4500 VFX shots by NY VFXWAALA made Ajay Devgn’s ‘Shivaay’ the visual delight that it is

Being fairly young (one and a half year to be more precise) studio, NY VFXWAALA has managed to create a mark in the Indian VFX industry. Having worked on films like Bajirao Mastani, Theri, Drishyam, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the studio’s latest project has set the bar higher for its counterparts. Not many know about it but the film which recently made its way in the Rs 100 crore list, Shivaay has 4500 VFX shots! The Ajay Devgn starrer movie is being known for its larger than life visuals and amazing cinematography, a compliment taken by the visual effects team. Working on Shivaay was Ajay Devgn’s VFX studio, NY VFXWAALA with Naveen Paul as the creative head, Pankaj Kalbende and Randhir Reddy as VFX supervisors and Vinod Ganesh as the production head. With these capable hands on the project, there was a little doubt about the outcome of the movie. Naveen Paul and Pankaj Kalbende revealed to AnimationXpress what went into the making of this ambitious project. Shivaay as a film had at its core, the script and the story it had to convey. VFX was just used as a medium to bring that narrative to life. Hence, even though 70 to 75 per cent of the movie was shot against the blue screens, it was never promoted as a VFX heavy feature. Paul says, “Taking into consideration the preparation time, we have worked on Shivaay for almost one and a half years which includes about 11 months of floor work. We couldn’t have asked for any better director than Ajay Devgn as he has the technical knowledge and understands the limitations and strengths of visual effects; knowing how and when to incorporate VFX.” The 158 minute film has six major VFX sequences and every sequence was designed differently. “This film felt as if we are working on six different films at one time. as each shot varied from the other,” added Kalbende who also acknowledged the fact that Devgn is a ‘technically sorted director’. After going through the script, the prep work was undertaken wherein each sequence was broken down and storyboarding process was initiated. It included details like how will the shoot take place and accordingly every sequence was once again broken down in smaller chunks. This process was carried out to indicate which part would be shot against blue screen and which would be shot live. “As there were many locations where it was impractical to shoot, VFX came to the rescue. During such situations, possibilities were checked and locations were shortlisted. High resolution pictures and videos were shot, which were later converted to CGI,” mentions Kalbende. Paul adds, “The biggest challenge was to blend the live and CGI scenes to make it look seamless. Maintaining the lighting and colour was another aspect to be taken into consideration.” Both of them further went on to say that Devgn had no intention to do a VFX heavy film. All he wanted was to make something which has never been shown in the Bollywood films. Nowadays with film-makers opening to the idea of taking the aid of VFX for their film, it happens that visual effects can either make or break the film as a lot of responsibility lie on the studio’s shoulder. So how can VFX be improved in movies? “When directors start thinking a notch higher that’s when high quality VFX can be delivered. Thought process revolves around directors and that’s one thing Ajay had. With the amount of technical knowledge he possesses, no one could have tried such sequences,” explains Paul. With about 100 artists working on the project over the period of 11 months, NY VFXWAALA has not only set a new benchmark for VFX studios but also the filmmakers. The six major sequences the studio has worked on are: The introduction of Ajay Devgn as Shivaay Avalanche Gora Kidnap Falling off bridge Pre Climax (2 parts)
The studio gave an in-depth analysis of each sequence. The introduction of Ajay Devgn as Shivaay: This sequence was the best example of bridging Maya and Nuke As the only practical way to execute this sequence was to shoot it entirely in controlled environment, hence the decision of shooting it against blue screen was finalised. The most important part was to get the shooting light correct and consistent. So, it was decided to shoot in the exterior with natural sunlight and at the same time, avoid harsh and directional light. The cinematographer, Asim Bajaj took utmost care in doing so whereas art director, Sabu Cyril took care of the 40 ft height mountain set. Since it was a free fall from the mountain, the body language had to be precise and perfect, falling with the gravity. Since every shot was against the blue screen, the framing had to be right , which means that they had to get relative scale and perspectives in place. To prepare themselves, immense homework had to be carried out in the form of observing various free fall and skydive videos. Location Recce in actual mountains to study the textures, scales and all other minute details required to create a CGI model were also carried out. To make efficient use of the CGI model, the model itself was divided into six parts, depending upon the magnification of the live shots. This enabled them to plan very efficiently without getting stuck by the heavy model which also enabled the team to divide the six parts within small teams. The model went through multiple iteration of sculpting before making ready for texturing. The texture was worked in detail on every small section of the model to avoid any kind of tiling. Minute details were re-created using the actual reference pictures that were shot during Recce. Now the most challenging part was to lit up a model matching to the live action plate. There were multiple passes rendered out before it went to the comping stage. By default, this entire exercise had to be repeated several times for every shot before locking on to the final version. There were about 170 shots that went through this tedious process. This sequence was a best example of bridging Maya and Nuke. The mountain was a CGI model and the remaining elements like the sky, the surrounding mountains and the ground were matte paints. While the CGI model was match moved, and rendered out, with a baked camera, the matte paint elements were projected in Nuke. It was very essential to bridge the gap between Maya and Nuke so that there is a common platform. This bridging of software helped the team immensely to marry elements from different softwares and formats. Elements from matte paint were as big as 12k in tiff format, elements from Maya were rendered out in exr format. On average every shot had about a minimum of 25 layers and this wasn’t possible without these features in NukeX. Avalanche: The requirement of the scene was to show the avalanche in the Himalayan ranges and how it affects the people caught in the avalanche. Again, it wasn’t practical to shoot in Himalayas, and so it was decided to shoot in a controlled environment in a studio. A set was put in an area of 100 by 100 feet. The actual challenges began from here, as they had to re-create photo realistic environment around this fake set. There were four major elements that had to be planned for:
  1. The gorge; 2. The mountains; 3. Avalanche; 4. Shoot live plate.
The main challenge was to get the scales and perspective right, followed by the look and feel. Since, the main feel was to get the balance of snow and fresh frozen ice, a lot of videos and images which were available on internet were gone through. It was extremely impractical to find and scout the actual location for referencing. The team was limited to only what internet showed.  After going through 10,000 images, they mixed and matched different elements from various images and developed a concept around it. Sleepless nights were spent  to re-create this concept in CGI. This was just the beginning of executing this horrific sequence of 210 shots. Now they had to decide and plan for the surrounding environment consisting of huge mountains, stones, trees, etc. Again a new concept was worked upon for the mountains. Most of the environments were re-created by matte paint. To fit these elements in a proper way, point cloud generator was used to get the mesh in NukeX (image of point cloud). This mesh was edited to extend the gorge and mountains. On the same mesh, they projected matte paint of the gorge and mountain with the help of 2.5D projection. The entire sequence was not 3D, but a 2.5D projection in NukeX. So based on this approach, the Nuke pipeline helped the artists immensely. The need was to show a massive avalanche going down the mountains towards the people camped at the base of the mountain. To make the avalanche look closest to reality, videos were studied precisely to know the behaviour of the avalanche in terms of speed, particles, dynamics, and lighting to show the avalanche more dramatic. Gora Kidnap Part 1: This sequence gave the team an opportunity to explore different areas of shot designing in the form of one single long shot without any cut in between; technically artists call it as stitch shots. This sequence also involves creating CGI vehicles, buildings, crowd multiplications and blue screen shots. If you have seen this sequence in the film, almost 90 per cent of vehicles and buildings are CGI. There were shots which involved shooting as many as 10 different plates composited to show them as one shot. Falling off bridge Part 2: This is a kind of time freeze shot, but having said this, nothing is freezed but everything moves in super high speed. Apart from executing technical aspects, the director also wanted to emote through this shot. This was shot at 2000 fps. We had to seamlessly stitch those five plates into one single shot. It was very challenging because every plate is shot with different magnifications. The magnifications of every last frame of the plate was digitally matched to the first frame of the subsequent plate, in some cases a part of the frame has to be recreated to seamlessly match the magnifications. Apart from matching the magnifications, the artists also had to seamlessly merge digital camera moves with live shoot cameras. All the primary plates were shot against blue screen, that means apart from stitching these five plates seamlessly they also had to re-create the entire background using live shoot plates as reference, via matte paint and extensive projection. The team says extensive projection because the camera moves in all possible directions in one single shot. The travel from the first camera lens to the second one was re-created using matte paint and projection, to get features of the body and hair. The actual shot of the background was completely projected with the live reference location, to get the camera movement which was shot. The geometry for this shot was created in Nuke using basic shapes like sphere, plain, cube, cylinder, etc. These shapes were edited using edit mesh, to fulfil the requirement of the shot. It crafted four stitches to bring together the different shots with different lenses and the camera. Plus, it completed an additional BG projection in Nuke itself, in order to bridge the movement between individual shots to get the next plate. The artists had to re-construct BG according to the shot requirement, and so multiple matte paint layers for 2.5 D projection were used. As much as everything was used exactly as it was shot at the same time. There was also a need to digital matte paint layers that had to be projected on a multiple geometries. But, they knew it was photographically staying true to the light and the colour, temperature and detail of the location. Since the transition between each of the plate shot could not precisely match up the next plate; for that, the camera movement had to be re-generated. So, it was not just the stitching takes together, but stitching performance in the same camera movement. Stitching the individual take together into one seamless whole is admitting that a fair amount of digital manipulation was involved. So when the camera panned around the actor, different takes of the same scene were blended together. Actor was framed a little different so that the artists could re-frame it according to the framing which was required differently.    Pre Climax: An actual location was chosen for pre-climax in Bulgaria, where there was a chase scene to be shot. However, the team faced issues due to lesser winter in Bulgaria, and there was no snow during those months at the location. Hence, adding snow in the shots had become an additional scope for VFX. This is when the team realised the actual challenges connected with this sequence; one was the absence of snow, and second was shooting of a chopper would have been extremely dangerous in the narrow gorge. There were three major elements to plan for in this sequence: 1. Chopper 2. Trees 3. Snow. The team had done immense homework for the sequence, by studying the videos of effect of the wind arising out of the wings of the chopper on the trees. The chopper and the trees were made in CGI and the snow was added in matte paint. All technical details like lens information, focal length, were methodically recorded during the shoot, which was helpful to re-create the environment. Photoshop, Maya and Nuke was exclusively used for projection and compositing. Part 2: Considering the complexity of the scene, limitations and restrictions of the location, it was decided to shoot the scene against the blue screen. The entire scene was story boarded much earlier to plan the entire action. These Recce pictures were the only reference with them for the re-creation of the environment. Exclusive stills and plates were also shot for the same. They had to study the nature of snow, and its structural dynamics to achieve the realistic effect. While seeing these shots, one would come to know that it was a big challenge to compile the live action footage with the generated environment and add all the possible details in VFX to achieve this final look. Nuke projection helped to achieve the relative depth required for the scene.