‘The film vs digital debate is pointless’
Ranam cinematographer Jigme Tenzing discusses the film's technical challenges, his camera preferences, and Bhutanese film culture
Though he is not famous yet, there is no question of his cinematographic excellence, as is evident from the work he has done so far. Meet Jigme Tenzing, who debuted as director of photography with the critically acclaimed Bhutanese film, Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, and recently finished work on the most anticipated Malayalam film of this year, Ranam/Detroit Crossing.
Your first film Hema Hema was a dreamy, peaceful film shot inside a forest and had very little dialogues. So, how did it feel working on a film about Tamil gangsters which has plenty of dialogues, violence, and is set in a busy American city?
It was quite a challenge. For Ranam, I had to adopt a completely different style, as per the directions of Nirmal Sahadev (the director). He wanted a very raw visual approach for the entire film and so we used a lot of handheld, documentary-style shots. I was operating the camera mostly on my shoulders -- I had to move a lot. And by the time I finished shooting, I felt that I had become more fit (laughs).
The first teaser was about just one scene, done in a single take -- Prithviraj waiting patiently for someone in his car, then he gets out with a baseball bat in his hands, and the camera follows him from behind into an abandoned house. Could you tell us about that scene?
Oh yeah, that scene was actually quite difficult to do. The street which Prithviraj crosses to get to that house is an extremely busy street, with heavy traffic. So the production had to make arrangements to get people and vehicles off the road. Everything had to be properly planned for executing just a few minutes of footage.
You've spent most of your life in the US -- you did your film education in New York and have some experience working with an American film crew. How was it working with an Indian crew?
Well, it was a very new experience for me because in the US, they have relatively smaller crews, whereas with a film like Ranam, the size of the crew was quite massive. We had five technicians in the lighting and grip department. There were around 10-15 Indians in the entire crew. My gaffer was Indian. The rest of them were mostly from the US. But as I was working with familiar faces, including the director, I felt very comfortable. I always make sure that I'm working with people I know.
So which camera do you prefer the most? The Arri Alexa or Red? Roger Deakins is a big proponent of the Alexa.
Oh yeah, Deakins loves the Alexa. But Deakins being Deakins, he can make any camera footage look good (laughs). It's a favourite of mine too. It's robust, straightforward to use, and ergonomically friendly. It's a tank. The latitude is wide. I can focus more on what's in front of the camera rather than worry about the camera. I feel confident I can produce the images I want in harsh or low light.
What's your take on the 'film vs digital' debate? It's a hot topic now among filmmakers, especially after Christopher Nolan's recent visit to India.
Oh man, it's so pointless. I mean, come off it man! (laughs) It's been going on and on. I believe that one should be willing to use the tools at their disposal. It all depends on the director's sensibilities and the look they're going for. Sometimes they go with film and sometimes they go with digital. I'm open to doing anything. If I feel that using a digital camera is the right way to go about it, then I'll go with that. Some of the digital cameras coming out these days come loaded with very powerful and sophisticated sensors. And as far the audience is concerned, they don't care what camera you've used (laughs).
Recently, Janusz Kaminski made a statement about cinematographers losing control over their images. What do you think about that? Are you very protective about the footage you shoot?
Well, not that much. I do care about the images I create and I'm always there till the end, collaborating with the director and for the DI (digital intermediate) work. When I shoot a film, I always manage to capture most of my footage, 70 to 80 per cent of it, in-camera. But sometimes you don't get exactly what you want and you have to use a little bit of colour correction to enhance your images in post-production. I realized one thing after going to film festivals: the footage looks different in each screening (laughs). So, no matter how much you try to perfect it, in the end, it all depends on the projectionist and the settings they use.
How is the film culture in Bhutan? Are there many cinephiles there?
Unfortunately, no. Bhutan has a very small film industry. I would say that when it comes to serious film appreciation, we are not there yet. The audience mostly enjoys commercial, escapist entertainment. I don't think most Bhutanese people know what a cinematographer does (laughs). Hema Hema was one of those rare examples that managed to stand out.