“Effects have a definite role and purpose in films today. The Digital Effects Industry is being accorded the same respect and status as the cast itself”
Be it in its proud parentage, or the elite patronage of its clients, the TATA group owned VFX studio, Visual Computing Labs has a lot of value it brings to the table.
The studio which has been in the news for creating VFX for quite a few big releases of 2004 is looking to dominate the market in 2005.
Animation ‘xpress’ Anand Gurnani met up with Tata Elxsi & Visual Computing Labs GM, K Chandrashekhar a few days ago and here’s what he had to say about the state of Indian VFX industry and VCL….
Here are excerpts…
Which films has VCL given VFX for recently, which are your latest projects?
After Chupke Se, Boom, Agnipankh, Funtoosh, Boys, Kal Ho Na Ho, Hum Tum, Dhoom, Veer Zaara, Swades and other films for which we have done the VFX, we are currently working on Netaji, Aniyan and a few untitled films. We are also doing work for a few Hollywood films apart from Direct-to-Video Animation titles.
What is the team strength at VCL? What are VCL’s strengths?
We have the best talent in India working with us and their output is international quality because we also service the Hollywood industry. Our Creative Director, Pankaj Khandpur is considered the VFX guru of India by clients and by the artists who consider it a previlege to work under him as there is so much that they can learn from his 22 years of graphics industry experience. Collectively, there are over 100 manyears of experience at VCL. We have worked on several projects and continue to be considered as the best Graphics house in India. Many of the Hollywood studios who have seen our work in India have appreciated our quality and our approach. Being a Tata group company helps in building credibility and trust.
With the number of international projects that VCL handles, we also learn from Hollywood studios on tips and tricks which we pass on to our Indian clients when we do their work. It’s a slow process and we are just one studio doing this today because we care for the quality of our work and for our reputation.
Studios like us dont set limits on what can be done. We are prepared to do R&D work for our clients on how to treat every frame and every VFX shot to make it look really good. This breeds quality thinking. This breeds good VFX professionals.
How many VFX professionals does the Indian FX industry posses collectively?
The number of GOOD effects people in the industry is very limited.
Why few good professionals when there is a rising demand?
The reason for this is how the VFX industry in India has evolved over the past few years. When VFX was new, the industry was unaware of the true limits of technology and hence would play safe in either trying to replicate specific VFX shots from hollywood films or settle for what the studio that they were approaching those days would tell the film makers as the limit. On their part, film makers would also not plan for Digital-effects budgets and would settle for what was dished out to them in the price and time that they gave to the VFX studios.
Only if the industry poses technical challenges to the VFX studios, then the studios will try to overcome the challenges and keep pushing the envelope. This will also lead to more professionals being made available in India. Artists want to work with us for this reason. That we offer them the challenging environment to work in and to show their talent. Plus they get a first hand exposure to Hollywood VFX industry through the work we do there.
“VFX Studios must clearly communicate that there are no free lunches. Good quality work costs money”
What is the size of the Indian VFX industry?
This is difficult to determine because of the nature of the Indian film industry. A lot of information might either be not available or would not be known. For example you can see visible effects in some films like Funtoosh whereas in films like Kal Ho Na Ho you wonâ€™t see the 40 minutes of effects. A film like Dhoom has stunts which have been facilitated digitally. So, what is the true measure of the industry size? One can make a guestimate based on the number of films being produced and the approximation of percentage of films that use effects and approximate duration of effects.
One thing is for certain, that the number of films using effects has gone up tremendously as also the duration compared to films last year. More scripts today assume effects as an integral part of their story-telling. Effects have a definite role and purpose in films today and the Digital Effects Industry is being accorded the same respect and status as the cast itself. That is the other big change over the previous years.
Regarding the quality of the work being done, which techniques and processes are more in usage?
This is driven more by the kind of film rather than any set formula. VFX studios not only create the VFX shots but also “rescue” the film from shooting mistakes.
Stunt films like Dhoom will have lot more wires and rigs while color-correction is used in every film. One interesting development is that today there is a definite place for invisible VFX shots alongwith the more visible VFX shots.
Kal Ho Na Ho, Agnipankh, Veer Zaara, Netaji and Swades are great examples of this. The film makers of these films are giving to the audience visually more pleasure for the same ticket cost. They are giving more Value for Money.
How much of miniatures and animatronics are we using in VFX?
Not as much as its being used in Hollywood. It depends on what the script demands.
What is the ratio between VFX work being done for the south Indian entertainment industry as compared to Bollywood?
In terms of sheer volume of work, more Hindi films get done by us. Perhaps being in Mumbai contributes to this. With south we are very selective with whom we work. We dont compete for films that treat VFX as a commodity or as an after-thought. And we certainly stay away from films that dont have a plan and a budget for VFX. While we can help the client in breaking down the script to determine the VFX shots, we certainly expect the client to plan the budget.
I have heard prospects telling me about the “formula”. They calculate the loss from their film even before it is released and there is a formula for keeping cost down to stay within the formula. This means that some film makers actually prepare for a flop even before they make the film! This pushes them to allocate less budget towards VFX. Eventually, the studios that live off such work go belly up as they can never survive a diminishing-budget model film after film. This is true even in Mumbai. Its like a perishable commodity. Number of days this film will run, number of screens, number of territories, etc. Its something that we stay away from.
“While we can help the client in breaking down the script to determine the VFX shots, we certainly expect the client to plan the budget”
What are the average budgets for VFX in hindi movies? What are the VFX budgets for South Indian movies?
Budgets are driven by the number and the complexity of the shots. There are no fixed formulas. Each shot is to be costed based on what the client feels is essential to the shot and we mutually arrive at as a desirable stretch to enhance it even more.
So,when a client discusses VFX with us, we spend maximum time on the technicalities of the shot and on how to enhance it further. We spend bare mimimum time on costs because costs follow quality. The budgets range from 25 Lakhs to 3 crores depending on the work involved.
Our clients have always involved us at the script stage and we supervise the shooting for the effects shots. We thus add creative value to the VFX shot plus we save money for the client by avoiding mistakes and wastages. While we could make more money from the client by not doing this, we view it as a collaborative effort in making the film a success rather than as a means to make a few quick cheap bucks. Relationships are built this way and our clients have been with us for many years and come to us when they have work. Our marketing is minimal for this reason.Trust begets trust.
What are the salaries like in this field?
Salaries in this field are today higher than in other skills and disciplines. The highest salaries are today being paid to VFX artists as the work that they do is very demanding in a creative sense and only the best can survive the expectations and the challenges. There is nothing like a limit. Each time something great is perceived to have been achieved, we are pushing the limits for the next client. The talented VFX artists command double the salary levels of the modellers and animators. Not everyone can get into this field and stay on top under the extreme pressure conditions. So, talent finds its own levels. We are fortunate to have the best VFX talent in the country today and their work is being appreciated by the Hollywood industry when we show them our work. Needless to say, we recognise their talent and pay them accordingly.
What sort of software “hardware” processing equipment is being used in the country for VFX purposes?
The high end work is being done on the trusted workhorse of our Industry, the Discreet Systems like Flames and Infernos. The off-line systems like Combustion, Shake,etc also form part of a product-mix in an VFX studio. Discreet has the whole pipeline worked out for VFX studios. They can help an VFX studio to plan their pipeline ramp up in stages and the local office is very helpful. I am told that they are launching some exciting products soon that will help the VFX industry even further. Maya from Alias is good for 3D animation work. It has everything that is required for 3D work for clients.
What is the minimum amount of investment needed to start a VFX studio?
This depends on what the long term goals of the studio are. To be a serious player and to establish a name for quality work costs a lot more money and brings higher returns. Good VFX studios need quality people and high end systems and necessary infrastructure.
“If the industry poses technical challenges to the VFX studios, then the studios will try to overcome the challenges and keep pushing the envelope”
What are the critical issues that the Industry needs to overcome in order to reach the next level?
The primary issue is the attitude and approach of VFX studios. There is no short-cut to success. Studios must accept responsibility towards the industry and towards the client. VFX studios are in business because of the clients and not the other way around. When a film succeeds, the client will come back for more work in his next film. So, put in more than what the client asks for. VFX studios must encourage clients to challenge them technically. No point in doing same routine stuff film after film. Money will dwindle when there is no value-addition from the VFX studio. They must clearly communicate that there are no free lunches. Good quality work costs money. It is not about going to the next studio and meeting your budget for the VFX. Its about which studio has done cutting-edge VFX work in the past and contracting them to ensure success of the film. Its all about what works for the success of the film rather than about which studio agrees to the budget available.
What sort of a growth rate do you for VFX over the next few years?
I see a tremendous growth in the VFX industry in the coming years. As the audience tacitly acknowledges a good film by coming to the theater and buying tickets to see the film, film makers on their part will raise the bar on what they put into the film. The audience’s approval of Dhoom will lead to even more cutting edge stuff from the film maker in future. Success breeds success.