The day (or rather night) of the first official handshake happened 3 days before the shoot of the adverts. Producers Chinmaya and Lakshya from Qissa Studios contacted Thirulok Chander, our Creative Producer at Roam Free Films, to make three social media commercials for the LOKAL App.
LOKAL App gives its users three unique information:
a. District-wise news updates,
b. District-wise matrimony profiles, and
c. District-wise jobs
The creators Jani Pasha and Vipul Chaudhary started the App in June 2018. They went on to win the FORBES Asia 30 under 30 awards for providing district and constituency-level local News, jobs, classifieds, and local information like weather, vegetable prices, and contact information of doctors and police stations in Telugu and Tamil languages. Thus LOKAL provides hyperlocal content that caters to the non-English speaking population in India. It also provides video awareness content and flags fake updates.
Getting the script ready for shoot
The first step of getting the script ready for the shoot is to understand it by reading it. Understanding the script is close to living out the script mentally and it is a process. The English scripts provided by the producers were first translated to Tamil by Thirulok. The initial English scripts had a total of 7 characters and were elaborately written making it too long to fit into a 30 second advertisement. Later, while I was editing and improvising the Tamil script, I understood that one of the characters could be removed. Simplifying the script, gives way to clarity which in turn makes the commercial both informative and engaging.
So, we needed 6 actors in total to finish 3 ads in one house within a day of shoot. With the right lines in place, we were ready to audition the actors.
“Understanding the script is close to living out the script mentally and it is a process.”
Getting the right team
The right team is the one that backs each one while performing their roles and responsibilities efficiently. And the team in a film production means each and every one who is going to be involved in. There can be no loose ends.
Thirulok with years of line-producing experience, was able to find the right type of rural-styled house at the right budget and also brought in props and set material. He supervised the entire project from start to finish, while also interacting with the producers. Senthil Kumar A, one of the most bankable assistant directors I know, started calling in actors who might suit the roles. Once the actors were shortlisted, Senthil obtained self-auctioned videos from them, while discussing their schedules and availability. Abinesh the second AD was the messenger communicating with the cast, for details pertaining location, availability, costs, costumes, and answering any queries. As we had to shoot 3 adverts on a very low budget, a proper art director, a costume designer, dubbed sound, sound post-production, and the music composer had to be compromised. All the actors brought their own costumes.
Now the most challenging part of the production was recording live sound of performing actors amidst the hustle and bustle of Chennai. For this, we roped in Mr Murugesan, an experienced live sound recordist and boom operator.
Thanks to the lockdown we had all accustomed ourselves meeting and discussing online. So the actors and I had con calls the previous evening to go through the script and memorize the lines even before they arrived on location.
Working in theatre, helped me understand the importance of rehearsals. To me it was always memorizing the lines first and only then, the movement and position on stage. Every actor improvised from the moment they sent us the self-auctioned videos.
From Ashokan Camera Rental, we booked,
The Camera and Lenses
Sony Alpha a7siii
Sony 16-35 mm 2.8 lens
Sony 24-70 mm 2.8 lens
Sony 70-200 mm 2.8 lens
Sony 50 mm 1.8 lens
Sony 85 mm 1.8 lens
LED Lights - 2
GODOX - LC500R - 2
Apurture 300x - 1
We also hired the young team of dedicated camera assistants, Vijay and Shakti at Ashokan Camera Rental to be part of the crew.
Planning & preparation
We planned to shoot the first scene News, outdoors by morning and the next two scenes namely, Matrimony and Jobs indoors by noon and evening respectively. The pre-production happened in two days and three nights. The next day was a big long day with 3 adverts to shoot while prepping up the place, and the actors while making sure everything happens in sync to each other. Getting documents printed, finalizing the equipment, sending reminders, prop-shopping, confirming transports, advance payments, packing equipment and checking tick-boxes was happening till previous midnight of the shoot.
On the previous night of the shoot, there need not be any creative ideation. It is a night for purely the logical, rational, task-oriented mind. Let creativity take over once everybody is ready on the set the next day. What I learned was that, a director needs a level of faith on one’s own ability. Faith occurs when there is complete accountability.
The Early Morning
The clock started ticking early in the morning, for we had to shoot all three commercials within 6 pm on February 21.
I volunteered to pick up the camera and lights before dawn to avoid mishaps due to bad traffic. With this basic filmmaking equipment by my side, I felt positive about the production day ahead.
Back in location, with all crew and cast for the first scene on set, the set assistant Raji, started the day with a prayer.
For our first scene, we had Subramani and Vivek play the parts of father and son respectively. With not much to meddle with their looks and hairstyle, the shoot started as the sun rose above our neighboring buildings. Subramani and Vivek gave out natural performances as father and son while the sun lit the set as naturally as ever. However, sound engineer and recordist, Murugesan had to deal with a bunch of cawing crows and neighbors blaring away breaking news on their TV sets. With a good chemistry going between the actors, finished the first session within 2 hours.
For the second scene, actors Ramya Ramesh and Vijayashree arrived right when we finished the first scene. Immediately after the first scene, we set up the location with lights and props and rehearse with the actors. Improvising on every way was what was happening on location. Amidst all the shooting, we had the municipality drilling away pavements near by construction workers banging away walls next door and a few mid-day power cuts to pause our shooting. During such times it is crucial to stay calm and carry on with whatever it takes to finish the task at hand. The workers paused their works on Senthil’s request giving us just the time window to record the scenes.
For our third scene, the actors Shama and Prabha arrived 4 hours before schedule giving us enough time to finalize the screenplay and rehearse. We rehearsed whenever the session 2 had a pause due to noise or power issues and the actors rehearsed on their own the whole time. They rehearsed so well that we finished this part within an hour. Everything fell into place for the final session. One challenge was that I had to show the whole living room portion of the Chettinad house which was ransacked the previous day by another TV soap opera production. The set assistants were quick to decorate the shooting location. Mirrors cleaned, set props cleaned and positioned, walls cleared and height adjustments done. Everyone including the assistant directors, actors, camera and lighting crew started placing props to make it look like a livable house. Once we turned on a few light bulbs and tube lights, it was a home. Finally, this production turned out to be the best among all three.
Even though I did not have a shot list, or a storyboard, we went ahead and shot all three films relying on the talent and commitment of each and every crew and cast. It is notable to mention that the camera assistants Vijay and Shakti played the roles of assisting cinematographers for they made lighting and camera setup very easy for me to shoot all three films while also directing them.
Trust happens when each person in the team knows what they are doing and does play the part to completion. With such dedication, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
No budget for post-production sound did not mean no budget for music. I was informed by the producers to use any track from artist.io since they had a subscription. Even though thousands of tracks were available on artlist.io at my fingertips, trying to find music for a real south Indian advert within a short time was becoming a challenge. But fortune has weird ways of favoring the brave. I searched for tracks under the World Music genre and there I found a very familiar name, Yotam Agam. This sound composer, who I knew back from 2008, as a sound engineer, and recording artist had sampled many Indian and folk instruments here in Chennai and Kolkata. I was sure that I would find a very Indian sounding track if not South Indian. The track Hill Station had a bit of funny, peppy and had a south Indian flavor due to the major use of the Morsing instrument sample. With the track in place, I edited al three films within half a day and sent the first cut to the clients. From then on there was no looking back for the film. The clients and the producers were happy with all three films and approved it quickly.
The take-aways personally for me are that with a small team and a lot of trust and understanding beautiful work can be achieved. A set that runs on fear and self-loathing can only result in disaster and will fall short of the right outcome.
Here are the 3 adverts:-
Father - Subramani
Son - Vivek Subramaniam
Woman 1 - Ramya Ramesh
Woman 2 - Vijayashree
Boy - Prabhu Shastha
Girl - Shama
Producers Lakshya & Chinmaya
Creative Producer - Thirulok Chander
Assitant to Creative Producer - Vinoth Maria Selvam
Production Manager - Kalai Selvam
Direction Team - Senthil Kumar A, Abinesh D & Finan
Sound Recording Engineer - Murugesh
Art (Set Assistants) - Raji M & Parthasarathy N
Assistant Cinematographer / Camera Assistants - Vijay & Shakti
Music - Hill Station by Yotam Agam
Lighting and Camera Assitant - Shakti
Spot boy - Bhaskaran C
Director / Director of Photography / Editor / VO Artist - Ramakrishna Dhanasekaran
We thank the producers, Chinmaya Thakur and Lakshya Kapoor for giving us the creative freedom to take a leap from the script which resulted in a successful yet highly productive shoot and post-production. The producers were very understanding and backed us while getting the first cut approved by the client.
India being such a beautiful country with such diverse cultures and languages, we were still able to connect through this art form even though it was commercial. I must say that it is hard to come across such people.