When you ask visual effects artistes about the film(s) that inspired their career, you’d expect a list that includes Jurassic Park, Star Wars or a superhero movie from Hollywood. If you persist and ask specifically for an Indian film, you’re still assuming they’d reply with a Shankar or Rajamouli blockbuster or Kerala’s own My Dear Kuttichathan. But for Kushan, the youngest of the two brothers who founded Digital Turbo Media, the answer is very obviously Punyalan Agarbathies. Neither is Ranjith Shankar’s 2010 comedy heavy on VFX, nor is it a fantasy that evokes wonder. “But it’s a film about real entrepreneurship, right?,” asks Kushan, quoting his favourite line from the film. “You’re either going to marry a millionaire, or a madman,” he laughs, referencing what Jayasurya’s character Joy Thakkolkaran tells his future wife when they meet for the first time.
It is this go-for-broke entrepreneurial spirit that has fuelled their journey from struggling freelance VFX artistes, fresh out of Kodungallur, to the founders of Kerala’s most prolific visual-effects startup, having completed more than 300 films. The fact that they could foresee a CG wave, even before most could, is among the reasons they’ve been able to establish themselves, back when computer graphics was seen as a monopoly for artistes from the West. “As a kid, I remember watching an advertisement for a Thrissur-based jewellery in which people turned to gold as a model touched them. This concept was a ripoff of Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time video but the fact that a local jeweller was able to create that effect, showed us that even we could do it if we learnt it,” says Lavan.
With this vision and the hope of future riches, the older brother hopped on to a train to Bombay in the early 2000s. There were a handful of companies that were doing this line of work, focused on corporate clients. But more than a source of income, this job was the only way to learn this emerging skill set. “We did not have the money to go to a coaching institute to learn the softwares then. We did not have a computer anyway but it’s not like we had access to Youtube tutorials either for self-learning,” adds Lavan. “So I first moved to Bombay and started working for a VFX firm that was as much about learning the new art-form as a group, as it was about sending money home.”
Gradually, Kushan who was then working as an X-Ray technician in Kerala, was convinced to join his older brother in Bombay. The duo, along with their “co-strugglers” and now colleagues (Srikant, Jijo, Nithin, Dileesh, Arun), worked day and night to manage every new challenge clients would approach them with. “It was when we had settled into this job that the recession hit us hard. Because our clients were all corporates, we both lost our jobs and we had to move out of Mumbai,” says Kushan.
While this split the brothers and their core team, Lavan used this period to start freelancing. This was also when the focus shifted from all kinds of VFX work to what was required for movies. This stretch got Lavan introduced to the VFX departments of many industries. He also met with many directors, including a young new director who had just delivered a few back-to-back hits. What was his name? “SS Rajamouli,” Lavan laughs.
It was during this period that he sensed with even more clarity what the future had in store for Indian movies. With his work on the superhit Magadheera (2009), there was no way to go except even deeper into CG and the brothers were soon back at it. “Back then, at least for Malayalam films, the notion was that you have to go to either Chennai or Mumbai for quality VFX work. We wanted to change that notion and in turn, started Digital Turbo Media to cater to that need. This slowly grew year on year and now we’ve finished films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi,” says Kushan.
The perception of the CG industry too has changed in this time, making their work both sustainable and respected. “Earlier, producers would not understand why our work required so much time and money. They thought we were just a bunch of people sitting in an AC room and could not understand the skills that went into it. But with the success of Bahubali and the Marvel films coming in, they were able to see how CG is the way to go for big-budget blockbusters. This has changed the way they approach us and now we can safely assure aspirants a safe and secure line of work if they enter our field.”
During this phase, and with the booming industry operating out of Kerala, they have also been able to make any kind of CG work self-sufficient. “If given the budget and time, there’s almost no type of visual work that we cannot handle right here in Kerala. Be it a big Hollywood film or even a film like Brahmastra, three to four major firms in Kerala can collaborate to bring out high quality output.”
The infrastructure too has helped Kerala to slowly become a hub for VFX work. “Apart from creating visuals of fire and water, for which you need a special team and infrastructure, we’re now on the verge of being able to manage all work in-house. The fact that we’re able to do it cost-effectively is another reason why even Hindi and Telugu films are coming to Kerala. Even otherwise, almost 30 percent of the visual arts workforce are Malayalis,” Kushan points out. “That’s why I was able to learn this entire skill set and live in Mumbai without having to learn a word of Hindi,” he laughs.
With several high-concept films being planned out of Kerala, including the sequel to superhero movie Minnal Murali and others, the future seems bright for people aspiring to become VFX artistes. “But more than passion, what they need is dedication,” says Lavan. “Passion can fluctuate but one’s work ethic is what makes sure one keeps growing. Our business itself is such that we know very little about the new work we take up. The only real skill set in a job like ours is the ability to keep learning, every single day,” says Lavan.