The art of cranking out quality reels

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14 Jul 2017
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Bidur Pandey, a self-taught director, has churned out more than 1,500 music videos

Bidur Pandey is a self-taught director of photography who has made critically acclaimed movies and more than 1,500 music videos. The prolific artist has done it all--commercials, documentaries and feature films; but his litmus test came in the form of Kagbeni, the first film in South Asia to be shot in digital camera. The movie went on to set benchmarks in the Nepali film industry.

In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, Pandey shares that while his entry into films had been easy due to family support, carving out a career as a cinematographer in a nascent industry demanded much dedication from him.

How were you as a kid?
Ever since I was young, I've been inclined towards technology. And, much to my family's dismay, I would sometimes take my fascination with technology to another level by becoming creatively destructive with any electronic device that was lying around. I guess I loved experimenting, as a lot of inquisitive kids do.  

Do you have any fond memory growing up?
My father was a judge (nyayadhish) who was transferred to various places in the country, which meant that we moved a lot. I remember having to enroll in new schools and make new friends--but that never bothered me; I think those experiences instilled in me a sense of wanderlust at a young age. It definitely helps me as a cinematographer. My profession requires me to be constantly on the move, and I absolutely love travelling. 

How did you get into this line?
Earlier, I didn't even know about cinematography, or what it meant to capture images for professional use. While I was studying in college, I had a cassette shop in New Road. I used to tinker around with the video cameras there, and in those days, you had these bulky VHS camcorders, using which I made some home videos. You could say I am a self-taught videographer.
In 1990, Shailendra Shrestha (from Image Channel) proposed that we start a video magazine titled Swornim. After five episodes, we had to shut it down, but that venture was my official entry point into filmmaking.

So you had no ambitions of getting into filmmaking?
I was really clumsy with the camera, and nobody wanted me to take their photos, as I was prone to producing blurry or dark images. And photography was anything but cheap back then. I once offered to film a family member's wedding, and to the family's dismay, the final product didn't come out as planned; there was actually nothing to show. So you could say even I would've laughed at myself had I entertained any notion of getting into filmmaking. It all changed after my brief stint with Swornim. I also got to know many people in the film fraternity through that video magazine, and I later worked on two films. Although I learned a lot from those experiences, the way the film industry functioned left me disheartened. So I quit that field altogether and went back to my business. It was around that time that talks with Image Channel started happening. I decided to get on board, and the rest is history. 

What kind of challenges did you face?
Back in the day, cameramen didn't receive the same respect they do today. The money was meagre, and you didn't even get due credit for your hard work. Before getting into films, I already had a successful business. So when I dropped everything to pick up the camera, I became an object of ridicule among my friends. I'm grateful that at least my family was very supportive of my decision.

You are known for your music videos; how did you get into this genre?
The first music video I made, Cobweb's 'Maryo ni Maryo', happened by chance, and I never looked back after that. It's been a journey of more than 1,500 videos, and counting. Looking back on my career, I do feel that there have been many significant turning points or major achievements--mostly chance events. But having said that, whenever I came across an opportunity, I pounced on it and gave it my 100 per cent. Music videos hadn't really made it big in Nepali popular culture, and I got a different kind of high being the pioneer. Today, when I look at how lucrative the music video industry has become, it fills me with pride. On a personal level, I also feel this sector allowed me to hone my craft, as it gave me ample opportunities to experiment with my shots and taught me to be creative when looking through the viewfinder. 

What project are you most proud of?
It has to be Kagbeni. The movie came at a time when the movie world was finally shifting towards using digital cameras. Kagbeni was the first film shot in digital camera in South Asia. The movie also ushered in a lot of firsts in the Nepali film scene--from auditioning for our characters and making behind-the-scene footage to using sync-sound recording: the use of that last technique is still a rarity in Nepali films. The movie taught us to work as a team, and helped push the envelope creatively.

What is the number one job of a cinematographer?
For a cinematographer, it is imperative that you create beautiful images. You manage the crew that is involved in all aspects of the visuals, but the real job of a cinematographer is to execute the vision of the director by ensuring that his or her vision materialises. Having said that, you should insist on doing stellar work, and not settle for subpar work.

How did your work change when movies got digital? 
Digital technology has definitely made our work easier, but I'm not sure if things are actually heading in the right direction. It has certainly brought about changes in the attitude of directors. When you were using a film camera, you had to take care to shoot good images by ensuring good lighting, good art direction and all that. Now, filmmakers want you to speed up things, and they don't want you to invest much time on lighting. Yes, technology has always played a part in advancing filmmaking and photography, but one should remember that creating quality art requires patience, dedication and a little bit of talent.

What is your secret for working harmoniously with the director? 
As much as we may want to control the visuals, the key is to make sure that it's in line with what the director needs. It's imperative that you become one with his vision so that you can begin to think like him. To become a director's confidant, your idea bank of possible setups to achieve a look must be vast; otherwise, you will most likely fail in executing certain looks and styles. If you have this versatility, you will get noticed, and hired.

What do you look for in a director?
Before I take on a project I have to be convinced that the script is good, and I need to believe in the director. As cliched as this might sound, the director is the one who helms the ship and must have a clear game plan to lead the film from its beginning stages to the very end. Also, it helps if the director is open-minded and has a sense of humour. If most of these qualities align, I'm more than enthusiastic about working on the director's project.

Any advice for someone looking to get started in cinematography?
You need to understand that you can't leave everything to the post-production stage, for one. Film-room additions do not have the same effects as real-life filming. You also have to know what the story is about, and the type of lighting you need to capture moods and tones. The basics used in classical cinematography are still relevant, and I cannot stress enough the importance of formal training. I think we all need to be reminded from time to time that even in digital photography, you still have to use lights to tell
the story. Also, if you are an aspiring director of photography, go out and shoot as much as you can. If no one's asking you to shoot for them, generate content yourself. The technology is really affordable now. When I started, I couldn't just go out and shoot because it was an expensive thing to do. Technology is getting cheaper and better by the day.

Do you want to debunk any myth about filmmaking?
Filmmaking isn't as glamorous as it might seem to outsiders. The process of making films is never going to be easy, and in the end, most people may not end up with the careers they dreamed of having. But when you love something, it doesn't really matter. Enter this field if you genuinely love it.