DP Adil Afsar on the cinematography of Madgaon Express

May 29, 2024

The first Indian theatrical release film shot with ALEXA 35 and ARRI Master Anamorphic lenses, Madgaon Express is the story of three childhood friends with a shared dream of a vacation in Goa. When their long-awaited getaway finally happens, it transforms into a comical misadventure—including encounters with gangsters and a series of hilarious mishaps and unexpected twists.

The Bollywood comedy, backed by one of India’s top film studios, Excel Entertainment, recently hit theaters in India and was an immediate commercial success. It is director Kunal Kemmu’s debut feature, but his second collaboration with cinematographer Adil Afsar who had previously lensed season three of the thriller series “Abhay” with Kemmu as the main actor. DP Afsar has a long-standing connection with ARRI, having used its camera and lens equipment for many of his previous projects. With Madgaon Express, this close relationship produced yet another remarkable result.

When director Kemmu and DP Afsar started their collaboration on Madgaon Express in 2022, they acknowledged the common perception that comedy films often lack visual appeal. During preproduction, the filmmakers engaged in detailed discussions about the visual language of their upcoming project. “Cinematography is a combination of art and technique,” says Afsar. For “Madgaon Express,” this included choosing the appropriate colour palette and agreeing on the importance of natural skin tones to avoid any forced, artificial film look that could distract the audience from the storyline. On the technical side, DP Afsar “focused on camera and lens equipment that would best complement our vision for Madgaon Express.”

Since he had heard good things about the ALEXA 35, the DP wanted to try out the camera and contacted ARRI on how to be able to test it, knowing that there were only a few units available worldwide. “They were really helpful and facilitated its procurement for testing in India,” says Afsar. Impressed by its flawless performance, the DP decided to shoot “Madgaon Express” entirely with ALEXA 35. “I especially liked the camera’s compatibility with both Master Anamorphic and other 35 mm lenses without compromising on resolution, flexibility, and frame rate,” the DP declares. “Opting for an anamorphic format seemed ideal to capture the mise-en-scène of Goa and the dynamic interactions of the trio of protagonists.”

When talking about image quality and colour rendition, Afsar states that he instantly realised the potential of ALEXA 35’s REVEAL Color Science during the Madgaon Express shoot. “The ALEXA 35 offers remarkable colour depth and fidelity, regardless of color temperature, ISO, or texture settings used,” Afsar points out. Pairing it with Master Anamorphic lenses, he appreciated “the sharpness, consistency, and clarity of the image on the big camera screen, especially considering we have become accustomed to watching large-format images.”

The cinematographer also refers to the compact size of the ALEXA 35 as a big plus: “Being marginally larger than the ALEXA Mini LF, yet much smaller than the LF, makes it convenient to handle.” Also, the improved sensor and the camera’s low-light capabilities stood out during the shoot. “The dynamic range of 17.5 stops proved invaluable for both low-key and high-key shoots, particularly in scenarios with significant light variations and extreme contrast ratios,” says Afsar. “The ALEXA 35 excels in low-light situations, with its Enhanced Sensitivity Mode yielding clean results.

Throughout the film, Adil Afsar utilized ARRI Textures as an instrument to create “subtle, yet impactful effects that would resonate with viewers on a subconscious level.” With the plot of Madgaon Express unfolding across multiple time periods, the cinematographer used selected texture options for creating individual looks in certain scenes. For example, he combined Soft Nostalgic textures with Master Anamorphic lenses to capture the protagonists’ college years, while in pivotal moments such as the introduction of antagonist Mendoza, the DP used Deep Shadow and Shadow textures to enhance the scene’s intensity. In other scenes, he applied High Clarity and Clarity textures to heighten the visual impact of city shots, while using Cosmetic textures to refine actors’ skin tones.

“Experimenting with these textures was immensely enjoyable and gave us great on-set control of the final image,” says Afsar. “To me, it evoked memories of the old film days when selecting film stock was essential to complement each scene’s requirements and mood.” Since the DP was baking in a lot of different textures in the source footage, he decided to bring in seasoned colorist Andreas Brueckl to support the team. “His deep understanding of ALEXA 35 footage, the REVEAL Color Science, and ARRI Textures was crucial in realizing the film’s visual aesthetic,” the cinematographer adds.

During the shoot, several locations presented challenges to the filmmaking crew, including a variety of low-light environments such as Mumbai railway station at night, a secluded beach against the expansive backdrop of the sea, or a hilltop surrounded by darkness. To overcome these challenges, careful planning and execution was needed. “For these scenes, I maximised the camera’s low light sensitivity and leveraged the colour fidelity of REVEAL Colour Science to its fullest potential,” DP Afsar says. “I pushed the sensor to its limits, employing Enhanced Sensitivity alongside Deep Shadow or Shadow textures.”

The confidence gained from pre-shoot camera testing experiences bolstered the cinematographer’s trust in the ALEXA 35’s capabilities, a critical factor given the mixed lighting setups with varying color temperatures used throughout the film. This goes for location shoots as well as studio scenes: For the train’s interior sequence, production designer Prachi Deshpande meticulously crafted an authentic train compartment set on a studio stage. “The scene unfolds at night, with the train in motion and passengers asleep, illuminated solely by the soft blue glow of the night lamps,” says Afsar. “Despite the challenges posed by the predominantly blue lighting, I was determined to maintain the authenticity and mood of the setting.” In addition to using the ALEXA 35’s low light settings, the DP rigged trusses on both sides of the compartment, allowing for the strategic placement of ARRI SkyPanels and additional lights to simulate passing scenery.

Probably the most challenging location during production was a secluded beach, situated far from the city and away from any motorable surface. “We had to hand-carry all our equipment, and with the distance and time constraints, heavy gear was out of the question,” Afsar recalls. To create moonlight for the night shoot, the crew rigged a moon box with 40 SkyPanels on a 300 feet crane positioned one kilometre away from the scene. “Additionally, we placed a SkyPanel 360-C on a 40-feet cliff, anchored with ropes and rigged on top.” While the scene was captured entirely with Steadicam and handheld, Afsar states, the ALEXA 35 rose to the occasion, producing great images despite the demanding conditions. Using the Enhanced Sensitivity ISO and utilising the Deep Shadow texture, the DP was able to create the desired atmosphere and handle the challenges. “We were delighted with the result,” says Afsar.

This article was shared with permission from ARRI.

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