Issued: October 2022, American Cinematographer. Vol 103 No.10.

Long before her directorial debut on the short film Shadow Bird (Sonsi), cinematographer Savita
Singh already felt at home as a storyteller.
“Myths and fables are a big part of growing up in India,” she says. “You can’t separate them
from reality.”
Born in Haryana and raised in Delhi by a banker and homemaker,
Singh never even touched a stills camera until college. She went on
to become the first woman to win a National Film Award for Best Cinematography – for
Kramasha (To Be Continued), her 2007 thesis film for the Film and Television Institute of India.
In Shadow Bird, she brings her passion for telling stories from a woman’s perspective, charting
the journey of an “8-year-old girl in the wee hours of the morning, when the boundaries of
dreams and reality are very thin,” Singh says.
“She dreams of a person called the Time-Keeper, who crosses in front of her window every
morning. In that little fraction of an early-morning dream, she weaves a story of an imaginary
bird that she secretly keeps – and that the Time-Keeper wants to steal.”
Singh’s work on the short won her a second National Film Award for Best Cinematography.
Shadow Bird also won Best Film at the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival and Best
Short Film at the Lady Filmmakers Film Festival. But her transition from success at the
student level to professional filmmaking wasn’t a simple one.

Fighting for Representation

“When I started working, back in 2007, there weren’t many women cinematographers working in
Mumbai a which is the conter of filmmaking, especially for the Hindi speaking audience; Singh
“People were really surprised to see a woman on set working behind the camera. I was
wondering. ‘Am I the only one who is bothered by the under-representation of women? is it only
me who feels this casual sexism on set? Or who is bothered about the pay gap?”
Singh’s search for answers to those questions led her to become one of four co-founders of the
Indian Women Cinematographers’
Collective, along with Deepti Gupta, Fowzia Fathima and Priya Seth.
“The idea was to make a collective space which celebrates and showcases the work of Indian
women conematographers, and to provide a platform where everybody could come in and talk,”
she notes. “We built a website that showcases everyone’s work in a non-hierarchical fashion.”
Making the Professional Personal
While still committed to cinematography, Singh realized that she wanted to expand her craft into
directing as well. “I’ve wanted to make something of my own for the longest time. I’ve wanted to
make a fable-like film that experimented with time, space, dreams, and the loss of childhood.”
In order to finance Shadow Bird, Singh made a pitch trailer to show to her producer friends, who
took a liking to the project. “They believed in the type of cinema I wanted to make. Once they
came onboard, we had the money, but the film could not have been made without the help of
friends. I had some great collaborators – some of the best of the industry, people who believed in
me and were old friends. Hemanti Sarkar is a very senior editor in India who has done tons of
work; Achirwad Hadkar at Prime Focus is one of the most celebrated DI colorists in India. It was
the same with our sound designer, Ajit Singh Rathore. For this project, Singh went back to her
roots. I wanted to shoot in a place which had had a personal impact on me, so I went back to
my film school and the areas around it.
As a student, that’s where I formed my expression. I decided to shoot in the thick of monsoon
season, because that’s when the weather transforms the place and everything becomes
overcast and melancholic.
The greens pop up, there’s moss everywhere, and it almost engulfs the place.”

Camerawork and Clockwork
Shadow Bird was captured on the Arri Alexa XT with Arri/Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. Most of the
film was shot at T2 to create a shallow depth of field, in wide and close lens perspectives to lend
the story an eerie, fable-like quality. Another key aspect of the visual language was centered
compositions inspired by Indian miniature paintings and sculptures.
No filtration was used on the lenses, and 90 percent of the film utilized natural light alone,
balanced with negative fill. Singh jokes that the natural fog that inundated the location was more
than enough filtration for the look she was striving for. She adds that since she was trying to
evoke a very timeless image, I felt that a very natural approach to this would be the most ideal.”

Only a couple of scenes inside the bedroom made use of lights to supplement the natural look,
and this was out of necessity to bring the light levels up. “Our approach inside was very minimal,
and we tried to make it as invisible as possible. To simulate the window light for the day-interior
scenes, we used big, soft sources, such as Arri M9Os and M40s through 10-by-10 Chimera
frames, along with negative fill. SkyPanels were used to create ‘fire flicker’ and ambient fill
inside the rooms.
As both a cinematographer and director, Singh recognized the importance of designing a visual
style that would help create the mood of the piece. “The dream-within-a-dream narrative
structure of the film was written, filmed and edited with the idea of a clock and its concentric
loops in mind. So, I wanted to have circular movement like how the second, hour, and minute
hands of a clock are intertwined. I very intuitively arrived at a slow and languorous rhythm for
every shot, and the entire film in totality, to create a timeless sense of dream, memory and
Singh used very slow, lingering movements – as well as slow motion- to evoke the sense that
the audience is “moving around the story and past the action. It is a slow sink into your
subconscious, to a time when you felt these emotions.”
Singh speaks to her work in the forest to create this mood: “It’s a little fantastical, yet it’s
supposed to be a little scary, too.” So there are a lot of wide, close shots, and the camera is
either very low or coming in from very high (angles), brushing past things and moving very
slowly around them – exploring the textures on the tree, exploring very different angles that you
maybe otherwise wouldnt expect.
“The lenses we used most frequently were 16mm, 24mm and 100mm, Singh continues, adding
that the short was shot in the Super 35 format. “I used a large jib on tracks to achieve the
dramatic high- and low-angle shots of the trees. In other scenes, especially the high-angle shots
of the temple, we used a DJI Inspire 2. The drone footage cuts seamlessly with Alexa XT
footage, as we had the advantage of the soft, overcast skylight of monsoons.
Blurring Boundaries
The dreamlike, melancholic nature of Shadow Bird calls into question the nature of fable versus
reality and examines whether a boundary between the two even needs to be drawn. Blurring
these lines, Singh says, is a tradition long treasured in India, where “your grandma will talk
about the story of Ramayana like it’s something thats actually happening, and will embody it and
live it.” Singh is inspired by this melding of myth and reality that she grew up surrounded by “A
child has wonder, amazement about things,” she says.
“I saw this story from that childlike sense that it may be real. What happens in the fog is not just
fog – it’s the soul of a warrior bird. With the way you shoot it, and the way you approach it,
everything can become a character.”