A Cinematic Odyssey

~ by Aseem Mishra

Dive deeper into the artistry of Aseem Mishra ISC, the maestro behind the camera, as he unveils the intricacies of his visual storytelling in “Pooja Entertainment’s Mission Raniganj” using the cutting-edge Sony VENICE.

Aseem Mishra’s recent project, “Mission Raniganj,” allowed him to artistically portray the 1989 rescue operation in a coal mine, presenting unique challenges and creative triumphs. In his recent interview, he shared insights into his creative process, the significance of Sony VENICE in Pooja Entertainment’s “Mission Raniganj” and the evolving landscape of cinematography.

With the Sony VENICE camera, Mishra achieved his vision for the film’s low-lit underground sequences and night rescue operations, showcasing the camera’s prowess in capturing cinematic brilliance.

Aseem's Iconic Cinematic Voyage in Focus

A seasoned cinematographer, Aseem Mishra ISC, recalls his cinematic journey from the coal mining hamlet of Dhanbad to the world's movie sets. Born and bred among "Indian School of Mines" officers, his early exposure to cinema in the officers' club kindled a lifetime passion. He specialized in cinematography at "MCRC Jamia Milia Islamia University" before moving on to news features, documentaries, and multi-camera setups. His amazing career includes shooting in combat zones, directing commercials, and collaborating with classic films such as "New York," "Bajrangi Bhaijaan," and "83."

His earliest cinematic memories involve sitting on the floor of our officers’ club watching films projected on white screens with accompanying documentary clips and news reels. The unique sound of manually changing reels in the improvised arrangement, coupled with visits to the railway club, introduced him to cinematic masterpieces such as Charlie Chaplin in Western cinema, Satyajit Ray in Bengali cinema, and a myriad of other cinematic works. Aseem’s passion crystallized during his master’s at “MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia University”, where he specialized in cinematography immersing himself in global cinema and literature.

Post his academic journey, he ventured into shooting news features, documentaries, and multi-camera setups for various channels and agencies, assuming the dual roles of cinematographer and director. Collaborations with journalist Mr. Saeed Naqvi and “UN” assignments in conflict zones like Kosovo and Lebanon marked his early career, primarily focused on ads and documentaries until 2007.

The turning point arrived when I collaborated with Mr. Ram Gopal Varma for “Contract” in 2007, following the recognition I received in 1998 for my camera work in the Sony channel series “Bhanwar.” Despite lacking experience assisting a cinematographer, I seized the opportunity to shoot “Bhanwar,” creatively utilizing budgetary constraints, including bulbs, lanterns, petromax, tube lights, and natural light. Shot on Sony Beta cam, this experience laid the foundation for my subsequent projects.

In 2008, Kabir Khan’s offer to shoot “New York” marked a pivotal moment, propelling my career forward. The trajectory continued as I seamlessly transitioned from Beta cam to 16mm during “Paan Singh Tomar,” progressed to 35mm, and embraced the digital era in recent works. This evolution underscores the remarkable progress in cinematography technology, from Umatic low band training as film students to today’s smaller yet high-quality cameras, reflecting the dynamic and ongoing evolution of our craft.

Aseem’s Methodical Approach to His Creative Project Excellence

In a general sense, the creative process remains consistent, though it inherently varies based on the specific script and directorial approach. My steadfast commitment aligns with staying true to the essence of the script, whether it be for productions like “Paan Singh Tomar”, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan”, or “83”. Thoroughly immersing myself in the script, I meticulously compile personal notes regarding the envisioned look and feel, including considerations such as lensing and aspect ratio.

As a result, a substantial amount of time is spent understanding the historical era or period depicted in the film. Armed with this preliminary basis, I participate in extended discussions with the director, digging into their vision for the film's scale, appearance, and desired breathing room for the camera.

For pivotal sequences, particularly those involving elaborate action, I actively participate in shot breakdowns, determining the number of cameras required and the specific movements involved, whether utilizing steady-cam or handheld techniques.

My projects are my treasures, each representing invested time, energy, and dedication. "Paan Singh Tomar" remains a personal favourite despite its modest success—it embodies exceptional filmmaking. From "Band Baja Baaraat" to "Mission Raniganj," my filmography showcases my unique touch and commitment. "Phantom" filming in Lebanon brought back memories of my documentary work there, where my 12-year background shaped my approach.

My significant 12-year career in documentary filming has molded my style, exposing me to a wide range of settings, low-light conditions, and the art of pushing camera limitations. The dual-eye camera operation, which stems from documentary training, is a reaction to keeping awake in intense and unpredictable situations such as combat, wildlife, and sports. In essence, each film has a special place in my heart because it was made with the highest respect, love, and devotion.

The Sony VENICE Crafting a Cinematic Masterpiece for “Mission Raniganj”

For “Mission Raniganj”, the choice of Sony VENICE was driven by its exceptional low-light performance. Extensive experiments were conducted in a controlled dark environment, involving junior actors with makeup, cap lamps on and off, and variations in frame speeds, ISO, and exposure.

Collaborating closely with my colourist, Manoj, I meticulously graded the shots and decided to shoot the underground sequence at 1600 ISO with an aperture of 2 or 2 minus. Opting for ultra-prime lenses added a subtle touch of period aesthetics to the visuals. The use of Sony VENICE for this film marked my first experience with the camera on a feature-length project, yielding impressive results.

“I engage in extensive discussions with the director, delving into their vision for the film’s scale, appearance, and the desired breathing room for the camera. These conversations explore nuanced aspects like contrast preferences and overall image aesthetics.”

Collaborating closely with my colourist, Manoj, I meticulously graded the shots and decided to shoot the underground sequence at 1600 ISO with an aperture of 2 or 2 minus. Opting for ultra-prime lenses added a subtle touch of period aesthetics to the visuals. The use of Sony VENICE for this film marked my first experience with the camera on a feature-length project, yielding impressive results.

Pushing Creative Frontiers During the Shooting of “Mission Raniganj”

In essence, key components of my approach were firmly established. The decision to pair the Sony VENICE with an ultra-prime lens combination was purposeful. Given the film's largely nocturnal rescue operations and underground coal mine sequences, maintaining a low aperture, often no more than 2, was critical to minimizing the reliance on artificial lighting.

Furthermore, the director made a crucial creative choice in using a handheld camera or steady cam for a significant chunk of the picture, contributing to a documentary-like, genuine ambiance akin to filming a real-time rescue effort. Despite certain difficulties, Satish, Vijay, and Abhinav's superb camera work boosted this immersive visual narrative, particularly while using a 135mm lens on a handheld camera.

The utilization of dual ISO settings proved highly pragmatic in conjunction with the Sony VENICE for this film. Establishing 2500 as the base ISO, we consistently shot the entire film at 1600 ISO, excluding scenes set in daylight.

The outcomes were satisfactory, especially given the predominantly nocturnal settings of night rescue operations and low-lit underground sequences throughout the film. The commendable low-light acceptability of the Sony VENICE played a pivotal role, enabling me to realize the envisioned visual results effectively.

Unmasking & Overcoming the Challenges in Mines, Floods, and Action

I worked closely with director Tinu Desai and production designers Amrish and Daya to address issues such as the lack of existing light post-accident. I advocated leaving the ceiling slightly open to allow for a gentle light to shine through the tunnel and asked for dimmers for the cap lamps' battery pack to manage intensity. This extensive planning, including detailed consultations with the VFX team, contributed to the final shoot achieving the intended cinematic impact. Previous tests with the Sony VENICE gave promising results, laying the groundwork for the underground scenes shot on the elaborately created set.

A meticulous reconnaissance of a real coal mine in Raniganj, assisted by our dedicated production designers, Amrish and Daya, ensured a realistic set with no faults. Mr. Perwaiz Sheikh and Anees Adenwala expertly handled the water sequence, which included a specially designed tank and other equipment. Underwater cinematography portion was beautifully handles by Priya Seth.

For the day and night exterior shots depicting the rescue, we opted for an open field setup. I devised a lighting strategy using traditional 1k halogen lamps on bamboo poles, strategically placed in a circle to serve as a primary light source. Dinos on cherry pickers supplemented ambient light, creating a visually immersive experience. The color tone was meticulously planned, with a slightly warm tone for above-the-ground sequences and a darkish warmth for the underground scenes.

Extensive discussions and tests with colourist Manoj Varma at "Prime Focus" ensured that the film's tone was consistent and striking throughout. All exterior images of miners descending into the coal mine were shot at a real location in Raniganj, and the set was seamlessly integrated after the lift touched down. This holistic approach, which combined technical perfection and artistic collaboration, contributed to the visual and narrative success of the picture.

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