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Powering Bollywood's Sci-Fi Sensation

Get the scoop on India's most vfx-intensive film, Endhiran.

Endhiran represents India's biggest vfx-intensive film to date with 2,500 shots. Images courtesy of Sun Pictures

Endhiran (The Robot), a sci-fi extravaganza released at the beginning of this month, has been breaking all box office records in India, grabbing around $75 million to date. Directed by S. Shankar, Endhiran features superstar Rajinkanth in dual roles as science professor and super android robot. After nearly a decade of pre-production, the film was shot two years ago for a record $35 million, with a vfx budget of $12.5 million for 2,500 shots, also records. Meanwhile, the Sun Pictures release has been released simultaneously in three languages --Tamil, Hindi and Telugu -- another first. Mamta Narang recently interviewed V. Srinivas Murali Mohan, visual effects supervisor & CEO of Chennai-based Indian Artists Computer Graphics Pvt. Ltd.

Mamta Narang: Congratulations! How are you feeling now, after the release of Endhiran?

V. Srinivas Murali Mohan: Extremely happy. Everything has worked well. Everybody has worked hard: Rajnikanth (the highest paid actor in India), Aishwarya Rai Bachchan(former Miss World), S.Shankar, the director, Rathnavelu, the director of photography, Sabu Cyril, the art director, Alan Scott of Legacy Effects and the editor, Anthony Gonsalves.

MN: What was it like when you were first approached by S. Shankar for this opportunity of a lifetime?

SM: December 2007, he called me. I had already worked on three projects with him. I knew him. He described the project. He narrated the project to me for 4-5 hours and I didn't imagine any vfx work, I forgot vfx. I was imagining the movie only and enjoying that imagination. But, today, we have done it. We took one-one step every time.

MN: Do you have a comfortable association with S. Shankar?

SM: Yes, there is a deep understanding between us. I had done three projects with the [him] before doing Endhiran; namely, Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji in which we did digital skin frafting. Sivaji won the 2007 Indian National Award for Best Special Effects.

Debevec's Light Stage, Maya, Digital Fusion, After Effects and a proprietary skin shade plug-in were utilized.

MN: You ventured into visual effects and computer graphics way back in 1989 itself. This is a futuristic vision. How the work scenario differed earlier and now?

SM: Earlier technology was tough. We used to type commands on DOS prompt and lots of parameters were needed to fill in. Now-a-days it's very easy for an artist to operate user friendly software and click the mouse button and an innovative and intelligent algorithm works in the background. There are many algorithms available. In India we have lots of talent. Sixty percent of the work done in the vfx field is done in India.

MN: What are the new technologies used on Endhiran?

SM: New in India, but not in Hollywood. We used animatronics. Out of the 62 scenes, we pre-visualized 40 scenes. Every scene of Endhiran has vfx work. Twenty-two scenes were done using animatronics done Legacy Effects, formerly Stan Winston Studio. For capturing the facial emotions and texture, we used the Dome Light Stage, a patented technique by Mr. Paul Debevec, also used on Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Spider-Manfranchise. This Light Stage scanning helped in capturing high-resolution CG faces with tremendous details. Since the humanoid face had special makeup and shine, Paul Debevec did the scanning himself. 

MN: What was the nature of the animation and vfx sequences?

SM: It's a mix. Some sequences like the climax, with the fire/burning robot and dancing robot were done in 3D. Some sequences like dual role (Scientist Vasi and Robot Chitti) were done using compositing and some sequences were a blend of 3D, animatronics and compositing.

MN: How many companies were involved in the vfx work of Endhiran?

SM: The majority of work was done in my studio, Indian Artists Computer Graphics Pvt. Ltd. Animatronics and special makeup were done by Legacy Effects from LA. Frankie Chung of Kinomotive studios Hong Kong and Eddy Wong of Menfond Electronics Arts & Computer Design of Hong Kong were also involved in the vfx supervision. There were also some freelancers from London, Canada, Iran, Germany, France and Hong Kong. Other Indian companies involved were Pixion Chennai, Vensat, Firefly Creative Studios, EFX Prasad Studios, Oysterr and Ocher Studios.

Robots were interlaced form a ball or snake for the climax: the most demanding sequence.

MN: What specific tools were used (off-the-shelf and proprietary)?

SM: Mostly off-the-shelf tools: Maya, Digital Fusion and After Effects. From the scanning, we got 3D face mesh images in high-dynamic range format. To utilize those images, we developed a proprietary skin shade plug-in. The code is available as open source at https://code.google.com/p/jupiterskin/.

MN: What kind of R& D did you do?

SM: I travelled and visited many studios: ILM, Tippett, Café FX and Zoic -- the major vfx studios were willing to do the work. Because of the global recession the production company involved couldn't continue. And we had to change plans. The Sun Picture Production company took the work. Heavy rework was required. I had kept the base level technology work under my supervision. So, I did the rework. We never deviated from the concept or the script of the story. I maintained that.

If the full shot had been given to other production houses, the cost of movie would have risen to more than $ 140 million. I continued working in the low budget.

MN: How did you coordinate the work?

SM: We would do one part in Hong Kong, one part in Iran and one part in London and would combine to form a shot or scene. The high level composting was done in India.

MN: Which is the best scene in the Endhiran that you like the most?

The climax also included the fire/burning robot.

SM: The climax is the best sequence. It was the most difficult sequence as well. We did facial scan modeling, motion technology, rigging and animation. Many robots were interlaced to form a ball or snake. And every individual robot had movement. There was individual movement and combined movement. We did that tricky work. There is a very thin line which differentiates good and bad work. If you want more precision, you don't have the budget, but you don't want the shot to look like a cartoon either. We did the best and it's reflected.

MN: How much time was allocated to pre-production and post-production?

SM: We allocated six months for pre-production. We planned; we allocated time for shooting, time for CGI, time for working on special effects and time for animatronics. Climax was a time consuming scene and critical also, hence we started working on it first. It took one-and- a-half years. We also extended the pre production time in parallel. So, it took one-and-a-half years for pre-production and one- and-a-half years for post-production.

MN: What were your working hours? How many hours in a day did you worked?

SM: This is a very nice question (laughing). Our shooting would start at 7:00 am and then the director would look into our work too. The editing took place from 6:30 pm to 12:00 am most days. And during last six months of post-production we hardly slept. We ate while traveling.

MN: What next? What will be your dream project now?

SM: I would like to work with most of the directors. They have imagination. I hope to make that imagination into a reality on a low budget.

MN: What was the best learning for you during your creative journey with Endhiran?

SM: Culture -- I learnt about cultures of the different countries that I visited. Working with various people across the globe, across different time zones made me be in a learning mode always. I was constantly traveling and learning.

The whole Indian team had a varied insight: Rajni Sir had his patience, Ashwarya understood the work we were doing; she had the interest. Shankar, Rathnavelu and Anthony were always smiling.

Mamta Narang is founder/director of AAshmam, a company that provides high-end software solutions.

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