A few hours before the release of 2.0, we meet Oscar winner Resul Pookutty, the sound designer of the film. Edited excerpts from a longer interview with Baradwaj Rangan:
We’re meeting you a day before the release of 2.0. How does one describe your mood today? Is it relief, mild anxiety or panic?
I’m still working (laughs).
We have heard Rajinikanth in stereo speakers, Dolby, 6 track, DTS… In 2.0, we have the 4D SRL technology. Is there any difference in the way Rajinikanth sounds in this movie?
I think this film has two huge stars — Akshay and Rajini. But I don’t think 2.0 was burdened by their stardom. It’s a film based on the massive vision of a maverick, Shankar. Everything we have done is to further his vision. This is not about dealing with people’s stardom.
Yes, when we did Enthiran, we were very worried about changing Rajini’s voice because we’ve had experiences when changing a major star’s voice had backfired. Shankar was worried so we devised a psycho-acoustic division to fool the people.
But now, we didn’t think twice when we had to change the voices of Rajinikanth of Akshay. There is Chitti, 2.0 and Vasee…there are four or five dimensions of Rajinikanth and all of them are distinctly different. What has suited is what we’ve done.
In 2.0 we were never bogged down by stardom…but we did use star value to our advantage.
How many years did you spend on this?
I spent two years. I started work on January 3, 2016. I’ve been a part from the time the script was completed…and I’m still here.
Did you do other movies in this time?
I did. Like when we would break between schedules or when we would wait for the CG shots to arrive. But I’ve not been doing anything else for the past three months.
Can you explain the 4D SRL (Shankar, Resul, Lyca) technology to us, a pioneering effort which begins with 2.0? Can you take a scene from the film and tell us how it would have sounded without this technology?
When Shankar explained the story, he said he’s going to shoot the film in 3D, which meant, things get projected out of the screen and into the audience.
He asked me, if we can realise the equivalent of this 3D effect with sound? I said yes because I knew it can be done in theory. But I did not know how to do it in practically.
What if sounds comes out of the screen, into the audience, and if they have to feel it under their feet? What is that we need to do to make that happen? This meant finding a new method, re-writing an existing algorithm and also re-inventing something that already exists.
From that point, I needed to work backwards. So I jumped right into the exhibition system. I realised that whatever format you introduce, the exhibition system only takes what is easy for them to do. This means minimal changes from their existing system, both in terms of money and alterations.
After about one year of research, I narrowed it down to a system. Of all the latest formats in immersive sound, like the Dolby Atmos, what is the one aspect that is not being used? I looked into that and changed it around.
Can you give me an example?
Like in a Dolby Atmos room, there are 128 outputs. Essentially there are about 65 stereo channels of sound reproduction that happens in such a room. So in a big room, 40 to 65 speakers are used for this distribution to happen.
With SRL 4D, in addition to those, we have another 420 speakers coming in too. Those speakers are not hanging elsewhere…but it is sitting with the audience in every seat. That distribution of speakers will tap an output from the main architectural form of the Dolby System.
Apart from the format, I then needed to create something that will feed these additional modifications. So I first created the format and then something to feed the format. This was the enormity of the 2.0 sound.
We’ve used walls for sound and even ceilings. But we’ve never explored the floors even though it has been a part of narratives. So we got wise, started learning how seats are aligned in a theatre and how we could wire it without disturbance. We convinced a company to put up a demo for me eight months after listening to the script. That’s when I said we could do this. So we revamped the studio, ripped off everything and we put up everything new.
From there, we moved into the Sathyam Theatre, convinced them about what we were trying to do and started working there from 2 am after the last show was over. We worked until 7 am and we kept perfecting the system. Finally, it was only a few nights before the trailer launch that we could finally crack the system. I think this wouldn’t have been possible without the exhibition system, even the business side of cinema played a part in the creative work. SRL 4D wouldn’t have been possible without them.
Even though the investment is minimal, there is still an investment. Can theatres use it for other films?
We have opened up this format and now it can be used to give you one more tool for narration. We have rewritten the software and it is now easy to swap sound with the regular system. It’s just the question of changing a file.
The film is in 3D. Is there a 3D effect in the sound as well? How different are such films to say, a film like Slumdog Millionaire?
Every film has its challenges. The best compliment I have ever got after Slumdog Millionaire was that a person told me that he could smell Bombay through the film. That was done by the sound.
When you do 2.0, which is based on computer graphics, you could do some of the most arresting visuals on computer graphics, but if it does not come across, it does not work.
That’s when the sounds comes in…the sound makes it believable. Can a cell phone fly from your hand? In real life it cannot, but in the film you believe it. Everything we do is to satiate the vision.
Can you give us an example of working with Shankar and how he imagined the 3D effect in the sound as well design for this film? What did he say when you first sat down for meetings?
He wouldn’t say he wants a particular sound but he would give me the idea of what he wanted to hear at that moment. The most challenging sound in the film was not the large action pieces or the explosions.
It was the small simple sound of a sparrow dying. He told me a bird takes its last breath and he wanted to hear that, the way humans take their last breath. But we have never seen birds dying. Once, an ornithologist told me that when a bird knows it’s dying, it just flies away until it vanishes.
Even elephants keep walking deeper into the forest when it knows it is time. But in cinema, we have to show so for me, the most difficult sound to create was this last breath. And when the bird dies, every audience’s heart will bleed.
Is this the biggest budget you have had for sound? Or were your Hollywood films bigger?
A lot of the execution of Enthiran was done in Hollywood. But in 2.0, everything was done here in Bombay or in AR Rahman’s studio in Chennai. Expect for a few folly sounds from Spain, everything else was spent in Indian studios and created here. It is in fact a great Make in India proposition.
Finally, what is your most memorable take-away from the 2.0 experience?
Let the audience’s love for the film be the biggest take-away.
But I worry for Shankar. Some of the best works of the biggest artistes have never been accepted. I have that fear. I hope it is accepted because this is a very decisive film for Indian cinema.
If you look at the last decade, you will notice how the business has changed. When Avatar released, it took away Rs. 45 crore. Fast and Furious then collected Rs.100 crore and Jungle Book collected even more. You have to understand that they are taking away our resources without spending a single penny.
What are our responsibilities as practitioners of cinema in this county? We too have to make films that stand tall against this invasion. My own children watch Marvel films and so does everybody else. They will look down upon the films we make if we cannot capture the imagination of our people. This is the challenge. If we do not wake up, our cinema will be conquered like how Hollywood took over French cinema.
The Chinese have countered this by putting a curb on the number of foreign releases. But we being a democracy cannot do that.
We can only counter this with better content, better vision and technical savvy films…that is the sanctity of 2.0. To sustain Indian cinema, you have to sustain a film like 2.0.