night scenes, extraordinary -- just enough to show us the 'darkness' lurking in the shadows. Were you concerned about how clear these scenes would look, considering the varying projection quality in different theatres?

I've been to some theatres with optimal projection quality, and I've been to ones where the frames looked so dark. I was most scared about the night scenes looking too bright. I've noticed that they looked visible in theatres with laser projection but relatively dark in those with lamp projection. Unfortunately, we can't do alterations for different theatres since it's a one-time mastering. The credits for the lighting should go to our camera crew's gaffer (principal lighting technician) Ratheesh Mannar and chief camera associate Vinod Thottappally. Their collective effort is worthy of appreciation. Since our cinematographer Arjun Balakrishnan is a newcomer, he got all the necessary support from them in that department. They recently worked with Amal ettan in Bheeshma Parvam.

I loved the recurring visual motifs (rabbits, butterfly) -- all rendered in convincing visual effects. Did that take a lot of time?

It did. We got the outcome only two days before the release. Rendering animals is not so easy. We did it in our own vfx studio; they are new too. We didn't want to spend too much on outside work. Our producer suggested setting up our own company (Iris Pixel) instead. Boby Rajan is its supervisor. Typically every other VFX company has more than 22 people working there; ours had only eight. Our producer also extended his support to the cameras we wanted. He told us, "Why rent an ARRI Alexa? Why not buy it?" I thought, "How cool is that!" 

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