ONFILM Interview: Sasanko Palit

Published on website: January 14, 2013
Categories: ONFILM
Sasanko Palit

“Just as a painter loves his colors, brushes and empty canvas, I love my light, camera and film to paint pictures. My job is to fulfill the director’s vision. When designing the look of a project, I give priority to what the script demands, and then consider the budget and ways to accomplish the images without compromising quality. I still prefer the realistic film look, and I don’t rely too much on modern post production. I trust what my eye sees, so the audience becomes immersed in the story.

“Today, everything including film’s language, looks, subject and presentation has changed. I consider myself lucky to be a participant in this era. Cinema has become more realistic, and to address this evolution, I am always ready with my camera, Kodak stock and lights.

“When I receive a script, I try to read it from the new generation’s point of view. With that in mind, I decide the look and camera movements, using their imaginative power to guide me. If I decide to do a historical film, then I try to understand that time period by meeting with a historian. If I take on a thriller, then I go to the location to understand what look will be appropriate. For a movie for younger audiences, I explain the script to some children to get an understanding of how they interpret it in their minds.

“There is nothing greater for me as a cinematographer than knowing the images I’ve created are immortalized in the memories of audiences forever.”

Sasanko Palit is a self-taught director of photography who worked his way up from assistant cameraman. His collaborations with Sandip Ray, son of the award-winning director Satyajit Ray, nurtured his cinematography experience. As an accomplished visual artist, his credits include Royal Bengal Rahashya, Gorosthane Sabdhan, Hitlist, Tintorettor Jishu, and Kailashey Kelenkari.

A Conversation with Sasanko Palit

What do you love about what you do?
Just as a painter loves his colors, brushes and empty canvas, I love my light, camera and film as a medium to paint pictures.

What are some of your general thoughts on the state of filmmaking today?
Today, everything including film’s language, looks, subject and presentation has changed. I consider myself lucky because I get to be a witness to this era of change. Cinema has become more realistic, and to acknowledge this challenge, I am always ready with my camera, Kodak stock and light.

Has this changed your approach on set to lighting, camera angles and movement?
Yes, and shooting a realistic story requires real locations. Personally, I prefer to shoot at real locations although it is technically very difficult. However, if done successfully it contributes to a more realistic look for the audience. I am very thankful for film’s color, latitude, and black levels. Film helps me to shoot anywhere, with any composition and camera movement.

When did you decide you wanted to become a cinematographer? What was the motivation for your decision?
I began as an assistant cinematographer, but worked in a very technical aspect of the process. This was how I learned cinematography, from being on set.

Did you go to film school and serve an apprenticeship? What experience from those early days still influence your work today?
I did not go to film school. I joined Sandip Ray productions as an assistant cameraman. Mr. Ray is a renowned director of Bengali cinema and son of Satyajit Ray. Ray was my mentor. He is a great man and a great teacher. Working with him helped me gain experience and become a successful cinematographer. I also read the American Cinematographer manual and attended a Kodak master class series. All this was the genesis of my cinematography studies.

Being self-taught, what is your greatest learning experience?
I learned a lot early on from my mistakes. One that sticks out in my mind is a project from 2006. I shot a sequel with an important murder scene in the script, which had to be shot at night. But after arriving at the location, we learned we had no permission to shoot at night. I decided to shoot the entire scene day for night. I knew that for this approach we are dependent on the position of the sun. But I was under too much pressure, and couldn’t effectively maintain the time. When I saw the rushes, I was disappointed. I learned the importance of maintaining a shooting schedule, and what a big part of my job that is.

Are there other cinematographers whose work you admire and why?
Subrata Mitra and Gordon Willis are outstanding cinematographers. Charulata, a Bengali black-and-white film by Mitra, is the best black-and-white cinematography that I have ever seen. And the realistic look and lighting of The Godfather trilogy by Willis amazes me.

What are your feelings about the relationship between cinematographers and directors? And cinematographers and producers?
Cinematographers and directors are thoroughly dependent on each other. In my point of view, cinema is a director’s medium, so my job is to fulfill what the director sees. The relationship between the cinematographer and producer is also an important one because budgets are always a factor, and we need to be mindful of what we are doing for the financial success of the project.

In television, work schedules are shortened and budgets are tighter. How do you adjust your approach for these kinds of projects? Are there significant differences in your role as a cinematographer on a feature film versus a TV project?
In television, the challenge is to do your best work with limited resources. On feature films, there is a little more freedom for creativity budget-wise. But in both media, I typically meet with the producers and directors, discuss the budget with them, and work out how we can reduce the budget without compromising the quality of the project.

When you are designing the look of a project, what are the important questions to ask? Can you give us an example of how you approached a particular project that was creatively satisfying to you?
I give priority to what the script demands. In Royal Bengal Rahasya (a short children’s detective story of Satyajit Ray) directed by Sandip Ray, I was creatively satisfied because there was a night scene in a dense forest, but due to the budget and difficulty in lighting of the forest, I decided to shoot day for night. I chose KODAK (VISION3) 250D and totally relied on it. The results were amazing. Nobody questioned whether it was day for night, because it looked like a real night scene.

How have advancements in technology changed the way you shoot a project?
There have been great advancements in film technology. I prefer the realistic film look so I don’t rely too much on modern post production. I shoot in a way that does not necessitate a digital intermediate. And, I don’t believe in digital cinema because it lacks real colors and a real look. All my movies have been shot on film. I am so satisfied with the stock that I don’t feel I have to switch to digital media.

What part does filmmaking play in popular culture? Are people more visually literate than they used to be?
Some people are visually more literate than they used to be and this definitely affects the way that film is directed and filmed because there is an added burden of satisfying these people. So the previously used gimmick doesn’t work anymore, and what I create has to be visually convincing. Nowadays, when audiences go to the theater to see a movie, they consider everything including the script, subject, time, etc. If something is overlooked then it will stick out in their mind.

What sources do you look at or inspire you to find new ways to tell a story in a visually compelling way? Can you give an example?
When I receive a script I always try to read and understand it from the viewpoint of today’s generation. And I decide the look and camera movement after keeping their powerful imagination in mind. So, if I decide to do a historical film then I try to understand that time period by meeting with a historian. If decide to do a thriller, then I try to go to the location and understand what look will be appropriate. If want to do a children’s movie then I try to tell the script to children and understand that what they thinking in their mind. The reason I do this is because even my mom notices things in movies. She is a housewife, not a film critic. But many years ago, when I just joined the film industry, we watched Deewar, a blockbuster Hindi movie. My mother caught a visual jerk in a scene of the movie. It was an emotional scene where heavy weight actors were present. Although the shooting was in daylight, one close-up shot became dark in the background. I always try to remember that incident when I work, and how discerning audiences can be.

If a non-filmmaker were to ask you what a cinematographer does, how do you explain it?
I would say that if you consider your world as film, then your eyes are what the cinematographer does because you will be watching the film through the cinematographer.

What advice do you have for filmmakers just entering the field today?
My only advice is that you grab a camera, load some film stocks, and try to work as much as possible in different situations, so you can learn how to deal with various production challenges. Take it up as a test and do what your eyes feel is right because the world’s most famous films are shot this way, such as Bicycle Thieves, Seven Samurai and Pather Pachali (Song of the Little Road).