Creative Analysis: Part 12 - Cinematographer Mark Kenfield On Zia

By sheer count of productions, the Indian film market is possibly the world’s largest for film in terms of admissions. On average, the country’s cinemas see more than 1.5 annual admissions per capita – and with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, that’s a lot of capitas – with more than 1600 features passing before the country’s censors in 2012.

The route to that world from Melbourne, Australia is not necessarily an obvious one, though for Emmy-nominated British-Australian cinematographer Mark Kenfield it was the culmination of a curious chain of events. “I went to the University of Melbourne to study creative writing and filmmaking.” Thereafter, Kenfield moved up through short films and web-series to television and independent features.

“When I first stepped up to DPing,” Kenfield continues, “one of the earliest projects I worked on was supposed to be a Bollywood-style music video. But when I got there on the day it quickly became apparent that they also meant it to be a narrative short film… and a pitch trailer for a feature film… and this was the first I’d heard of any of it! That kind of chaos, and fly by the seat of your pants nature has imbued every single Bollywood project I’ve been a part of since, and there have been a few.” Those projects have included music videos, short films and pitch-trailers in the Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu and Telugu languages, and even a couple of features which collapsed under the weight of disorganization before even completing principal photography.

Nonetheless, the sheer level of enthusiasm kept Kenfield coming back for more. “The passion Indian people have for cinema just burns so much hotter and more intensely than it does in the west. And when you see the work done by artists like Sudeep Chatterjee, ISC, on the dance scenes in a film like Bajirao Mastani, you start to understand why.”

The 6,500 mile journey to India itself came via Earl Reginhard, an actor and producer who had spent seven years based in Los Angeles and intended to return to his native Delhi to direct the feature Zia. “Earl and I connected online, working around the LA-Melbourne time difference. What he pitched to me sounded like a fascinating mashup of the 2005 Ryan Reynolds fat-suit-romantic-comedy Just Friends and Rocky, with the traditional Bollywood music numbers thrown in for good measure.” With Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts signed on to co-star and an Emmy-nominated makeup artist flying in to handle the fat suit and facial prosthetics, Kenfield signed on.

“Earl wanted the film to have a fundamentally different look and feel to the local competition” he says, “which I think was a large part of what drove his interest in hiring a western DP.” Reginhard’s key visual reference for Zia was the 2008 film Never Back Down, photographed by Lukas Ettlin. Kenfield describes it as a “really cool, crunchy look, with rich, glossy Kodak skintones and no fear of having hot, flarey lights in frame.”

India imposes high import duties on camera and lighting equipment, something that would limit Kenfield’s choices. “I'd recently sold an F5 and had been planning to buy Alexa because that's where most of my work was going. But because of the taxes, we couldn't afford a pair of Alexas.” Sony’s F35 – then ageing, by the standards of digital cinema – was “one of the stranger camera choices I’ve made!” he laughs, “But modern monitor-recorders have given the F35 a new lease on life, by freeing this gorgeous sensor it has from the huge tape recorder it used to require.” Kenfield paired the F35 with Zeiss CZ.2 zooms, mindful of both the look of Never Back Down and the practical realities. “Given how hot and sweaty and dusty and intense the conditions were going to be, changing lenses was something we wanted to keep to a minimum… and they have this gorgeous contrast to them.”

India’s film industry is overwhelmingly concentrated in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai, though Zia would be shot near Delhi. “One thing Earl hates about Bollywood is just how heavily so many of the films rely on ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) for their dialogue,” Kenfield explains. “Now, there’s a reason for that: you literally can’t shoot sync sound in a place like Delhi. There's so much ambient noise that it's not actually possible. Earl wanted to have the naturalism of sync sound for the picture, so we shot in a place called Greater Noida, which is a smaller town east of Delhi.”

Even so, the costs of housing so many crew away from their homes had a consequential impact on budgeting. There are, Kenfield says, “vendors who have all the latest and greatest in Delhi. Trucks with big Arrimaxes, Skypanels, everything you could want – if you can afford it.” Exploring the back-street warehouses of Delhi, Kenfield discovered an impressively historic catalog of heavily-used, mid-century lighting equipment. “After a lot of back and forth and negotiating we ended up settling on a lighting package that, whilst a little compromised, wasn’t outrageous, and made up for the shortfall in modern daylight-balanced fixtures with Kino Flo fluorescents and classic tungsten units.” 

Principal photography was initially planned to begin in February, when the Delhi climate typically peaks at a pleasant 24°C (76°F). “Then they had some delays,” Kenfield says, pausing “…and then they had some more. And we ended up not beginning the shoot until June – which put us slam-bang in the middle of the monsoon. Now it’s hard to overstate this, but the heat and the humidity there is unlike anything I've ever encountered. I'm a scuba diver and the tropics in Australia can get very muggy, but they've got nothing on this place. You don't have sweat patches, you have literally every square centimeter of your clothing completely soaked through. And we were trying to shoot a movie where our lead spends half the film in a fat suit with a full facial prosthetic… it was the worst possible conditions for it.”

Several scenes are set in a gym where the hero is working off his fat suit. “For some idiotic reason, and I can only blame heat exhaustion,” Kenfield chuckles, “I had approved a gym location that was completely surrounded in wall-to-wall mirrors, in a basement with no air conditioning. We're getting into July at this point and it's twenty-eight to thirty degrees [86°F] in the cool of night and mid-forties [110°F] during the day. We're down in this gym, it’s almost impossible to frame the camera out of shot due to the mirrors, it's smoky and stinking and by the time we were firing lights in there it was averaging fifty degrees [120°F] and a hundred per cent humidity.” The camera, though, bore it well. “I could barely keep upright, but the F35 never blinked.”

One gym scene is lit by kerosene lanterns, turning the real world of unreliable mains power into a plot point. “We built into the story that power to the gym would go off and all the patrons would get grumpy and leave, then our fat-but-game hero would put some lanterns up and have the gym to himself and work out.” Power cuts aside, there were possibilities that might not have existed elsewhere. The lighting crew, Kenfield recalls, “were some of the most ingenious I’ve ever worked with. They would dismantle the ceiling fans in our locations, somehow cantilever out a four-by-four Kinos from the fan’s wiring loom and – voila – we’d have a skirted ambient toplight! Sure, you’d hear a few small electrical explosions every other day or so. But they got the job done!” 

The film’s biggest sequence depicts the climactic boxing match between Zia and his final opponent, shot in a university stadium capable of seating five-figure crowds, although with only around five hundred extras some ingenuity would be required. Kenfield’s plan, he says, “had been to build composite plates for the wide shots by having our ADs move extras around for VFX to then piece together in post.” Organizing a crowd that size requires not only planning but also a bit of psychology. “When you have that many extras you know you're only going to have them for a bit and then they're going to start to drift off. We only had the stadium and the extras for a single day, so it was going to require everyone doing their utmost to make it all happen.”

At this point, it’s impossible to avoid the reality that Kenfield’s lighting crew let him down. “I had an assumption, given the sheer output of film production that India has, that there would be plenty of experienced and professional technicians to help us get through it all. The night before the stadium shoot I’d gone through my lighting plans with my Gaffer, agreed on our approach, bid him goodnight, and went home to get a few hours sleep. Then, when I returned in the morning, my lighting crew wasn't there. It turned out they were in an argument with the producers and no one had the balls to tell me about it.”

Kenfield’s exasperation is clear. “This is the biggest day of the entire film. We were renting out an entire stadium. Including crew, we had about six hundred people on set. It was a huge undertaking. We needed every single minute we could possibly get our hands on and ultimately, we weren't able to start shooting until five or six hours after call. That was horrific.” In the end, though, some handheld camerawork and a bit of creativity saved the day. “I just threw the camera on my shoulder and charged through, ran through the blocking for the fight and somehow got everything we needed to cover off for that scene. Managing to somehow salvage that scene, with everything that went wrong, was a pretty wonderful moment.”

Despite it all, the level of ambition on display was itself a motivation. Kenfield reiterates that “the scope of the film was really large and I wanted to make it look large. To make it feel as big-budget and as Hollywood as I could with the limited resources we had. It was that drive that pulled me through ten weeks of such intense production with just a single day off.” In the few quiet moments, though, Kenfield discovered an aspect of Indian film that defied expectation. “To help explain to me the different kinds of cinema India produces, my camera crew were showing me these really interesting art-house films that had come out in the last few years that were really blowing their minds, and slowly changing the paradigm of the kinds of films Indian audiences are willing to see. These new films didn't even have songs, they were 180 degrees from what conventional Bollywood is.”

“I think the reason filmmaking is such an addictive calling is that you're always problem solving,” Kenfield concludes. Some problems – such as the sports arena delays – are big and complex, but “It's not always the complicated problems. Most of the time it is just the simple things: you reach in and push a glass an inch across a table to balance your frame better, you think “I solved that”, and you get a little kick of dopamine for your troubles. I often wonder if it isn’t just an addiction to that.”

At the time of writing, Melbourne was in lockdown due to coronavirus, but despite it all, Kenfield is keen to return to the genre. “In the cinemas here there'll be posters for Bollywood films up on the wall.” It’s a reminder, he says, of the vast popularity of Indian cinema as it expands internationally in both production and exhibition. “As a person who's dedicated their life to film, it's what I do, it takes up far too much of my free time. I feel like I’m in there pretty deep. But even so, I don't think I have half the passion that the average Joe on the streets of Delhi has for film.”

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