Lights, Camera, Wide! 

DOP Thamizh A Azhagan talks about his latest work Blue Star, shooting entirely with natural light, establishing Arakkonam as a character, and more 
Lights, Camera, Wide! 

The environment is tense. Ashok Selvan's Ranjith swings his bat and the ball goes up the sky. The camera pans to follow the ball as it flies in the air... And cut! This was one of the many nail-biting shots in S Jayakumar's directorial debut Blue Star. While this comes across as seamless and smooth to us, meticulous planning goes behind shooting such a fictional cricket match. "Right from the planning stage, we decided to shoot the matches first, and the drama within the matches separately. When we began shooting, sometimes we would shoot the drama along with the matches, then, re-shoot the drama portions alone, once again the next day," says DOP Thamizh A Azhagan, giving us a glimpse into what goes behind shooting such sequences.

Excerpts:

How was it to shoot predominantly with natural light?

As the film is predominantly shot in broad daylight, I charted out my schedule as per the intensity of the sunlight. We would shoot one portion of cricket from sunrise till noon when the sun is right above the head. Then, at midday, we would begin filming those sequences that require shadows, like the scenes under the big tree. And when the light goes towards the West, we would do patch-up or correction shots for the shots that we filmed the previous day. We meticulously followed this schedule because we did not want the audience to catch the stark differences in lighting.

We almost did not use artificial lights at all. Arakkonam is one of the hottest towns in India, and we wanted to show Arakkonam’s heat and sunshine with all its glory.

What are the elements of Arakkonam you planned to focus on to establish the town as a character in the film?

Arakkonam is one of the first railway junctions in India, as it is located on the first railway line in South India. So, the trains are the soul of Arakkonam. The people of Arakkonam depend a lot on the Railways, and that’s why ‘Railin Oligal’ was a prominent song in the film, a lot of romance scenes are set in the rail.

What steps did you have to take to ensure that the cricket matches are interesting throughout?

We had two different shooting styles for the first and second halves of Blue Star. The first half shows only the gully cricket that these boys play within Arakkonam. The rules for these matches are subjective and informal. For instance, if we wish to watch these local matches, we are allowed to stand near a fielder and watch it.

So for the local matches, we went for close-up hand-held shots. I imagined myself to be one such watcher, and captured the shots up close, and personal, within a 100-metre radius. If you notice closely, the camera operation for these matches was also informal and unsteady, because we wanted the camera angles to reflect the casual and relaxed nature of these matches.

For the tournament matches, on the other hand, we had a professional method. We analysed how such tournament matches were covered back in ‘98 and found that the filming was way more formal then and we limited our zoom shots, as the watchers of the match sit in the stands and consume it from afar.

Did you shoot any single-take cricket sequences in Blue Star?

There’s a sequence where Shanthnu catches a ball, falls and rolls on the ground, and then gets up. That was a live single-take sequence. Many such single-shot sequences were not really planned. We went with the flow, as both the lead actors are trained cricket players. By practice, I have concentrated more on action cinematography, so, filming them play live was not difficult. We went in for re-shots of such live cricket sequences when we needed to dramatise a particular moment, like a Sixer Shot, or the point where the stump is broken during a match.

What inputs did you have for Ashok and Shanthnu to play cricket for the camera?

Although they had to play cricket for the camera, Ashok and Shanthanu would go ahead and continue the match, even after the director said ‘cut’. Although the cricket match was staged, we ensured that both actors were organic and natural with their game. The only inputs I gave the actors were concerning their expressions after they hit or didn’t hit a shot. I asked them to sustain their reaction for a couple more seconds, for dramatic effect, and so I could change my camera angle from wide to zoom.

Why did you go for more wide shots for the romantic portions?

80 per cent of the film is cricket and mostly shows just two sports grounds. The romantic segments of the film itself are for the audience to get a break from the cricket. And therefore, I went for wide shots because I wanted to show the scenic spots around Arakkonam. I wanted to add more colour and picturesque frames as a breath of fresh air.

What's your takeaway from Blue Star?

Initially, I was doubtful about attempting a sports film because I am not a sportsperson. I had the same mindset as Ashok’s Ranjith, when he says, “Kadaikara oru vaaipa vitra koodadhu,” in the film. But today, I have broken those inhibitions and I stand before the audience after giving them a good product. I have learned that hard work is enough to achieve even the unknown.

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