In this new series, The Hardest Thing, Gayle Sequeira asks members of the film industry to talk about their toughest, weirdest and most challenging assignments.
If a movie is a carefully crafted illusion, then there’s a team of people working very hard to make sure it doesn’t come apart. VFX artists look back at their careers and pick the scenes that were the hardest to work on:
The waterfall sequence in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)
Pete Draper, co-founder, division head and chief technical director at Makuta VFX: The waterfall sequence was one of the toughest we’ve done and that’s because it wasn’t an extension of an existing set — every single shot was created. It was like building a set for every single shot. We would design a background for one shot, and then for the next shot, we couldn’t reuse any of it. There were maybe 4 or 5 shots maximum that we repurposed. The only time we reused a few elements was the sequence when he was lining up to jump. The problem with songs is that you have a lot of shots within a short period of time, as opposed to drama portions, which have longer and thus fewer shots within the same period. The song was three-minutes-long but had double the amount of shots that a drama portion of the same length would have had.
Because it’s a waterfall, you’re also dealing with fluid simulations that are more intensive and require a specific skill set to pull off. We had a specific team of about 20 working on this sequence and it took them a year to pull it off. The biggest headache was a shot that starts over the edge of the waterfall, like you’re peering over it, and then comes around to show you the full waterfall. (Director) SS Rajamouli had seen something like this in a documentary and gave it to us as a reference. The sheer amount of simulation work meant just that took us 5 months to do. We used a lot of cheats and workarounds for the rest of the film but we couldn’t for this one, to the point where we had to go to production and say, ‘We’re really struggling, we need more time.’ We were looking at footage of the Niagara falls and how the water flowed at different points and then we’d animate six versions of the water at a specific point. Then we’d pick a random version and connect them to get a pattern of flowing water that didn’t repeat itself anywhere. The goal was the aesthetic — Rajamouli would go, ‘Okay, I want the water to push out a little more here.’ So then we’d go fix it.
The nuclear blasts in Sacred Games season 2
Arpan Gaglani, managing director and VFX supervisor at Philm CGI: The script stated that the whole city would get bombarded by nuclear blasts, but since we didn’t have the budget that Hollywood does, how were we to show the scale of the event? We had to be smart about it and that’s where the VFX comes in — we give a lot of ideas, like what if we show it through a window? With VFX, there are so many ways to achieve a single shot but you also have to deal with low budgets, the artists being unable to do something and time getting wasted. We planned to show the before and after of the blasts to create a greater emotional impact, like this was a good memory, now it’s been ruined by the blast. We showed decimated buildings, a police jeep that’s been destroyed.
These mushroom shots took around three months, from ideation to execution. More than difficult, it was time-consuming. At the shoot itself, we’d try to figure out what the scale would look like, where the mushroom cloud would come from, how the cityscape would look. Then Vikramaditya Motwane would give notes like: The blast needs to be seen from much further in the distance because it’s nuclear. I would travel around the city in search of places from which you could see such an explosion. When I found a location, we used that as the base and began building on top of it. We wanted it to look dreamlike. After you make the concept art and get that approved, then it’s a standard process of going into 3D and then rendering it out and compositing it and adding layers. It gets bigger and bigger the more layers you add.
When you’re doing a series, the biggest villain is time. Sometimes, the edit isn’t locked and changes are made, so things that we’ve been planning for two months have to be redone. By that time, 500 shots have piled up. You can plan to finish something in a certain amount of time, but then you get the edit four days late. And with those four days gone, you still have to somehow finish it despite 3D taking so much time to do.
‘Mere Naam Tu’ in Zero (2018)
Haresh Hingorani, chief creative officer and VFX supervisor at Redchillies VFX: For the song ‘Mere Naam Tu’ in Zero (2018), the director wanted to show Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma singing, but he also wanted to show the rain falling on them in nice round beads, which only happens when you shoot water at 800 frames per second. That was the most challenging sequence to work on because if you’re shooting at 800 FPS, it’s such high speed that you won’t be able to see anyone singing. So we shot the two things separately. We shot the song at 48 FPS, with different camera angles and different camera movements, and then shot the water at 800 FPS as a static shot. We didn’t shoot both at 48 FPS together for two reasons — because the water wouldn’t have looked good and because we had to make Shah Rukh’s face smaller and his body shorter in post production and so couldn’t have water falling on it. We used the water that we shot at 800 FPS as a reference and then recreated that digitally.
Because the process was so complicated, we didn’t have any references to follow. You can see sequences on Discovery Channel in which water is shot at high speed, but those aren’t songs and don’t include actors so our job was a little tougher. That water had to interact with the floor, with Anushka’s wheelchair, it had to fall on SRK’s body, and all of these things had to look real and couldn’t defy the laws of physics. It’s a 5-minute, 37-second-long song in which each and every shot is VFX. The corridor was recreated digitally, so was the shorter version of Shah Rukh, so was the water falling on him. It took a team of 15 to 20 people six to seven months to finish the song. It was the hardest scene in the movie.
The whole of Shivaay (2016)
Naveen Paul, co-founder and creative head at NY VFXWAALA: The most complicated film I worked on was Shivaay (2016), for which I won the National Film Award for Best Special Effects in 2016. If you watch the film, it looks like the whole thing has been shot in the Himalayas, but it was actually shot at Film City. There were specific shots in which one part was shot through the camera and the other part was not shot at all, but digitally recreated. These parts were stitched together to create one final shot. There were specific shots in which 90 percent of the elements added to the image were created digitally.
For example, if a shot is five seconds long, the first one-and-a-half seconds would be completely digital, then the next 30 seconds would be images shot with the camera, then the next second would be completely digital once again and the end would be something we shot with the camera. So a shot of five seconds would have four such ‘stitches’ — from digital to live to back to digital and then live again.
The most important thing for these kinds of shots is to find a precise stitch point, one without any overlapping of the frame, without it being obvious that this is where the shot is getting stitched. A lot of homework goes into that.
Though we digitally recreated the main actors in this movie, it was for situations that needed them to do larger-than-life stunts like jumping off a cliff. We didn’t recreate them for situations in which there were close-ups of them saying dialogues. Step one was to scan the actor. Step two was to capture his expressions and a few specific dialogues with exaggerated expressions that could be later tweaked according to the intensity of the scene. It takes months and years to recreate a photo-realistic actor. More than 400 people worked on Shivaay for a year and a half.
The Pathan attack in Kesari (2019)
Viral Thakkar, creative director at Fluiidmask Studios: Kesari (2019) was all about how the Sikhs defended the Saragarhi Fort. The director (Anurag Singh) wanted to show these thousands and thousands of Pathans attacking the fort and the nightmare for any director in that situation is depicting the sheer scale of the event. So to show CGI crowds running over the kind of terrain that was in the Northwest frontier back then, we had to digitally extend the area and then add digital doubles — the CG crowds in their Pathan costumes and carrying those swords. The idea was to show the sheer randomness of their movements because they weren’t trained soldiers. The story goes that these were teenagers who had no professional training, they were just handed the weapons and told to attack. The performance of the digital doubles had to reflect this and so this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill crowd multiplication task. Until then, Bollywood had only used crowd multiplication to fill stadiums in certain scenes or to depict crowds. Something like this — thousands of people running and kicking up dust — had never been done before. And the moment you have people wearing these flowy clothes, you also have to figure out different cloth simulations.
We had to recreate 50,000 soldiers and so we built a rotating table against a green screen. Each actor would stand on the table, one of us would slowly rotate him and we would scan him from every angle. We had close to 70 variations of actions like holding the sword and running. We then used a software to create these simulations and there’s a bit of AI involved — certain groups of CG characters had to act in a certain way, another group had to act in another way and then the groups would merge and all perform the same action. We choreographed all the movements of these CG crowds.
Close to 250 people worked on the film for six months. There was an accident towards the end and the Saragarhi Fort set that had been created for the battle scenes was burned. And the team still had the entire climax to shoot so we had to rebuild the entire fort in CGI. Because they’d shot so much with the real set, the challenge was matching that digitally. Our team had already scanned the fort from various angles and taken high-texture stills in case we had to create digital extensions, so that helped while recreating it.
The war sequence in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)
Srinivas Mohan, founder and CEO of Indian Artists Computer Graphics: Baahubali’s war sequence is the most difficult thing I’ve ever executed. Around 600 VFX artists worked on it for six months. Director SS Rajamouli insisted on it being big. Obviously, we didn’t have the space or even the number of people required to shoot that scene so it was very tough. What they do in Hollywood is that they use a lot of live locations, they’ll go to the hills or a vast area and shoot with limited people and then add more crowds in post-production. I requested the team to search for such a place here so we could use it as a background and then extend it digitally, but technicalities such as transporting the whole crowd to the live location and doing their makeup would’ve been difficult. They would start doing the Kalikeya makeup for 400 to 600 people at 4 am and take three hours to complete it. Also controlling crowds are very time-consuming and difficult.
So we shot most of the war in front of a 400-square-foot green screen in Ramoji Film City. The first few rows of people were real and the rest were created in CGI. We used motion capture, which helps get an actor’s performance into a CGI format. There are markers on that person and 62 infrared cameras in a small area all pointing towards him. These cameras track each point in three-dimensional space. So when a person is moving, they capture all the points and connect to each other and finally, we get the person’s movements in 3D. This means we don’t need to animate the person, so if there are two people fighting in the battle, we can just use motion capture instead of manual animation. We filmed six people doing more than 70 actions over three days. We also used artificial intelligence. For example, if 100 people are charging from one side and 20 from the other, we used a software to specify how many people fall. Basically, who wins and who loses. The software automatically does the action based on our predefined choices.
Rajamouli had this idea of using a flying cloth in battle and so he designed some kind of a rig to make the cloth fly for a certain distance. The wide shots of the cloth flying were done in CGI.