VAM Summit: Industry pioneers track the journey of VFX in an exclusive chat

Vam Summit 2021

The most awaited session of the VAM Summit saw a dedicated discussion amongst India’s pacemakers and leaders of the VFX industry. Focused mainly on their early experiences to where the industry stands now, the national leaders of the VFX industry shared insights about the progress made over the decade.

Moderated by AnimationXpress founder, chairman and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari, panelists included Firefly Creative Studio co-founder and director Sanath PC, VFX supervisor Srinivas Mohan, Makuta VFX division head and chief technical director Pete Draper, VFX director Govardhan Vigraham, Redchillies.vfx COO and VFX producer Keitan Yadav, senior VFX supervisor and filmmaker Madhu Sudhanan.

Madhu Sudhanan

Madhu Sudhanan, who started his career in 1994 compared the early days of VFX to holding a torchlight in the dark and seeing things happen as they went along. He expounded, “We didn’t have a material to learn from somebody. I started my career without any references. We mostly used visual effects for song and dance sequences which negated the gravity of visual effects. You could make mistakes and get away with those mistakes. I would say that until early 2000; 2003-2004, until that point it was so hard to get to know how somebody has made VFX and what technologies are available to incorporate that.”

Having seen the real-film department transitioning into the digital space and supporting the digital production, he shared that it is unbelievable to see so many studios here in India.

Juxtaposing the earlier times when there was not much education to the present day scenario in India, he shares, “It was quite an interesting phase. I have seen it from my own eyes that when the real film were getting into digital which means even the post side of it, to support the digital production as such in terms of the software and hardware including the film cameras. Everything was conforming to a digital set up so I went through that process in my career.”

Discussing the present-day scenario in depth and reflecting on the resources available for the artists, he shared, “It is amazing to see so many champions here. It is unbelievable that we have so many international studios here in India. It is quite welcoming and fantastic to see that journey. You see today, any movie that we make, there’s a huge tutorial for us to learn and all we need to do is just five per cent better than what they have done.”

Govardhan Vigraham

Vigraham who began his career in 1992 with television commercials and music videos before getting into feature VFX shares that in the those days there weren’t many people doing effects work for feature films. He shared, “I was also directing commercials and music videos before I got drawn into feature film VFX. Before that, there were not many people doing VFX for feature films. All that was concentrated on television commercials so the film industry took note of that and got interested in that. So we slowly just got dragged into it.”

From setting up scanners and recorders; the whole process, he shared, was a very rough learning process and not a streamlined one. VFX domain is much more advanced now.

Speaking about his recent venture, he said, “I am venturing into virtual production. So I am setting my own virtual production set up which should be up in about a few days with real time tracking and real time production in Mumbai. So I have projects coming from down south also. I also have projects locked in from here. I have been doing a bit of work for OTT also and it is going to explode in the months to come so you do see the an increase in amount of budget compared to what it was sometime back when you had a more creative-oriented films but not commercially large films.”

Speaking about the projects he has signed and his virtual production venture, he shared, “The work I am doing is all feature films. There is one feature film nearly locked in and the others are all signed up. So we have huge sets to be built with characters and real time production so I am starting off with green screen real time studio and I think in about a few months; an LED-based set up. That’s where I stand as of now.”

Sanath PC

Pioneers are professionals who make a path for people to look up to and follow. Sanath observes that VFX is ever-evolving and we are constantly finding ways to tell stories.

Detailing his journey into VFX, he shared, “Basically I am an animation and film designer. I always wanted to be in films, and VFX became a very easy way to get into films way back before this digital film came in. I was able to get into the film business quite quickly because of the animation background where we make films frame by frame and shot films frame by frame and understood every aspect of what it means to tell a story. That way when I came in, the technology is what we made innovative use of. First of all, you have a story and then what you have in your hands is to make that story better. With that approach, it was extremely easy to adapt any kind of changes coming in the industry.”

With VFX being so called techno; filmmakers, he shares, look upto you to bring in something new to make the story better. That’s where we were able to make the difference.

Back in the times, VFX indeed was relegated to the corner called ‘post production’, however, Sanath takes this as an issue with VFX professionals being identified as post artists. According to him, “VFX is a key element of filmmaking and plays a significant role in all stages of movie production.”

Having consistently evangelised the use of VFX and the wonders it can do to the stories and worked towards making filmmakers aware of its potential, he feels we have indeed come a long way.

He feels that any real change can only come about with the revamping of the fundamental practices in the industry. He expounded, “VFX is not seen as a part of the filmmaking unit officially. When you look at the filmmaking craft, it is about the director, editors, cinematographers etc etc. All these people are there but there is always a question mark on whether VFX is there or not there. So the way we were able to make those changes is really get in and change the practices. If you want to get the output; something that is not done before, you need to take a look at your practices and change. Usually filmmakers call you when they have a problem. See I can’t do something; so let’s look at visual effects.”

Srinivas Mohan

Dating back to 1999 when Mohan stepped in this industry, he shared that there were less amount of creative people. According to him, we did not follow the progression that west did; which is learning from optical effects work and applying the lessons straight onto visual effects.

He elaborated, “All the optical work was transferred to the digital version. So whoever worked in optical, they worked and they supported. But In India, whoever worked in that optical era, they were not able to transfer any information and experience of handling the directors. So that became cut off suddenly. So when we entered, there was a huge gap. All those who entered in the industry were based on the technical view and not the artistic view. The perception was that computer can do everything.” 

He also shared that present times are perfect. He added, “Whatever vision they have, we are capable of producing whatever the director says.”

Kietan Yadav

Yadav who dived into the world of visual effects in the year 1996 shared that ‘ten years of rigorous advertising visual effects is what makes you a jack of all’.

He noted, “You basically do everything right from planning to going to the shoot and coming back to putting under DGBeta player and spending nights just recording the stuff. We used to have Ematic so beta and DGbeta and frame by frame grabbing system made you stay up all night.”

Virtual Production has indeed been a recurring theme over the past year with its adoption accelerating due to the pandemic-induced restrictions.

Touching upon the buzz about virtual production, he shared, “So it started from there and right now where we are; all the talks are happening about virtual production and how it is going to change the way films are shot and how the approach of people is going to change. The vision of the director and DOPs have to go through a learning curve. If you speak of evolution, I have seen it all.”

Calling the present scenario; the golden age of filmmaking, he shared, “We will go deeper and deeper now with a lot more involvement, respect, weightage to the visual effects industry and its professionals because they eventually are going to create those unbelievable scenes in the shows and movies.” 

Pete Draper 

Draper observed that there has been a significant improvement in the perception of directors and producers with them understanding the process better than the times before.

He shared, “They understand that time needs to be put into things. Money needs to be brought into things as well. Time equals quality equals money. It is the golden triangle. So by understanding that, it gives you the ability to tell better stories.”

This medium, Draper informed, gives the storytelling ability for directors or script writers not to be limited. Speaking about the allocation of budgets, he added, “The only limitation otherwise would be naturally budgetary. Though they have also increased to a degree over the last decade as well. You used to have percentage of anything of a round of a total film’s budget and up to roundabout 10-15 percent. Now  it is getting into somewhere in the region of roundabout 20 percent. There has obviously been an improvement.”

Shedding light on virtual production, he shared that the flaw in virtual production is actually a boon for all the VFX artists since it requires filmmakers to create the backgrounds ahead of time, giving more impetus to the visual effects department.

He shared, “There is one flaw in it but of benefit for us especially when it comes to virtual production; which is that the decisions need to be made in advance. Not just the case of give me options, give me five to 10 options of something and then we’ll choose the one that I like.”

He shared that those decisions are actually being made earlier on as opposed to at the end of the post schedule especially if one is getting into the virtual production realm.

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