Interview Ratnavelu is adept at interpreting the dreams of the auteur. His commitment and understanding of the medium endears him to directors S. SHIVAKUMAR

He’s the visual interpreter of a director’s dreams. It’s not only the stunning quality but also the speed with which he achieves it that endears him to directors. From Jagadam which is a reference point for many an aspiring cinematographer to Robot and the recent Nenokkadine , other than the consistency in quality it is the remarkable ability to adapt to the genre that stands out. He was ready to delve into his directorial debut, a stylish thriller but could not refuse Thalaivar Rajnikanth’s gentle request. Rajni, other than marvelling at his professional capabilities likes Randy because he’s a good human being. “I’m doing this film purely for Thalaivar,” says Randy as he settles down after a hard day’s work.

From the Mitchell to the Arriflex and then the Super 35 that lasted for some time. Now all these have suddenly been replaced by digital cameras. Is this evolution?

Yes it is. There were painters who waited six months for the right weather conditions to finish a painting. That was till the arrival of still photography. Masters in painting sniggered at the new technology but it caught on. Arriflex and Kodak were market leaders for a long time but now there’s a new camera every few months. Red camera took everyone by surprise. It’s compact and less expensive. The dynamic range is the same because now it’s a digital domain. I was sceptical too but for the past three years have been shooting only in digital. I’m an ardent lover of the negative. I love the smell. The post production values in digital were poor for some time but now its top class.

There’s talk of digital being less expensive. Is this at the cost of quality?

It’s definitely cheaper but the quality depends on the cameraman. The number of lights reduced when I started using the Red Epic. The camera can capture low light conditions superbly. Some cinematographers tend to use extra lights which add to the cost.

There is a tendency to overshoot too. If you plan and shoot you can save around 50 percent of what you’d spend with negative.

You went to the film institute and learnt theory, things like grading. Is all that a waste?

Not at all. It’s gone to the next level. There’s more technique involved. We used to study the zone system. We learnt how to get the correct skin tone. The old school of learning is still relevant.

I guess the difference is that you have to keep on updating yourself.

If I don’t then somebody else will beat me to it. That’s the ground reality. I spend a lot of time every week studying new technique.

With digital there seems to be a tendency to use multiple cameras. Is it to save on editing?

It’s not a good idea to shoot with multiple cameras. You tend to lose control. Directors now feel they get multiple cuts but it’s not true. With multiple cameras the lighting pattern is changed so there’s a loss in quality. Creativity goes for a toss.

Even though you passed out of the film institute you worked with Rajeev Menon. How many films did it take for you to emerge from his shadow, style wise?

It was with my second film, Sethu . I basically worked with Rajeev in 50 commercials. I assisted him in Bombay . That was a great experience. Rajeev is a wonderful Guru, very knowledgeable. When he watched Sethu he said he didn’t see any of his style. That was a compliment. After he watched ‘Nanda’ he gifted me a ‘spot’ meter.

Does style depend on the director?

No, style is your contribution. Bala or Shanker has a style as filmmakers but cinematography is how I present it visually. I depend on the lighting pattern. I like to be unobtrusive. My style changes with the script and genre. My style has to aid the storytelling. Cinematography is not about breathtaking visuals. Leave that to still photography.

Nobody talks about photography in a Rajnikanth film but your work was widely appreciated in Robot . In Nenokkadine only your cinematography is being talked about. I’m sure you’re not too happy about that.

It’s a brilliant script, but was ahead of its time narration and style wise. After one and a half years there was a sudden hurry to release the film and the director was not able to edit it properly. You need time because the narrative was complicated. Even Mahesh Babu feels it’s one of his best films. He earned a good name too but the film flopping is sad. A film is not about individual achievement.

With the advent of digital photography they say anything other than an out of focus shot can be enhanced.

I don’t believe in that. I leave only around ten percent of what I’ve captured to post production. You can achieve a lot of things later but why leave it till then. I’m signed for my ability as a cinematographer not what I can do later. I created the visual style for Nenokkadine in one week. Nobody thought the film would be released on time. Consistency in quality can be achieved only if what you’ve shot is good.

Can digital produce the same magic as a 70mm camera?

I’d have said no around three years back but now it can. Digital cameras are very low- light friendly.

I wouldn’t have taken a risk in Nenokkadine if I was not confident. The budget was around 70 crores. I studied the camera and was happy with the results. In some ways, it’s better than an Arriflex. The digital camera is more like the human eye where sensitivity is concerned.

The Red Dragon I’m using for Lingaa is a 6K camera with an ISO of 2000.

I guess you don’t need lights at all.

Absolutely true. The image quality is amazing. Technology is a tool that should be used by a knowledgeable person. The camera is like an artist’s brush.

Every second cinematographer dreams of directing. Is it because you don’t have or you want complete creative control?

(Laughs) There’s some amount of frustration but for me it’s a passion. I’ve been thinking of directing for quite some time. Some people opt for it purely out of the frustration working with inept directors but for me its passion driven.