Director Sahir Raza unfolds the mystery of Sci-Fi Web Series ‘Aisha My Virtual Girlfriend’

Director Sahir Raza
The world we live in today has brought major advances in technology like robotics, holograms and all kinds of new gadgets. Today, we have access to better forms of software and the ability to create smart virtual assistants that can learn and evolve like a human being. The question begs what if, you could have a relationship with a virtual entity. It was answered by entertainment platform Arre by bringing alive the digital world of ‘A.I.SHA My Virtual Girlfriend’. The web series first aired online on 9 April 2016 and was premiered across Arre’s Android and iOS application, websites and its partner platforms including Facebook, YouTube, SonyLIV, YuppTV, Vodafone Play and Jet Airways flight. The second season was released on 23 March 2017. The story is about a man (Samir) and a woman(Aisha) who is an artificial intelligence simulated humanoid assistant (A.I.S.H.A.). Samir is a genius app developer and also Aisha’s creator. The story follows back and forth conversations between the two characters. A.I.S.H.A. is played by actress Nimisha Mehta. Sam, the brilliant app designer is played by actor and writer Harman Singha who puts on a marvelous performance during the show. Animation Xpress spoke to  the director Sahir Raza about his direction experience as well the visual effects used for the series. How did VFX help in visual story telling? It would be incomplete to show AI without some form of visual effects. Our endeavour was to bring alive the world of Aisha. In all ways possible, her life is different from the grimy reality of the outside world. Aisha in season one was immature and impetuous as her universe changed and evolved, so did her emotions as well. Season two displays a mature version of Aisha and she has become independent to quite an extent. The VFX that was used in both seasons pertained to her evolution and emotional states as the series progressed. The coding and hacking helps to establish the digital world of the various characters at play. Some of it exists as a ticking clock, making the moment run faster than real time adding an element of thrill to the scene. Whereas, there is other information shown in spoken form as plain dialogues from characters would have been rather dull. How was your experience of directing? Aisha is very close to my heart. I have always wanted to work within the science fiction space. To have the opportunity this early in my directorial career in this exact zone I wanted to work in is a dream come true. It was a delight to work with a team that rose to the challenge and understood every restriction that they were working under but came out successful. Has VR been used anywhere? Can we see it with the help of VR device? If no then why did you use the concept of VR? We did not shoot anything for virtual reality. We used VR as a storytelling tool because we wanted to communicate to the audience that Siddharth Babbar and Aisha had made a major breakthrough in making her as technology that was immersive. Darwin’s first product would be a big step in technology that would take the world by storm. This would change not only the idea of an AI, but provide a better consumer experience that was irresistible. Sid’s character fails to bring his dream to the world had he been successful. This would have changed the world forever. What software was used for the VFX and on average how long did it take to design? A lot of the VFX was designed using Adobe After Effects. Each scene had varied time differences as some of the complex scenes took up to a week, while others were quick. It took months of pre-planning and changes to perfect it. What was your experience while working with the VFX studio Running Image for the creation of this web series? Why did you decide to collaborate with them? We went through a long process of searching for the right fit for the series. We gave a couple of test scenes to several VFX studios. Mark and his team at Running Image returned with some of the most interesting effects. The battle in the first season was to figure out Aisha’s world and to try and construct something from scratch. Mark, Pranil and team came through on this. We had amazing brain storming sessions and fun designing to make everything look good. This developed a working relationship that we carried through the second season. In the second episode of season one, there is a scene with VFX where A.I.S.H.A. is standing in the middle of files and dragging the files up and down. Could you explain how that scene was created? We went through a bunch of iterations of what Aisha at work would look like. We felt that the content would be conveyed by seeing her accessing a lot of data that a human wouldn’t be able to. While brainstorming on what would communicate this idea, we decided to use the design of a globe. It held endless possibilities because it would keep expanding and evolve as her grasp of the internet and her digital universe grew. Tell us about some of the most challenging VFX scenes. How were they created? In season one the most challenging VFX was the globe, besides this was the basic design of Aisha’s world. In season two the most intense bits were when two Aisha’s were dealing with Sid. One planning what her next step was, while the other Aisha showed up in front of Sid. To do this we shot the scenes in 4 layers. A plate shot was used with one layer showing only Raghu (Siddarth Babbar), another layer with Nimisha(Aisha) looking at Raghu and finally another one with Nimisha right next to camera looking at old videos. Once the layers were shot, they were all combined in post and a layer of videos from season one was added on top. While in post this may not have been too time taking, but this was a scene that took a lot of planning and precise execution. Number of VFX shots and how big was your VFX team? The two seasons have about 300-400 instances of VFX at least. The team primarily consisted of two heads Mark Troy Dsouza and Pranil Mahajan.  There was a lot of people behind the scenes at Running Image studio that were involved as well. (This article has been written by Rohan Rodrigues and edited by Swati Panda)