Making of Ra One
Ra.Oneis an Indian Science fiction superhero movie that follows Shekhar (Sharukh Khan), a game designer living in London with his wife (Kareena Kapoor) and son (Armaan Verma) who designs a motion-sensor based game where the villain is more powerful than the hero. The catch in the movie is where the villain escapes from the game and starts hunting the only person ever to defeat him; Lucifer (Verma). Eros International and Khan’s production company, Red Chillies Entertainment, jointly produced the movie.
This scenario paired writer- director Anubhav Sinha with Nicola Pecorini, Italian – born Cinematographer who won the Best Cinematography at the San Sebastian International Film Festival for Harrison’s Flowers and came on board after few scenes where already shot. Nicola reveals that the main reason why he was called was because there were enormous amount of VFX shots in the film to be precise over 3800. So lots of them were not just pure CG but rather mix elements composed in CG environment and in live locations. “I was called in at the last minute as I have a lot of experience working with green screen and CG. Also what excited me was to know about Bollywood.” The VFX supervisor hired was Jeffrey Kleiser.
As per his discussions with Anubhav they had come to a conclusion that it was not just one movie but various movies put together. “The plot of the story is quite tensed with action because it is a video game character that comes to life. We wanted to keep a certain video game feel to it. So in a video game the camera goes from POV to around the subject in one movement. So we tried to apply that element through camera movements. It was not easy to achieve. One thing is to draw them and animate them and another thing to do it in real life. So we concentrated on the peculiarities of those sequences. For the rest, again we didn’t have much time to plan in advance as I came three weeks before we started shooting. For me it was very instinctive and more of what works for the scene and for the atmosphere. We thought of practical solutions on how we could achieve what the scene demanded within the time frame we had. I must admit that limitations help you as you have fewer choices. And when you have fewer choices it’s always the easier choice that you use. I am not against limitations unless you create limitations on purpose. That’s silly. But to face factual, organic, objective limitations is fine with me”.
It took the cast and crew almost two to two and a half months to shoot the huge chase sequences in London as well as the family life portion. A major part of the movie was also shot in India in Filmcity and Filmistan and a huge chunk of the train sequence in Lonavala. However, the crew had to face many limitations. Nicola confesses, “Safety was another issue for example – rigging a person on the train with electric wires, etc became much more complicated. That was the biggest limitation. Then getting the plates right and which later had to be applied on stage where we had rigged a train with 36 cameras became very challenging.” Adding to the safety issue was the popularity of Sharukh Khan. Nicola adds, “It was really difficult to go and shoot in real locations with him because within half an hour we had 2 and half million people gathering around us. Lot of scenes of the gated community where shot in Goa which we later brought it to Mumbai in CG background. “There it was quite easy to control as we were within walls. Sometimes it did get difficult.”
Talking more about the limitations faced, Nicola says, “The other problem I faced in India was that we had no flying walls on set. Once its build it’s built. You can’t push anything anywhere. That was something that I realized soon and which was taken into consideration.”
When it came to his relations with the rest of the crew, Nicola says, “I shared a very close relationship with the Art department. For the Indian portion we had Sabu Cyrial who was just fantastic and Marcus Wooky in London. Marc came down to help design the game lab that was very constructive and practical. Also in terms of requesting things to Sabu especially in certain spaces and sets was quite east. There are 3 levels in the game – we wanted to enhance everything to the maximum in terms of movements. For a crane we needed space. For e.g. in level 2 with Sabu we incorporated the lighting into the design. So when we moved into level 2 I was lit because that’s all we had. Just a little light for the face was needed but generally speaking we were lit. That also gave us a lot of flexibility for 360-degree camera movement. We used a lot of practical sources and in many occasions, string lights and LED’s. We were very careful during the rigging as there were lots of flying stunts and the last thing we wanted to do is have lights coming in the frame. Also, the one person that I had no relationship with was the costume designer. It was important for me because of the color palette and in this case we had some super hero costumes that got completely changed in Post Production. We had Manish Malhotra for Kareena Kapoor and Anaita Shroff for Sharukh Khan as the costume designers. Bollywood is very much into product placement so a lot of times the actors wore costumes as a result of compulsion and not choice. So there was no color choice, which sometimes posed a problem for me. It is not the question of control but knowledge. If you know in advance what you are going to get then you know which way to move. If it’s a total surprise then sometimes it’s quite disturbing. Colors are so important”.
Taking the problems one step further was the endorsements in the movie. Nicola says, “There is a scene in the movie where Sharukh’s character dies in a canary yellow Volkswagen Beetle, which was an endorsement. The entire scene was shot in the night. You put a little bit of light and the car reflects so much that it almost blinds you and that much light was not enough for the characters face and for the background. We had no choice to change the color of the car because of product placement. We managed somehow and pulled it off. Product placement is great because it gives you money for the movie but it shouldn’t influence the look of the film and should fit well. We should try to keep it organic”.
One of the biggest setup they had was the train chase sequence with 2 big carriages that was built in Stage 16, Film city. Having shot earlier on sunny days, they had to imitate the sunny day exterior using 150 space lights, 20 – 12 bank Dinos and 12 – 6 bank Dinos. Gaffer Prakash Shetty explains that he and Nicola shot several videos for references while traveling in Mumbai local trains and witnessed lights falling in and out on the faces of the local travelers. They studied the shadows and planned the shots accordingly. As Prakash quotes,“This exercise was new and very interesting for me”. To create this impression of speed and shadow Prakash created 8*4 frame plates that were cut in different shapes placed them in between the light and the train, which were pulleyed by a rope to create sharp shadows of the sun. They also made plates with windmill for shadows coming in and out.
There were times where Nicola kept stuff to a minimum. While shooting outside, he didn’t use any lights except a few reflectors. “I loved my grips. They were really helpful and would give a lot of idea. Prakash was really good. I really enjoyed working with his team.”
For the action sequences, an American stunt team was hired. They designed the car and the train chase sequences. Nicola just stepped in to show how and where to shoot it. Those were storyboarded and pre-visualized way in advance. Technocranes, handheld were used for these sequences. The crew had 9 cameras for those days. Every frame was selected and well thought out.
“What was also unsettling for me was having 5 people to move one camera which really slowed us down. It actually takes longer than one person moving it. 78 people for 9 cameras. It is basically the size of the whole film crew abroad. It was absolutely crazy. I later built a good interchangeable system for the camera attendants. I insisted to get my camera crew from London for the rest of the schedules.”
In regard to the VFX, generally speaking Nicola found that they were over stretching to what they wanted. “There were a lot of things that could have been done on the set. For e.g., paying more attention in keeping the set clean so you don’t have to clean it in post. There were numerous problems especially working with so much of blue and green screen. The big issue was the dust depositing on the cloth. So whenever I asked them to clean it they just hit the cloth polluting it more. It was a real battle for me to convince them to buy a vacuum cleaner.”
Video game shots were the biggest challenge and the most exciting for Nicola. “To recreate the video game scenario we needed fast moving shots. We tried moving the camera on the crane as fast as we could with precision. But that was not enough. So we shot 3 frames per second and the actors would move really slowly. So in the end we got the right speed. Those were tricky sequences and in few it came out really well. Technically that was the flavor of the day.”
Camera –535 and Arri camera
Digital – only to achieve the plates – majority were Red One
Lenses – Zies ultra primes
Film stock- Kodak 5219, 5207 – 250 ASA and 500 ASA
Lenses – 8mm and 14mm