Concocting Dreams

Published Date
01 - Dec - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2005
Concocting Dreams
Lustre, Flint, Smoke, Combustion, Fire, Flame… no, we're not talking about making a bomb! These are the software used today to digitally enhance a movie-or create scenes for one. The way it's done is quite marvellous, and very often you don't notice that there's a computer at work behind the scenes, literally. We take a look here at where India stands in the adoption of the computer as a tool in movie-making.

India lags behind Hollywood (or for that matter, most technologically-advanced countries that make movies) in implementing advanced editing technologies, but we're certainly catching up. We're quickly learning the new art of creating things that cannot be shot through the camera.

There was a time when movies were made with a camera, a lot of lights and a great deal of sweat. They still are, but now, they have help from technology. A nip here and a tuck there… it's all in a day's play! Movies today are being shot digitally, with live voice (no dubbing), online editing (deciding the edit points-where a shot will be edited and joined-as one shoots), and are being processed digitally.

The Old Days
Let us first understand, though, how it happened earlier. It was relatively simple. A film would first be 'canned', meaning it would be shot on film stock in negative format. Then, it would be processed; this meant converting the negative format into positive, which could be projected. This is quite similar to the film processing we do (or used to) for our photos. After this, the canned and processed film would be edited to create the movie, which would be output and duplicated for projection at movie theatres.

While some parts of this process still remain, there are new stages that have been added to this workflow, if you will, which are dramatically altering the way a movie looks.

Take, for example, the recent blockbuster Black. The entire soft, dreamy look the movie has could not have been possible using just the camera. Enter the post-production experts. Using software such as AutoDesk Lustre, the entire movie (after editing) was given a look and feel that was consistent throughout, and did not cause the viewer to think there was something 'special' going on. This, however, is a special case. What is not a special case, though, is the Digital Intermediate (DI) that virtually all movies today undergo.

Digital Intermediate
DI is an ever-evolving process. In a nutshell, it is the middle one-third of the operation loosely termed 'Digital Film'. The other two-thirds of Digital Film consist of acquisition (the obtaining of the source material through some form of capture) and presentation (the distribution, projection and/or transmission of the final result).

But before DI comes acquisition and editing. The entire movie is usually transferred to a computer and digitised, making it easier to edit. In some cases, though, filmmakers prefer to edit in the linear format-from tape to tape, without transferring it to a computer or digitising it.

In either case, the DI process begins after editing is complete. The transferred film is colour-corrected, 'cleaned up' (more on this later) and composited (put together again as one package). The final product is then output to either analogue (film) format or digital format for projection.

What happens in DI is, colours are made consistent, edit jerks are cleaned, and special effects-even the basic ones-are added. Remember the multiple screens in Dhoom where four different shots were visible at the same time? All four were shot separately and were made to look consistent using DI.

But DI is going beyond post-production: it is now being used in pre-production. "Dhoom 2 will be using a pre-viz (pre-visualisation) technique that will create a blueprint of all shots. This will mean that everyone on the set knows exactly what is to be done before they even reach the location. The cost saving and clarity of job responsibility this offers is phenomenal," says Pankaj Kedia, Regional Manager, South East Asia and India, Autodesk (Media and Entertainment Division).

Indeed, one of the greatest advantages DI and other such processes have offered is the cost savings. At the same time, these have also resulted in increased creativity and better planning-which has, in turn, has meant that less time is spent wondering what to do when on the sets.

"Tools such as pre-viz are finally being used. These allow the director to decide where everyone in the unit will be for a shot. Everyone involved, too, is aware of this, and that makes for less time spent on the sets," says Pankaj Khandpur, Creative Director Visual Computing Labs, Tata Elxsi.
So Will Tech Take Over?
Some time ago, myths circulated as the use of technology increased: for example, that cinematographers might go obsolete, or that they would not have to work as hard. But these were never true. "Yes, there were a lot of ideas that now cinematographers will not have to work as hard, when these processes were gaining popularity in the US around 1990. But this is definitely not true," assures Sibille Cooney, Senior Trainer, Autodesk M&E Division, US. Cooney is, in fact, engaged in training upcoming Indian editors in the art of DI and post-production effects.

Agreeing with Cooney is one of India's leading post-production and Visual Effects (VFX) artists, Huzefa Lokhandwala of Prime Focus Studios. "Each aspect of the post-production process sometimes requires varied specialised training. Hands-on experience thereafter definitely helps. Not speaking technically, however, we could safely say that the basic requirement would be the ability to observe and visualise. The ability to combine man and machine in the most effective and aesthetic fashion is what makes a good post-production artist in this technological age," he says.

Computer Graphics (CG) encompasses all there is to Visual Effects (VFX). CG is, in fact, the engine that drives this train. There are various sub-branches under CG-such as animation, 3D character animation, creation of inorganic 3D objects, and even mixing and compositing them all.

To explain these terms a little, 3D character animation would refer to movies such as Shrek and Ice Age, where the characters were entirely created using a computer, and lived out their lives right there! In the case of 3D inorganic objects, these are things such as hurricanes and smoke, and sometimes live action. Remember the twister in Twister?

In India, though, there is not much of a market for either. If anything, there is a small market for 3D inorganic objects. "The problem is that not too many filmmakers in India include this as part of their budget. They are still unable to quantify the results of using these technologies. By that, I mean they cannot translate it into monetary benefits," says Khandpur.

Lokhandwala agrees to some extent, but is sure that India will catch up. In fact, India has already started using these technologies. "Creatively, the number of filmmakers employing and getting aware of digital tools is increasing. VFX has become an integral part of Indian filmmaking. It could be features, advertising commercials, music videos, documentaries. From subtle enhancements, to crucial corrections, to seamless compositions, to in-your-face computer generated imagery… we use them all," he says.

Differentiating between the two basic types of VFX-the subtle and the in-your-face-reveals that the covert form is tougher to execute simply because no-one should notice it. "These are the subtle effects that need to be in a movie, but if they're noticed and someone says, 'Hey, that's a nice effect', it's actually like telling us we didn't do a good enough job of integrating it into the movie," says Khandpur.

The other form, the obvious one, requires blasts, pyrotechnics, prosthetics, robotics and even miniatures. "These are the ones you don't want to hide! A blast has to be bigger, better and more realistic. This is where we are trying to create experts by working on a mentor-protégé system," adds Khandpur.

Some of the other forms of effects that are commonly done include wire stamping. This just involves cleaning out the wires by which actors hang during stunts. "Not just us, but most people involved in this work hate wire stamping. But we can't help it. If only the director involved us earlier, I think we could do something about it," laments Khandpur.

An example of this much-hated stamping would be the climax scene of the recent Salman Khan-Fardeen Khan-Anil Kapoor starrer No Entry. When all three leading men are hanging on to dear life on what is shown as a cliff, in reality, they couldn't be safer, standing on terra firma at Khandala. But the actual shot shows them on a cliff overlooking the sea. The sea, the cliff and the actors, too, were added using a computer. The entire scene (and the film) was then processed to maintain the same colour temperature, and composited to look like they were hanging over a cliff. The only thing that was real here was the hanging!

To complete the entire sequence, the safety rope they were hanging by had to be stamped out later, as well as any traces of harnesses and hooks.

Hollywood To Bollywood
It took over a decade for post-production and special effects technologies to cover the distance between the western coasts of the US and India. And during this time, the technology leapfrogged. "We in India will catch up, though. We are always playing the same game even when it concerns other technologies or aspects of technology. It will not be too different here either," says Kedia.

Acceptance of the technology was not overnight in the US either, says Cooney. "There were doubts about the abilities of these software and technologies and then, of course, there were the sceptics.  But eventually, when the first big hit that used technology extensively was delivered, everyone wanted to do it," she says.

Precisely what Khandpur thinks is required for the Indian film industry to completely realise the potential of these software. "One big hit and the whole industry will be making special effects oriented movies," he assures. But for now, it's mostly clean-ups and corrections. "When directors come to us today, what they are looking for is to mainly clean up some grey areas. But once we show them what is possible, they realise their mistake of not having involved us earlier. It's a one-time thing we have to do with all directors, but it's starting to pay off," says Khandpur.

The Software 
Discreet Lustre
Discreet Lustre system software is Autodesk Media and Entertainment's award-winning high-performance DI system for colour grading and look creation. The design of the software is such that it delivers real-time primary and secondary colour correction and grading capabilities, while providing a sophisticated feature set for working with high-resolution imagery and digital intermediates. It has come to be regarded as the industry standard today.

Discreet Smoke
Discreet Smoke is an all-in-one integrated creative editing and finishing system.

Autodesk Combustion
Autodesk Combustion 4 is an all-in-one professional compositing application designed to meet the needs of the world's most demanding artists. It features non-destructive workflow, an extensive toolset, and the kind of power professionals demand.

Discreet Flint
Flint lets you design stunning graphics with speed and interactivity. It provides instant feedback for complex compositing, paint, motion-graphics animation and visual effects. It also lets you work with high-quality RGB images with real-time video I/O.

Discreet Inferno
Inferno provides the instantaneous feedback required for fully-interactive online experimentation and rapid turnaround. Now architected for 64-bit performance, Inferno provides the best real-time performance for high-definition post-production, from 4K feature film and digital cinema to HDTV and video.
Discreet Flame
A powerful 3D compositing environment, this delivers amazing creative results using industry-leading tools specifically designed for high-definition, multi-format post-production-from video and HDTV to 2K digital cinema. Flame tools include Action (a 3D visual effects design environment), 3D tracking, Motion Estimation, and the powerful Colour Warper and Modular Keyer features.

Discreet Fire
This is a premier online editing and finishing system designed for 2K/4K digital intermediate, HDTV, and video post-production. It lets you interactively manipulate up to 30 layers of high-resolution film in its advanced 3D DVE (Digital Virtual Environment) and compositing environment.
The Professionals
What directors lack today is the presence of VFX supervisors on the sets. "It's important to get the logic right when planning or executing effects. Unfortunately, the concept of a VFX supervisor is absent in India. There is activity, though, to create such specialists," says Namit Malhotra, managing director of Prime Focus.

While filmmakers struggle to come to terms with the possibilities before them, those behind the scenes making things happen are already having to grapple with problems of their own. "DI and VFX are two totally different aspects. To get into either, though, you need knowledge of editing," says Cooney.

There seems to be an abundance of editors willing to learn the tricks of the trade, but there hasn't always been a place they could go to learn it from. So most end up learning on the job. "It's a good thing and a bad thing too… while the new guys can see what the real needs are, they don't always get enough time to fathom the possibilities. We do put them through the paces and handhold them for some time, but eventually, we have to tell them it's time they started on their own," says Khandpur.

Cases In Point
There has been a wide range of movies that have either undergone the DI process or had a great amount of VFX in them. Some of these you know about, some you don't. Presenting an exposé:

Kal Ho Na Ho: A love story with virtually no action scenes, you must wonder where the VFX were. "There are a couple of scenes where it was required that VFX step in. The movie was shot on location in the US and there was a scene when snow was required. The director ordered only one snow machine thinking it would be enough, but when they started shooting, it was less than adequate. After talking to us, we gave a solution: just make sure the two main actors in the scene were covered with snow, and we'll take care of the rest. You couldn't even tell that the snow was added later," reveals Khandpur.

Dhoom: Here was a movie with loads of SFX. Not just VFX, but plenty of special ones! "This was an out-and-out action thriller, and there was plenty of scope to work on it. Take for example the stunt scene where the motorcycle rider has to jump over a rake… we were on the set when they shot it and everyone was like 'Wow'. But when we saw the scene a little more objectively, the thrill was missing. The scene showed the motorcyclist jumping over an empty rake between two bogeys. What we realised was that the rake was too long and this took the thrill away… so we reduced the length of this! The effect was superb," says Khandpur.

"Another scene where we got the chance to  add some special effects was the one after the title song-and-dance sequence. In this one, there are lines of petrol spill along the ramp, and these are supposed to be lit by the actor. He is supposed to fling his Zippo lighter into the petrol. When his close-ups were shot, it hardly looked appealing. But we took this onto the computer and made it dramatic," says Khandpur. Eventually, this movie ended up having over 20 minutes of special effects… a fact that is not often realised when you watch a movie, and that, perhaps, is the best compliment for the creators!

Mangal Pandey - The Rising: A period film and an epic, this movie has it all: DI, VFX and a great deal of wire stamping!

Assuming you've watched the movie, let's jump right into the scene when Aamir Khan has challenged the might of the British regime. The Rangoon regiment is on its way to handle him and his group of revolutionaries. Now, the very reason this regiment was called in was because it had 50,000 soldiers. Hiring as many people had monetary and logistical implications… actually nightmares. So just about 200 people were shot and then replicated to make the regiment look like it was attacking in all its glory.

Right after this scene is the part where Khan is tried and is about to be hanged. Again, the problem was the number of people that could be realistically had on the sets. Once again, replication was done. This time, though, some 'creation' was also done-and not through the camera. A tent, an elephant and some villagers behind the lead actor were added. Also cleaned up was some lighting equipment that had crept into the shot!

Over the years, as the Indian film industry matures and gets more professional, there is a good possibility that a special effects film could well come out of Bollywood. "We might be a long way away from making our own Matrix-like tech-centred movies, but the signs are positive.

Who knows, but soon, we could…" says Khandpur. Amen.

Upcoming Movies 
Life Ho To Aisi: India's first HD (high-definition) movie. Shot on HD cameras, this children's film will include some great quality visuals.
Ek Ajnabee: Watch out for the fight sequence. Stars Amitabh Bachchan and a little boy!
Home Delivery : One of the most talked-about films of late, this film has a range of effects and of course, DI. Spot the effects if you can!
Bluffmaster: Abhishek Bachchan is led into the computer and the film gets a slick new look and feel.
Dhoom 2: Including pre-visualisation, this film will be planned to the last detail before the shooting even starts. As a matter of fact, a couple of scenes using pre-viz and including VFX specialists and supervisors have already been canned.

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