Will VFX arrive in India, Day After Tomorrow?

CIOL Bureau
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Shashwat Chaturvedi


MUMBAI: It's evening, Ann Darow, a vaudeville artist and the giant ape are sitting on the tallest peak on Skull Island, gazing at the setting sun. The view from the top is serene and beautiful, a world that is almost magical, too good to be real.

But that world does exist, on one of the workstation at Weta studios in New Zealand, a 'Matrixian' sort of world made of 0s and 1s. Visual Special Effects -- or VFX as it is popularly known -- is constantly blurring the divide between real and surreal, nothing seems to be impossible anymore, as it was in the King Kong movie recently. Computers have brought the magic back in movies.

Right from the very start, filmmakers have been trying to make movies that defy conventional reality and in the process stretching the very limits of technology. George Méliès made the first sci-fi movie, A Trip to the Moon in 1902 inventing something known as trick photography.


The next big thing was the original King Kong made in 1932; Merian Cooper pioneered the use of stop-action model effects. George Lucas' Star Wars in the 1970s opened the realm of possibilities with the use of robotics and computer effects. Steven Spielberg brought to life aliens in E.T., dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, sharks in Jaws and alien machines in War of the Worlds.

Finally, Peter Jackson went a notch higher, the Lord of the Rings trilogy proved what modern high-end computing can achieve. And if that was not enough, he put life in the giant ape King Kong. VFX in Hollywood is getting bigger and bigger by the day, every year big blockbuster movies are released that heavily rely on VFX to pull the audiences.

Bombay Dreams


In contrast, VFX in India is fairly primitive; we have barely achieved in Koi Mil Gaya, what Spielberg had in E.T. way back in 1982! Abhishek De, producer (VFX), Maya Entertainment, is of the opinion that, “we might be late, but we are catching up fast enough.” He cites the example of a film done by his company, Jajantaram Mamantaram, “It had over 90 minutes of special effects, fairly large by even international standards.”

Merzin Tavaria, creative director/VFX supervisor, Prime Focus, says, “VFX in India is coming up in a big way. Over the past 2-3 years, filmmakers are ready to experiment and explore new possibilities. These are ominous signs for the VFX industry in India.” Merzin talks about a project he is currently working on, titled Love Story 2050, he promises it will be a “real biggie” in terms of VFX used.

Color of Money


What are the shackles that bind Indian VFX artists from achieving the same as their brethren in Hollywood? “Cost,” says Abhishek, adding, “a visual effects sequence can cost anything from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 50,000 per second, or more, depending upon the complexity of the shot. Sadly, typical Hindi movie budgets are not in the position to commit that kind of money for VFX.” Thus, most Indian makers are content to just make their heroes do a summersault or leap from a rooftop with the help of VFX, or at best blow up obnoxious aircraft. All this work just about scratches the possibilities that are available with VFX.

According to Merzin it is has more to do with ignorance, “Directors in India are slowly waking up to the possibilities. We are coaxing makers to dream big and creating a market for VFX in India.” Recently, Prime Focus was in the news due to its association with a film Vaah! Life ho to Aisi that reportedly had a VFX budget of Rs. 60 million.

The Rise of the Machine


Are we lacking in technology or machines? Do we have the same hardware as ILM or Weta does? Pankaj Kedia, regional sales manager (South East Asia & India), Autodesk Media and Entertainment Division, assures that we do. “All the latest technology and software used internationally is available in India and the studios here are also adopting them. The Indian market is growing quite fast, in fact it is the largest growing worldwide market for Autodesk solutions,” he says.

Two-thirds of the top grossing films in Hollywood since 1993 have used Autodesk's effects and editing technology; films like Day After Tomorrow, Lord of the Rings, King Kong, etc. Pankaj also believes that there is a growing realization of VFX possibilities in Indian makers, “Sanjay Gadhvi (director of Dhoom) is more convinced about the use of VFX after using it in Dhoom, so we will see a lot more effects in Dhoom 2. Similarly, Rakesh Roshan is also going all out for Krish after experimenting with VFX in Koi Mil Gaya,” he adds.

Yet, not every studio can afford Autodesk's latest tech machines, an Inferno system costs approximately Rs. 30 million, a Flame system close to Rs. 18 million, a Flint system approximately Rs. 8-9 million. According to Pankaj, the VFX biggies in India are: Prime Focus, VCL, Prasad EFX, Maya Entertainment, etc.


A Man Apart

Weta Digital was just another studio in Wellington, New Zealand, a decade or so ago. But that was before a maverick maker by the name of Peter Jackson decided to rewrite history. He embarked upon one of the most ambitious projects of all time; bring to life J.R.R. Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings. Now, Weta is a VFX powerhouse, giving the best studios in Hollywood a run for their dollar. That's the difference a single man's will does. Do we need a desi Peter Jackson, who could dream big and then make it come true as well? “Of course, that would help,” says Abhishek from Maya, adding, “we indeed need makers for whom cost does not matter, only the vision does.”

The View from Beyond


Jesh Krishna Murthy has worked on films like Batman Returns, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, The Cell, etc. He is currently setting up shop in India, launching a company called Anibrain, targeting Hollywood and the Indian market. He is quite effusive on the subject, “VFX is not about machines or software; it has more to do with pushing the limits. I do not see many people in India doing that. And unless we really push ourselves hard, like developing software solutions, plug-ins, etc., we will never reach the level Hollywood has.”

Another person who is of a similar opinion is Jim Rygiel, three times Academy Award winner for Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. He was the VFX supervisor for the three LOTR films. He is an industry veteran, having worked in films like Ghost, Cliffhanger, 102 Dalmatians, etc. He is of the view that, Indian companies can replicate the success of Weta Digital, “however machines are nothing, so that makes all of the IT power in the world worthless unless you can get good artists to run those machines. The aesthetic needs to be addressed, much like the difference in aesthetics between an Indian film and a Hollywood blockbuster,” he says.

In conclusion, we have the machines, we have software, and we have the required talent. What we need now is the will: The will and self-belief to do anything.