Film & TV

Developing a Visual Palette

Mira Nair

Lesson time 21:54 min

Mira discusses what a visual point of view is, how to manifest your point of view through a lookbook, and how to collaborate with your team to elevate the aesthetic of your film.

Mira Nair
Teaches Independent Filmmaking
The Oscar-nominated director teaches her methods for directing powerful performances, maximizing budgets, and bringing authentic stories to life.
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In making stories about whatever culture that you're making a story of, you know, it's important to have a point of view about it, a point of view certainly about the story, but equally, a point of view of the aesthetic and of the design of the story, you know? And I really stay very clear of the kind of stereotypical notion of, say, India. You know, India, oh, that brightly colored place where you point your camera in any direction, and it's a picture. I can't stand that line, because it's devoid of actual point of view. But the aesthetic is always muddied with, you know, bright colors, you know, people in costume, as they call us, you know, and-- and so on. And-- but India is many things, you know? So for instance, in the Mehndi scene, in the women's scene in "Monsoon Wedding," where they gather to get their henna put and sing songs of marriage, life, to the bride, it's a fun event that happens in our Indian weddings. Oh, you know, Arjun and I, we chose a very particular palette, so that everyone wouldn't come in in kind of their gaudiest, blingiest best. I can't bear that. You know? And we-- we created a palette of indigo, of ochre, of burgundy, of colors that are also very specific to India, that I absolutely love. And we-- and we showed this palette to all our friends who were coming in as extras, because remember, "Monsoon Wedding" was full of freebies. People came in their own clothes, they came, you know, with their paintings, and their crockery, and their saris. And everything was donated, really, to this film, so that it looked like a spectacle, but really was made for very little. So they came in the palette that we determined, you know? And it's a very different palette, if you look at the scene. It's not just a un-thought-through, you know, picture of brightness and gaudiness. You know, so you have to have a handle on what you do. And it all reflects your own aesthetics, and what you want, and what you're asking your costume designer to give you, or your people to give you. You know, you have to ask for it. You have to say, this, not that. [MUSIC PLAYING] In the personal films, in-- in films like "Salaam Bombay!", or "Namesake," or "Monsoon Wedding," in the-- in the films that just come from within me, that I have to make, you know, normally, the lookbook I do myself. I make a lookbook of, from my own libraries, of visual inspiration, you know? Usually they are photographs. There could be a light in an advertisement that I like, that I cut out and I keep with me. You know, this sort of measure of blue is what I want when so-and-so does this. You know, I-- I gather a whole sort of manifesto of visual references. I gather photographs, a lot of music. Often music is a very big part of evoking a world for me. It may not be the music that is eventually in the film, but it evokes the film. And hugely a-- you know, it depends on the film. In the "Kama Sutra," which was set in 16th century, you know, we went into the ...

Harness the power of your roots

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair approaches directing with the “heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant,” spurred by rejection and fighting to bring uncompromising stories to film. In the Golden Lion-winning director’s MasterClass, learn to make a big impact on a small budget in film production, evoke the best from actors and nonactors, and protect your creative vision so you tell the story that can only come from you.


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I felt this class is a beautiful independent film.

I'm new to filmmaking, so everything was exciting and useful. Great course.

This was such an amazing Masterclass! Mira Nair is an phenomenal teacher who not only offers her students valuable insight but also grounded advice.

I have cried in front of the computer at the first 2 minutes of your class. Your warmth and character reached my soul and helped raise my purpose!


Steph F.

She is absolutely amazing, I have learned so much about working within a small budget!!!


It doesn't sound that complicated, but this is not aspect I would not be able to take the lead on.

R.G. R.

An excellent lesson on the visual elements of film and a real gem (and reminder) when she states that a filmmaker should "work with people that take you further," so, so true

Cynthia D.

Such inspiring information and use of one's creativity, intuition and talents. What a great Masterclass, thank you Mira!


So many great things to hear and apply. The main thing for me is to not surrounding myself with yes-people... It says it all.

Mia S.

"I don't really think of the color grading of a film, before we begin, but more about what the color should or should not be. A lot of times it's about - depending on the story, again - the desaturation of color, in order to heighten the color in another part of things. In 'The Namesake,' again, we used a bleach bypass a fair amount to drain the image of color so that when she comes from the almost vibrancy of a Calcutta street into the chill of a New York suburb, to drain the - when the winter comes on, it's a real shock for an Indian person or anyone who comes from the south that there is actually no sunshine and that kind of - the cold that enters your bones has to be evoked in the frame. We used bleach bypass, and bleach bypass is interesting because it can desaturate, but it can also make certain colors pop, which is exactly what I wanted - the red of Ashima's sari still pops in the chill and the icy coldness of the snow. You can use color to basically heighten the intention of what you want to say, visually."

Mia S.

"In Old Delhi, it always amazing to me - again, goes back to me very first student thesis, 'Jama Masjid Street Journal,' which is exactly where we shot Dubey's home - people take illegal electricity from the city electricity, so above their homes is an absolute labyrinthian tapestry of electrical wires, that they are ripping off electricity from the main building. So it's a complete canopy of electrical wires that people live under, and so one shot of the canopy, of him; so that I can have it, and create another sort of interlude that I want. But then he emerges in this home and he comes in, we've never met his mother and we don't really want to make her a huge character, but she is his mother and she's been talking on the phone to him in the story, and we see not a suffering mother who is like a martyr for her son to come home, but a mother who is playing the stock market with great savvy and who keeps the harangue of her son, like, 'When will you get married? When will I see a grandson? When will I do all this?' So I designed a one-take of him entering the home, listening to his mother's harangue; we briefly see her, but we proceed with him as he strips off all his artifice, all his wannabe safari suits, gadgets, whatever. Strips down to his basic striped underwear which every Indian man probably wore at that time. And then ending up in the terrace, overlooking the mosque, there are kites in the sky, life carrying on around him, but this man is bereft, and weeping, and just forlorn for the love that he has lost. So locations inspire me, and they can come from life, for photographs I've loved, from somebody's suggestion. But how you use a location, for your character, is what is key."

Mia S.

"An important word for me and an important desire for me in making my films is to maximize every moment, every location as well as what goes on in the scene in that location. In the whole adage of life being more powerful than fiction, I look to life for these locations, and the two real locations. I shoot sometimes in studios when I have to, but for me the real joy comes out of the chaos of being in real life, real places. Of course the location is determined by the story you're telling, whether you're making a contemporary story, a period story. I look for locations that give me a depth of field, that gives me layers upon layers visually that I can not just be in a box - unless, of course, I have to be in a box - that give me a visual layer that keeps revealing itself, if possible. Indian life - if it is an Indian story - is very tropical. We live virtually between indoors and outdoors. That interplay between indoors and outdoors is something I look for, but mostly looking for a location is determined by the story and what you're looking for. Sometimes locations I look at from photographs that I love. I love this photograph that Raghu Rai, one of our brilliant photographers, made in I think the '80s, of a terrace in the middle of Old Delhi overlooking our Grand Mosque, and other rooftops around it. And again, see - the visual layers are very telling, where you look into the terrace of a home where a woman may be in prayer, but beyond that wonderful, intimate moment, there is a whole expanse of sky. Sometimes there are kites in the sky, sometimes there are children on the other rooftops flying a kite, but beyond it is the Grand Mosque, and beyond the mosque, of course, is the sky. So, this photograph compelled me immensely, and I wanted to find that home that is in that photograph - and we went to look for it and we found it. It was the first day of shooting of 'Monsoon Wedding,' and we decided to shoot the tent man coming back home devastated that he had broken up with his lady love, Alice. But when we were making 'Monsoon Wedding,' which was initially designed just to be in one family home, bourgeois family home, and I cast this extraordinary new actor and began to see what Vijay was bringing to the table as Dubey, and he was just absolutely extraordinary. great in physical comedy, really electric actor that I absolutely fell in love with. Gradually the role of Dubey just kept increasing while I was shooting, because he could do so much. And then in the course of it I said, 'Listen, we should step out of this family home and we should go into where Dubey lives, because it can be done, you know? Where is his world compared to this world?' It was not in the script in the beginning. Sent off my second cinematographer to go with him on a rickshaw in the streets of Old Delhi, and we - again, collecting a bank of images that I would use in some ways, even as a song sequence (which I eventually did)."

Mia S.

"Once I share my look-book or visual manifesto with especially the heads of department - the cinematographer, costume designer, and production designer - all of whom have to work very much in tandem with each other to create a world that is of one piece - then they have to bring an equal amount back to me, not just doing what I've asked for, but more. You must work with people who take you further; do not surround yourself with 'yes' people, because 'yes' people are going to keep you in a stasis that you will never get out of. Production designer takes my basic manifesto, and comes back to me with other images and other references of things we can do to enhance a location that already exists. 'Monsoon Wedding,' I refused to apologize for the fact that we only had a million dollars and we had this huge plot that we had to do. I saw and I wanted - in Indian movies, one song sequence has to be really glam and really big, and because Indian weddings are almost like Bollywood affairs, there's always one notion - the song night before the wedding has to have a big dance number. Now, we didn't have much money - we had a house and a garden,. What could I do to create the set of this song/dance number? But I one day was invited to a party in Delhi, I went into a pool that was drained of water and it was tiled in the most extraordinary Gaudi-esque fashion. And it just kep going in corridors and grottos and so on, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to have the song/dance number inside this pool?' I met the person who owned the house and the pol and I begged them, said, 'Please let me have one day to shoot in your pool. It took six days to drain the water from the pool in order for me to shoot inside the pool, but she allowed me, thank goodness. This pool was not in a real location of the actual home in which we were shooting, and yet had to feel like it was. The production designer, with not much money at her disposal, invented a series of neons of a certain pattern that we placed in the garden of the home while we were shooting other scenes, like the bar or the wedding, these neons were in that, and we continued these neons in the grotto where we did the dance number. So it appeared that it was the same location, but it was not. It was a way of saying, 'I don't have money, but I'm going to make it look like we are absolutely fine where it comes to expanse and spectacle and visual splendor. These are ways that your collaborators have to help you to extend out of your own cocoon into the wider horizon, and yet have a holistic connection to it, a real truth, meaning, importance - to that connectivity."

Mia S.

"I think there's no formula in how you should communicate with your team. I think you should literally spill over into every possible influence, reference - showing and telling - that might be necessary. In 'Monsoon Wedding,' for instance, I used to gather my young actors and my team on my bed at the night after rehearsals and show them several films - parts of films - for different reasons. I would show them these fantastic '60s, '70s movies, where there was real romance between a boy and girl; a song is evoked, the lighting is a certain way, there's this kind of allure of one person seducing another, but it is not done in a kind of direct way, it is done with great sort of elegance and mystery. I would show them excepts, like, 'This is the sweetness I want to evoke in the scenes where he takes you into the generator and he's trying to fix the generator and you've come in with the lamp and then the lights go on. I looked at these scenes that were functional scenes as romantic scenes, as love scenes, as the planting of love. But I gave her the references of those older movies for her to understand the level of sweetness and for everyone to understand that. Background action, extras casting, the way we move with a crowd is so much a part of how I see things - especially since I've come from cinema verite, where the crowds were the crowds as they were. So how do you create that kind of unpredictability of a crowd or whatever you want to do with the crowd in your background action? Nothing escapes my eyes when I'm shooting a film. Even the background action person is often my closest collaborator - like an assistant director -who has to understand the choreography of a space that I want, so that it would be based in truth, but also in a kind of visual poetry, I hope, that would happen. I would show them 'La Dolce Vita,' Fellini's great film, which is such incredible background action. And I would carry this film with me, because oftentimes I'm also working with first-times. I might have loads of money in some situations when you're working with pros, but even now, I can work with people who have never been on a film set before, but I see the energy in them, I see the verve in them, I want to bring them onto my side, but this is what their task is: to help me choreograph background action in a really realistic way. So these young people talk to our background action, give them all, again, intention and a purpose and a real - they're not just blabbering, they're get a little nugget of a story that they have to then exercise. So every element like that I share with them, whether it is a film reference, whether it's a calendar that I want them to see for the light, whatever it is. Share what you know, in an organized fashion, and that type of prep - there is no duplication for that. And that's the sort of thing you cannot do when you're on a set."