Indian Cinematographer Priya Seth
In episode thirteen, host Brett Stanley is talking to Indian Underwater Cinematographer Priya Seth. Priya has shot underwater scenes for over 100 Indian films, and whilst she shoots on land too it’s the water that is her most favourite.
We chat about how she got her career started, what it’s like being a woman on set in such a male dominated industry, how she deals with all the different aspects of Indian cinema, and how an all girls boarding school set her up for a challenging vocation.
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About Priya Seth – Indian Underwater Cinematographer
Priya Seth, one of the few female cinematographers in India, joined Gopal Shah while beginning her career, because the latter had worked with a woman-cinematographer prior to working with Seth.
“Being a man was a pre-requisite for cinematography, back then. Nobody hired women. A friend of mine told me that Shah had hired a woman assistant before. So I knew that he was open to working with women. I approached him, and he thought I’d barely last for six months. He assumed I’d get run off and get married,” joked Seth.
For a long time, there wasn’t any female cinematographer around, in the industry. It was just Seth, alone.
When asked about whether she faced any adversities during that time, Seth said, “No. Advertising back then, and even now, is a very evolved industry. Since I was working with a DoP who was at the top of his game, I got to work with best of the industry.”
Seth is a trained scuba diver. She is an expert at underwater cinematography across the country for films belonging to Hindi, Tamil, Telugu cinema. When asked about how she does it, Seth’s face lit up as she narrated, “Underwater cinematography is my most-loved form of cinematography. We dive in with all our scuba gear and sealed camera housing, which helps us shoot under the sea, pool, or the ocean, as situation demands. We recreate scenarios for stunts and song sequences.”
Many of the demanding underwater scenes in movies have been shot by Seth. Over the last twelve-fifteen years, she has done tons of scenes for various movies.
Episode 13 – Priya Seth
Brett Stanley: [00:00:00] Welcome back to the underwater podcast. And this week we’re heading to Bollywood with underwater cinematographer, a PREA, Seth. Priya has shot underwater scenes for over a hundred Indian films. And whilst she shoots on land too, it’s the water that is a most favorite. We chat about how she got her career started, what it’s like being a woman on set in such a male dominated industry and how she deals with all the different aspects of Indian cinema. Now I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about the Indian film industry going into this interview. So Priya schooled me quite a bit. Including that the name Bollywood isn’t really used within India to describe their version of Hollywood. It’s more of a nickname. So enjoy my embarrassment at that.
All righty. Let’s dive in.
Priya. Welcome to the show.
Priya Seth: [00:00:41] Thank you.
I’m in Mumbai. It’s quarter to 10 at night, and I think it’s morning for you. So we’re about 12 hours apart
Brett Stanley: [00:00:47] Yeah. And my day’s just started, I’m trying to wake
Priya Seth: [00:00:50] Yes.
Brett Stanley: [00:00:51] with these morning things. how has life over there at the moment? Have you been caught up in the whole COVID-19 thing?
Priya Seth: [00:00:58] Yeah, we’re completely actually, we’re in the midst of it in, India right now and in Mumbai where I stay even more. So I think it’s, um, right now picking up numbers, you know, the cities kind of opened up the country is opening up because we weren’t locked down for very long if anyone’s been following this.
So, um, while the country needed to economically open up, this is when we actually peaking. So it’s a bit tricky at the moment. Uh, the film industry is still on lockdown completely. There’s nothing that’s begun. You know, there’s still a little bit of small stuff that people are attempting. The government hasn’t really given permission yet, or the go ahead to start filming.
So when kind of this limbo space.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:34] Yeah, has the industry kind of worked out some, um, some requirements for opening up, like, is there some way that they’ve worked out to be able to open up safely?
Priya Seth: [00:01:43] so they have sort of described this whole protocol the government has with the industry, but it just seems a little unworkable at the moment in its current form. So I think that’s where there’s been a stalemate where they’re trying to work out something that’s sustainable, just cost-wise and just execution wise.
And what is practical. So we’re still trying to work it out. We’re not done yet.
Brett Stanley: [00:02:03] I mean, it must be very hard. I mean, you work in Bollywood, which for anyone who knows is the Indian, uh, Hollywood basically. Can you, is that right? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Bollywood. I know from. You know, from seeing films and things on planes when I’ve been to India. But explain Bollywood, tell me what it is from the inside.
Priya Seth: [00:02:24] Um, well, the Indian film industry, as we like to call it when we work within it and not Bollywood is, uh, uh, so, um, um, I work out of. Mumbai Bombay, which is where the Hindi film industry, which is kind of the, you know, the two large industries in India. One is Bollywood, which is what’s known outside and then there’s one down in the South.
So it’s actually, India is quite prolific. And each region has a very, very strong regional film industry, which makes films in their own language. I work in the Hindi film industry based out of Bombay. I’m a cinematographer. I shoot movies and I shoot a lot of underwater cinematography, which is why we’re speaking.
Brett Stanley: [00:03:03] Yeah. And so just to go back to that point, so is Bollywood not a term that’s used in the country? Is it something that,
Priya Seth: [00:03:10] it is, it is used, it is used by a lot of people. It’s just, you know, when you work in something and you, you know, that’s my job and that’s my, uh, profession, Bollywood just sounds like a bastardization of something in an imitation. So. The Indian film industry is what one likes to call it.
Brett Stanley: [00:03:26] Okay, great. Yeah. I mean, it’s that sort of stuff that I have no idea about and being outside of a country, you kind of go with whatever you hear in, I guess, in the media. And to know that Bollywood is probably not the term you would like to be used, then that’s great to know. So how did you get into the Indian film industry?
What was your path into the industry
Priya Seth: [00:03:48] so I’ve been working about, um, I think 22 years, and I started working in the Indian film industry when I was about 19. I did a course in filmmaking at NYU New York.
And yeah, and then I came back to India and it was interesting. Cause when I was leaving, come back and I had decided I wanted to cinematography.
Cause that’s not what I studied. I just studied, um, filmmaking. So the professor there actually, he was like, you know, I know you’re going to go back to India and uh, don’t get me wrong. This was 1997. And he said, um, um, it might be a difficult journey for you because I don’t know how many women cinematographers and Indians.
Cause there are barely any in the U S at the moment. And of course, go ahead and do what you’re going to do, but I want you to keep this in the back of your mind. It may not be just a plain old ride. Like it would be in any other field of filmmaking. And I brushed him off my shoulder completely and arrogantly because you know, you’re young and you think you can get anything in the world.
And I think it was about 10 years later, I was like, wait, then he warned me of this. Someone told me this is going to be hard.
Brett Stanley: [00:04:50] and was it as hard as you thought or as, how does he want
Priya Seth: [00:04:53] You know, I think, um, one doesn’t realize that until in hindsight, I, I think it was a very different journey than maybe a male would have had at the same time. But when you’re in thick of it and you’re in the fight, you’re just looking out for the next day and the work you’re doing, you know, you don’t really consider what your gender is or what your, you know, you’re just working.
And I think when you get older and you can look at it from a little bit of distance and you’re like, Oh wait, you know, I think there was a difference there. And there was maybe I didn’t get the same opportunities as a woman, but at that moment, honestly, I didn’t think of it even once.
Brett Stanley: [00:05:27] Do you think that it was something that was regardless of how hard it was going to be? It was something that you were going to achieve anyway, because you’re driven. You’re that type of person.
Priya Seth: [00:05:37] um, yes, I think I didn’t even think about my gender ever coming in the way of what I wanted to do. And that’s because of the way I was brought up. And the kind of school I went to. So, um, interestingly, I went to a, all girls boarding school in India and it’s quite like the British system of boarding schools, you know?
So, um, it was like a public school. And, um, because it’s an all girls school, I think contrary to what people think you actually do disregard your agenda because there’s no boys to be pegged up against a compared to, or there’s no activities in school that, you know, it’s like the girls will do needlework and the boys do carpentry.
There’s none of that. You’re doing everything.
Brett Stanley: [00:06:11] which I guess is kind of a good thing.
Priya Seth: [00:06:13] absolutely. It’s only a good thing. So I came out without any idea that there was F my gender was ever going to be a limiting factor. It was in fact, always a positive and a plus, cause that’s just the kind of place I’d been in.
And the family had come from. So honestly, when I started working it, I honor, I didn’t care. I didn’t care that, you know, somebody had said this on, someone had said it to me a hundred times. It still wouldn’t have stopped me. And maybe if I had failed later on, that was something I would have looked back at, but it wasn’t going to stop me at all to go where I wanted to go.
Brett Stanley: [00:06:45] And what was your family like?
I mean, you, you, did you have a big family? Do you have brothers and sisters or is it, was it just you?
Priya Seth: [00:06:51] I have two brothers and a sister and they will older than I am. And, um, I’m the youngest. Which also is a good thing, I think, cause you always get your way. So I always, you know,
Brett Stanley: [00:07:02] I’m the, I’m the youngest as well. So yeah, I kind of
Priya Seth: [00:07:04] exactly right. So I mean, no matter what I’m going to get my way, however, I get it. and I think also growing up considering, you know, growing up in India and my family really had no film exposure at all. My father was a businessman. And my mother was a homemaker and she came from business family as well.
So I think when I said cinematography, it first took a few days for them to pronounce it because it was like cinema, cinema, what, you know. But, um, when they knew that I really wanted to do with, there was absolutely nothing to stop me from doing it. And, you know, at that point it was different in India, late nights, you having to travel late at night, public transport.
Is it safe? You’re working with 200 people on any film set, you know, they didn’t know anything, but they just, um, I was very, very fortunate to work with a DP in India, in Bombay, who was just, he actually in my formative years is probably the reason I actually could stick around in a completely male dominated industry where there was the point I started.
There was one other woman in the whole industry who was working. So it was the kind of person I was working with as well.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:08] Was that DP male or female
Priya Seth: [00:08:11] male. There were no female DTS. There were none. There was just another female assistant. And the only reason I went to him was because someone said, Oh, he has a woman assistant. And so maybe he’ll be open to hiring another woman. So go talk to him. That was it. There was nobody else in the country.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:25] And he was, he was totally open to it. Like he, was there any hesitation there or
Priya Seth: [00:08:29] not at all, not at all. Actually he was incredible. I mean, had to prove myself as much as anybody else would have to, to prove my craft and, you know, being a good assistant, but I never, for one second from him felt that he was either patronizing me because of my gender or, um, making me work extra hard because it was none of that.
I was just the same. I was treated exactly the same, which is
Brett Stanley: [00:08:51] Oh, that’s great. Yeah. So were films part of your growing up? Was that something that you were kind of getting into as you grew up and that’s why you wanted to become a cinematographer? Or was it something you kind of found later in life?
Priya Seth: [00:09:04] no, I was, it wasn’t part of my growing up life that much at all. In fact, because I went to boarding school, so we didn’t really have, we barely had television there. Like we had, I think, 15 minutes of television once a week. So, and on Sunday we got to watch some crappy. In the film, but there wasn’t really that much exposure to films.
And it wasn’t something that I grew up with, but it, I did chance upon this a lot later in life, which was, I mean, you know, 17, 18, I started working summer jobs in Bombay at a film production house, and that was just accident. And that’s when I actually discovered that this is what, um, I found it extremely fascinating.
And I think what it did is just combine every possible interest and skill that I had. And I think if you’re like a Jack of all trades and master of none, filmmaking’s a great place because you get to do everything.
Brett Stanley: [00:09:52] Yeah. But yeah, depending on the budget, I think you’ll, you’re either doing everything or, you know, just that one thing, if it’s
Priya Seth: [00:09:58] But you can have so many interests because every film I think is an amalgamation of, you know, whether it’s music, art, technology, science, history, you’re learning so many things. So I think if you have a curious mind, it’s a really interesting place to be, to be at.
Brett Stanley: [00:10:12] absolutely. And so how did you get into the underwater side of things? Was, was water, a big thing for you growing up?
Priya Seth: [00:10:18] Well, you know, um, um, yeah, I S I did swim a lot and, you know, the water was something that was exciting, but that’s not why this happened. I was already working in the industry and there is, um, this kind of the godfather of Indian advertising. This gentleman called Palatka Cukor. And he runs a diving school in the luxury violence, which is off India.
They’re part of India, these gorgeous islands. And he had started a diving school there, like many years before that. And people would go there and train. I had never been or even thought about it. It was something that was just not on my radar. I was only 18 at that point. Anyway. So it was not that, you know, one had traveled a lot 18 or 19 and I bumped into him somewhere and he just, um, I knew him because he was, you know, we’d worked, I’d worked with him and he looked at me and he said, you know, equipment’s going to be coming into the country, underwater cinematography equipment.
And it’s all young people like you who need to take the initiative and do stuff because who else is going to do it? Otherwise it’s going to show up and no one’s going to know what to do with it.
Brett Stanley: [00:11:16] with it.
Priya Seth: [00:11:16] I was like, yeah. I was like, Oh, okay. Let’s see. And, uh, yeah, my husband at the time was a, he’s a cinematographer as well.
So I asked him, I said, you want to go diving? And he was sure. So I was like, okay, let’s go. And we went diving and we got ourselves certified. And a month later, this equipment arrived and there was a first underwater shoot on this area, three housing hydroflasks, which had arrived from the U S and, um, um, we had to go back to the islands, which was a month before the monsoon.
So, which is sometime around now. And the monsoons, the sea gets it’s formidable. So we had to go out into the sea 11 dives old, never held a camera in our lives and go shoot an underwater sequence for a film.
Brett Stanley: [00:11:57] Oh, just like that.
Priya Seth: [00:11:59] just like that. And buoyancy was all over the place. I was upside down half the time, the camera somewhere else, you know?
So finally our instructor, we balanced this camera on his head and he was like a tripod. So he would turn it and move it. We knew nothing. And, uh, but. That was it. And I think there was no looking back because it was something that was just so incredibly exciting to take cinematography. And again, you know, I think the underwater part also is because I am, you know, I’m very athletic.
I did a lot of sports I played, you know, and I think just to be able to combine the two and do something that crazy was just such a incredible accident. And I’m so glad I found it.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:37] that’s, that’s amazing that it was, was there not much underwater cinematography in India before that?
Priya Seth: [00:12:42] So before that we didn’t have any housing that was based here. So there was stuff that would come in from Singapore for a particular job, but then it was like, if the, if you know, it could afford it, then they would fly down. Or we had something that was called the coffin, which was basically this box. It was like with these rivets and it was like a, you know, a box made out of wood and acrylic.
Yeah. Wood, exactly. Counter-intuitive which would have to be sunk with weights. And all you could do was put on the camera. So there was a cable that was running out where you could just plug in the battery and you could get pointed in the direction and hope you got the shot. And that was it. And I had worked on a job once for that, and I had no desire to be an underwater cinematographer looking at that.
So, um, um, yeah, so there were very few jobs because we didn’t really have any equipment. And as you know, yeah. So once it came in, of course, the minute it’s based in the country and people start seeing more of it, it also has to be written into stuff, you know, and then people started writing it into the scripts and slowly the more they saw and the more they got exposed to the more jobs we did.
People started writing more and more
Brett Stanley: [00:13:45] right. And the sort of things that you start working on, when did you start in the commercial world or you in features to start with?
Priya Seth: [00:13:53] for the underwater stuff. Both actually, because I was a, there were few of us doing it and I, I don’t know how I ended up doing most of the jobs from back then and until now. So it was whoever needed it. And I think in the beginning it was commercials because people are happy to experiment with like a few shots underwater or just one or two.
Kind of simple for a soap commercial or, you know, things like that or some beauty stuff. And then as, because it always takes a while for someone to write it into a script because it’s not just cosmetic, you know, it has to come into a story. So I think that took a little while for people to, um, write it in and then, um, so does both actually, cause I do, and now I end up doing actually all the underwater work.
It’s not just the. In Bombay, it’s all over the country. So all the pretty much 90% of the underwater work that happens in India, I ended up shooting all over for all the showrooms.
Brett Stanley: [00:14:44] And how quickly did that happen for you? Like, was it a period of years for you to kind of make a name as the underwater person? Or was it pretty quick.
Priya Seth: [00:14:53] No, it took a while. I think because also underwater is such a niche job and that’s not the only thing that I shot, you know, I was shooting. I shoot commercials and films and things like that. So it’s as many jobs as that are available and sometimes they’ll be, you know, maybe. One every two months, sometimes you could be shooting two a month.
It just depends, but I think it did take awhile, but, uh, somehow, you know, I think I did gain some notice for doing underwater work early on. And also, you know, I think it’s like being a, I’m an animal in a zoo. I was a woman who shooting underwater in India. So I think there was this novelty factor as well, which kind of gets you noticed a bit early on.
Brett Stanley: [00:15:31] uh, yeah. I, I guess, you know whether for, you know, for good or for bad, it would make you stand out if you’re the, the, the woman, the underwater woman. Yeah.
Priya Seth: [00:15:39] underwater woman. Exactly.
Brett Stanley: [00:15:41] Yeah. Do you prefer the advertising over the features or are they just sort of play to play with each other?
Priya Seth: [00:15:48] Oh gosh, no. I prefer features of advertising any day when I’m shooting underwater, because for features we get to actually, um, So what ends up happening is that we get called in early on for a feature underwater job. And it’s normally narrative storytelling, right? Because it’s not just a couple of shots like an advertising.
So, you know, most often they action sequences. So from anything like a car, being the crashing into the water and people, you know, something like that or various things. So it’s far more interesting because you actually have to craft a piece of narrative work, which fits seamlessly into someone else’s vision of what a film of the film that they’re making and still tell the story correctly.
So for me, that’s very exciting because since I also shoot films, I am a cinematographer. To be able to collaborate with another cinematographer is not something you get to do normally. So it’s very exciting. You get to, you know, you have a collective vision of something. And I always asked for the footage of what they’ve shot before and after, because there’s no conceit in this job when I’m doing underwater work, it has to fit in with what the story is trying to do.
If it shines out and just stands apart, then I would have completely failed as a cinematographer. And as a skill that I should be having of also blending in and being invisible in the storytelling.
Brett Stanley: [00:17:05] Yeah, absolutely. And do you work a lot with other DPS? do you often do an entire production as the cinematography yourself or are you mostly being slotted in as the underwater person?
Priya Seth: [00:17:18] No, I shoot a lot by myself as well. I do. Um, I shot an action film a couple of years ago. I shot, you know, so I shoot movies and I shoot. So I shoot a lot. That’s what I primarily do is I shoot by myself. It’s only on underwater work that I get to collaborate, which is also, you know, maybe 12 jobs a year.
It’s not that much, but because they’re so intense and it takes four to five days, it ends up being a lot of work. And even in those probably 50, 50 collaborative, because a lot of the jobs. The DPS don’t, you know, they don’t need to be there because they can, they know that there’s another DP on the job.
So, you know, we discuss it and, you know, I get the vision and I execute it, but on certain jobs and like, I would like to be on a set if someone else was shooting my underwater work, a lot of DPS like to be there so that they can also, um, just control their vision. So those are the ones which are collaborative.
Brett Stanley: [00:18:06] Right. So with, uh, with what I know of the Indian film industry, and I’m going to say Bollywood, because that’s kind of what it is from the outside for me, Bollywood. is a lot of big musical numbers. It’s usually some sort of love story. There’s some sort of action in there. Is that just what I’m seeing from outside?
Is there more to it, uh, from the inside, are you doing more of, more of a range of story that storylines then
Priya Seth: [00:18:33] Yeah. So I think what you’re describing is what Bollywood used to be. That’s absolutely accurate, but I think in the last 10 years or so, it’s changed quite a lot. You know, there’s been a lot more. Variety in the works a lot varied storytelling. Uh, the song and dance has gone down quite a lot, a lot, in fact.
Yeah. So we don’t have too much of that. In fact, the film that I did didn’t have any, and it’s not necessary anymore. And I think the good part also of, um, having so much international exposure for people watching stuff in India is they’re not only looking for that anymore. You know, earlier it was, you just watched your own stuff and you’re tied in your own loop, watching Bollywood stuff.
People didn’t understand. You know the language it was. So now we get all English films that are dubbed in various regional languages. So everyone down to the lowest common denominator is exposed to international films. So they understand that they don’t necessarily need a song and dance to have narrative storytelling.
And, uh, and also just the industry’s grown right with exposure. It’s grown, storytelling has changed. It’s become far more contemporary. So, uh, that used to be Bollywood of the past. It isn’t anymore.
Brett Stanley: [00:19:37] right. And did you, do you have a preference for how it works? Do you prefer that the sort of evolved Bollywood or do you have a nostalgia for the old Bollywood,
Priya Seth: [00:19:48] I have no nostalgia for the old Bollywood. I have no knowledge of it. I don’t, I don’t really understand it. It’s not something I grew up watching or. Imbibing or it’s not my aesthetic, really. So I’m, I quite enjoy where it’s going because it allows people like us to be a part of it. Firstly and the old Bollywood would have no space for women.
So I have no nostalgia for it.
Brett Stanley: [00:20:10] Oh, right. Okay. Yeah, that’s a good point. Um, so what answer did the, the films you’ve been working on recently, what sort of, uh, shots have you been doing under the water? What sort of scenes have they been?
Priya Seth: [00:20:21] so it is interesting. Um, in this last six months, actually we’ve done, you know, like these big underwater jobs for films, one was for this. Um, it was an action film, which was based during the time of this was pre Indian independence. So it was like the, it was a battle in, I think, 1840s or something. So it was a period film.
It was about the first, it was about the first freedom fighter. So to speak, who fought against the British, we’re still doing that.
Yeah. So, um, um, it was a film about that and so what we had done was we had made this set of a submerged tempo in the South. And, um, the sequence was that the freedom fight, the fighter is fighting with this Englishman.
Who’s obviously raped and pillaged and looted with his people. They’ve ripped the village. And now the, the guy, the protagonist chases him into the river and there’s a submerged temple there. And he then has a fight with him underwater in the middle of these ruins, which is quite beautiful. And then he hacks his head off.
It was. 18 hundreds. And this was still, we have the flare for the dramatic still in India. Yeah. We don’t forget that. And he hacks his head off and the head flies out of the water. So that was the sequence. But what was interesting about it was that, um, we actually shot the whole sequence in a pool and we had built the whole set on these cranes and suspended it into the swimming pool and cover the background with, um, You know, like, cause the water was meant to be slightly murky river water.
So we had put this kind of a canvassy background in the depth and created some layering with that. We put in a lot of weeds into the water and there was a lot of, um, on the surface we had a lot of water jets, which are creating sort of surface current. So even when we were looking up, like there was a sense of river flowing by with leaves and things like that.
Yeah. So there’s a really interesting sequence and it was, um, it took us, I think, five days to shoot. And the actor was a slightly older gentleman and he’s like a huge superstar, but he couldn’t really, wasn’t comfortable getting very deep down in the water. So he did have some rudimentary training, but what we did was the set was suspended.
We would take it deep down where we wanted to do Duke shots and which were wider, where we would actually see like super wides with the surface. And then when we needed to shoot with him, we would lift the set and suspended mid water. So we could shoot with him far shallower and cheated there because he was very uncomfortable and slightly claustrophobic.
Brett Stanley: [00:22:48] Oh, wow. That’s, that’s a really interesting way of doing it. So, so you actually got this set that is able to move to different depths depending on what you’re wanting to shoot.
Priya Seth: [00:22:56] Yeah, we do that a lot actually, because in Bollywood, as you can imagine, we shoot with a lot of actors and actresses. And a lot of them do do the entire training program, but a lot can’t or uncomfortable or hydrophobic, et cetera. So then what we do is we try and do it with, you know, doubles and we do all the white stuff really deep down.
And the whole set is suspended, often industrial crane. And then we just keep moving it as in when we want, how much ever the minimum possible requirements. So we don’t stress the actors out because it’s also insurance and stuff like that. You know, these are big actors and actresses. So to be mindful of that, yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:23:30] so, I mean, you must have some really classic actors there. Like you say, like, you know, you know, the industry has been going for a long time. You might have some actors who have been in the industry for, you know, their lives, like 40 years or 50 years. And now they’re doing an underwater scene. How do they, how do they approach it?
Is it, do you have people who are really like, yeah, this is amazing. Like, are they really getting into it?
Priya Seth: [00:23:51] so I think what has happened now because of, uh, my colleague, his name, he runs this company called underwater film services. He’s a diver with, I think 30 years of experience, he’s very, very highly regarded in India, just as a dive instructor. And, you know, he’s kind of helped set up the diving scene here.
So we work together and he comes with such a high reputation that when actors even meet him, once you know that you’re in very safe hands. And I think we’ve developed a reputation between us, with the team that we have. So even if they are slightly wary of it and it is something that’s very new, they just know that.
There is a system in place. The training is going to be very like detailed. It’s going to be done slowly. You know, any, my colleague even takes, he has a storyboard with him. So what he does is he will then train the actors to achieve those specific shots as well, so that every, they do it very slowly and they take a lot of time over it so that they’re very comfortable because as you can imagine, the worst enemy of, you know, going underwater is panic.
So we try to take that out of the picture entirely and most people on board, because it’s also exciting, you know, it’s a new skill for everyone and unless you’re terribly hydrophobic or claustrophobic, most people are up for the ride. I mean, actors and actresses like to do new things. So, you know, I think everyone’s on board.
Brett Stanley: [00:25:08] Yeah. And I think people like the challenge and I think a lot of actors, it helps them do their character as well. If they, if they can do these things and do their own stunts to a certain degree, I think it helps them be that character a bit more. Yeah.
Priya Seth: [00:25:22] absolutely. And I think what’s ended up happening in a few of the recent jobs. I don’t know if it’s, it’s coincidental that a lot of the climax of the films have been underwater. So then they do want to be a part of it, right? Because it is a culmination of the story. And then suddenly you see the whole thing with dupes, just as an actor yourself.
I think you’ll feel cheated out of it. So they all willing to make the effort. They work really hard and train really hard. So it’s been good actually.
Brett Stanley: [00:25:44] Oh, that’s amazing. And what’s your crew like if you’re, so you’ve got a niece, who’s doing a lot of the training and I assume he’s doing safety with you as well.
Priya Seth: [00:25:52] yes. So he runs the safety team and the training and he’s comes from a film background actually, which is what makes it really good. So he’s um, yeah, so he does all of that part. Then I have an underwater focus below. so we have the option of either pulling focus from the surface or from underwater, depending on how mobile I need to be and what I really, you know, how, where I want my focus puller.
Sometimes I like it better on the surface because if we’re shooting in the day and exposure is varying a lot, it’s much easier for him to judge it there and fix it there with the DIT, because on the underwater monitor, sometimes it’s just, you know, there’s too much of a reflection and stuff like that.
But if it’s something that I want, my folks pull the right tech as a work is quite critical and precise, then, you know, we pull from underwater, have the option of doing both, which is great. And, um, I have an underwater gaffer who works with me, even above water. He’s been working there for about seven years now.
He works with me on everything. Yeah. And he went and got trained himself because he started working with me and loved the idea. So he went out and got trained. It’s come back certified. He also shoots he’s a VP himself. So he shoots stuff himself. Otherwise he works with me. So I have my whole crew that I work with above water.
They come under water, which is great because it’s just, the understanding is a hundred percent.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:05] and that’s the most important thing I think with, with the crew is having that trust and that understanding, and especially under water, knowing what’s about to happen or what needs to happen because you can’t communicate apart from hand signals. So I guess you guys have got a little bit of intuitiveness to know
Priya Seth: [00:27:21] Absolutely. Absolutely. You’re so right about that. Yeah. And just, um, yeah. So even with my focus bill underwater, I don’t understand how he understands what I say, because I don’t even know what I’m trying to say half the time I look at him and he knows exactly what to do. Like how the hell did you figure that out?
I didn’t say anything.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:36] And that’s perfect. You know, that that’s the best way to do it. Um, I was speaking to, um, to Pete Romano recently who runs hydro flex, as you
Priya Seth: [00:27:43] Of course the
Brett Stanley: [00:27:44] Yeah. And so he’s got amazing stories, but what know his thing is that his, uh, underwater grip, uh, or even focused blow at the time, he basically Wednesdays, when he’s finished shooting a shot, he basically throws the, the housing over his head and it just expects it to be caught.
Priya Seth: [00:27:59] Yeah. That’s exactly what I do. Cause I’m done with the short, mid suppose, like a long, complicated tracking shot. I know you’ve moved forward in the actors, like gone off. I just leave the housing and I know it’s going to get caught. It’s exactly that. And I think that’s the level of trust you need with your underwater crew.
Brett Stanley: [00:28:14] Oh, exactly. Yeah. Cause you could, there’s so much safety and um, trust as well because you’ve got to have each other’s backs. If anything goes wrong, you’ve got to be, uh, prepared. Um, especially if you’re pulling focus on the housing, you know, you have to know what your operator is about to do so that you’re not hindering them and stopping them from doing the movements that they need to do.
Priya Seth: [00:28:34] absolutely. And it boggles my mind to know how anyone pulls focus on the water. I don’t understand it myself because yeah, cause the actor’s breathing and moving back and forth. I’m moving and you know, when you’re on land, you can see the adjustments because you know, if I’m handheld, you can still see me moving or leaning forward here with constantly heaving and rocking and you know, the water is moving.
And then this guy pulls focus. And again, all these jobs are to be projected onto the big screen. Cause that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing, you know, big cinema theatrical stuff, and it’s all crack shop. And I just don’t understand it. I don’t
Brett Stanley: [00:29:08] no, it’s insane. Are you, are you working with, um, with film anymore or are you primarily digital?
Priya Seth: [00:29:15] No, it’s all digital now, but you know, I think if I were to hazard a guess, we were shooting film a lot later than anywhere else in the world underwater because we didn’t get the housing until much later because we’re quite dependent on Pete largest says and sending housings to India and letting them remain here because we just have one.
So till the gen, till the rental house in India could actually convince people to part with one of them. We were shooting on film. So we were shooting on 35 mil film four till very recently.
Brett Stanley: [00:29:45] how recently, how, how long ago did the housing turnip?
Priya Seth: [00:29:49] I would say not more than five years ago, four
years ago. Yeah. Yeah, marching too much after we were shooting digital on land, like we were shooting on Alexa and stuff like that. We were well into it. And then we started shooting I maybe wrong by a year or so, but it was very late
Brett Stanley: [00:30:04] And so you were, you was still shooting the film underwater at the, up until that point, because of the lack of a housing in lack of a digital housing,
Priya Seth: [00:30:12] Yeah. Yeah. So we were shooting on the , which is what the housing was 400 mil mags. It sounds crazy. We were going out into the sea into more leaves and going like 20 foot, 20 feet deep into the water and shooting on 400 foot mags up recently. I can’t believe we actually did that. Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:30:30] And so did you have folks you would have had a focus puller in the water then?
Priya Seth: [00:30:34] Yes. Yes, yes. Yeah. Same focus pillar. So he would be in the water and it was, the wheel was on the urethra. It was still attached to the housing. So he would pull from that. Well, now we have a remote housing on the water, so he can just be at least a little distant away from me.
Brett Stanley: [00:30:46] That’s interesting. Do you have a preference for film or digital?
Priya Seth: [00:30:50] Um, I’m not going to ride that nostalgia boat, especially for underwater stuff. There is no comparison. Digital’s better. Because it’s just too hard, you know, especially when you’re shooting long form work and every four and a half minutes to get that housing out and change mags, and then you don’t know what’s happening.
And just the time that it took, so it’s far easier, everyone can watch them. And you know what? The thing with underwater work is, no one really knows apart from the crew, who’s doing it, what it entails and what’s going on. And every time you’re shooting at someone most often, it is for the first time that they’re doing something like underwater, you know, like an underwater scene in a film and the more uncertainty you take away from it and the clearer they are, the more comfortable they are.
And the more they’re willing to experiment and actually push the form and the narrative form of storytelling, shooting on the water. So with digital, they can see the correct image up. And they can judge it and you can light it and everything is clear. Everyone’s more comfortable and it just makes it an easier work environment with the area three video assist.
No one really was happening so that it’s looking under to me. And I was like, no, trust me. I’m looking through the optical viewfinder. It’s fine. And as it is, it’s so uncertain. So I’m, there’s no comparison for me.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:01] There was an interesting thing with, with Pete. When I spoke to him a few weeks ago, where he was, you know, going from the film to digital, the main thing he, he, he loved about digital was having a monitor. So with the film, you’ve got your eye pressed up against that IPS. Um, and you’re in that world, you’re in that tunnel vision, but as soon as he kind of moved into having the monitor, he could then move the camera in ways that he couldn’t before, because it was attached to his head basically. Is it, is it the same for you? Do you find the same thing with the, with the digital that you can move that camera and in, in more creative ways?
Priya Seth: [00:32:37] Oh, absolutely. And I think the other point is to elaborate what Pete said is because it was an optical viewfinder and your eye had to be stuck to that because if you didn’t like what leaking, even from the front and sometimes if you’re not well balanced or something, and you lost control of, you know, where you were and you’ve got this big fat mask that’s sitting on your eye.
You would get light leaking into the viewfinder from your side, which was just such a it’s, you know, it’s such an avoidable thing, but it’s such a shame.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:06] and that would then affect the film.
Priya Seth: [00:33:08] Of course. It’s like looking through any optical viewfinder. Yeah. So that was another issue. And you’re always paranoid about that. So of course you had, that’s the reason he said, yeah, we stuck to it because you couldn’t even let it go and guesstimate the shot.
Because you would get a lightly, you could plug in the viewfinder, there was a little cap there, but you know, even just move it a little bit, you can do that. So you have to constantly move your body. So it became quite rigid and he’s absolutely right. So the kind of camera movements, cause I can swing the monitor anywhere you like.
And of course it’s opened it up and Dheilly.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:37] that’s incredible. And that was something that I hadn’t thought about was the light lakes coming in from the back.
Priya Seth: [00:33:41] Yeah. Well that was a donut that was terrorizing.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:44] I bet. Yeah. Cause you’d be, yeah, you’d be terrified that it would happen and, uh, and ruin the shot So now that you can move the camera in such more creative ways, are there some, some scenes that are your, that you’ve shot like that you’re really proud of because of the creative use of the camera.
Priya Seth: [00:33:59] I think what happens now is, and I don’t think it’s a particular scene, but what ends up happening, the more you do this and the more I think. It sounds a bit pretentious to say it, but the more one you become with the camera, because I think your diving skills and your operating skills, just get so fine tuned that you no longer have that separation between yourself and this huge, big, fat camera that you’re actually holding, which is quite enormous.
And, um, you know, cause we have the remote housing in India, which is really big. It’s like almost like a big, I think it’s three feet. So it’s a really big piece of equipment and it’s not, it is aerodynamic or whatever, water dynamic, but it’s big. But I think the more you develop your skill and hone your craft for me now, I find no separation between myself and the camera and I can actually move it with my body and I can move it exactly how I feel like without actually having to think so much about the camera movement.
So it’s made my camera movement a lot more fluid because, um, I just feel like it’s a part of my body and on it’s an extension of my body, which is, I think it takes a while to reach. And now that I’ve reached it, I just find that the most beautiful part of it.
Brett Stanley: [00:35:06] Yeah, absolutely. And I think that is, that is something that comes over time. When you first get into underwater. You’re so excited about being underwater and having this camera. And it’s a very conscious decision, every movement, because you’ve got to control your body. You’ve got to control your buoyancy.
Every breath can change the direction that you’re going in. But once you get more, as you say, like more simpatico with the. The housing and it becomes an extension of your body. You can really do things a lot more fluid you’re not thinking about every little motion. It’s it’s you just want to, I want to be over there and I want the camera to move this way and you just do it rather than thinking about the mechanics of how to do every step
Priya Seth: [00:35:47] and it’s interesting. And what people don’t actually even realize is that it’s not only about, you know, moving just the camera. One is about how am I going to move the camera? The second thing is your breathing. You have to control your breath so much. And so mindfully because every breath will affect the way the camera moves.
Underwater. So you need to either not like so many shots, you know, you hold your breath for the entire duration of the shot and a lot of the shots where you’re, you know, at the bottom of a pool or the bottom of wherever and tilt it up and it’s your own bubbles, that’ll come in your own trim. So not only are you watching how you’re operating the camera, you actually have to control your breathing, which is something that people just take for granted when you’re shooting on land, you know, you breathe and you do what you’re doing, but for us, we need to control that.
So, uh, consciously.
Brett Stanley: [00:36:30] absolutely. Yeah. And even things like swimming backwards, like, you know, if you’re doing a shot where you’ve got to swim backwards and having your own fins in the shot or seeing your own bubbles kind of slowly drifted into frame, You have to work out the logistics of your own body and your own breathing.
Priya Seth: [00:36:45] And I think that’s where the experience comes in. You know, after so many years of someone’s like in the beginning, it would be like a backward tracking shot. You’re like, okay, how the hell do I even figure this out? Cause first I figured out the camera, then your own body, then you’re right. The fins your bubbles, how do you actually fin backwards without the camera going crazy.
And I think, you know, you work out these things over years and over experience. And by now to get to the point where you can disregard, um, camera movement, which is how I like to see it. It just moves as I want to move.
Brett Stanley: [00:37:10] It’s a total extension of your body. It just does what you want it to. Yeah. Um, so you mentioned the Maldives, is that, are you going to a lot of awesome locations like that? Are you, are you doing much open water stuff as opposed to tanks?
Priya Seth: [00:37:23] So, um, in the beginning there was a lot more open water stuff, which is so exciting, you know, we would go to Malaysia and where we’re located in such an interesting place in India, that everything is just a couple of flights away or one flight away, all the best diving places in the world. So we traveled a lot and we would go to everywhere, leaves, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maurisha South Africa, shoot underwater everywhere.
And for some reason in the last few years I find more and more tank work. And also I end up recommending a lot more and more tank work because I think it’s much more controlled and easier to execute in a tank. And I kind of describe it as a, to being inside a studio where you can light it, control it.
And once you’re over the excitement of being in the open sea and, you know, traveling and stuff like that. I think now it’s about getting the job done for the best possible capacity. And in nine out of 10 times, I found that the tank is better.
Brett Stanley: [00:38:17] Right. Are you finding that the special effects are playing a bigger role in that as well? Like you’re shooting in a tank and then using CGI afterwards to kind of make it a bit more like the open water
Priya Seth: [00:38:28] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And maybe that’s one of the reasons you’re right. Is because there’s so much, CJ has become so much better and cheaper. And, um, also when we don’t fulfill them is when you’re shooting action sequences and things like that to go out into the sea and shoot them is just impossible.
So it does make sense. You know, you’ve got a car crashing into the water. What are you going to do? You’ve got boats, overturning gaps. Yeah. Things like that. So it just makes more sense. And with the kind of CGI we have now, it is so much simpler to light it over a 12 hour day where you haven’t got shifting light, shoot it and give it to them and let them do the believability part of it.
Brett Stanley: [00:39:05] yeah. As long as you’ve captured the, the performance side of it, they can do everything else.
Priya Seth: [00:39:09] Yeah. And you know, you lightened well and you light it for whatever the end goal is. And I think one has enough skill to do that. It blends really well. So I don’t think so. Yeah. I think that’s a large part of the reason we’re not going out to the open sea a lot. You’re right.
Brett Stanley: [00:39:22] Um, are there data tanks in Mumbai that you use a lot? Are they, do you have any indoor underwater stages or is it all outdoor
Priya Seth: [00:39:30] it’s all outdoor. We have nothing in India. We work with very little, we work with two underwater lights and we work with a one underwater housing and a swimming pool that we’re lucky enough to have kind of modified and put extra filtration it’s outdoors and it’s outside the city, but it works beautifully for us.
Cause you can park. Big fat cranes on the side, you know, saying you can suspend the sets if you want to put cars in things like that. Cause that’s a lot of the kind of work that I ended up doing is a lot of action on the water. So it allows for all of that and we can rig up lights, things like that. So we’ve kind of now modified it more and more, and it works really well, but it’s outdoors, but it’s fine.
It doesn’t really matter.
Brett Stanley: [00:40:07] Yeah. You learn to work with what you have.
Priya Seth: [00:40:10] Exactly.
Brett Stanley: [00:40:11] What projects do you have coming up if you’ve got things in the works already, or is it because, you know, things are on hold, uh, is the future uncertain at this point?
Or do you have projects that are already kind of locked in.
Priya Seth: [00:40:22] Oh, you know, I have a lot of projects that were locked in and then of course we just froze everything and going by what’s happening at the moment in India. We don’t really see any big, long form work starting before October. So we might do a little of advertising and things like that, but I don’t see going into an underwater shoot or a feature film, what I was supposed to do before October.
And also under what issues I’d be really worried about putting regulators in North pieces and, you know, I mean, putting things in my mouth, in the current scenario, so, and water and, you know, it’s just so I don’t yeah. Solely under what our work has pushed as well. Let’s see. Right now with thick in the middle of the whole pandemic in India.
So, um, it’s going to be awhile.
Brett Stanley: [00:41:02] prayer, this has been amazing. Um, it’s really awesome to hear what’s happening in India and, and your kind of story of, of kind of growing up there and, and getting into cinematography and especially underwater.
Um, thanks so much for sharing all this with me.
Priya Seth: [00:41:15] It’s been an absolute pleasure. I really enjoyed chatting with you.
Brett Stanley: [00:41:18] okay. Good. Um, and hopefully we’ll do it again sometime.
Priya Seth: [00:41:20] Sure. Absolutely. And I’m going to go back and I’m, now that I’m done with cooking and cleaning for nine weeks, I’m going to go back and listen to all the podcasts and actually see what you’ve been doing.
Brett Stanley: [00:41:30] Well, I hope you enjoy them. Yeah.
Priya Seth: [00:41:32] I will, I’m
sure I will.
Brett Stanley: [00:41:34] Thanks for ya.