National Award-winning production designer Sabu Cyril has a penchant for challenges. Be it a Ra.One, Enthiran or Baahubali, he always gravitates towards mammoth projects that require tremendous planning and research. Post Baahubali, he’s been busy with the tri-lingual Saaho where he is once again working with Prabhas. The film also stars Shraddha Kapoor and Neil Nitin Mukesh.
The Saaho unit is currently stationed at Abu Dhabi, in preparation for a massive 20 minute action sequence, to be choreographed by Hollywood stunt director Kenny Bates (Armageddon, Transformers, Pearl Harbour, Con Air). In an exclusive chat, Sabu reveals why he had to visit Abu Dhabi 8 times last year and why feels this is his career’s biggest overseas shoot.
How long have you been in Abu Dhabi for Saaho?
I have become a frequent visitor to Abu Dhabi ever since I signed up for Saaho. In fact I came here for location recces 8 times in the last 6 months. We are going to shoot an important, high-octane action sequence here from around April 12th. I flew down here nearly one-and-half months ago with my entire art team of 300 painters, moulders, carpenters, welders and designers.
A lot of research into materials and set design work was undertaken by my team in advance in Hyderabad last year, in preparation for this shoot. All of that material has now been shipped from India to Abu Dhabi in 4 container loads. My team has been busy assembling all those props here. I have been working in active collaboration with Kenny Bates’ international stunt department team for this shoot.
It sounds like a massive project is underway..
Yes, the scale is indeed huge. It’s all the more challenging when you have to work out of the country. I have worked in London for Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One for instance. But I can easily say that in terms of working abroad, Saaho is my biggest overseas project.
What sort of sets are you creating for this action scene?
I can’t reveal what we are creating at this stage. Moreover, that would take away from the magical experience at the cinema for the viewer. My work is best when it’s not noticeable, looks completely believable and blends into the scenes unfolding on screen.
When the action is shot on real locations like Abu Dhabi, what is the significance of production design?
Usually one cannot easily get permission to shoot stunts, chases, blasts and fights on busy roads or real locations like public buildings, hospitals and so on, because of the risk of damage or disturbance to the public. So though we are going to shoot on few roads and inside few buildings here, we need more time and space to shoot such stunts with ease. The action sequence will be shot over several weeks here. That’s where the art department steps in.
We recreate those locations in a controlled atmosphere, so that the shoot can take place with greater ease, without affecting the public. So while we will be shooting on several real locations in Abu Dhabi, my team will have to recreate them here and match those places with the originals, so that it looks real. Given the vastly different kinds of public spaces here, you can envision what a task it is going to be for us. My job is to make things look real.
Apart from recreating the real locations, how else is your art department involved in action sequences?
Well, when there are fights or chases of any sort, we need to create dummies which take the fall or get blasted for instance. There are props that need to be planted like dummy vehicles, walls, buildings or furniture which get broken or blown up. Depending on the type and scale of stunts involved, set properties of entire rooms or buildings may have to be created for people to sit, walk, run through or fight on. Many times props get damaged while shooting and have to be recreated as well. So it’s a constant work in progress.
You have been working in collaboration with the Hollywood stunt team of Kenny Bates for Saaho. Can you tell us about the experience of working together?
Yes, Kenny and I have been in touch over the last year. Before shooting, out of the 8 times I visited Abu Dhabi for location recces, Kenny has also been here with me on 4 trips. He has a vast experience in Hollywood and is trying something new and even more exciting in Saaho. He’s a brilliant guy. We have had several meetings and discussed how to achieve maximum impact for what he has in mind. One of the ways we work is through creating storyboards. Not just Kenny and me, we had joint discussions with the entire camera team of Madhi, the VFX team and director Sujeeth’s team for 16 days in Hyderabad before we came here.
He has a huge 120 member international crew from LA, Prague and London stationed here. He has separate teams for ropes, rigging and special effects like blasts, crashes, objects bursting or flying in the air etc. It’s exciting collaborating with him.
This is your second film with Prabhas after Baahubali. How excited is he about the project?
Prabhas is quite excited. In fact, he would invite us to his guest house in Hyderabad and would want to know in detail how the shoot has been planned. He will be joining us here shortly. Once this major action sequence is shot, we will be going to other places to shoot the songs.