In Gulebakavali (1955), superstar and politician MG Ramachandran (MGR) plays a prince who embarks on an adventurous journey in search of a mysterious flower. Among his escapades is a wrestling match with a ferocious tiger. The sequence became one of MGR’s most famous fights ever.
MGR: A Life, R Kannan’s biography of the Tamil actor and politician, reveals that at the time, audiences expected a stylish action sequence from every MGR film, but the actor was tired of the expectation. On the day of the Gulebakavali shoot, MGR, who was always careful in shoots that involved animals, made sure to arrive late. The tiger was heavily drugged and when it leapt, MGR ducked and hid himself. The director called ‘Cut!’, and the tiger was filmed separately (and possibly with a body double). However, in the minds of the audience, MGR became the man who could tame a tiger.
Back in the day, these were known as “camera tricks”. Nearly 70 years later, film technology has changed dramatically and the audience’s expectations as well as love for physics-defying stunts have spiked in proportion. When Bheem (Jr NTR) explodes on the screen with a truck full of wild animals in RRR (2022), for instance, everyone knows they aren’t real — it isn’t legal to use wild animals on screen any more apart from it being dangerous for the actor — but there’s still a gasp of admiration for how convincing the scene is.
From a charming fly who wants its revenge to a charging boar in a jungle, an action sequence with exploding cars to a romance scene on a boat in the sea, much of the stunning visuals we see in our movies today are the work of VFX (visual effects) specialists – a busy breed whose work can make or break a film. In the upcoming Lokesh Kanagaraj action thriller Leo (2023), for example, a Rs. 13 crore action sequence featuring hyenas is already one of the film’s main talking points.
Veteran VFX supervisor RC Kamalakannan, who has worked on several films like Magadheera (2009), Eega (2012), and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), said that as a freelancer, he is usually approached by filmmakers who know his work closely. Thanks to the audience’s wide exposure to Hollywood films, their expectation from Indian films is also high.
“Many references that filmmakers give us are from Hollywood films, to provide a sense of the kind of authority or design that they’re looking at. The references help us with a comparison point to work with,” said Kamalakannan. But the budget is only one of the factors that influences the quality of VFX work – whether a production house can afford a big studio or will have to work with mid-level studios. Time, said Kamalakanna, is the main factor. He usually spends two to three years on a project.
“I don’t think it’s challenging to build new worlds from scratch. The filmmakers I work with have a clear vision of their concepts right from pre-production. If there’s a world to be created, I will get all the references I need from the production designer and they’re always there to back me all through the process,” said Kamalakannan.
VFX is commonly used in any sequence that’s risky or difficult to shoot or when it makes economic sense to do so. Lavan and Kusan Prakashan are co-founders of the fast rising Kerala-based Digital Turbo Media. The duo has worked on a string of superhits in recent times, including the action drama Kantara (2022) and the horror thriller Virupaksha (2023). “We can’t keep showing the audience the same visuals. It has to be something new each time, even if it is a title card, like the unique one that Kantara had,” said Lavan Prakashan. In their repertoire are also films like the action drama Kammatipaadam (2016) or the thriller Jalsa (2022) where VFX plays a crucial role without the audience realising it.
“When you show someone jumping off a waterfall, people know that it’s not possible to do such a thing safely. There is a wow factor in such VFX sequences. But take the climax of Kammatipaadam, it was completely done with VFX but people don’t realise it,” said Prakashan. A breakdown video of the climax, uploaded by the company, shows how the scene featuring Dulquer Salmaan was done. Shooting with a superstar in a real world setting comes with a lot of practical difficulties like crowd management, and filmmakers may also opt for VFX in such situations.
In Jalsa, the climax places actor Surya Kasibhatla right next to the crashing waves of the sea. The teen actor, who has cerebral palsy, plays Vidya Balan’s son in the film. “It wasn’t safe to take him to the actual place to shoot that scene. In the discussions that happen before the film, we plan and decide which of these scenes should be done through VFX,” said Prakashan.
Sometimes, doing something through VFX is just simpler and saves time. “Take travel sequences. You have to rig the camera in the car, take a lot of different shots – profile to front, front to aerial…it’s very time consuming. What will take 2-4 days, you can do through VFX in way less time. Of course, VFX costs money, but if you consider taking so many people and shooting for so many days, VFX will be cheaper,” he added.
With VFX techniques constantly evolving and the time taken to complete a project, there is always a risk that the film may end up looking dated by the time it releases or age badly. Kamalakannan admitted that he has worked on films where, in retrospect, he has felt that there was room for improvement in the VFX had he been given more time and funds. “I’m doing more daunting work today. I can’t tell you what it is exactly but it is quite complicated. That is also the joy of this job,” he said.
In old movies, a baby who was at least four or six months old was usually passed off as a newborn. But if you want to show a newborn today, VFX is a safe option. Take the Telugu action comedy Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020) where two babies are swapped at birth. Yugandhar Tammareddy, who was behind the VFX in the film, worked on small and big aspects – from the newborn’s face to the blue tag on the umbilical cord and the flashy action sequence featuring Allu Arjun weaponizing a dupatta.
“A lot of VFX work goes into creating stunt sequences,” said Tammareddy. “Typical action elements like exploding vehicles, removing ropes and so on. Set extensions are also commonly done. They may build only a partial set because it would be too expensive to build the whole thing. They rely on VFX to extend the sets.”
Based on the film’s requirements, the director, VFX specialist, cinematographer and the production designer sit together to decide what will be shot as live action and what will be done through VFX. “Once that is decided, we go ahead and shoot. The editor does his job and cuts the film. Then it goes to the VFX studios where they work on the shots. I supervise the overall process, and we typically send a couple of frames to the director to see if it matches his vision,” said Tamareddy. After approval, the studios get to work on their tasks and deliver them to DI (digital intermediate – a process that involves digitising a motion picture, adjusting the colour and other image characteristics). The cinematographer ensures all the required shots are there.
As one can imagine, all this takes time. Tamareddy said, “You take tentpole films that are made on budgets of Rs. 200 crore and so on, they do have the money to spend on VFX. But the problem lies in how Indian filmmakers approach the VFX process. Once they have clarity in their ideas, they need to allocate enough time for VFX.” From his experience of approximately 27 years, the VFX specialist said while India has no shortage of skilled technicians in the field, the challenges lie elsewhere. “They don’t give us enough time for preparation,” said Tamareddy. “Even before we shoot, certain things have to be tested. We don’t plan well enough before we go to shoot. Taking the right decisions on time is the biggest issue,” he said, adding that producers need to become more involved in the filmmaking process if they’re to understand what it entails.
Kamalakannan pointed out that for all the technical improvements that have made VFX better, the most important element to make these effects impactful is still a solid script. “When we made Eega (2012), we started working on the asset – the look and feel of the housefly character – two years before the shoot. Eega looks really good even now because the script is so strong. It is the king. There are many films where the VFX quality isn’t great but the script is good and people get involved in the film,” he said.
Today, it is the norm to allocate about 15- 20% of the budget of a VFX-based film to the visual effects. By ‘VFX-based film’, Kamalakannan means films which use blue screens that have to be replaced by matte painting or when live footage replacements have to be made and so on. “If there are around 1,500 to 2,000 shots and you have organic characters created by VFX, then you can call it a VFX-based film,” he said. “This is why RRR is a VFX film. At least six to seven major sequences in the film use VFX.”
But, though the field has grown by leaps and bounds, with filmmakers willing to drop a bomb on VFX and more and more studios and technicians coming up, Kamalakannan feels something is still missing in the work being done today. “There is still a significant gap between the best of Hollywood and the best of what we can create in our country. We’re seven years to a decade behind,” he said. Citing the example of King Kong (2005), Kamalakannan said that it was definitely possible to create the VFX in that film in India now. “But King Kong had animatronics, miniature filmmaking and so on. Those areas haven’t improved at all in our country. The secondary units haven’t evolved. I guess this is because producers feel it will be cheaper to get all this done through VFX rather than investing in these techniques,” he said.