Monday, April 20, 2020

Interview With Sanjay Sami

 My friend Sanjay Sami has become one of the best known, and most respected Key/ Dolly Grips in the business. Based out of India, he works everywhere and for everybody. He's also a Steadicam operator which kind of makes him a tour -de-force of camera movement. His credits include Eat, Pray, Love, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  He's a regular Key Grip/ Dolly Grip/ Steadicam operator for Wes Anderson.  Let's see what he has to say for himself:

What's your favorite little trick that you use to save time or make a shot easier?
Here are a few -
I have a clamp on extension on the boom controller that allows me to keep both hands on the steering handles and still operate the boom. I find this very useful for dance floor shots. I had built it about 18 years ago when I had injured my wrist and couldn’t effectively one hand the dolly. It worked for me so I have kept it as a tool I sometimes use on dance floor. A side effect of that is that you get more resolution on the boom knob - more travel for valve opening. This can be a problem if you have very fast moves because by default this makes your moves more subtle.
Another tool I find very useful is to use cord for levelling very long runs of track. I find that if I stretch a section of thin (1.5mm) vectran using a ratchet strap from the start to the finish of a very long run of track, it saves me a HUGE amount of time when compared to eyeballing it. When I eyeball lengths in excess of 200 ft it starts getting confusing about what I am actually looking at and I sometimes take longer than I should. With the cord, it becomes very obvious where the high points are, so you level the high side to the cord and then do a side to side.
Another thing Ive found is that, apart from the aesthetics of how it looks,I don’t sweat it if a long track looks wavy. I ride the track and see how it feels. If it feels good, I'm fine with it. 
Another little thing I do (I’m sure many people do) is I sometimes use my shin to start and stop a small move.
I also sometimes use bungee to help me start or stop a very fast move.

How did you get your start in the business?
I stumbled into the business by accident. I was working offshore (oil rigs) and I had some time on my hands for technical reasons. I was asked if I wanted to work temporarily on set, and here I am 28 years later.

Who were some of your mentors?
Early on I worked with John Flemming - An English Key Grip / Dolly Grip and he had a great influence on me. Later I worked with a few Key Grips who I hugely respected and learnt from. Herb Ault is definitely one of them. 

You are probably bet known for your work with Wes Anderson. How did that come about?
I was recommended to Wes Anderson when he was planning to shoot The Darjeeling Limited in India. It was an immensely challenging shoot. We had all the usual challenges that come with a Wes film as well as the challenge of shooting a large part of the movie on a real moving train. I think he must have liked my work.

You push dolly as well as operate Steadicam for Wes. How did this happen?
I think Steadicam and dolly are very similar. They are both difficult to do well, but if you are a good Dolly Grip, I think the understanding of the spatial relationship between  camera, actor and frame comes intuitively.
 But like any craft, you have to dedicate yourself to getting good at it.
Wes likes the fact that he has one point of contact for camera movement. He knows that I already get his sensibility and what he wants to achieve, so it makes that part of his job easier.

Wes Anderson's movies have a very specific style of camera movement. What are some of the details of
this style? How do you achieve them?
Symmetry is a very important part of his aesthetic, so laying out and planning the shots is crucial. When you have a track that pushes in, its very important that you have no 'drift' from the start of the move to the end. 
The camera is often locked off for shots that involve big moves. Magazine clamps - the works. Like a car rig. This is partially because Wes needs very hard stops and starts, and with a 1000 foot mag (remember those) its a vibration nightmare ! He doesn't like shots to be feathered to a stop, and when you have to bring a Hybrid with an Arricam ST with a 1000ft mag on it to a hard stop, it is challenging.
Wes doesn’t like the camera to pan or tilt unless there’s absolutely no option. The only panning we generally do is swish pans, which is almost like a camera reset. This approach makes life as a Dolly Grip very complicated. All moves and are done by booming the camera and tracking / rolling it. Some of them are obvious, big, extravagant dolly shots, but even on seemingly static shots where the camera pans from one character to the other we could be rolling the dolly over and booming down in order to get the character coming into frame with the mandated symmetry required. Theres a lot more choreography involved than is apparent. 
He also likes to do scenes that play out as one, this involves many complicated setups where walls, furniture and set pieces need to be tracked as well. We also sometimes have to switch track to change direction because the shot can’t be done dance floor.

Although everything is shot-specific, what's your favorite tool to move a camera?
Without a doubt the Hybrid 3 camera dolly. Its like an extension of my body. Followed by the PeeWee 3+
I think having both of them is perfect on a movie.

Besides the Wes Anderson films, what are some of your other favorite collaborations?
I loved working with Peter Weir & Russel Boyd. Two geniuses who work with so much respect to their fellow crew members. I like working with nice people - Robert Yeoman, Bruno Delbonnel, Darius Khondji, Steven Knight, Rodrigo Prieto,  just off the top of my head. 
As I get older, I realise that I value a pleasant and respectful environment on set more than anything else. 
Life’s too short 


DollyDar said...

Good read. Thanks, ya'll

Malcolm Nefsky said...

Great read. Can't agree more with your last sentence.

Michael Taylor said...

Excellent post! I've been following Sanjay's cinematic adventures on Facebook for some time now, and it's nice to hear the back-story -- plus, it's aways enlightening to hear the insights of a consummate professional.

Wick said...

Sanjay, D, a great read and a great convo. Like everybody else, I agree with that closing sentiment. D, do some more of these while we have the down time. In the meantime, everybody stay healthy.

D said...

Thanks everyone. Ive got a couple lined up now and more on the way hopefully.

Unknown said...

Excellent write up. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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Jérôme said...

I had the chance to work with Samy 10 Years ago on a Bollywood movie in Berlin, i'm so happy that it happenend ! I've been working as a key Grip for 10 Years now, and I still remember some of the advices he gave me back in the Days, Great and respectful Person, i'd love to work with him again one day !