Anup Kulkarni is a multiple award-winning Cinematographer and Visual Effects Supervisor, who has worked all around the world, and in a variety of genres, ranging from feature films, TV-shows, documentaries, and dramas to sci-fi, thriller, and art films.
With an eye for naturally-motivated lighting and inspired movement, Kulkarni has earned multiple cinematography awards. According to Kulkarni, this deeper understanding of visual arts gave rise to a new passion, and that was cinematography for motion pictures. In Los Angeles, he has had the opportunity to work on award-winning and prestigious projects such as Life of Pi, Thor 2, Percy Jackson, R.I.P.D and many others.
In the following interview, Kulkarni takes us on a journey from his childhood in India, film school, the decision to move to LA and some of the major productions he worked in, such as Life of Pi, Thor 2, Percy Jackson and R.I.P.D to name a few.
Anup, please tell us about your background. You grew up in India and attended Physics studies at the University of Mumbai. How did you get into visual storytelling?
During my childhood after seeing Hollywood’s marvelous films like Titanic, Jurassic Park & Matrix for the first time, that’s where my fascination with the technology involves in VFX and cinematography started. And from that point onwards, I wanted to do something in visual storytelling world. Growing up in an artistic household always encouraged me to look into what was ‘beyond’ the thin veil called ‘reality’.
While finishing my bachelor's in Physics I started exploring wildlife photography with my simple camera & there my journey into the visual storytelling was enriched. I started my film journey through VFX industry. I was working at Rhythm & Hues studios as a 3D Camera tracking & Matchmove Technical Director. While doing that I worked on various award-winning films like Life of Pi, Thor: The Dark World, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters etc. While working on that I was moving out of still photography into more sort of cinematography & VFX combined world in the film that I liked. After that, I gradually segued into the visual form of storytelling through camera angles, colors, lights & of course vfx.
What is the very first piece of equipment that you owned, and how did you get it?
When I was in college, my father bought me an initial version of Nikon D90 DSLR camera after seeing my keen interest in photography. Later I studied photography from National Institute of Photography, Mumbai, India. My senior professor was highly knowledgeable & experienced in the industry. He was very kind enough to solve my endless doubts about experimenting with photography.
While that time I went into many dense forests, wildlife sanctuaries & jungle safaris in India along with my other photography enthusiasts. I brought along my D90 camera to record my experiences for my parents to see. The imagery out there was so spectacular like thousands of birds in murmuration during twilights, endless sunrises that went on for miles. I thought wouldn’t it be a lovely life to travel around the world and record life within nature. Slowly I started liking photography of a majestic Indian Bengal tiger. Later I did my photography specialization in Bengal Tigers & snakes in India. For that, I got many national awards in photography & my photos were presented in many galleries across India.
Thor: The Dark World
When did you move to Los Angeles, and what were your first impressions from LaLaLand?
I moved to Los Angeles right after 2010 when I started working in visual effects field. Before coming to LA I was already working on some Hollywood films & knowing the LA’s working culture but after coming here I realized the grandness of this city. The audacity, the boldness of this place. I was so inspired & motivated by the fact that I am working at the world’s entertainment capital so I prepared myself mentally for the enormous amount of challenges I was about to experience.
I came to the Hollywood with the optimistic determination that I would make my story here. Los Angeles has the best platform for the film industry people so you have to compete with world’s best artists here. Plus you need to remember that you are easily replaceable by another creative artist. So this is a place for those who believe in their dreams & work extremely hard to achieve it. I found many like-minded people, all trying to carve a place for themselves in the industry.
At Rhythm & Hues Studio, you've worked on some high profile productions: Life of Pi, Thor 2, Percy Jackson, and R.I.P.D to name a few. What are the challenges a matchmove technical director has to deal with?
I was always get fascinated by Hollywood Visual effects & the process involved into that. While doing my specialization in Visual effects & 3D Animation, I always dreamed of working at Rhythm & Hues Studios, which is an American visual effects and animation company that received three Academy Awards for their great Visual Effects work. It has also received four Scientific and Technical Academy Awards.
My dream came true when I got the offer letter from this studio to work as a 3D camera Tracking & Matchmove Technical director and my first film was Life of Pi.
My job was to create a 3D virtual camera in our proprietary software called Voodoo with its X, Y & Z values. This camera movement should match that of your original camera. Tracking camera movement in a 2D footage enables you to add virtual 3D objects to your 2D footage. This virtual camera’s all three dimensions should be exactly identical to the real one otherwise the 3D object would slide & look unreal. The real challenge was in this entire process that has to be done so precise & needs to be properly calculated according to its physical camera values. To do that we have to work on sub-pixel of that image. Sometimes this process takes place around few weeks but we couldn’t compromise with the quality of it. We had an extremely challenging time during working on Life of Pi as the DP Claudio Miranda used stereoscopic camera system which shoots with two lenses placed beside each other to shoot in an actual three dimensions & adds the realistic depth while watching it. Because of the Stereoscopic camera system, we had to create two virtual cameras to match with the original footage & create an exact depth while watching with 3D glasses.
Can you share about your experience working as a VFX supervisor? What are the responsibilities of such role?
Visual effects supervisor is the creative and technical manager, overseeing the work of the post-production artists dedicated to the art and science of VFX. I work with director and producer of a project & decide on the VFX needs for every shot. For some productions, sometimes prototype effects may be required for the director to examine before production.
The visual effects supervisor’s job begins at pre-production and continues through the end of post-production. The supervisor will collaborate with production department heads like the director of photography, and production designer to dictate the use of blue screen/green screen, motion control, or other necessary equipment. During production, I need to spend time on-set making sure the shots that require visual effects are being filmed correctly to allow for a clean edit. I have a responsibility for ensuring the creative aims of a director or producer are met.
During a recent film work, the client wanted to create an entire house burning effects with the presence of some real actors involved into that. So to achieve that we had to use a couple of special effects plus a various type of pyro techniques to make that effect realistic. Later on, my vfx team created a massive fire simulation & gave the entire scene a realistic feel.
Who are some of your favorite cinematographers, and what do you find exciting about their work?
I am a huge fan of Gordon Willis, ASC cinematography work. The way he played with light in Godfather series, Klute & Manhattan is phenomenal. Along with that, I think we can see his legendary cinematography skills in the Shadows: Deep Throat emerging like a specter in a D.C. parking garage in All the President’s Men, or Woody Allen and Diane Keaton wandering from starlight to sepulchral murk in Manhattan.
He always followed the rule of Simple & Simplicity. Simplicity implements ideas in badly or in an ordinary way whereas simple is your choices, simple stand-alone ideas & try to elaborate that. He introduced his own craft of cinematography dominated by different but unique way of lightings in the films. Even in the present day, his influence in the industry is pervasive. Mr. Willis's playful visual style, daring use of chiaroscuro, and seemingly effortless ability to conjure a mood of unsettling paranoia made him the ideal Director of Photography for the in the film history.
Along with that Roger Dickens is my all time favorite DP. Deakins has given the industry some of the most memorable images in the history of cinema. His insanely accomplished filmography includes the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, Revolutionary Road, and A Beautiful Mind, not to mention many of the films of the Coen Brothers. For his exceptionally great work, he has got 14 academy nominations & won an Outstanding achievement award for Skyfall (2012) from the American Society of Cinematographers, USA in 2013.
Tell us about the most challenging shoot you've experienced, and what happened?
As a DP, I face a different kind of challenges on every set but if you keep patience & use your experience in a right way then you can make a difference in your job.
We were working on a Spanish TV series called La Cabeza del Ratón episode. We wanted to introduce five families in the story through a one long 4 mins shot with Steadicam. We were shooting at the same big mansion used in the film Twilight: Saga. As per the story, we had twenty-one actors in the same shot. The toughest thing was during the actual takes every actor should perform at the right time with the presence of camera movement. The camera follows the lead actors through the hallways, rooms, going up on stairs & end-up on the same place where it starts. On top of that for me, the language was completely different, plus in next thirty mins, we were going to lose sunlight because of the cloudy weather. Even after using a lot of practical lights on set, I had to hide the main source of lights. To solve the issue I lit the entire mansion with 360 degrees lighting setup. So that we could save the time & utilized it on acting & effective camera movements. Our director & I both were totally on our toes while filming it. Finally, we got our best shot on the seventh take. That was all in one shot. If it works that’s great, it’s good for a film. The closer a film looks like reality and real life, the better it is.
VFX shot from Into The Mirror
Anup, you've contributed to a variety of projects, ranging from feature films, TV-shows, documentaries and many other genres. You also won several awards for your wonderful work. After so many projects and awards, what are some standouts moments of your illustrious journey?
I feel extremely pleased to see that people are liking my work plus highly experienced filmmakers & critics appreciating my film vision. I am truly thankful for that. I always feel that the visual storytelling process is very delicate and malleable. Like gold, a film would not stay in shape if a heating element were nearby. And I always like to implement the same theory in my every project.
I remember there are so many great & overwhelming moments came on my journey. But I think my recent experience during the feature film shoot in South Korea was really exceptional in that. I am from India, working in America & shooting a Korean film in Seoul, the heart of South Korea. Before start working on this project, I had many challenges in front of me like totally different language, a Korean style of the filmmaking process, extremely cold weather conditions & almost non-English speaking film crew. But without turning back because of my thorough research on Korean films, culture, landscapes plus strong pre-production work and general understanding of Korean language, I successfully managed it. As a result of that production company, all the producers & director were really happy with my cinematography & the entire visual treatment of the film. That’s when you feel accomplished.
Being a Lead Judge at Festigious, you've reviewed the work of many indie filmmakers. What were you impressed by, and what (in general) was missing in these films?
I am truly honored by being a lead judge at Festigious 2018. It was so pleasing to see the exceptionally great artistic skills & devotion to the art of films. I was so amazed to see the art of motion imaging presented by greatly talented filmmakers from all over the world. This year it was so wonderful to see films like Grimaldi & Edelweiss. The way they had narrated the story with help of the cinematic vision was purely outstanding.
Grimaldi film was a visual treat to watch which takes you back to the 18th-century Pantomime. Whereas Edelweiss was powerful & emotionally satisfying action drama about the horror of war. In general, while working on films, filmmakers emphasize more on visuals, higher-end cameras & their cinematic arc but forgot to give more time for the actual storyline. Development of a story is a root of every successful film.
And, frankly, it’s not the technology that makes the great movies but the vision behind it.
What is the best movie of 2017, in your opinion?
I really enjoyed & mesmerized by the magical world created by Guillermo Del-Toro in The Shape of Water. This film genre-hops through fantasy, science fiction, thriller, and romance. Every shot in the film seems like a painting especially underwater scenes with the creature & Sally Hawkins.
What can we expect from you in the near future? Any interesting upcoming projects?
Last year I finished a feature film ‘The Upstream Story’ in India. For this shooting, we almost traveled 4500 miles across India in 50 days & shot on various historic locations. “The Upstream Story” film follows the parallel journeys of two girls, Kankana and Adriana set against the backdrop of 'Rally for Rivers’ movement in India. As their stories ultimately intertwine and we look deep into the soul of this ancient land called "India.”
The Upstream Story
Along with that a new dramedy TV show 'Unfair & Ugly’ which I shot last year will be available on the digital platform for the viewers in 2018. It’s about a South Asian Muslim American family in Orange County, California trying to keep it together.
Unfair & Ugly - Trailer
Currently, I am working on a Korean-American feature film called The Believer who has Netflix series ‘Love' starring actor Jongman Kim in the lead role and many famous artists from South Korea. An ambitious It's a story of an Asian actor who's well on his way to Hollywood success returns home to Korea and soon discovers that even while reconnecting with family and loved ones, his creative journey ahead is even more lonely and difficult than he could have ever imagined.
Is there anything you wish to add?
Thank you for having me here. It was a real pleasure for me to collaborate with Festigeous film festival. I think the Festigious is a great platform for a huge amount of filmmakers since last four years. This festival became an inspirational point for many. My all wishes are with its further journey.