Sacred Games: A Race to Uncover the Truth and Rescue Mumbai from Cataclysm
April 28th, 2020

Netflix Series Relies on RED Cameras with Hawk Glass to Deliver Benefits in Post

Sacred Games was Netflix’s first original series in India. It’s safe to say that the show has been a smashing success, as Sacred Games S2 became the most-watched season on Netflix in India in 2019. Cinematographers Swapnil Sonawane and Sylvester Fonseca also took home the Critics’ Choice Award India for best series cinematography, and the crime thriller was nominated in the Best Drama category at the International Emmy Awards 2019.

Part of the appeal is the show’s compelling depiction of the Mumbai underworld. As the financial daily, Business Standard, observed: “Sacred Games was reviewed by every major publication in the world from The Guardian to The New York Times and no Indian TV show or film has ever had that kind of global release.” The Hollywood Reporter’s 2018 review notes: “There are long stretches of beautifully shot scenes where Mumbai/Bombay is as magnetic and nuanced as any character in the series.”

The show unfolds in two separate timelines focusing on the two main characters - the cop and the gangster. The world of gangsters is revealed in a flashback sequence and the world of law enforcement is seen in the present time. The entire series is shot in a 2:1 aspect ratio on RED Digital Cinema cameras equipped with the HELIUM sensor, set to record in 8K resolution with REDCODE compression ranging from 6:1 to 8:1. Sonawane, also known for his work in Angry Indian Goddesses and Newton, shot the cop timeline using Hawk C-Series Anamorphic lenses. And by the end of Season 2, Fonseca had switched to Hawk lenses as well, when the past caught up with the present in the show’s timeline.

According to Sonawane, the series’ visual signature was designed to feel like that of a feature film.

“The two worlds shown in Sacred Games are decades apart, and a regular method of distinguishing the two time periods would be to use older anamorphic lenses for the scenes set years ago,” notes Sonawane. “But we decided to turn that on its head by shooting the scenes for the present-day timeline with lenses that feel more worn-out and warmer. It was a way of reflecting how nothing is working out in the life of the main character, Inspector Sartaj Singh.”

The entire series is shot in a 2:1 aspect ratio on RED Digital Cinema cameras equipped with the HELIUM sensor and set up to record in 8K resolution at maximum quality (6:1 compression). Sonawane often shoots in the anamorphic format. “I shoot anamorphics a lot, purely because I love the look, especially with the Hawks,” he says. “They help me combat the extra-sharp digital image, and I absolutely love the way the C-Series, with their older glass and coatings, render onto the RED sensor. Another factor is that they are wider than regular sphericals, which means I can go physically closer for a close-up.”

Fonseca began Season 2’s flashback/gangster scenes using spherical lenses with slight ProMist filtration, following a graph of visual language created to track the lead character’s emotional journey. Telephoto lenses and handheld cameras helped infuse the visuals with energy, and when Singh, played by Saif Ali Khan, finds his way to an ashram in search of tranquility, the lenses went wider and camera movement was slowed and smoothened.

“Towards the end of Season 2, the story connects to the first episode of Season 1,” Fonseca says. “With the passage of time in the story, we progressively changed our treatment. At a certain point, we switched to Hawk C-Series Anamorphics so as to create a loop which would seamlessly cut to the footage Swapnil shot for Season 1. This required a lot of help and input from Swapnil, who had created the look for the ‘present’ timeline. I played around with the visual language to create a sense of old-world charm.”

“The RED cameras and the Hawk lenses complement each other,” Fonseca adds. “The sharpness of the HELIUM sensor and the softness of the Hawk lenses blend well. I like the smaller and lighter form factor that RED offers, especially since most of the show was handheld. We have several scenes that were shot in slums where there was not enough space to even walk properly. We stripped down the camera to a bare-bones setup to facilitate shooting in tight spaces.”

“I also liked how the sensor responded to mixed lighting conditions, especially while filming outdoor scenes at night,” continues Fonseca. “There was ample information in the highlights and shadows where we could pull out details in extreme lighting conditions, like situations with direct, harsh sunlight and dark interiors. I also pushed the ISO up on certain night scenes where we could light only using practicals.”

Grading for the second season was done at Futureworks in Mumbai, with senior colorist Andreas Brueckl, a German native who has lived in Mumbai since 2017. A Cannes Gold Lion winner, Brueckl has worked on thousands of projects.

According to Fonseca, “Andreas brings a lot of experience to the table, and he was very detail-focused. In the first meeting, he shared a few interesting thoughts and created looks that helped get us close to the image. The whole setup at Futureworks is state-of-the-art and hassle-free. We added cross-process filters on some sequences, especially in scenes shot in Kenya. This rendered colors reminiscent of old, slightly faded print photographs. But in general, we achieved the colors in tandem with the production designer rather than creating a look during grading.”

Brueckl says that the RED HELIUM sensor and Hawk lenses delivered advantages even in post.

“For me, working on the digital intermediate, it’s all about density,” says Brueckl. “And the moment you get a project with the Hawk lenses, you feel the right density. The skin tones in the roll-off look nice. It doesn’t look flat. Darkness and contrast are important aspects of the visual style of Sacred Games. Digital sensors sometimes render too sharp, and with some Indian skin tones, things can feel metallic. With the mixture of the RED sensor and a softer Hawk lens, you get rid of this unnatural over-sharpness. Everything falls into place. There’s nice, even density from the lowest blacks to the highest highlights. In combination with the dark image and the flares coming in, it’s beautiful and very filmic.”

Brueckl used FilmLight’s Baselight color grading tools. “In all my projects, I work with TCAM DRT; TCAM gives me a very clean starting point,” he says. “Then on top, I was mixing my looks with a base of the RED IPP2 roll-off. Filmlight also provided a few looks based on ACES 1.1 which could simulate highlight roll-off from the camera. With this workaround, I got full control over signal and look, with all the dynamic range benefits of ACES. I basically blended the ACES 1.1 look into a point where I felt the skin tones were right, and I got a subtle red touch in the mid-tones.”

For visual effects, Brueckl exported EXR files in ACES with BLG files from Baselight. “The VFX artists could see pretty much what we saw in grading, and this helped them a lot, particularly with very dark scenes,” he says. “Within the BLG files are basically every grading layer and the information on which DRT I used. That way, the VFX artist doesn’t have to guess the setting. Meanwhile, the ACES EXR workflow helped us maintain the massive dynamic range that the RED RAW files gave us.”

Sonawane, whose father ran a color lab, says that the stereotype of Indian productions – brightly lit and vivid, with plenty of song-and-dance – is changing.

Sacred Games is a really gritty depiction of the underbelly of my city,” he says. “There was no space in the story to do the whole oversaturated color approach. Also, here in India, there’s a move toward alternative cinema, so there are new voices being heard in narrative images.”

Sacred Games S1 and S2 can be watched on Netflix around the world.