In Conversation with Santosh Sivan, Acclaimed Cinematographer, and Canon Cinema EOS Ambassador.

Santosh Sivan has redefined conventional cinematography with his body of work which includes South Indian and Hindi movies. He reveals more in an exclusive interview with Manoj Madhavan, Editor of Broadcast & Film. The interview was recorded inside Canon’s recently launched Cinema Excellence Suite.

Q. Tell us about your journey as a Cinematographer. What attracted you to this segment?
My father was deeply into still photography and this influenced me and got me interested in this segment. It was different those days, because it was film and film was a little expensive. Hence, I decided to learn processing on my own, starting with black and white processing and colour processing. I actually took my first ever pictures with a Canon camera! It has constantly been with me, as my all-around companion through the different trials that filmmaking brings.

As I was always fond of traveling and teaching, I took this passion into the deep interiors of Tamil Nadu, interiors of Arunachal Pradesh and started teaching people. As part of the workshops, I used to tell kids to shoot their pets as part. To share an amusing incident – one of my students once said the camera is not working properly. Upon asking him “so what are you shooting?” he replied – “I was shooting a mosquito!”

All in all, it was good fun because I was introducing the people to photographs and photography for the first time in those days. My interest in cinema deepened as Canon launched the EOS 5D, which I used to shoot M.F. Husain’s film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities.

How has your experience been shooting with Canon cameras? Any project in the pipeline to shoot with the Canon kit?
Canon has given independent filmmakers a very distinct sort of a platform to experiment and express themselves. I have always been passionate about weaving stories through my films and currently work with Canon’s Cinema Camera launched last year- the EOS C70. Recently, I shot a TV Ad Film and an Anthology in Malayalam on Netflix, both shot with the EOS C70.

One of the biggest advantages of this camera is that it is compact. One doesn’t need too many people because Canon products are designed in a way that a single person is enough to operate them, making it versatile and easy to use. This feature was especially remarkable during the pandemic.

Canon has been introducing ground-breaking technology in the field of Cinema which has enabled filmmakers like me to truly convert our vision into reality on film. I'm planning to shoot a feature soon with my Canon EOS C70. I may also experiment with Canon’s latest launch in the Cinema Camera series – the EOS R5 C which boasts of 8K video recording capabilities.

Q. Tell us what are your most memorable films which you shot as a cinematographer and what were the unique challenges that you encountered during the shoot?
I remember shooting a song for the movie ‘Roja’, under a waterfall. The background sound was deafening and you had people dancing in the frame as well. External factors like these can pose challenges. Even the recent film that I'm shooting currently called ‘Barroz’ which is directed by Malayalam actor Mohanlal is challenging, as it is very VFX friendly and 3D. It is not your regular film. So, I can say with certainty that each film is memorable and come with their own set of unique challenges.

Q. You've been involved shooting on film. So how do you look at the transition from the analog days to the digital and what are your comments on the advantages of shooting on digital cameras?
As a child, I used to sketch a lot. My grandmother used to teach painting. When I made a sketch, my grandmother would say this is an original. My father, who taught me photography used to say - negative is original.

And today, as we move to digital - people say it’s a copy. However, I believe it's like lighting one lamp and putting the flame to another lamp. Both are equal. It's not a copy. Digital has a fantastic quality of retaining the same quality because it is not going through scratches like in a theatre. Digital gives you that kind of advantage.

I remember visiting Japan and witnessing how still photography evolved and moved digital. It was only a matter of time till the world followed suit as well. In my experience, I too very early on switched to digital. I made a film called ‘Urumi’ which was shot on digital but using tape. One of the first fully digital films, shot in South was the very successful film called ‘Thuppakki’. It was also recreated as ‘Holiday : A Soldier is Never Off Duty’ later in Hindi.

In those days, people were apprehensive about shooting in digital. However, digital cameras allow you to have multiple cameras and shoot things without intruding into places and the films demanded that kind of candid shooting. As a cinematographer, I am still fond of film, but film is a big risk as there is shortage of processing. Digital has embraced newer technologies like drones and more, and with each passing year technology has helped us create magic on screen through new advancements.

Santosh Sivan, leading cinematographer and Canon’s Cinema EOS brand ambassador in conversation with Manoj Madhavan, Editor of Broadcast & Film Publication

Q. Which other cinematographers do you admire and were you influenced by them?
Ashok Mehta’s work has played a huge role in my journey along with foreign cinematographers. Being a member of the American Society of Cinematography, I get the opportunity to interact with many people in the profession. I have realised that everyone has their own sensibilities, their own way of thinking which stems from their own culture and lived experiences.

The idea is not to imitate Hollywood Cinematography, but to create a big melting pot of different perspectives, influences and bring that together to create magic on film.

Q. So any particular films if you'd like to name top three in your wish list which stand out for the cinematography it could be any Hollywood or Indian film which immediately comes especially from a cinematography perspective.
I think some of Satyajit Ray’s films like ‘Charulata’ shot by Subrata Mitra and Vittorio Storaro’s shot Appocalypso are wonderful pieces of work, and the former is an interesting example of beautiful use of lighting.Recent film like Revenant as well. There are also Russian films by Tarkovsky that have greatly influenced me.

Q. Any specific genres of film you like which do you enjoy the most shooting?
I am fond of documentaries and period films. Period films allow you to create your own world, which is really fascinating to me. However, it is impossible to pick any specific genre that I enjoy the most. It is a great learning experience and exciting for me to experiment as I shift from one genre to another.

Q. What is the most satisfying moment of your career? Or is it yet to come?
I hope to keep creating special films and do better every time. My most satisfying moment is always yet to come!

Q. So what do we see more from Santosh Sivan as a director?
With regards to my upcoming projects - as a Director, I am currently working on a Hindi film and another project that I’m keenly looking forward to is a film called ‘Marthanda Varma on the Great King’

Q. How do you think Canon’s EOS Cinema Excellence Suite initiative will help/enable cinematographers/filmmakers?
The Canon Cinema Excellence Suite takes the experience of choosing the right imaging product a notch above by bringing the full-fledged production experience to the user. This way, the user gets an opportunity to experience imaging products first-hand and accordingly make an informed decision about investing in the right cinema equipment. To make the suite more experiential, there will be a shooting zone as well as a full-fledged post-production set-up with an aim to familiarize the audience with the entire production workflow

Kickstarting its journey from Film City, the Cinema Excellence Suite will travel across the streets of Mumbai from point to point on a prefixed schedule for a period of three months. I take great pride in being a Canon Cinema EOS Ambassador and ever so more today considering the launch of this exclusive mobile platform dedicated to Cinema Enthusiasts.