How the ‘Baahubali 2’ VFX Supervisor Raced Against Time
When RC Kamalakannan came onboard as the VFX supervisor of Baahubali 2 in October 2015, little did he expect that he would be racing against time to deliver SS Rajamouli's magnum opus. Although time is one of the biggest factors in his line of work which gives VFX supervisors the jitters, Kamalakannan, in his own words, was shocked when Rajamouli and Shobu Yarlagadda, one of the producers of the film, decided to release it on April 28, 2017.
Having worked with Rajamouli in the past, most notably on Magadheera, Kamalakannan is well-versed with how demanding the director is when it comes to work. "I have always found it tough to say 'no' to him, but during Baahubali 2, we had our share of disagreements. We still had two major sequences to be shot when the two (Rajamouli and Shobu) decided about the release date as recently as October-November, 2016.”
“Shobu had his own reasons behind fixing the release date and soon, my mindset changed completely. I kept assuring everyone that the work will be completed within the given time," RC Kamalakannan says, as he got talking to us about the challenges, in terms of the visual effects, in completing Baahubali 2.
Ask him if he would have liked a little more time to fine-tune the output, Kamalakannan smiles saying, "The thing with VFX shots is that every artist would want more time. But you've to put your foot down somewhere and say this is enough. I told Rajamouli that he might have to compromise a little on the quality given the time-crunch, but in the end, I realised that he didn't (laughs). Even a week before the film's release, he asked me if I could fine-tune one final VFX shot. I'm sure if we had another 3-4 months time, every shot can be fine-tuned. In hindsight, perhaps fixing the release date is the best thing to have happened to all of us. We were working towards a common goal and that helped us focus better."
Back in the early 90s, Kamalakannan, an ardent fan of movies from the 60s, began his journey in the film industry when Shankar asked him to design the titles for the Kamal Haasan starrer Indian. Prior to that, he had been working on several videos for Doordarshan - closed captioning, because there was more money in it.
"To be honest, I didn't want to become a VFX artist because I was inspired by a VFX-loaded film. Till date, I haven't watched films from franchises like Lord Of The Rings, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean. At times, if someone has some specific scenes from such Hollywood films as references, then I see a few portions of the film," he laughs, adding, "My job has become a lot easier now. Earlier, I was both the VFX supervisor and VFX producer. But for Baahubali 2, I'm only the VFX supervisor. There's someone else taking care of the billing and costing for the VFX work done by the studios. That gives me plenty of time to focus on the creative part and choose the right studio to complete a task."
One of the decisions which Kamalakannan took when he came onboard Baahubali 2 was to do task-based outsourcing of VFX shots.
"When you give entire scenes to VFX studios, they won't say no to it; however, one must remember that each studio specialises in something. If they are given other work, then they'll take plenty of time for R&D (research and development) and the final output might not be of top quality. I decided that I won’t give any studio R&D time to work on the tasks. A shot can have multiple tasks. So, we chose studios based on what task they specialise in. If someone was good at cloud or liquid simulations, then they were only given that. This process helped us to get the best out of each VFX studio and also saved us a lot of time and money," Kamalakannan says.
The film has close to 2500 VFX shots, which includes nearly 13,500 tasks, and close to 35 studios from various parts of the world worked on the project. The only exception to Kamalakannan's rule of task-based outsourcing was Hyderabad-based Makuta VFX, which is the principal VFX studio of the film.
"Makuta VFX is the only studio which worked on entire scenes altogether. They were responsible for creating the entire look of Mahishmathi kingdom. Moreover, when I brought in my team, I made sure that the principal crew of Baahubali knew my team beforehand so that there's better communication between them. Since the team had worked on Baahubali 1, Senthil (cinematographer), Shobu (producer), Sri Valli (line producer) and Rajamouli were very clear about what worked and what didn't during the making of the first part. The kind of pre-planning that Shobu had done to ensure we meet the deadlines, was very effective," he adds.
With less than a week to go before the film's release, no matter how hard you try to prod him to reveal what he loved the most about the film, Kamalakannan evades the question saying,
If I start explaining something, I might give away important details (laughs). But I can tell you that Baahubali 2 runs high on emotions and I couldn’t stop crying while watching the interval scene. Without the emotional quotient, no amount of visual effects can save the film. Now, don’t ask me why Kattappa killed Baahubali! (laughs). Rajamouli was clever enough to shoot that part towards the end of the shoot and only very few people in the team know the answer.
Back in March, 2017, Rajamouli was all praise for Kamalakannan at the pre-release function in Hyderabad and confessed that Kamalakannan is his guru.
"Everything that I know about visual effects is because of Kamalakannan. He's my guru," Rajamouli said.
However, Kamalakannan refuses to claim credit. "He was being magnanimous in praising me. If not me, someone else would have taught him (smiles). What I like about him (Rajamouli) is that he makes it a point to learn things if he doesn't know them. In fact, he's so well-versed with VFX now that he would ask me pertinent questions. For instance, he would ask me if we could go for resymming, while several directors might not even know what resymming is. And if I'm not able to handle something with a VFX studio, he would step in and communicate directly with the VFX artist in that studio. This sort of direct communication helped us to bring his vision alive."
That Baahubali 2 is going to be a visual spectacle needn't be reiterated and the VFX supervisor confesses that each scene in the film is filled with some iconic moments.
So, what's the budget for the VFX of the film? "I really don't know the details since I'm not the VFX producer, but I was given a commendable budget. In Hollywood, let's say for a film like Transformers, a studio will work on each shot for almost a month. That's the luxury they have because of the mammoth budget they get, unlike ours. If you ask me, the key factor which could increase a film's budget is the number of iterations ('corrections' in layman's terms) each task might have. For Baahubali 2, there were certain shots which needed almost 6-10 iterations, but those were few and far between," he reveals.
Kamalakannan, who's now 57, is content with the whole experience of working on Baahubali 2 and states that it helped him immensely in more ways than he could imagine.
"The learning curve was quite steep and more importantly, I think I've developed a good intuition to judge someone's work. Usually, we end up watching a studio's demo reel and their previous projects, and then blindly allocate the work. However, there's a catch. The VFX artists who would have worked on some of their best works might not be part of the company. So, it's up to me, as a VFX supervisor, to be careful about such things. In the past few months, we discovered a lot of studios which have been doing quality work over the years. For instance, we worked with a small studio in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and they turned out be really good. Similarly, we worked with studios based in London, Serbia and almost every other VFX studio in India. It really was a big task for me," Kamalakannan says.
The VFX industry in India has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years and some of the films like Eega, Baahubali 1 & 2, Shankar's Endhiran and 2.0 have set the bar quite high. This, Kamalakannan says, has helped Indian films garner attention from VFX studios abroad. "10 years ago, if I e-mailed 10 VFX studios and freelancers abroad to work on Indian films, I would get one reply. But now, I get 10 out of 10 replies (laughs). People are more than willing to work on Indian films and we are certainly going in the right direction," he signs off.
(This article first appeared in The News Minute)