We Have Left No Stone Unturned With Brahmastra, Says Namit Malhotra, Oscar Winning-VFX Firm DNEG’s CEO

Malhotra, who is also the co-producer of the film, says they have experimented with the discipline of filmmaking in a way that is new not only for India but also for the world
We Have Left No Stone Unturned With Brahmastra, Says Namit Malhotra, Oscar Winning-VFX Firm DNEG’s CEO

The future of visual effects (VFX) in films paints a mystifying picture. On one hand, we have Hollywood projects like The Lord of the RingsRings of Power (2022) that seem to sink a small fortune into their special effects only to disappoint their most patient fans. On the other, we have success stories like RRR (2022) and the Baahubali series that harmoniously marry an over-the-top aesthetic with computer-generated imagery and engaging narratives. As the Hindi film industry begins investing the kind of money Hollywood counterparts have been spending on VFX for decades, there are questions to be raised about whether the technology is just a crutch or gimmick, or if it can become an organic part of storytelling. 

“At the end of the day, what works is the story of the film – no amount of VFX or spectacle can save a movie,” says Namit Malhotra, the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of DNEGthe VFX studio that recently bagged its seventh Oscar for special effects, courtesy Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021). Malhotra is also a producer on Ayan Mukerji’s highly-anticipated Brahmastra Part One: Shiva and Malhotra’s company, Prime Focus (DNEG and ReDefine’s parent company), has done the film’s visual effects. According to media reports, out of its Rs 400 crore budget, approximately Rs 150 crores have been utilised to deliver the spectacle Mukherji visualised for the film.

Brahmastra isn’t the first Indian film to use VFX, but it’s already a milestone in Indian cinema’s VFX journey with over 4,500 VFX shots. Malhotra spoke to us about the VFX industry in India, the challenges of working on his first Indian collaboration, as well as the vision he and Mukherji have for the Brahmastra trilogy.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview: 

What was it like to work with Ayan Mukherji

He’s probably one of the most unique people I’ve ever met in my life, because he has this very child-like enthusiasm. But he also transcends into a very mature and analytical person as well. So it’s a very rare combination because most people are one out of the other. There’s a very genuine, innocent view of what he wants to present, it’s very pure and very clear. At the same time, he recognizes that the adults and the grown-ups have a certain response to a certain type of energy and a certain way of thinking, which transcends beautifully in the way he writes his characters, and the way he talks to his crew, the way he directs his actors, the way he works with us. You can’t say no to him. Not because he’s difficult and adamant, but because he’s so good at what he does, and the passion and the purity with which he asks something. You have to go, “Okay, do it.” And that’s a very unique quality, I’ve never met a person like that.

I was reading this article, where DNEG VFX supervisor Stephane Paris talked about how on the sets of Moonfall, Roland Emmerich was constantly accessible for questions and comments as a director, which was very unusual for her. Do you think that Ayan created a similar energy for VFX supervisors, and how did his involvement impact the final product that we’re seeing today?

See, he starts off from almost like a child-like place, like he’s almost like a student and then he’s also a director. He starts by engaging with every member of crew, doesn’t matter how senior or junior they are. He’s keen and curious to know exactly what people are saying, and why did you say that, and how did it happen. He’s very keen to learn and appreciate everything that anybody and everybody has to say, and therefore presents himself almost sometimes to his disadvantage in a very over-friendly and over-accepting manner. But within him, there’s a very strong, clear-minded filmmaker, who also ultimately has to do what he has to do. I find that it’s a very unique thing, so people always stay gravitated towards him because of that. Because he’s very approachable. In fact, even if you don’t approach him, he approaches you. He’s the kind of person who will come and make sure each one is feeling good and is thinking right and is able to contribute. And that I think is a very credible quality, like it’s beyond all his creative skills.

What kind of a brief did you guys receive for a film like Brahmastra? Was there any specific visual research that you had to conduct?

We’ve not just acted as VFX providers in this film. We have been through that entire journey of the film from the first draft to when the first script was written, till the day before the finals were being dispatched. So we have been fully integrated into the fabric of what has been created. Therefore, it’s not just a brief, like, “That’s what I want, how much will it cost, how much time will it take.” It’s been a very proactive involvement in saying how do we create something that comes from the very core of India, but has the finish and the quality of anything good anybody has seen in the world? So we started with a very simplistic brief, which is “I want to create something that’s original”. I’m not going to say I want it to look like this movie or that movie. It has to come from our own mythology, it has to come from our culture. But we want that quality and finish. People shouldn’t say at the end of the film, “Oh, it’s a great effort by an Indian film.” We don’t want to hear that. Right at the start, I said we’re not going to put a single shot in the film that’s not going to look great. We’re not going to say we had only so much time, we had only so much money, so we did a “great job.” Which is not a wrong thing, because that is true for most of the films in India, some of the biggest films of India. If you want to compare, somebody from the West must have spent five times the money and the time we have spent. But we were leaving no stone unturned, we did this to the best of our capabilities. And it doesn’t matter who watches it in the world – if they want to watch an Indian story out of Indian history/mythology, in a way this has to be as good as anything else they would see. There should be no difference. So the core brief was itself a very ambitious start. And at the time we had not had films like Baahubali 2RRR or KGF. Everybody thought Ayan and me were completely crazy – a bit too ambitious for what India can handle. 

Today, it can become very easy to get caught up in the spectacle of our advanced technology and forget the heart of the story. But we also have films like RRR and Baahubali series which seamlessly blend technology and story – something Dune does brilliantly too. Do you feel like that’s something Brahmastra has been able to achieve?

I think it’s all heart and more. This is Ayan’s first big spectacle film, so naturally, the spectacle is going to be his biggest concern. But because we came on board as partners, we were always there to say, “Ayan, don’t worry about it.” We were constantly telling him that the spectacle will come because you’ve got the spectacle written in the idea, into the characters, it’s there in your sequences. But as a director, you’ve got to make sure you’re blending the spectacle with the story, the music, the characters, with everything else. Because DNEG is here – fortunately, we do have a reputation for delivering spectacles at a scale and at a scope that is better than anybody else in the world today. So I could give him some reassurance. But at the end of the day – and I know this because I come from a deep film background also – what works is the story, the characters, the energy. That only can come from the director. No amount of visual effects, no amount of spectacle can save a movie. That’s why it has to come back to the director’s absolute conviction to pull through and deliver. And I think he’s done a tremendous job.

It sounds like VFX wasn’t just used as a post-production tool. It was there like from the beginning, from the inception.

Totally. See anybody who has watched Star Wars or a Harry Potter or a The Lord of the Rings knows that of course, the spectacle is there, but the story and the characters are probably even more exciting. Our job was to specifically make sure that Ayan felt like he was in safe hands, that what we will deliver is not just what he imagined, but go beyond it. For us as a company, as a team, it was a very exciting challenge to have a director who openly invited us to the table and asked, “Okay, how do we make this happen?” We actually do much better when we have that kind of a collaboration with filmmakers, than when it is it’s just a “That’s the brief, that’s the budget, that’s the time, go do it”. All the Oscars we’ve had – it’s always been because of working with film directors like that, who call us in and make us a part of their core vision, and make it our problem to deliver that energy. It’s all about how are we bringing that vision to life, and if it’s not working, okay, we’ll try something else. At the end of the day, it is a creative pursuit.

What was the challenge of this being your first real collaboration in India, not just from a VFX perspective but also from a producer’s perspective?

The film is obviously very very original. And so it means that you don’t have a real reference point. You’re not trying to be like someone. You don’t have the ability to say that okay, this is like a James Bond movie, this is like a Star Wars movie. When you start off on a blank canvas that becomes a challenge because we have to now figure out how we’re going to bring that to life within a certain budget. And ultimately it is an Indian film, it did have budgetary constraints and a whole host of other limitations. So working with that and then delivering that spectacle at a scale in terms of quantum was a challenge. Because it’s not like we’re talking about one sequence in the film – it is the whole film. So how do you now bring this vision to life, and then execute that over a two-and-a-half-hour film, where you can ensure that the experience doesn’t dip at any point. And especially with a company like ours and with my history in the business, I can’t tell my friends and my customers in London or America, “Oh, that’s a Bollywood film – ignore that.” I can’t put my name on that. Doesn’t matter who watches it, [it needs to be at our level]. That’s a massive challenge, nobody’s been able to do that ever till today. And that I think is where the success of Brahmastra lies: we have literally left no stone unturned, we have pushed to have the best technicians, to shoot in the best locations, to get the best training for our actors, to make sure that our visual effects teams are calibrated. You know, we’ve done so many new things in the discipline of filmmaking which are not just new for India, I think they are new for the world. And I give kudos to Ayan for that because most directors would not agree to do some of the things that he did. It takes a lot of courage and confidence in the hands of a filmmaker who has never done a film like this before. 

You have been associated with RRR, you’re producing Brahmastra, and you’ve talked about doing The Ramayana as well, which I’m personally very excited about. What kind of a role do you think VFX plays in mythological films and their world-building?

VFX is to me another tool in the toolbox of storytelling. It’s like costume, cinematography, editing, music, and production design. It’s a part and parcel of everything. Now obviously, VFX does go beyond these because whatever is not possible to do in the physical world, we’re able to do digitally. So the contribution is tremendous because it basically puts the challenge back into the hands of the filmmaker. I think that is a very different paradigm that no other department can tackle, because every other department is constrained by physics – how will you build it? How will you shoot it? How to do a car change, there is traffic, there are permissions to be secured. Sunrise, sunset, crowds, whatever – physics is always at play. In the digital world, there are no constraints or limitations on what’s possible, because everything is possible. Visual effects are basically a way to try and bring imagination to life. When we got an Oscar for Dune, we were also nominated for James Bond (No Time To Die) and people were like in James Bond you don’t see any of the visual effects and Dune is [filled with VFX sequences]. Both the films are special in their own right. So it’s a pretty wide canvas on which we play, and that I think is what visual effects are all about. Your imagination is your only limitation.

“Bad” VFX forms a very healthy subculture of memes online. But a lot of people do not know the factors that lead to “bad” VFX being created. What according to you are great examples and not-so-great examples of VFX? And what do you think are certain factors due to which an overtly superficial special effect is delivered?

Good is when you’ve bought it, bad is when you haven’t.

I think it’s all about the intention of the filmmaker, you’ve got to start from there. If the goal of the filmmaker is to use visual effects in a way that nobody can tell that it’s VFX but the visual effects are executed in a way that everyone can tell, then you have lost the intent with which you started. On the other side, you might want people to look at it and say “Wow”. Brahmastra is all about “Wow”. When you look at that bull charging towards the truck or when you see the big monkey flying in the air, it’s not meant to look real. Our goal as a visual effects provider is to ensure that that is the intent of the director and deliver that faithfully. When you’re not able to deliver the intention of the filmmaker, that’s when it becomes bad. Because, [otherwise] you’ve taken me out of the film. If there is an action shot that looks unreal or a fantastical element looks tacky, from an audience standpoint, you’re taking them out of the experience instead of bringing them into it. And that is fundamentally at the heart of what I consider good or bad. Good is when you’ve bought it, bad is when you haven’t. And that comes down to the intention of the filmmaker. I’ve been doing this for a very long time and there was a point when filmmakers in India did not think that the audiences would care, one way or the other. It was just another plug. Just make it happen. And today, as I’ve been more closely involved with Brahmastra and have been tracking the social media of it all and seeing what’s happening, I’m amazed to see that when we released a song, people talked about its visual effects. I didn’t expect that. Of course, we’re talking about Arijit Singh, Pritam, Ranbir or Alia Bhatt because the song is about them. But the fact that visual effects were getting mentioned in every comment of the song made me realize also that people do care a lot about it. I think that’s a very interesting place to land, in terms of how the evolution in our audience has actually come about. As someone whose life and capability and credibility depend on it, I’d much rather have that audience response than the other, because it puts that responsibility and pressure on us to make sure that we can’t just get away. We’ve got to do it right. 

Our films are slowly putting in as much money into VFX as maybe their Hollywood counterparts, but do you feel like there is still a certain sense of resistance in the Indian audience? Take for instance Ra. One, which did release over a decade ago, but its VFX was pretty decent and yet it didn’t strike a chord with the audience. Do you feel like there’s been a change in that?

After Ra. One, we also had a Krrish that did really well. Dhoom 3 did well. So there are lots of films that did well. I always, “Let’s not overplay the hand of visual effects”. It’s obviously an important aspect. But ultimately, I’m not going to see a movie because I only care about the visual effects. I’m going to see the film because I want to feel the journey of the character and believe in the enthusiasm and excitement of the character. If they’re cracking a joke I feel like I have to laugh, if they want me to cry I’ve got to cry. If  I’m not experiencing those highs and lows, then I’m not in the film. And that is what I come back to as a student of cinema. You’ve got to be honest with your audience. You’ve got to deliver as a filmmaker what you want the audience to feel at that point. And if you’re not delivering that, then it’s not working, and then if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that it has the biggest star in the world, or the best visual effects shot. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. In the creative business, that’s also a judgement call. There’s no right and wrong. What will appeal to people is a very big question mark. My favourite song is “Deva Deva” in Brahmastra. But ask the audience, they’re saying “Kesariya” is the best – look at the number of views on it. So we’ve got to be able to deliver something each time that we believe is the most objective, the most honest expression of what we’re trying to do, and we have to make sure that the audience connects. And the audience’s taste also changes, every five to ten years.b

We Have Left No Stone Unturned With Brahmastra, Says Namit Malhotra, Oscar Winning-VFX Firm DNEG’s CEO
Brahmastra’s 11-Year Journey

What do you think makes India investment-worthy from the perspective of a DNEG or a Prime Focus?

I come from a three-generational film family. I grew up in the business. My father, my grandfather, we were all part of this ecosystem from almost its evolution. So there’s tremendous love, attachment and connection to the industry, to the art form we see here. The other factor is that India is a complicated market. Our North, South, East and West couldn’t be more different. We have a 100-year-old film industry, not just in Hindi, but across the country; we’ve been making and telling stories for our states, for our regions, and for our languages, for over a hundred years. Today, we are in a place where we can tell stories that pan across the country, and start to travel abroad. So for DNEG or Prime Focus, we’re excited about the amount of talent, the number of opportunities, and the potential of what these stories could look like over the next few years. There will be more and more movies like Brahmastra, RRR and Baahubali. I think it’s the best time in our company’s journey, because now when what we bring to the table is much more valued than it was twenty years ago. So from that standpoint, it’s a great opportunity. 

What were the contributions of the different divisions of ReDefine and DNEG to the film?

To be honest, we say Prime Focus is the partner in the film because our contribution is not just visual effects. We are on the services side: it’s our cameras, our sound stages and sound studios, 3D, visual effects, and the final masters are now being delivered to all the screens – the editor of the film is a Prime Focus co-founder, Prakash Kurup. Our contribution is at the core of the whole film, across every facet. We have tried to bring our entire 20-25 years of experience to this. For us, it’s a great platform, a great opportunity to have done that. The DNEG office lead the creative exploration and the vision of what we’re trying to design, and then we used teams between DNEG and ReDefine to execute that. All the different divisions have all sort of come together to make it happen.

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