Cinematographers can wield as much power over a film as directors do. Cinematography is one of the most mysterious aspects of filmmaking. Here is the journey of cinematographer Vidhu Ayyanna, who rose from a non-cinematic background to work with many notable directors.

All the films you worked with ended up as a hit. How do you choose your script?
When we watch a film, we may have certain expectations. When I read a script or a draft, my instincts kick in, and I visualise them, which is how I know if it will work or not. I choose some films and few films choose me. That’s how magic worked out for me.

Which was the first film that chose you?
The film Meyaadha Maan chose me. I was on the verge of quitting and desperately needed a break at the time. I wanted to make my first film, and I was working on it. I was previously working with YouTube channels when director Rathna Kumar approached me for that film. I took the risk and put all of my creativity into that film.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in cinematography?
I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. During my school days, I fantasised about becoming one. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in visual communication, I realised how difficult it is to make a living as a director in the industry. I wasn’t sure what my living situation would be if I pursued a career in direction, so I decided to learn a skill that would provide me with a basic necessity. That’s how I learned about cinematography. The next visual narrator after a director is a cinematographer, but if cinematography doesn’t work out, I had a backup plan to pursue photography and make wedding films for a living.

“Photography is the base of cinematography.”

Struggles you faced in your 15 years journey.
When I tried as an assistant, I faced many struggles. Even after Meyaadha Maan, I had a huge struggle in the industry. There was an approach at that time where an assistant makes a portfolio and reaches out to cinematographers to take them in. That was a time when cinematography was evolving and digitalisation was beginning. Alexa D-21 was introduced at that time, Kamal Haasan, an influential filmmaker in the film industry and he was the one who introduced many new technologies to the Indian film industry. He was using RED cameras and Auro 3D sound technology. Many cinematographers wanted to learn technical stuff rather than aesthetics at the time, and I was shamed by many big cinematographers for not knowing about the advancements. I was so depressed that I considered leaving this field. But then my family became the most supportive. I worked myself up from there and made a breakthrough.

How do you prepare for your role in a film? Do you adhere to rules, theories, and ethics, or do you follow your own style?
If I’m scared, I’ll stick to the rules. Actually, it is dependent on the script. If I have an idea, I visualise the contents first to see if I can make it work. The main focus is also whether the visual supports the story or not, because the visual judges the story. I don’t want the director to go through all of the difficulties, from pitching a production house to finding an artist, to be in vain. As a cinematographer, I ensure that my choices support the director’s overall vision for the film and also the story is properly represented visually. I believe I will follow this ethical code until my last breath.

You worked with debut directors on the majority of your films. Share your thoughts.
The most important aspect of my job is assisting the director in telling a story using the images of the film, camera, lighting, and lenses-basically visual narration. Our decisions are the most important. The first film directors have more energy and since it’s their first film they also tend to have more clarity. They focus more and more on the story and they defend to get what they want. Before working on the film Meyaadha Maan I watched director Rathna Kumar’s short film Madhu. His work amazed me and I took the shot as a cinematographer in his film. As a team we had amazing coordination and I got support from him in putting my thoughts into visuals. In the film Mandela, the whole movie was shot in a village. The director had an idea about the script and the theme but as a cinematographer, I had a brown toning in my mind. We worked it out and I am glad that the movie got national level recognition. The films Nitham Oru Vaanam and Oh My Kadavule involved traveling and few scenes were magical and unexpected. We tend to get problems while traveling and my role there had more to do with practicalities and problem solving. While working with debut directors, I tend to feel freedom and they are quite clear about what they want out of a scene.

We’ve all heard of the director-cinematographer combo. Tell me about the artist-cinematographer combo in your films.
I worked with director Ashwanth Marimuthu on the film Oh My Kadavule, and we collaborated again on the Telugu remake, Ori Devuda, which was recently released. It’s the comfort we get from the crew members. When it comes to artists, it’s the trust we gain from them. In Oh My Kadavule and Nitham Oru Vaanam, I teamed up with actor Ashok Selvan. Even if the director is convinced of the scene, we analyze it and do another take to get the most out of it. I believe it is the understanding and trust that works between an artist and a cinematographer.

Do you think there might be a possible change in the future of the cinematographer due to technological growth?
There will be more and more advances in technology and the way people view films. The cinematographer’s work is unaffected by digital technology. That has not changed and will not change in the future. The future will continue to rely on the cinematographer’s sense of composition and truth. That will not change. You still need someone in there who understands the composition and the truth in what he’s doing and I believe there will be advancements in the equipment and technology but the visualising style of the film may not be changed.

What are the essential qualifications for a cinematographer? How much should they be involved in the film’s production?
A cinematographer must be quick, creative, and rely on instincts. When an artist takes too many takes or the weather does not cooperate, the cinematographer should plan ahead of time and make the most of the day. In rainy situations and road sequences, for example, he can shoot without showing the ground. As a cinematographer I try to work more on pre-production side because first when I read the script and make a mood board for myself. I search in google for pictures, frames, paintings and scenes. I try to recreate the same mood with the artists. Even though we cannot achieve one hundred percent of the same, it will give a feel of it and bring out a better color palette. It’s like having a bible for every scene. I take a lot of time to fix a color palette. Meyaadha Maan had so many characters so I gave them different colors to every artist. Colours have a way of conveying emotions and character arcs. After dividing the shots, we keep a storyboard artist on hand to plan the shot, range, and perspective during the pre-production stage. Before shooting the scene, we edit the draft there. It will be extremely beneficial and save time because we will be able to concentrate on the most important visuals. A look-up table is where the look of the film is installed in the camera and monitor. This will be used during the production stage to visualise the colour tone for the film, and it will also be useful during post-production.

One thing you’d like to say to aspiring cinematographers.
Money may come and go, and success may or may not come, but if you decide this is going to be your future, you must be sincere in what you do.