We have used almost every possible technology in Baahubali
VFX Expert Srinivas Mohan has an enviable repertoire of films, known for their grand use of visual effects, to his credit. Be it Superstar Rajnikanth’s robot look in Enthiran (Robot) or the impressive effects in Shankar’s I, the National Award-winning artist has been instrumental in taking Indian VFX to the next level.
In a tete-a-tete with Pandolin, the expert talks about creating a larger than life waterfall, putting together a grandiose battle sequence and much more for one of India’s grandest films, the highly-awaited period drama, Baahubali.
Baahubali’s VFX is pegged higher than that of your previous films like I, Robot etc. What sets Baahubali apart from your previous works?
When I was doing Robot, it was a big project, magnitude and VFX wise. Similarly Baahubali is a huge project that required maximum effort because we had to convert Director Rajamouli’s grand vision into the film. When he told me about the story, about 3 years back, I realized that this film required a lot of pre-production and planning. A film of this scale has not been done in India, till date. Even though we did Robot, this is much bigger than that too. Since Baahubali is a period film most of the things had to be created digitally, be it a small building or a palace, even a small knife, because nothing of that period exists now. That is why my role as a VFX Supervisor is crucial. We also had the support of Production Designer, Sabu Cyril, who has done a lot of the designing work, especially for the interactive parts with the actors that were done on the sets.
Tell us about Director S S Rajamouli’s vision for this grand period drama.
Rajamouli Sir’s vision was to create an era that reminds people of the great period of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and so on. And the epic battles that were fought then. Almost everybody in India has grown up with epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. His vision was to create that kind of an era.
We have two major sequences in the film, the war sequence and the waterfall sequence. He (Director) described the waterfall to me as one that is huge. But there is a lot of variation in the word ‘huge’, I could interpret it as something that is 100 or 200 feet while someone else can interpret it as 1000 feet. But the way Rajamouli described the waterfall was as though it is coming from the clouds; that was the grandness that we needed. We have not seen such visuals in Indian cinema. Previously we have seen war sequences in many films, but this is the first of its kind, owing to the digital advancement and opportunities that we have received in recent times. We are trying to show the best of technology and give audiences the experience of a war. These two sequences will be a new and unique experience for audiences in Indian cinema. Another important aspect of the film is the palace area that we wanted to create in a grand manner. Rajamouli’s vision was that when the audience comes to the theatre they should forget everything and feel like they are part of the Mahishmati Kingdom (as it is referred to in the film). After he narrated the story to us, we worked step by step to convert his vision into reality.
We cannot yet deliver Hollywood-like quality because, one, they started much earlier so their experience is totally different and secondly, their budget is way higher than ours. But in India emotional content drives our films and we are more experienced in handling such content. If you combine emotions with technology, like we have tried in Baahubali, I think we can create a much bigger impact and match the Hollywood vision at least in terms of the feel of the film, if not technically or budget-wise. I can say, with just one-fourth of their budget we can deliver almost 80 per cent of their quality. And this percentage is definitely growing. 90 per cent of the VFX of this film is done in India, which is a great achievement.
How did you approach the battle sequences in the film?
War is one of the major sequences of the film. We wanted to show almost 1 lakh people of the other army, and around 25,000 people of the Mahishmati army. Obviously we cannot shoot so many real people. So we created a huge green screen, almost 1200 feet, in Ramoji Film City (Hyderabad) and most of the war shooting was done in front of that screen. There was a lot of running and movement involved in this sequence, it was spread over a large area and we had to follow the people with drones, on a vehicle etc., we had a huge 600 feet green screen on one side and another 600 feet screen on the other side. It was an almost ‘L’ shaped green screen and I think it must be India’s biggest green screen, so far.
This is the maximum CGI that I have done in any of my films. In other films we have used some live plates but in this we could not get any live plates (due to the period), so most of the things are created digitally. We shot just the war sequences for around 120 -150 days. Everyday we had almost 1000 people as main artists and supporting them were another 200 – 300 people. Just arranging them and taking one shot required almost half a day.
But we could pull it off because we had a great team. We had a very good Producer in Shobu (Yarlagadda) Sir. He himself has very good knowledge and was like an AD on the film. Normally producers just give money and come at the last minute; they aren’t involved in the process. But Shobu Sir was the biggest help in getting this project done. Also, the Director has a lot of knowledge about VFX as you can see in his previous films like Magadheera etc. Most of the times he was like a VFX Supervisor and that was a big advantage for us. And he also gave me the freedom to execute. I’ve been really lucky to work with such visionary filmmakers and help convert their vision on screen.
There are certain action sequences with animals involved. What was the role of VFX in these scenes?
We have done a lot of variations. For some walking and running sequences we have used real horses. For some artist interactions, Sabu Sir created an animatronics elephant and horse which we have used in some of the close-up shots with minimal digital enhancement. Other than that everything is digitally created. In the trailer you can see an Elephant literally standing, which was also entirely created digitally.
Please take us through the making of the other big sequence in the film, the waterfall.
We started by creating some rough concepts with the height of the waterfall, the feel and so on. But when Rajamouli Sir saw it, he said that we needed something bigger. Then Sabu Sir and Senthil Sir (DOP) also became part of the brainstorming. And the four of us discussed each and every bit of the waterfall. After the concept was locked all four of us had a clear vision of how to execute it. That was one of the crucial steps. So we would start with the concept, then move on to storyboard, like the rough movements, the kind of angles we wanted – with inputs from the DOP. Firefly Creative Studios (Hyderabad) has helped in the pre-production and pre-visualization part. After the storyboard was done, we started working on 3D projection. First the storyboard was create in 2D and then converted into 3D. In 3D we roughly created a waterfall of about 2500 feet and worked on camera blocking and the speed with which we need to move the camera to capture the hugeness of the waterfall. After this was done, we knew exactly what and how to shoot. However, the close up areas like the ground/foot of the waterfall were very difficult to recreate. So we went to the Athirapally waterfalls in Kerala and those scenes were shot there.
We had to take care of small portions behind the actors so we placed a green screen behind Prabhas and an approximately 10 feet green screen behind Tamannah, since we had to focus on their interaction area. Everything else is created digitally. Even the sequence where you see Prabhas jumping, except for the artist, everything else is digitally made because we don’t have such a location anywhere in the world. We worked with Makuta VFX Studio, one of the main studios on this film, for this sequence. The Studio VFX Supervisor, Pete Draper, contributed a lot for the waterfall sequence along with his team of concept artists.
Was there any sequence that required any new/special technology to be used?
We have used almost every possible technology in the film. It may not be new, but we have used them extensively. Previously we weren’t able to create a lot of digital animals or people, because of limitation of budgets, but now a majority portion of the film is digital. Only 20-30 per cent of the foreground is real shooting. So one of the big achievements is that we can create a lot of things and don’t need to put real, physical sets.
In Baahubali we used Lidar Scanning where all the locations, for instance the city area that we created, was first scanned digitally and then created into a 3D model. Through Lidar you can scan buildings, structures, rocks etc. It took almost took 3 to 4 days to scan the entire area and then convert it into 3D. This is something new and I’m not sure if it has been used in any previous Indian film. We have also used Photo Geometry Software to scan artists like Prabhas and Rana and convert them into digital. In this software, photographs are scanned and then converted into digital. These are some new things that we tried in this film, other than that we have largely used existing technology to its maximum.
What was the biggest challenge on this project?
More than all the digital creation, the challenge for me was to convert Rajamouli Sir’s elaborate vision into reality. When he first narrated the story to me, I felt that whenever people want to depict India they show huts, poor people, very dirty places and so on. That is the kind of picture that people have about India. But in the earlier days, our kings lived a lavish life, our country had a lot of wealth and we had grand kingdoms. It was a great opportunity to showcase this through the movie. Baahubali has the potential to tell the world how we were living and to change the perception of international audiences too.
Tell us about your collaboration with Cinematographer K K Senthil Kumar and Production Designer Sabu Cyril on the film?
We had one of the best teams on this film. Senthil Sir and Rajamouli Sir have worked together from the beginning on several films, so their VFX knowledge is equal. Senthil Sir has so much practical knowledge and that was very helpful. While creating something digitally, we have to imagine and create everything. A lot of DOPs are not comfortable sitting in the studio and playing with the digital work. But Senthil Sir has very good knowledge and he helped us in a lot of areas, from framing to how to move etc. He was totally involved in all stages and that reduces a lot of errors. I’ve worked with Sabu Sir on several projects, so we have a very good understating. Even the Costume Designer, who is Rajamouli Sir’s wife, Rama Rajamouli, has contributed a lot. She took all the main decisions. It is so important that everything looks like a combined output and we have achieved that. For the last three years we have worked together like a family.
Which were the various VFX studios you worked with?
The major studios I worked with include Makuta VFX Studio, Firefly Creative Studios, Prasad EFX and we also collaborated with an international studio – Tau Films. They created the Bison that Rana (Daggubati) fights against in the film. Makuta helped with the waterfall sequences and the palaces. During the pre-production stage we worked extensively with Sanath from Firefly. We have worked with several teams to lock everything before starting with the shoot.
If you had to pick your most memorable scene from the entire film, which one was it?
Undoubtedly the waterfall scene and the war scene are my favorites. The audiences will feel like they are near the waterfall or are part of the battle. Whenever the Director shared his vision, he spoke about the grand, huge scale. My main contribution is getting that grand scale into the film.