Spotlight: VFX in Bollywood

Aamir Khan enjoys narrating the story about how a ball drove Ashutosh Gowariker and him nuts while filming their Academy Award-nominated film Lagaan. Gowariker was bent upon shooting the ball being thrown and hit in a particular way, and that, too, in a single shot. But the actors being far from professional in the game of cricket, the whole unit spent a large part of a day trying to get it right. When they showed the shot to Pankaj Khandpur, creative director, of TATA Elxsi Visual Computing Labs, and narrated their story, he had laughed out loud. “They were dumbstruck when I told them that the shot could have been easily created on the computer,” recalls Khandpur. “It wouldn’t look real,” Khan had then dismissed the idea. Cut to 13 years later, the last movie which Khan acted in–Dhoom 3–has to its credit 1,500 visual effects (VFX) shots delivered by Khandpur’s studio.

A body double sequence in Dhoom 3 Image via Google Images
A body double sequence in Dhoom 3
Image via Google Images

From the much talked about shot of Khan’s bike converting into a jet ski to the logic-suspending stunt of the actor riding a superbike on a tight rope, the film is one of the latest ones to have relied heavily on visual effects. Apart from Dhoom, last year boasted another VFX spectacle in the form of Hrithik Roshan’s sci-fi act in Krrish 3. Although VFX has been used in our films for some time now, the past few years have seen a sudden increase in terms of both quantity and quality.
It is not just the action films or the sci-fi thrillers that are using these effects, but almost every film doled out of Bollywood uses VFX in some way or the other. A look at a few films that used a fairly good number of VFX shots last year would surprise you, with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag topping the list, followed by names like ABCD, Kai Po Che!, Aashiqui 2, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Lootera, Ram Leela, Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and Grand Masti.
For instance, In BMB, all the stadia and the crowds that filled them were digitally created jointly by TATA Elxsi VCL and Pixion. The latter also created huge crowds for the climax sequences of the Prabhu Deva-starrer ABCD. In Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, the river that flew below the bridge, which was central to the film’s plot, was created digitally by artists at Reliance Media Works. VFX is also widely used in shots involving animals as there are strict restrictions governing filming with them, the reason why the peacock which appears during the first half of Ram Leela and the crow that appears in Grand Masti both had to be generated on the computer. Khandpur, whose team has just wrapped up work on Yash Raj’s Bewakoofiyan, calls these narrative effects. “It could be as simple as fixing the shadow under an actor’s eye, the view outside the window or creating an SMS that comes on a phone,” says Khandpur. “Such effects are meant to be subtle and the audience is not supposed to react to it.”
In short filmmakers resort to VFX, mostly on three ocassions. First when it is impossible to physically create a sequence, like in the tightrope sequence of Dhoom 3 or the peacock sequence of Ram Leela. Next, when the scene being shot involve places and things which are not available anymore, like the stadiums of BMB and the forts of Jodhaa Akbar. And, finally, it is used when it is too costly to shoot a sequence, say one that involves huge crowds or war sequences.
The scene now
To understand the real evolution of VFX and where it will end up in the next ten years, it is important to know where it all began. Earlier, it was the cinematographers who had the final word in the special effects that were used in every shot. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was limited to painted backdrops and rear projections (the video projection of a moving road, in say, scenes of someone driving). “VFX is an extension of this, just that it is done on the computer,” says Nishit Shetty, vice-president, operations of RMW, which is currently working on films like 2 States and Kill Dill. “What used to be painted manually earlier is now painted on the system or shot using a camera and pasted in the backdrop.” When it comes to action sequences, the most important use of VFX in its initial stages were to remove the wires and cables that were used in the stunts. This, made filmmakers, rather lazy, says Merzin Tavaria, chief creative director and co-founder of Prime Focus World, a leading player in the industry. “There was a film in which we had to remove wires from almost 50 shots when the real action was only in less than 20 shots,” he says. “For the rest of the shots, the hero was just standing and delivering his dialogues with cables hanging all over his body.” The studios, thus, “invited themselves” into the production process to avoid such shot and time wastages.

A stadium shot from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag Image via Google Images
A stadium shot from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Image via Google Images

Now VFX studios get involved in a film right from the script stage, says Pete Draper, co-founder of Hyderabad-based Makuta VFX, which has won the National Award for VFX twice for Telugu films Eega and Magadheera. Agrees Khandpur, who says that his first meeting with Dhoom 3 director Vijay Krishna Acharya happened in 2010, a full three years before the film released. “There is a misconception among audiences that it is an easy task to create things on the computer,” says Draper. “For a project as big as Eega, there are about hundreds of people working on a single shot sometimes.”
A walk in one of these studios will surely break that myth. In the Goregaon office of Prime Focus World, there are about 3,500 artists working on various different projects at any given time. Their work units are designed in the form of a maze of computers and the lights are almost always switched off. “This is to make sure that they have a clear idea of what the outcome will be on the big screen with theatre-like lighting,” explains Tavaria, who is heading work on projects ranging from Sin City to David Dhawan’s Main Tera Hero, Sajid Khan’s Humshakals and Salman Khan-starrer Kick.
The first step of the VFX process is research, which could extend into many months depending on the kind of shot they are working on. Viral Thakkar, head of VFX, Pixion, whose team designed all the mutants in Krrish 3 from scratch and is now working on Raj Kumar Hirani’s Peekay, says that a VFX artist should have an understanding of a horde of subjects ranging from physics to architecture to geometry and biology. “To create the stadia in which Milkha Singh ran his races, the only references we had were the black and white images of some of them taken during that time,” he says. In case of the fly in S.S. Rajamouli’s Eega, it took Draper’s team nine months to just finalise the design of the main character working with a core team including three concept artists, three modellers, two shader designers, two hair and fur designers, three riggers and numerous animators.

The iconic poster shot of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, in which the four shirtless actors are jumping and a MiG-21 aircraft flies in the background took Khandpur to as far as Russia, he says. “As it was a military aircraft, it was difficult to find original designs,” says Khandpur. “The aircraft was central to the plot of the film which is why we got the original AUTO CAD designs from a military library in Russia.” After extensive research, the next step is storyboarding. “Putting a shot down on paper increases clarity of thought for every stakeholder involved,” says Shetty. When this storyboard is recreated on the computer using live stand-ins and with the help of a bit of animation, it becomes a pre-visualisation. Shetty, who is presently working on Rohit Shetty’s Singham 2, says that the action sequences in the film have been pre-visualised a few months ago. “It is a learning process for filmmakers as well, because now Rohit is shooting his VFX portions first so that we get ample time to finish our work,” he says.
Most studios complain of a time when directors used to come to them after the whole film was shot. Draper calls that the worst of situations and hates it when they are treated as “glorified cleaners”. Makuta is now working on what is touted to be India’s biggest VFX film Bahubali directed by S.S. Rajamouli. Starting with this project, which boasts over 5000 VFX shots, a new step has been introduced in his process, says Draper, which he thinks will be trend for the coming years. “It is called post pre-vis when the VFX supervisor on set does a quick rendering on live footage so that the filmmaker will have a vague idea of the outcome,” he explains. “This will make sure that all of us are on the same page at every step.” Once the shoot is done, every shot had to be scanned individually, a process which used to take at least a couple of days. “Now that it is all digital, scanning is done away with. This surely saves time, but there are other problems,” says Tavaria. “Earlier we didn’t have to worry about hard disk space. Now the major problem is space and each byte translates into money.”

A still from Bahubali Image via Google Images
A still from Bahubali
Image via Google Images

As of now, Bahubali is the costliest VFX production in the country, with a budget of Rs 85 crore being spent on the effects alone. “But, these are exceptions,” says Tavaria, who says that the biggest disadvantage Indian studios face are the low budgets. “Hollywood spends an average of say Rs 300 crores for a film like The Avengers. Unfortunately, we do not make films on such a scale and also our films do not call for such extensive effects,” adds Shetty.
This is despite the fact that producers save on a huge amount of cost by resorting to CGI and visual effects. Thakkar explains with an example. “For the climax sequence of ABCD, we had to create a huge stadium filled with a cheering audience. It is logistically impossible to shoot with 20,000 people and hire a huge stadium for that. So we used live footage of about 250 junior artists shot in a studio in Mumbai and duplicated them on the computer. The crowd was then composited on to computer-generated background of a stadium with lights.”
The next big challenge felt throughout the industry is the lack of trained hands. “There is a huge gap between the demand and supply of VFX artists who are ‘production ready’,” says Thakkar. “The tools of VFX maybe taught at the many institutes around the country, but the art is not inculcated.” It takes a good six months to give a new recruit 360 degree training and make him/her industry ready. “This takes a lot of effort, time and money,” says Tavaria. “So in a way we are creating the industry.” He gives the example of the 3D conversion segment. “Prime Focus has worked on the conversion of films of the stature of Gravity, but when we started out, there were zero artists who were trained in this field,” he says. “We created talent and now we have a team size of 2000 plus in less than a year.”
The lack of government support is another thing that worries these studios. Unlike countries like Canada, China and New Zealand that provide grants, labour tax credits and subsidies to animation and VFX studios, the Indian government have not come up with any such schemes, says Khandpur. “The government should step in to create enhanced infrastructure and offer better training facilities,” agrees Tavaria.

The way ahead

However, the future of the industry looks bright. According to the 2013 FICCI-KPMG report on Media and Entertainment, the animation and VFX sector is expected to grow at a rate of 18.5 per cent and reach Rs 5,590 crore by next year. Filmmakers are also expanding the horizons of storytelling to include the use of VFX. With newer technology and increased opportunites, studios, too, are of the opinion that the next ten years will be those of positive change. “The last six years saw a massive movement in the VFX sector which is expected to snowball for the coming years,” says Tavaria. “If Bollywood is ready to take the leap in terms of content and budgets, the situation will be a win-win for everyone involved–be it filmmakers, audiences or VFX studios.” Nevertheless, it might take a good 18-20 years for Bollywood to churn out something as slick and professional as a Captain America or an X-Men, he says.
The studios are also equipping and updating themselves with each technological advancement. “For Dhoom 3, we did a complete face and body scan of Aamir Khan at Los Angeles and created a digital double, who replaced the actor in stunt scenes,” says Khandpur. “We also started using HDRI (High Dynamic Range Information) images for every shot, to get the complete light data to make the VFX shots look as authentic as possible.”
Such technology is going to be used more intelligently in the years to come, says Tavaria. For instance, take Olympian boxer Mary Kom’s biopic starring Priyanka Chopra. The film, which is being handled by Red Chillies VFX, is rumoured to take digital cosmetology (altering facial features digitally) to a whole new level. Although the studio is not ready to disclose much, it is rumoured that VFX will be used to maintain Chopra’s facial features during boxing sequences. “Earlier, it was done using lighting, now we can fix wrinkles and spots and even make people appear younger or older through VFX,” says Shetty. “It is, however, not always done for cosmetic reasons but for technical reasons like continuity. For example, if an actor had a beard and he shaved it, we can fix that. We can fix a six-pack body. But we are all under a confidentiality clause, so we cannot take names.”

Digitally created Audrey Hepburn in the Galaxy chocolate ad Image via Google Images
Digitally created Audrey Hepburn in the Galaxy chocolate ad
Image via Google Images

The possibilities are endless. In the West, technicians have already brought dead people alive on screen. Case in point is the Galaxy Chocolate commercial which features a digital recreation of legendary actor Audrey Hepburn. The sudden death of actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Walker has also made Hollywood try out ways for creating their digital clones, but an ethical debate has put both these proposals on hold. Khandpur says that within ten years, Bollywood, too will be able to recreate some of its legendary stars given that the “digital double process have been kicked off with Dhoom 3”.
Diminishing boundaries in terms of availability of techno-creative expertise by Hollywood technicians for our films will be a key development that Shetty foresees in the coming decade. “What had been a one off case over the past few years has the full potential in becoming a trend going forward with global VFX pipelines being custom built for specific projects,” he says. “Also with high speed media net transfer capabilities, virtual worlds are being driven by technology that keeps getting better with a wider reach across the world.”
The way ahead is by investing in research and development and this will be one of the major drivers of change in the coming years. “The film we are working on now SinCity is completed shot in CGI environments. Even Gravity was shot like that,” says Tavaria. “That will be the future of VFX in India. Virtual filmmaking with minimal controlled shooting on live sets will be the order of the day.
All said, one thing these wizards of tinseltown agree on and do not mind admitting is that be it now or in 2024, VFX will not be an essential ingredient for making a great film. “It is always an enhancement. It can make a good film better and a great film brilliant,” says Khandpur. “But VFX cannot make a bad film good. Story and narrative are the key ingredients without which no amount of VFX or animation will help.”

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