Pursuing a career of your dreams is never easy because there are no references to follow nor are there any fallback options. But nothing beats the joy of doing what you love !
Sheffy George, our next pathbreaker, works as a freelance Director of Photography on short formats, Camera Operator and 1st Assistant Cameraman for longer formats.
Sheffy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up cinematography after working as an Assistant Director !
For students, we often look at our career from a societal lens, doing what we are expected to do. But creating your own unique path is as gratifying as it is challenging !
Sheffy, tell us about your growing up years?
I am the youngest of three siblings – my sister being the eldest, followed by my brother – born to parents who taught in the same school that I started and completed my schooling in. Being absolutely honest with you, I was never a bright student, unlike my siblings. I’d say I was just about borderline average. I had zero ambition in life. All I ever wanted to do was hang out with my friends and play sports all the time, particularly cricket. During vacations and holidays, we’d start playing early in the morning and continue till well past lunch hour. Those were the best days of my life, living without the burden of responsibilities. While others went to churches, temples and other places of worship to pray, cricket was my religion. The game became such an integral part of my life that at one point in life, after spending close to five years in the corporate world after graduating, I quit it to attempt pursuing cricket professionally. Briefly, at least!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated in BSc (Information Technology) from Mumbai University, the first batch of the newly introduced course at that time. After graduating, while working, there had been thoughts of pursuing an MBA/MS either in India or overseas and I did give a few entrance exams around the time. But I soon realized that I had no inclination towards these vocations. More than a decade after graduating, while working in the film industry, I took a six-month sabbatical to pursue a technical certification course in Cinematography from the Mindscreen Film Institute in Chennai as I believed that I needed to gain technical understanding of the craft of Cinematography.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Well, the simplest explanation would be that I wanted to make my life count and not do something that neither made sense to me nor brought any sort of happiness to my life. I had learnt that being part of the rat race in the corporate set-up didn’t bring me any form of joy. So, in essence, I’d have been miserable if I’d not have followed my dreams.
One thing that stuck with me was something that my brother said to me once long ago, when I wanted to take the road less travelled and pursue my dreams. It was somewhere on the lines of, “To comment on somebody else’s life while sitting in the passenger seat is the easiest thing to do but to be in the driver’s seat takes courage.” I chose to sit in the driver’s seat.
Tell us about your career path
So, as I mentioned earlier, I graduated in IT and then started by working as a web content developer in a company that handled the backend maintenance of Dell’s website. Thereafter, I got into content writing and management. Then, courtesy of that experience, I joined The Times of India. I got a good designation and a salary that was almost a 200% increase over the pay I got in my previous job. However, I didn’t enjoy my job much. One of the reasons I realized was that I was too restless an individual (ADHD, perhaps?) and didn’t like the idea of being stuck in a desk job. But the best part about being at ToI was that I was part of the cricket team and we’d have net practice for two hours in the morning from 7AM-9AM before we headed to our respective desks. I looked forward to each day for those two hours of bliss in the mornings and with the prospect of representing the company in the Times Shield tournament. I was just coming off a shoulder surgery. But that didn’t keep me from playing the moment the opportunity arose.
As luck would have it, recession struck and I got the pink slip. That was sort of like a wake up call for me. I told myself that I have one life and I’d rather try my luck at something I love and fail than fail to try it. I had some savings and I gave myself one year to make an attempt to follow my dreams. While my friends and peers were getting fat paychecks, I, at the age of 26, was a jobless soul wanting to make my life count. I joined a cricket club and played for them for a few months, which I would consider as amongst the most memorable days of my life because those days taught me a lot about life and myself.
Though I didn’t go further in that sphere of life, it was around this time that I’d started developing a love for cinema. I started watching it from a different lens (no pun intended). As luck would have it, I got a call to work at Aamir Khan Productions. And the man himself, Mr Aamir Khan, took my interview. His wife, Ms Kiran Rao, who at that time was working on her maiden feature film, Dhobi Ghat, liked my work ethics and offered me the role to be her assistant. I worked there for close to a couple of years and then started freelancing as an Assistant Director on feature films, ad films and the likes. Some of the films won national and international recognition.
I started my journey as an AD by working for free on a few low-budget advertisements. For an outsider, it helped to gain entry into films and understand how the actual process of filmmaking is, how a film set functions, what are the protocols to be followed and adhered to. Being an AD, you get a broader idea about the project since you’re involved in the workings of all departments and need to ensure that all departments work in sync with the requirement of the film. Filmmaking is an expensive medium and an efficient AD will ensure that things function like clockwork on the film set. A slight delay here or there could mean that the shoot might go over schedule and thus entails additional expenditure for the Producer. An AD’s job in pre-production would involve auditioning and locking the cast, having costume trials, being in touch with the various departments and ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of execution plans, coordinating meetings with the various stakeholders and more. On set an AD’s job is to ensure that all that has been previously discussed is put into action and executed in the best possible manner.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to Cinematography?
You can either stagnate somewhere or always look for prospects to better your life. While working as an Assistant Director, I started developing a fascination for Cinematography. I knew that I needed to learn it from an institute if I had to make any inroads in the department. After a couple of years of contemplation, I decided to take a 6-month sabbatical and enrolled in a Cinematography course from Mindscreen Film Institute, Chennai. The theoretical and practical exposure helped immensely.
After returning from the course, I worked for a production house owned by Actor-Director Parvin Dabas as the in-house Director-Cinematographer. That then gave me the confidence to start my own production house, Eager Beaver Productions, for which I’ve done a few, small corporate videos, digital advertisements and trailers and poster designs for international independent feature-length projects.
In recent times, I’ve worked on feature films and web series as the 1st Assistant Cameraman, Second Unit Director of Photography and Additional Cameraperson.
Since this is such an unorganized sector, the only way people will notice you is through networking. I’m an extremely shy and introverted person. So, for someone like me, the going’s just that much tougher as I’m not a very outgoing person.
How did you get your first break?
Through a lot of networking. Being an outsider, I’d search for production house details online and reach out to them telephonically or send my CV across. I began maintaining an excel workbook with details of production houses in the country that I planned to apply to. I do it to this day. I have a database of over 2000 media companies/production houses and a phone contact list of over 10000 contacts. As they say, data is the new currency.
So, while engrossed in my ‘reach out’ programmes, my mother one day mentioned to me that her ex student, Advait Chandan (Director of Laal Singh Chaddha and Secret Superstar) was working in the film line and that perhaps I should reach out to him. He was working as the 1st AD on Dhobi Ghat at that time. I spoke to him and as luck would have it, they were looking for a new associate manager for Mr Aamir Khan. I was called for a meeting at a film post-production lab, where to my surprise, sat the man himself, Mr Aamir Khan, my interviewer. Needless to say, I passed the interview and took on this contract for a couple of months. I’d predominantly operate from his house and sometimes from the office. Around the time my tenure was about to end, Ms Rao, asked me if I’d want to be her assistant. I jumped at the offer. And so, I assisted her for close to two years, till the end of 2011. Since there were no immediate plans on starting a new project under their banner anytime soon, I felt the time was right to move on given that I was very keen to work on a film set. Thus began the journey of working as a freelance AD till 2015.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
*Finding work is the biggest challenge since you either need a godfather in the industry or you need to network like crazy
*Labour in India is very under-valued. People still think they’re doing you a favour by recruiting you and expect you to work for pittance. There’s no pay parity in the industry. While actors get a big chunk of the budget, technicians and crew that put in so many hours backstage, get small fees in comparison. Many-a-times, if someone isn’t very experienced, they end up working for free just to be a part of a film.
*It’s a very unorganized sector. We need better representation for technicians and artists.
*Working as a freelancer is tough. When one project ends, in essence, you’re jobless. So, the process of reaching out to people in the industry to ask for work, begins.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
I work as a freelance Director of Photography, Camera Operator and 1st Assistant Cameraman.
Skills needed would involve:
*People management, how to get the best out of your team that looks towards you for answers
*Technical understanding of cameras and other equipment.
*Being a team player
*Ability to work under immense pressure *Ability to think on your feet
*Persistence to work through extremely trying conditions, in all weather conditions and for long hours.
*If you’re working on a feature film or web series, you’ll be away from home for long stretches of time. Your crew would become like a family that you spend upwards of 12 hours daily with.
*Honesty and sincerity towards your art and craft and exceptional work ethics.
How does your work benefit society?
If you have a dream job, chase it. You don’t want to repent later in life that you didn’t give it your all to make it happen. If you fail in the process, so be it. Many-a-times failure is a far better teacher than success. You might notice that your peers are moving ahead in life, making more money, leading a better lifestyle. But nothing beats the joy of pursuing your dreams. Remember, your efforts will bear fruit one day or the other if you stick to your goals. Don’t run after money. Let it be a by-product of what you choose as your career path. Be true to yourself and your work. Have great work ethics that people will notice and hire you again for. Your work should speak for itself. And, network! Network! Network!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
There’s no one specific day that sticks out. My journey has been a collection of several memorable moments, one way or another.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
No two journeys need to be alike. For all you know, you may reach your destination faster than the person counseling you.
Be confident and carpe diem.
To continue pursuing and living my dream, one day at a time. Work on many more interesting projects and hope to inspire many more generations to come.