Firefly Studios based in Hyderabad was the main VFX studio working on Telugu fantasy-adventure film ‘Anaganaga O Dheerudu’ Co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures with veteran director K. Raghavendra Rao, starring Siddharth and Shruti Haasan. Firefly was also involved in the VFX of Rajnikant starrer magnum opus ‘Robot’.
AnimationXpress.com spoke to Firefly Founder Phani Eggone about the kind of work involved in both these films, about their upcoming projects and more…
ANAGANAGA O DHEERUDU (AOD) & ROBOT were the most talked VFX movies. Can you tell us something about your contribution to these flicks?
Firefly was the Principal VFX Studio for Anaganaga O Dheerudu. Our mandate was to realize the extraordinary artistic vision of the project, but for a modest budget and quick release. Towards fulfilling the artistic goals, we conceptualized, designed, developed, planned & shot the entire film‘s VFX with the Firefly crew. To meet the budget & release date, we distributed the CG post-production between multiple studios. While Firefly executed all the ultra-complex shots, relatively less complex shots and much of the prep work was executed by other studios.
For Robot, we were engaged to pre-visualize the entire film, and design & execute the Mosquito scene. Pre-visualization involved interpreting the Director‘s vision for each scene, devising action breakdowns, staging action, designing vital VFX elements (e.g., all the formations in the Climax), iterating along with scratch sound & Previs edit to ensure the efficacy of each scene, and providing all data necessary for various technicians to execute the shoot according to the Previs. For the Mosquito scene, we designed all the individual mosquitoes‘ characters, built & animated them.
How do you feel about the collaboration Disney Studios and what role did Firefly play in meeting their world class expectations? Was there any difference in Disney’s work style and your technical sophistication?
When we signed up for the film, Disney was not yet on board. But Director Prakash had already laid out an expansive & complex vision and assembled a vibrant team of artists & technicians. We all had one purpose: to make a totally indigenous film that would stand proud on international platforms. On the VFX front, Prakash‘s vision was such that the existing CG toolsets had no ready-made answers. So, while the shoot was going on, we were simultaneously researching & coding for our own vision of photoreal CG Hair and sculpted fluids. Around the time that we produced our breakthroughs, Disney came on board. We were so excited! After all, animators around the world owe their existence to Disney in some way or the other, so this could only augur well for everyone involved in the project.
But our thoughts got all mixed up initially. Disney was working on ‘Tangled‘ at that time and we had read that they had produced some breakthroughs in CG Hair. So, on one hand, we saw this exciting possibility of collaborating with their creative & technical teams on CG Hair. On the other hand, we could well be replaced! But Disney took a look at our work and eased all our apprehensions. They concluded that our work – especially on CG Hair & sculpted fluids – was as good as any that they had seen, and that Firefly would continue as the Principal VFX Studio. This was a moment of happiness & vindication for us.
How was your experience with Director Shankar & Prakash? Tell us about the challenges you faced?
Both Shankar and Prakash are similar in terms of the magnitude of their cinematic vision. Both of them think really big and spare no effort to realize their vision. But their sensibilities are drastically different from each other‘s. While Shankar‘s vision is rooted in a sense of earthiness, Prakash‘s ideas emanate from an alternate universe of fantasy, myth & symbol. So, the fundamental challenge for us was to grasp, propose & translate ideas which would be apt for their respective cinematic sensibilities. Fortunately, we already had the artistic, cinematic & technical grounding necessary to do that. Once we struck a chord with them, both of them backed us fully.
Their methods of functioning were different from each other‘s too, because of the nature & circumstances of their respective projects. While Robot had a reasonably handsome budget and a time frame of over two years, Anaganaga O Dheerudu had an incredibly modest budget and a time frame of just over a year.
Shankar chose to exhaustively pre-visualize every scene prior to actually shooting it. We spent almost a year doing this. And once he locked a scene in Previs, he shot almost exactly according to it. This helped pre-plan & streamline shoots as well as the entire post-production. This single decision of his eliminated wastage, confusion, last-minute compromises, time overruns, budget overruns and all round stress from the process. All credit to him for seeing what Previs could really do for Robot and putting his credibility & wherewithal on line to enforce it. In our opinion, this is the most effective way of pulling off a complex film.
Firefly has earlier given very good VFX outputs for many films, how do you differentiate “AOD” from those works?
The differences are many. The most obvious ones are that Anaganaga O Dheerudu is Disney‘s first Indian fantasy film; that this is possibly the first Indian film to feature an all-out CG creature combat; the quality benchmarks were international; the VFX was entirely indigenous etc. But from our standpoint, the most critical differences are the two breakthroughs that Firefly produced for this film.
The first is photoreal CG Hair. While the technical aspect of how we could achieve this was difficult enough, its dramatic aspect was even more difficult to deal with. This CG Hair was not only going to constantly appear on a principal character, Irendri, but would also turn into another character, Myra, the snake. So, the entire CG output had to be flawless in every way. Any goof-up would immediately break the illusion to the audience and reduce Irendri and Myra to caricatures. We recognized this early. Firefly‘s technical development crew did a fantastic job of writing shaders & extensions to achieve photoreal CG Hair & its behavior, and the animation crew literally breathed life into Myra. Both these characters made a huge impact in the film and the illusion of believability did not get broken. So, it was like pulling off a triple jump when a single jump itself did not look doable: create photoreal CG Hair, sculpt it into a character, and bring it alive.
The second difference is a barely-noticed is conceptual one. Irendri‘s character was written along the lines of Medusa, so she would have snakes coming out of her hair/head. While brainstorming at Firefly, we came up with this idea that the snakes would be made out of hair, and not out of flesh as is usually depicted. As innocuous as this idea sounds, it turned out that Medusa had never been imagined this way, even in concept art circles worldwide. It was good to know that we could see a detail in a way that the world had not seen before. Please tell us something about Team Firefly who worked on AOD.
Every CG artist & technician associated with this film deserves a special mention. But Murali (Additional VFX Supervisor & Technical Director), Ram (Texturing Artist, Matte Painter & Concept Artist), Kaustav (Animation Supervisor), Prem & Ranjan (both FX Artists), Murthy (Compositor), Subbaiah (Rigger & Developer), Supreeth (Modeler), Arun (Lighting & Shading Artist), Junaid (Project Manager), Surendra (Matchmoving Head) and Nayeem & Kiki (both Animators) were truly outstanding. Their commitment, team spirit, ability to rise above their fears and resilience under pressure was remarkable.
The overall experience of CG post-production was as exciting as it was stressful, since there was not much pre-production to refer to. So, elements & shots across episodes were being designed, tested and executed simultaneously, under tremendous pressure. There was no question of establishing a rigid pipeline – we implemented multiple workflows on the fly and rented out just-in-time render farms. We realized that this method required self-organizing teams, so we empowered that. We broke the traditional system of organizing people department-wise & instead constituted episode-wise ownerships. This resulted in vibrant cross-pollination of ideas, skills & ownership, distributed pressure evenly and eventually paid off.
All in all, the team pulled this off because all key members were able to grasp the larger aspects of the project, take ownerships, break stereotypical ways of doing things and keep asking “why not?”
What’s next at Firefly?
Since Anaganaga O Dheerudu, we have delivered parts of ‘Badrinath‘ and ‘Oosaravelli‘. We are presently engaged in delivering parts of ‘Rajanna‘, and all of ‘Panja‘ and ‘Damarukam‘.