On The Road: Kiril Dobrev Talks About Filming in India for Videvo
Back in May, we sent cameraman and editor, Kiril Dobrev, on a trip to India to capture what makes this vibrant country so special. The outcome was a large collection of clips that offer just a small insight into the variety and splendour of three major cities: New Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. Kiril’s footage – whether of major Indian landmarks and places of cultural heritage, or simply unique moments of everyday life – is a testament to the wonderful experiences to be had filming all over the world. We enjoyed watching the footage so much that we asked Kiril to tell you all a bit about his experiences in India: what he enjoyed and found difficult, what he learnt, and how he got the most out of just a few days of shooting.
Here’s what he had to say:
I’d often heard stories of the chaos of India but I had never experienced it for myself until the moment I first stepped out of New Delhi airport. A swarm of people surrounded me asking if I needed a taxi, a sim card, a tour; each person was competing for my attention. Even as a relatively experienced traveller, I knew at that point that this trip was going to be challenging, yet fascinating: I had just touched down and was about to spend 7 days shooting my journey across 1700 kilometres of North India.
As India is such a massive country. I did a fair amount of research and planning prior to my arrival in order to figure out how to best spend my time. The honest truth is you need a lot longer than just one week but, like most people, I had a time constraint. Many suggested that if I was pressed for time, I ought to do the ‘golden triangle,’ a sightseeing circuit that consists of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (forming a triangle shape on the map).
However, because I had heard so much about its religious ceremonies, and because I also really wanted to see the Ganges river, I sacrificed Jaipur in order to add the holy city of Varanasi to the list. In hindsight, skipping Jaipur was a good idea since I was already trying to cover so much in so little time.
I am a run-and-gun kind of film-maker so I do not tend to travel with a lot of gear. It’s also important for me to travel light as it can be very taxing carrying a lot of things over the course of a day.
My camera bag included a Panasonic Lumix GH4 which was armed with 3 lenses:
- Canon 24-105 L F4.0
- Canon 35mm F2.0
- Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM
I use the metabones speedbooster XL 0.64x to adapt my camera to take Canon EF lenses. The GH4 is a great little camera, but its biggest downfall is the small sensor. Having a M4T sensor means you get a 2x crop so that the picture is half of what you’ll see on a full frame sensor. The other issue is that the GH4 is not fit for shooting in low light environments. The speedbooster is great at resolving the GH4’s weaknesses; firstly, it reduces the crop factor by 0.64x which means that you can bring that crop factor back to a near-full frame equivalent. The other benefit is that it allows more light to come onto the sensor, giving your lenses an extra 1 ⅓ stops of light.
To achieve some more cinematic shots I also used a Zhiyun Crane pistol grip gimbal. I’m a big fan of using movement as it makes a shot far more immersive.
My trip started in the capital city of New Delhi, a bustling city that offers a taste of both old and modern-day India. I spent two days meandering through the city on tuk tuks, which were an affordable and novel way of getting around.
Some of the places I visited were Jama Masjid mosque, India Gate, the Presidential buildings, Khan Market, and the Akshardham temple. I also spent a fair amount of time simply getting lost in the back alleys and trying to capture typical daily life. This is often what excites me the most.
My next stop was the city of Agra, home of the iconic Taj Mahal. It’s a relatively short distance from New Delhi (five or six hours by bus) and is a popular route for day trip tourists. I decided not to do a day trip because I wanted to walk through the gates at sunrise. If you are able to, I would highly recommend visiting the Taj Mahal when it opens at 6am. Not only do you get the best light, but it’s the only time of day when there aren’t hoards of tourists getting in the way of that perfect shot. By 7am the place already starts to feel crowded.
Varanasi – also called the cultural capital of India – was easily the highlight of my trip. It is situated 600 kilometers east of Agra and is almost in the middle of nowhere. After a 12 hour bus ride, I arrived in a city which assaulted all of my senses, and I loved it. I spent most of my time there wandering all along the ghats (see picture below) of the river Ganges.
I would wake up every morning before dawn in order to watch the city come to life and see the people begin to gather and bathe in the Ganges. There were people bathing, praying, practicing yoga, and holy sadhus painting their faces. This is a way of life for the locals and is spectacular to see. You can even get a boat tour in the morning / evening for as little as 300 rupees (under $5).
Every night, the people of Varanasi will throng back to the river to take part in a religious ritual of worship called Aarti. It is an absolute spectacle to watch: people in traditional attire sing songs and lamps are burned as an offering to their deity.
The one thing to know about Varanasi is that filming the burning ceremonies where they cremate the deceased is prohibited. The Ganges is central to Varanasi life and death; you are cleansed by the water from the river, cremated in a fire that has been burning for over 2000 years, and your ashes are then put back into the river. I was warned that photography is forbidden because it impedes the soul’s journey to Nirvana.
Though I couldn’t film the cremation ceremonies, I did want to capture people bathing and praying in the morning which, perhaps not surprisingly, often proved to be quite difficult.
In general, I find that filming people is one of the toughest things to do. For me, capturing people on film is so important because it reveals so much more of a country and delves deeper into the culture of a place than regular tourist sites and activities allow for. The trouble is that, more often than not, people don’t like being in front of a camera.
Though this is obviously something that varies between countries and cultures, I found that in India, people would often hide their faces or ask me not to film.
After much trial and error, I was able to capture these elusive shots and picked up several tactics that helped me along the way. To give an example, if I wanted to film a person who was about to jump into the river, I would pre-visualise the shot and get my focal length and exposure set beforehand. This is important because it meant that as soon as the action started, I was ready to start recording.
Typically, I started with the shots from further away. After I got some of these, I came closer and tried film the person from the side. If they gave me their consent and did’t shoo me away, I would come in for the tighter shots. Once you have established trust and the subject feels comfortable with you, you can get in really close and achieve those shots of facial expressions and details. Most importantly, I never persist with a shot if I am asked to not film.
In other places I had to learn the art of being a fly on the wall. This was typical in places where I stuck out like a sore thumb, not only looking like a tourist with my backpack, but also wielding a DSLR and a gimbal. My go-to technique was to sit idly on the curb so as to not draw attention to myself: I would not actively walk around looking for action to film. Once something or someone interesting presented itself, I would spring into action and get the shot.
Yet another issue in India is that tripods/monopods (or anything that even supports a camera) are prohibited in places like museums and monuments. Using tripods and similar equipment in these places requires permits that are notoriously hard to obtain. Getting a permit involves jumping though several bureaucratic hoops. While I did not know this at the time, some places (like train stations) even prohibit filming of any kind. Most monuments where filming is permitted will charge a camera fee. Some even altered the charge for shooting stills or video, with video being significantly more expensive. This is something to bear in mind if you wish to photograph/film at Indian landmarks: you must be prepared to pay more than just the entry fee.
I even had great difficulty using my gimbal at many monuments. While I did manage to use it in many places, following the approach that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, I do not condone this tactic. Luckily, my gimbal was only ever confiscated temporarily. This happened to me at the Taj Mahal which was probably the strictest place regarding tripods and gimbals that I had been to. I found that in most cases it was about finding a balance between following the rules (even if you don’t agree with them) and doing what it took to get the shot.
General Tips & Advice
In terms of logistics and accommodation, I found Airbnb to be the best platform. There are a lot of options ranging anywhere from inexpensive backpacker hostels to luxurious homes. All of my hosts were also a great resource for local knowledge, suggesting places to go and helping me book buses and trains. There are some really great online services for booking said transport: I used Redbus.in and Cleartrip.com religiously.
If travelling by train, I would highly recommend getting the first class AC cabin, especially for the long distance trips. While it is the most expensive class, you really do appreciate having a bed, a pillow, and most importantly air conditioning. If you’re on a shoestring budget however, the sleeper class is the cheapest and probably the most interesting if you’re open to it.
One thing be wary of when travelling by train is that it is not uncommon for bags to go missing. I was advised to buy a chain and lock my bags to the hook underneath the seat. It’s nice to have that peace of mind if you leave your seat to get some food or if you’re simply going to the toilet. This may have been overkill, but when travelling with a lot of camera gear and a laptop, you don’t want to take any chances.
Another piece of advice is to be wary of touts. Its one of the first things you’ll notice in India. There are lot of people looking to make money off of easily-led travellers. Smooth-talking touts are good at cajoling people into paying for “discounted” taxis and hotels. Some try and sell you things or ask for money for all sorts of reasons. I even had a guy wanting me to pay him for permission to film once. Even though they cling to you persistently, you can avoid being haggled by simply ignoring them. You pick it up really quickly, but it’s better to not to learn from a mistake.
Last of all, if you’re travelling in India with the goal of getting some good shots, make friends. So many of my close, intimate shots came from sitting and talking with locals. After exchanging stories and establishing trust, I would ask if I could take a picture. Once they saw their picture, they really opened up and let me shoot whatever I wanted. Some even invited me into their homes and shops. On one occasion I was invited into someone’s shop where he played traditional Indian musical instruments for me. These were great shots and were the results engaging with the people.
You are most likely going to feel uncomfortable as a solo traveller. Confidence is key. I got chased away and given funny looks every single day, but I did not let that demoralise me. I often learned to tune out what was going on around me and focus on getting the shot. I certainly grew as a filmmaker as well as a traveller during my stay in India.
At the end of it I came home with a hard drive full of beautiful footage. It’s always rewarding to see your hard work pay off. I condensed my hours of footage into a short film to sum up my experience of travelling in this fascinating country. My experience of India was a place of chaos and beauty. It is a country of stark contrasts and I wanted to reveal them through a snapshot of people’s everyday life. Amongst divisions of poverty and wealth, there is so much tradition and spirituality that brings people together. This was the result:
If you are a videographer and a frequent traveller we want to hear from you! We work with videographers like Kiril from all over the world to create beautiful stock footage. So if you’re interested in working for us, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org