Shaneil Deo

Cinematographer

“I am more of a visual story-teller”

“I dream in 35mm”, says he and reminisces about how the fascination for it all started. “It all started in my childhood when I was seven years old”, he adds.

That’s Shaneil Deo, who is the talk of the town these days, thanks to his excellent work as a cinematographer in the recent Telugu thriller Kshanam. The visual feast and stunning frames in the film attracted movie goers. His work on the short film Layla got him several international offers but he chose to come to India when the makers of the movie approached him at an international film festival last year, because the story of Kshanam intrigued him.

“I have always been inspired by the world of photography and filmmaking. Using both as a medium, I have learned to channel my thoughts, capture fleeting emotions and use them to create beautiful memories. I believe in expressions of individuality, which lies for me in snapshots, editing and cinematography. Through films and photographs, I strike to capture all elements and create the most unique representation of the world around me,” says the talented cinematographer.

In Annapurna College of Film and Media to conduct a hands-on workshop on the finer nuances of cinematography, Shaneil spent good two-days with the students. Spending some ‘moments’ with the ‘Kshanam’ cinematographer, here are the excerpts of our conversation with him.

  • You say you have been inspired by the world of photography (and filmmaking). Is cinematography then, a natural transition?
    Absolutely! My father was a photographer, so I got my first camera from him. And I started doing photography, by shooting family birthdays etc. and I was inspired by movies and moving pictures, and that led me to try out of curiosity which then led me to cinematography.
  • Which medium are you most comfortable with?
    I enjoy both photography and cinematography, but I am more of a visual story-teller, so it comes down to cinematography. I actually feel photography is harder than cinematography, because you have one chance and one time to capture the moment and with cinematography you have 24 frames to tell a story, so I find it a little easier and I prefer cinematography in that sense.

  • Within photography, do you prefer the black and white format or the colour format?
    I love the drama that black and white creates. So, if the lighting is falling on a face and you just shoot in black and white, then you can isolate and make the eyes focus on a specific part. That way I enjoy black and white photography or monochrome as it is called.

  • “I dream in 35mm”, says your status on a social network page; how did the fascination for it all start, can you share more about the first thing that attracted you to it all?
    I was about seven years old and I had gone to a movie. I don’t remember which movie, but I walked in and walked out after watching the movie and felt like I have never felt before. The emotional adventure and roller-coaster ride that I went through after watching the movie, with goosebumps on my body, that’s when I realised that this is something that I can do and would love to do. One simple movie that made me feel like I never felt before, and I had decided what to do.

  • What’s coming up next, work wise?
    As of right now, I am finishing up the remake of Vicky Donor, after that just negotiating couple of pictures. I went to Cannes and met some producers and things have not materialised as of now, but I am in talks with a French team.

  • From SFO to Hyderabad, has it been difficult culturally?
    The journey has actually been amazing. Culturally it has been very different. I was born in Fiji and raised in the US and I don’t have any family in India. My first trip to India was in 2013 and I was there for one month and it was a culture shock at that time. The culture was different, the language was different. I don’t speak Telugu but I speak Hindi. I only knew about Bollywood movies and never knew about Telugu movies per se. So coming here now, after three years, was okay to adjust because being here once before, helped. People are nicer and very cool to work with and it has been fun. I haven’t picked up the language yet. They all teach me bad words first (laughs). But besides that I am pretty comfortable and I can travel on my own now.

  • How has your trip to Hyderabad been? What do you like most about our city?
    It’s been good. But I despise the traffic. The food I love! (he says with a big happy grin). I have tried every biryani house in the city. I am not big on eating rice but biryani is something that is out-of-this-world! I have tried biryani in the States and it is nothing like the biryani in Hyderabad.

  • Any tips for our students?
    First thing I would like to mention is dedication to the craft and what I mean by that is learning; to not stop learning about the craft. Just because you learnt a technique does not mean that, that is the only technique. There are so many different ways and techniques in doing that same thing. The field we are in, photography or cinematography, there is no one way of doing things, no right or wrong. It’s the way you perceive something. It’s how impactful you can make the frame, that’s what counts in the end. So I would say, focus on learning the craft, push yourselves, get out of your comfort zone, learn new techniques, try new things, be at it, regroup, reassess and try again. But most importantly, be dedicated and be self-confident. Even if you don’t do it right, you will try some other way. I grew learning through trial and error. I didn’t go to a training school and I wish I had this training facility available for me when I was growing up. There were schools back home, but it didn’t work out for me. We are in an environment where you can ask questions, there are people who have more experience and have done this before, so use that facility. Ask questions; bother them with lots of questions until you get the answers. So there is no reason that they cannot learn.

  • Your thoughts on studying at a film school per se and learning on the job?
    I feel that they both go hand-in-hand. At school you learn a lot, you learn how things are set up and you take that knowledge and learn how to apply it on the real set. On the set, it is good to see what is happening, but if you don’t have the knowledge of how it is happening and how to apply it then it is just like looking at the sets. So taking this application that you learnt at school and then going and seeing how things are implemented, that makes more sense for someone who is new. So this background of studying at a film school is critical.

He ends the discussion saying that he learnt Hindi just by watching Bollywood movies. Any favourite stars? “I would love to meet and if I get a chance to work with, then someone of the calibre of Irrfan Khan, I loved his powerhouse performances,” he signs off with a smile.

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