Sanath PC, VFX Supervisor & Director of Firefly Creative Studio, talks to Hemanth Kumar about his journey so far, the current state of the VFX industry in India and the road ahead.
Sanath PC began his career as a VFX supervisor back in 1997 and in the past 17 years, he has worked on numerous high profile projects including Telugu films like Anji, Arundhati, Magadheera and other blockbusters such as Shankar’s Endhiran and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. His next project is S S Rajamouli’s Baahubali, which is being touted as one of the most expensive films ever made in India. Earlier this week, he was at Annapurna International School of Film + Media (AISFM) to interact with students and give them a hands-on experience about VFX in movies. Here’s what he said about his career so far, VFX industry and a lot more other things related to filmmaking.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get into this visual effects industry in first place?
I was born and brought up in remote village named Mananthavady in Wayanad district, Kerala. Back then, we didn’t even have proper electricity, but our village had a great film club. They used to bring 16 mm prints of several classics and project it on a big screen. I remember watching a lot of classics like Bicycle Thieves, Throne of Blood and several other Akira Kurosawa’s films, by the time I was in class 2. One of the scenes from Throne of Blood where a woman washes the blood off her hands was so powerful that I got fever the night I watched the film. So, at a young age itself, films fascinated me and I had made up my mind to be a part of this industry. Initially, we were all quite fascinated by the actors we had seen on screen and then, we came to know about direction. In the late 80s, we began hearing names of cinematographers like P C Sreeram and Balu Mahendra. By the time I completed my class 12th, I wanted to become a cinematographer, but getting a camera itself was a big deal in those days. It was so expensive. No wonder, the still photographer at the weddings was the hero (laughs). I ended up taking B Sc Physics and the zeal to join a film institute, particularly Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune, stayed with me throughout college. In our final year, we heard about National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and my friend convinced me to apply for it. I got selected for the interview and I was so excited when I went to NID. Finally, I gave up my plans of joining FTII, Pune after I got selected in NID.
At NID, I did a five-year course in Communication Design and in my second year, I dabbled with photography and graphic design. In the final two years, I got into animation, miniature animation photography and other things related to that. I even got a chance to make small films. Back then animation wasn’t big in India. So when I got an offer from a visual effects company based in Chennai, I turned down the offer, maybe out of arrogance, that I’m interested in computers (laughs). I saw myself as a visualizer. I ended up joining another company where I began working on story boards, visualization, ad films and stuff like that. Here I understood that people who were operating computers didn’t have a real connection with filmmaking, in the sense that they didn’t understand the director’s or the cinematographer’s language. So, I became an interpreter of sorts to communicate what the director wanted to my team and I started as a visual effects supervisor straightaway. I would go take notes on shots, exposure, lenses from the cinematographer and then tell my team them how to adjust the brightness and contrast, among several things. I was lucky to work under P C Sreeram for sometime. Getting a film project back then was very difficult because of the dearth of high-end post-production facilities. Scanning (of the film negatives) itself used to happen in Singapore, but he supported us. He gave us a shot from a song ‘Roja Roja’, from the film Kadhalar Dhinam, where the entire area surrounding Taj Mahal had to be filled with roses and birds, and he asked us to work on it. We did that and then we did couple of more projects. Few months later, there was a conflict of ideas back at the company I was working at. So, I decided to move out and start on my own in Hyderabad. That’s how Firefly started.
From BSc Physics to NID to Visual Effects, was the journey worth the effort in the end?
You don’t realize it while going through the process, but as you connect the dots, you begin to understand the co-relation between physics of light, mechanics and cinematography, visual effects to recreate real life. So, all those principles become quite useful now. Unknowingly, it all adds up to the good side.
You started doing 2D animation and then moved on to ad films before feature films happened….
My specialization in NID was in animation. Initially, we were taking up every project that was coming our way for survival. We started with graphic design, flash animation, multi-media and then slowly moved on to doing corporate films, because in those days, computers graphics wasn’t common in films. Once that became more prominent, we cut off other services and concentrated on films.
Historically, India has been at least 10-20 years behind what was happening in Hollywood. What’s the current state? Are we fast catching up with our peers in Hollywood?
You can’t really say that, because if you look at the history of visual effects, it started with the beginning of cinema itself. Films made in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century usually consisted of one shot where they used some sort of visual magic. Back then there was no concept of sound or editing. Actually, the first visual effects tool that was used in films was a ‘cut’. Once you roll the camera, the director used to cut the scene and people would move away from camera and then, once the camera is rolled again, it would seem like people have disappeared all of a sudden. That was the first visual effects shot in films. Take Eadweard Muybridge for example. He studied the motion of animals and characters and when he adjusted a series of camera to capture a horse in motion, you get a feel that the horse is running in the same frame. That’s again a visual effect. Then, there was Winsor McCay, who used to draw animated figures and he made the animated film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), which was again a visual effect. During this era, when the first Lumerie Brothers film came to Bombay, Dadasaheb Phalke got interested in making films. Back then the quality of visual effects in Indian films was more or less the same when compared to what was happening in Paris or Hollywood. Then editing came in which changed the way stories were told in movies. And when Sound came in, it took over visual effects. And then music came in. Gradually, visual effects became less prominent in films because story-telling became much more important. In India, we had several limitations on what we could do optically.
Once people started making big movies, visual effects gained prominence again. Optical effects became important to create bigger landscapes for instance wars. With the advent of computers and digital cinema, the possibilities of what you could do with visual effects opened up like never before. Films with plenty of visual effects, like Star Wars, became top grossers. Although we, in India, were on the same page as that of Hollywood, initially in terms of visual effects, we lagged behind when it came to digital effects because we didn’t have access to software, computers and resources. Moreover, whoever was in the field of computers in India back in the 80s and early 90s, they weren’t from the visual effects background. It’s also about the ability to have the right amount of pre-planning and pre-visualization before the shoot, because till the optical effects were in vogue, most of the stuff was planned and done on the location because the director and cinematographer knew what to do; however, when it comes to digital effects, everything happens in post-production. So, if you have no idea what to do while shooting, it’ll create a lot of problems during post-production. For that matter, we don’t really have the concept of bound script and filmmakers change the shots as they shoot. It’s difficult to work under such circumstances for others. That’s one of the major reasons why we are not able to develop in terms of visual effects. But in terms of technology, we are abreast with what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are definitely catching up with Hollywood now compared to the situation four years ago because there’s lot more awareness now about visual effects is more.
Would you call yourself as an artist first and then a visual effects supervisor?
I call myself a storyteller first because even if it’s VFX, it’s the shot that has to tell a story with some emotion, otherwise the technique isn’t going to work. The latter is just a tool to support the story. If we know what’s the emotion we are trying to capture, we devise the shot accordingly, and later on visual effects come into picture.
It’s been more than 15 years since you started as a VFX supervisor. What was the toughest project you have worked on so far?
I started my career as a VFX supervisor back in 1997. Every project is tough in its own way because you don’t want to repeat what you have done in the past. You want to do something better. That way, we kept trying to push ourselves all the time and do something which hadn’t been done before. We know that there is a budget limit, but the trick is to work within the constraints.
Is there a particular Indian film which you were completely blown away by the visual effects?
I would say I still find films made by Phalke and the likes of Mayabazar (1957) more intriguing because that was the time when we were able to blend in visual effects with storytelling. Such films haven’t aged with time at all and they are still refreshing. I think we are still trying our best to make films like that in digital era which will stand the test of time.
While working on a film which requires a lot of VFX, you are on the set during film shooting. What are the discussions like between you and the cinematographer & the director?
As a VFX supervisor, I’ve to understand what the director really wants. Most of the times they find it difficult to convey the ‘emotion’ of that scene. They would have some reference in mind, but it just doesn’t get conveyed in the end. If we know what kind of feel (or emotion) the director wants, it’ll be easy for us to come up with multiple options in terms of what can be done through visual effects or what can be done in 2D. Regarding the shots, we generally give technical guidelines in terms of what to and what not to do to the cinematographer. If there’s some CG portion, majority of the people might not know what’s going to happen later on. So, we have to explain them to imagine that there’s a CG character or a CGI background here and act accordingly.
Do people, especially directors and producers, always tell you to manage things in CG?
That happens all the time (laughs). People have this perception that VFX department can fix anything in the end. But now, it’s slowly changing. Directors are aware that if you push everything to the VFX department, without giving enough time or resources, the product is going to suffer.
How does the process begin? Do you begin with building prototypes and sketching?
The process begins with trying to understand what the director really wants. Most of the time, they are quite reluctant to reveal the story or what they want. We study a lot about the director’s style of working, his vision and thought process. And then we generate story boards accordingly. These days, we are building a lot of digital sets. After the pre-production is completed, we tell them what can be done through VFX and what needs to be built physically.
Considering the constraints on budget, time and resources that you often deal with, how long does it take for you to set things up before the actual shoot takes place?
It varies according to the story and the complexity. Once the script is locked, pre-production can take anywhere between 2 months to 1 year. Take Rajnikanth, Aishwarya Rai starrer Robo for example. We did the pre-visualization for the entire film and it took us one year. Except the songs, the rest of the film was animated during pre visualization, shot divisions were done, we even edited and we also gave the sound. Cinematographer fine tuned it while shooting it, but the shots in the film were exactly what we had suggested.
Were there instances where you were watching a film and thought you could have done a better job?
Oh yes! That has happened plenty of times. One reason is, we never reach a state of perfection. During post production, when you watch the scene, you see scope for lot of improvements. It’s like acting, I suppose. When you are shooting a scene, you have the luxury to go for retakes because, as an actor or a director, you want to get it right. Fortunately or unfortunately, you don’t get so much time during post production because the moment shoot is over, filmmakers are in a hurry to release the film. It’s not good practice because those who work on the VFX, don’t get enough time. But then it’s good in a way because more a film gets delayed, we end up losing more money (laughs). Sometimes, people might end up overspending during production and that burden falls on us during post production. It’s not easy to deal with a situation when your budgets are cut.
In your line of work, what’s the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis?
It is to understand what the director or artist wants and then convey it to my team. Filmmakers like to improvise as they shoot. The constant challenge we face is to anticipate what all the director would need or do later on, because they might not be able to explain it clearly. We need to foresee what will happen.
So, in a way, change is not a preferred thing in your line of work. Right?
Ideally, no. When we work towards creating something new and most of times we have a vague idea of what we want to achieve. Lets say the director says he wants a beautiful girl, but then his idea of beauty is completely different from mine. So, there’ll be a little alteration between imagination and the final result, but yeah, we wouldn’t want complete change of ideas. We keep pushing the directors to reveal what they want. It’s inconvenient at times, but that’s something which we have to do.
Do visual references make your job easier?
It’s definitely better to have visual references than just verbal communication; however, the moment something is drawn, it’s the skill of that artist which plays an important role. We are talking about making things photo real, which means whatever we see on screen should look like something which exists in real life. Some of the art which looks great, is tough to recreate through visual effects. Sometimes, it looks funny.
People don’t sit through the credits most of the times. There are so many different jobs and layers, within VFX industry, and a lot of people might not even be aware of it. Let’s say someone is considering a career in visual effects, would you say it’s more of a calling or is it something which can be taught later on?
It’s like any other profession where the techniques can be learnt. But if you want to create something, you need to push your limits and explore the unknown. And all that will happen only when they have the passion to do it. As a job, unless you drive yourself to do it, it’s a little difficult. We are creating images which don’t exist in real world and build a logic around it to make people believe it. If you see it as an ultimate challenge, then there are plenty of possibilities and opportunities. The second thing which people need to understand is that when you work in a VFX company, the task that you do is negligible in the larger scheme of things. What it means is that you might have all the knowledge and skill set in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s all about team work. So, you have to really work hard as a team and support each other. Majority of the time, even if you are not the best of the technician or artist, you are likely to do well than others if you are a team player. More importantly, you need to have the artistic vision to be able to create something.
So…you are saying that everyone is a director or a storyteller in their own way?
Everyone needs to have an understanding of storytelling because we are dealing with a world of fiction. You are trying to make people believe in the world you create. You are more like a magician who does stuff to make people believe in the impossible. If you end up working like a scientist, then it may or may not work, because then you have to tweak and exaggerate things to suit the artistic vision. You need to understand fiction. It’s about surprises, characters, magic, it’s about the emotion. Even if you build everything perfectly, if it doesn’t match with what the director has in mind, then you can’t use it. You have to be able to take the rejection, if it doesn’t have the required grandeur.
At the end of the day, it’s a pretty thankless job. Even if the visual effects are extra-ordinary, people will just say it’s good and not delve too deep in to it. What goes through people’s minds?
People either get used to all the monotony because they are good at what they do or they they go on to make films on their own, because they understand the medium better than many others. Such people know the possibilities and constraints, but then it’s the beginning of another cyclical process because you have to convince others to produce your film (laughs).
What do you look for in a new entrant?
I look for his conceptual thinking ability. How does he think about certain things? What’s his taste when it comes to films? All that stuff matters a lot. You have to know the exact reason why you like or don’t like in a film. People really have to say what’s good or what’s bad, with proper references. Sometimes people get into a lethargic mode where they think that their job is done when their supervisor approves whatever they have done. That thing doesn’t work in this field, according to me. You need to create something which will excite the director. You need to surprise him by giving him a visual which even he wouldn’t have imagined. That’s when filmmakers get back to us again.
Have you ever been blown away by such interactions with newcomers?
It’s very rare, because people usually make a showreel of what they have done and then there’s a standard set of questions and answers. 90% of the people have the ability to do something really interesting, but first you have to believe in yourself that you are capable of pulling it off. And we can figure out such things only through a long conversation. We end up ragging people…to really make people say what they are (laughs). The moment you understand your limitations, that itself is your strength.
You have worked on some really interesting projects in the past 10 years….
Every project is interesting and difficult in its own way. Because when you take up big projects, you do grab a lot of eyeballs; sometimes for the wrong reasons. But then, even the small films are equally challenging because of the constraints. Despite all that, you have to figure out a way to deliver good work and make things work.
Sometimes directors would have approached you with something completely imaginative or even outrageous. Were there instances where you felt that the job was beyond your reach?
That is when we really want to get onboard. When we started, we worked on a Telugu film titled Anji. We were expected to deliver nearly 45 mins of VFX work within a year’s time. It was almost impossible because everything was so new to all of us. Such unbelievable limitations, fire you up, I guess. Every artist feels the urge to be challenged every single time and that really drives you to do good work and when that doesn’t happen, your excitement wanes off. You do better when you have the fear of failure.
What’s the most crucial stage of the entire process of VFX?
It’s always the first step! That’s when you set your expectations or give the first direction. Once your canvas changes, every step you take from there onwards will change accordingly. You know their expectations and you try to match it. Your perspective is completely different when you set the bar too high.
A lot of times, we hear people saying that the CG is bad, although they might not pin-point the shortcomings. What is the most common mistake people make while working on a film’s VFX?
CG turns out to be bad because it’s done badly. Whatever the reason might be, it doesn’t matter. Nobody is here to explain what went wrong and no one would want to listen to it. 10 years ago, we weren’t in a state to tell the directors about what problems we will face later on, if we don’t do things correctly during production. But now they have understood that it’s a vital process. You have to keep pushing, that’s all.
VFX industry in the West is in doldrums and several companies are going bankrupt. What’s the state in India right now?
It’s the same in India too. Tell me one company which has survived for more than 10 years and made money? Some years might not be as bad as other years, but it’s not that great in general. The problem is VFX industry is not recognized in filmmaking process and people do it only out of passion, which means logic goes for a toss. And once you get started, you have the urge to take up work and then people end up underbidding because you are desperate for work. A lot of times VFX companies kill themselves by not paying attention to the financial aspect of their work. It’s an evolving thing because you are trying to create something which you haven’t done before. It’s a trial and error method. If things go bad, then CG guys take the hit and end up getting blamed.
Over the past few years, digital filmmaking has taken front seat in Indian cinema. Has that had any impact on the VFX industry? Or what do you foresee?
It has definitely opened a lot of doors for new filmmakers. Now, anyone can make a film and what will happen is that, we’ll get a lot of mediocre products. Earlier, you could see the final product only in the theaters, but with digital cinema, you can shoot and see how it’ll look like in the end. People were lot more careful because earlier making films was quite an expensive process. In terms of VFX, it’ll become more messy, because you are careless with digital filmmaking. There’ll be so much data that you’ll get confused in the end. When the film reel runs, it reminds you of money. With digital, it’s not the case anymore.
Where’s the VFX industry heading to now? Are there any technological advancements that you are really excited about?
It’s all about photo real. We are talking about digital characters and performances. Earlier, we used to have body doubles, but now you can do all that through digital characters which can do anything. Then there’s the concept of creating digital sets and digital worlds. More importantly, films will become just another means of creating environments. Now, VFX artists can look at gaming, comic book, novel…there are so many other mediums are coming up to make use of your digital characters. We don’t really know how things are going to be. All we try to do is entertain people through our storytelling.