How VFX wizardry transformed Baahubali into a visual extravaganza
India’s most expensive movie owes part of it success to two people, ace art director and production designer Sabu Cyril and visual effects expert Pete Draper, who share their experiences on pulling off this two-part mega epic.Updated: May 19, 2017 15:30 IST
What makes Baahubali truly epic?
In the first movie, it was the scene with the waterfall, where a ripped, wet Prabhas emerges carrying a huge Shiva lingam towards it. It was the scene that set the pace for the movie and it was veteran art director Sabu Cyril who made it come to life.
One of the most sought after art designers in India, especially for visual effects-intensive projects like Ra One, Krissh 3 and Robot, Cyril was undoubtedly the first choice for director SS Rajamouli. Sabu’s initial misgivings were about the size and scale of the project. “The producer (Shobu Yarlagadda) said it was going to be a big-budget project of international scale. When he narrated the script, I knew this could be done in a smaller scale. But Rajamouli showed me a picture of a waterfall which he had worked with someone using Photoshop and told me, ‘If I’m doing this film, this is going to be there in the movie.’ It was the picture of a 1,200 feet waterfall. I understood the scale he wanted. He guaranteed time and money,” Cyril says.
The original waterfall was shot in the Athirapally falls in Kerala. Cyril recreated these sets with rocks made of fibre. High pressure water pumps were used to recreate the waterfall and the visuals from both the spots were matched seamlessly. Clouds and other enhancements were added using VFX.
As his work as a production designer became more demanding, Sabu chose to relocate to Hyderabad from Mumbai for the entire duration of the project. “I asked him, how many days of work were involved. He said around 200 days of shoot in one and half years for both the parts together. So I told him, I’d give two and half years from my side,” he remembers. “But it ultimately took 5 years.”
The Guardian’s Mike McCahill called it “a jaw-dropping blockbuster that combines nimble action with genuine heart”. Simon Abrams doled out four generous stars for the movie while exclaiming that “it is everything I want but rarely get from superhero and big-budget fantasy movies”.
Rajamouli’s epic sequel Baahubali - The Conclusion has the world swooning over this period drama that has already grossed well over (an unheard of) Rs 1,000 crore globally and continues to enjoy a dream run at the box office in India and abroad. A week after its release, the magnum opus managed to surpass the lifetime earnings of Aamir Khan’s PK that stood at Rs 792 crore, raking in an impressive Rs 810 crore. As Baahubali continues its record-shattering spree, who are the faces who took on the challenge of perfecting it?
The wonder team
The idea of a period film of a fantastic scale had germinated in Rajamouli’s mind way back in 2012. Pete Draper, co-founder and chief technical officer of Hyderabad-based Makuta Visual Effects recalled listening to an initial narration, while working on another Rajamouli film, Eega. “They had this idea of a lady (with an arrow in her back) holding a child up with her arm in a river. Then there was this visual of a very large city and one guy riding out with an army of a 1,000 people,” he says.
“We had these individual visuals and then wove a script around them. We had a discussion on the first film about the visual style, before the pre-production, and what the palace should look like.”
Makuta has a long association with Rajamouli with films like Maryada Ramanna, Magadheera and Eega before signing up as the principle visual effects studio for Baahubali.
The Baahubali experience wouldn’t have been half as fulfilling if not for the smooth blending of the real and the virtual elements. “The most challenging part about the first part was the waterfall. A lot of simulation of a different kind was required. In the second film, it was more of augmenting and enhancing what we’d already done in the first film. So the detailing on the palaces were more intricate - the Kuntala sequence was more enhanced. Part of the film required us to go from full CG to full live in a single shot, making it look seamless,” Draper outlined the process.
A project of Baahubali’s magnitude, initially posed several problems for Pete Draper and his team. He and his colleagues were pushing their storage limits, keying in content volumes (Makuta’s output alone was close to 115 terabytes) that were previously unheard of into their systems, and were only grateful to receive some support in the form of better hardware from the US-based graphic card manufacturers AMD. “Their technology helped us immensely. We had roughly around 18 months to do the entire visual effects of around 3,000 shots or something spread across about 35 studios,” Draper elaborates on the size of the project.
Making of the kingdoms
The sprawling empire of Mahishmati was built at the expansive Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, while the sets for the smaller Kuntala country were erected on an aluminium factory just outside Hyderabad. The stark contrast and subtlety these kingdoms exhibited might be evident on screen, but it was far from simple to accomplish. Cyril’s brief was clear. “For Mahishmati, Rajamouli wanted a very large kingdom without much detail - something similar to the Roman empire. For Kuntala Rajyam, where Anushka came from, he wanted a smaller kingdom of very simple people and he asked me to work out the contrasts. I suggested that we could go for something resembling Nepal and Bhutan; mountainous terrains. He wanted the palace in marble and we had deep discussions on the work on the stones,” he says.
“Baahubali 2 was planned much earlier, so we had prepared most of what we needed for the second part. Did you notice, the first song in Baahubali 1 featuring Tamannaah, is picturised in an abandoned corner of Kuntala. The plants, the marble finish, the detailing and all that was part of that kingdom. We didn’t want to specify, but it was implied,” he says. “Our team, however, needed to know the size and parts of the kingdom. We even made a questionnaire to work out details like how many people lived, their livelihood, what was the cultivation like, and what was the terrain like etc. You find a lot of palmyra trees in Mahishmati, where it’s dry and you see very little plants and trees there,” Sabu points out.
“Once the designing part is done, the visual effects discussions begin. We discuss on what the kingdom is going to look like, how tall the pillars have to be, should we put in the beams or can it be done using VFX…” Cyril says.
The team at Makuta had their task cut out. “The amount of artistry and manpower required for this movie was exponentially more. We had to match Sabu’s art direction and the director’s vision for these particular set pieces. It was much larger than any other film that we had worked so far and the amount of people working on the project increased dramatically,” Draper says.
A battle of skills
Some of the standout scenes in both the films were the grand and cleverly executed action portions, including the war scenes. “90% of the work on the battlefield was done by the director. Though I’d earlier worked in [historical] films like Marudhanayagam and Ashoka, which had similar scenes, Rajamouli had worked out war strategies and formations after exhaustive research. I helped make the weapons and the armours that were used in battle. The whole idea was to execute his vision perfectly,” Cyril emphasis. “Though I was not involved in costumes, we had a discussion on the colours and textures of the fabric… We figured out designs and materials for the costumes of the Kalakeyas, after which the designers took over. The armours, shields, helmets and weapons were all designed by my team,” Sabu says.
It’s not just waterfalls, castles, forests and palaces that they took care to portray. The protagonists were sculpted with much care as well. Amarendra Baahubali wields a sword, an axe and shoots a steady stream of arrows with equal ease. Bhallaladeva’s favourite is a mace with a chain and his chariot that wreaks havoc. “The director told me he needed a mace for Bhallaladeva and that it should be retractable. I designed it using a hard disk magnet - which is flat, thin and very strong. So when he throws it with some force, the chain will detach,” Cyril says. “The creative part of art direction is only about 30-40%. The rest is about common sense and problem-solving,” he adds. “We paid attention to small details - like Anushka’s pregnant belly,” says the award-winning designer.
“Rajamouli is a person with a fantastic vision. Earlier, when we discussed Bhallaladeva’s chariot - he said the chariot was going to be mean machine that would go about massacring people and he told me to work on it. I suggested that we replicate the idea of a harvesting machine and went on to work on the design.” Cyril fitted in a Royal Enfield engine that powered the rotors and the chariot. A tad anachronistic for a period film?
“We were careful enough not to do anything outlandish within that time frame. But this is not a documentary, so we had the liberty to go to any extent that was believable,” he shrugs. “Right from the first part where he [Prabhas] is climbing his way up the waterfall, expectation levels were set. We were firm that we would not use any glass or gunpowder anywhere in the film. Even the telescope was made of chiseled stones polished in the centre,” he points out.
Now that their long stint has come to an end, there is an evident sense of relief, and a sense of regret perhaps? “I am glad that my five years of labour has paid off so well,” Sabu Cyril says. “Waking up at 4.30 am to get to the sets at 6.30 am and working late into the night was physically draining. But my profession is also my hobby and I enjoyed it so much as I probably won’t get another chance like this. Now that the film’s over, suddenly I feel unemployed,” he woefully admits. A television series based on the book Rise of Sivagami has been planned by the makers, who, for now are holding on to the sets for the film.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)
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First Published: May 19, 2017 15:23 IST