December 3-2019
Exclusive: VFX veteran Srinivas Mohan speaks about his journey

India’s VFX scene has scaled up and how. Over the last number of years, we have seen VFX go through multiple evolutions. The landscape of storytelling has drastically expanded with VFX artists becoming more and more capable of breathing life into imaginations. When we speak of India’s VFX scene, movies like 2.0 and Bahubali automatically spring to mind. While Bahubali franchise captured the hearts with unprecedented visual illustrations, 2.0 wowed the audiences with stunning visuals that demonstrated the strides Indian storytelling has taken. AnimationXpress spoke to the man behind the VFX of these aforementioned masterpieces over a cuppa at the India Joy festival 2019.

VFX veteran Srinivas Mohan

Expounding on the difficulties of Indian VFX scenario and the way he managed to create imagery on a tight budget for several movies, VFX veteran Srinivas Mohan spoke candidly about his journey and observations.

His take on the Indian VFX trajectory

When I first came to the industry, tools were not very user-friendly whereas now VFX technology has gone through many evolutions and they are much more easier to operate on. We have passed the tool section. Now we need creativity! That is one of the major things that we don’t see much these days.

Being a visual effects supervisor

Now-a-days students are more task-oriented and they walk in with the narrow mindset that they have to finish a particular task but previz is more like journalism. If you ask me an example..

One day a student said to me, “‘Sir I want to become a visual effects supervisor”. I asked him as to what he thought is the role of the VFX supervisor and he answered that it is about going to the location and putting up the green screens and arranging everything. I think a lot of people are fundamentally unaware of the role of a visual effects supervisor.

If we say visual effects supervisor, we should know about the film in its entirety right from what director needs, what he thinks of the movie and how a major motion film is made. Most importantly, how the DOP approaches it…

VFX supervisor needs to know all the elements of the craft of filmmaking including the sound because sometimes even sound plays a crucial role in filmmaking. Of Course, all the green screen arrangement etc is there; but the fundamental role of supervisor is to communicate with the team.

Team as in the director, DOP and all the other departments including the actors because when an actor acts, he has to do it accordingly so that kind of communication skill is needed in order to operate as a VFX supervisor. You should also have a thorough knowledge of the visual effects tools.

Importance of previz (Previsualisation)

First thing will be that the director will be narrating the entire story which takes about four or five hours. For example:- for Bahubali itself SS Rajamouli narrated the story for three and a half hours. 

So we hear the script and then we select from the script as to which portions have vfx-heavy sequences. So the first role is to get the director’s vision from paper into a some kind of a visual form. The script is entirely in writing so the director will say that he wants a waterfall. A huge waterfall that touches the sky but we need to know what kind of waterfall, how big it is and what are the details that need to be infused so even if he says we need a huge waterfall, we need to know the scale and there are many variations. Sometimes we used to get references and other times we had to improvise.

If its an action sequence, we need to animate that, we need to do the rough previsualisation. All the departments should be in synch in order to execute the director’s vision. So the production guys will help, the DOP will help us.. All departments that are involved in that stage give their inputs until we arrive at an understanding. This is what we are going to show. After the final output, we know what you want. The second role is that we need to specify which portion we need to shoot live and which sequence will be computer generated. So that’s how the VFX breakdown happens. That’s how it flows down to the final stages of the project

His VFX experiences 

For me, one of the other challenge is; I play two roles. I play the role of VFX supervisor and the other one is of the VFX producer. VFX supervisor’s role is easier because we have a lot of people in the creative team so we get sufficient help but being the VFX producer is one of the toughest jobs in India. Because people are exposed to world cinema and they expect the Hollywood kind of quality because they have seen the big films. They expect the Hollywood quality within our Indian budget. So the main challenge is that when you take a hollywood project which like a 1500-2000 crores project. If you take the first part, Enthiran, the budget was only 125 crores in which vfx allocation in the film was only 14 crore rupees. Bahubali’s first part when I did it, the budget was around 150 crores in which I got only 20 crores for VFX but they expect something on part with our western counterparts. For me the first project that I started with was Enthiran
and I had also done Shivaji where I did the skin grafting, 
all of that I sat personally in my office and completed that. 

Evolving newer ways to create images

For the first part of Robot, Enthiran, I needed to step out and observe things. I told the director that I want to travel all around the world to see things. He obliged and I visited a lot of countries. I went to Ireland.. I basically visited many leading studios of Hollywood. The skin grafting I had done for Shivaji actually attracted many eyeballs and gave me recognition. That project become my visiting card. They told me about their plans and I understood that process we were going to undertake is completely different than the Hollywood ones. I realised that we can’t work with that kind of budget. I depended on technology but if the existing technology would be very expensive. I took up that challenge and visited the SIGGRAPH exhibitions, I found one suitable tool for Enthiran. We used the Lightstage technology. It’s not in the very popular Hollywood expensive bracket. Above all, I got a lot of support from that. We also used whitepaper. So that was one of the simple way in which we could get good quality content despite low budgets. 

Explaining limitations to directors

Second thing I did was limiting certain things with the director. If you see the robot in the first part, he’d wear a simple clothing, he has short hair and he would always wear glasses. For me, creating the eyes is one of the toughest part and creating the flowing hair is another challenging task. Those three decisions actually whittled down around 30 percent of the budget. Directors also understood the limitations. These days directors are aware of the technology and they understand the limitations when we approach them about it. The war scene in Bahubali, my idea was to go to the actual location like huge mountains and land. So that’s why we had to take help of the green-screen by shooting it on a fifty feet land. But I made it clear as to what was possible and he understood and did the elements within the possibilities that I had discussed with him. These are the two things; one is the emerging technologies that can be explored and understanding the director’s vision.

Upcoming project RRR

That’s what is happening. Now for all the pre-visualisation that we carry out, I started using the gammage. For me, the important thing is the technology. If you bring the latest and the emerging technology, I can reduce the budget and work with it. Even for RRR, there are big big companies that are tying up with us only because we are doing something new.