It has taken 53 years after M.N. Nambiar’s alien spaceship landed on Tamil shores in Kalai Arasi for science fiction to finally get mainstreamed. Even as the first-ever Tamil zombie film, Miruthan, continues to run successfully across the state, the teaser of 24 (a time travel film) has crossed three million views on YouTube in under a week. Just last year, we saw the release of films as diverse as Appuchi Gramam (a post-apocalyptic drama), Indru Netru Naalai (a time travel romance) and Maya (a horror film-within-a-film) – all faring well. Our young filmmakers, raised on a diet of fantasy Hollywood and world cinema, are backing writing abilities with an understanding of special affects to push the boundaries of storytelling.
“What we often see in our industry is the use of CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and VFX (Visual Effects) as an eraser instead of it being used as a pencil,” says R Ravi Kumar, director of Indru Netru Naalai. “They use it as a tool to fix errors, when they should be using it to create. They use it to fix continuity errors by changing the colour of the hero’s shirt or to remove an extra from a scene. But when you balance a script grounded in our culture with the use of CGI, we’re opening our minds to new ideas.”
While our films have employed high-end technology to create big-budget films, the use of the same resources in small-to-medium-budget films is heartening. “We finished the entire post-production work of Miruthan in just 35 days,” says director Shakti Soundar Rajan. While his previous film, Naaigal Jaakirathai,had only 450 VFX shots, Miruthan had around 1000. “Our budgets and timeframes are smaller, so we have to work like guerrilla filmmakers to complete the film on time. Produced at a budget of Rs.12 crore, we were able to recover the cost of Miruthan in the opening weekend. So, it’s not just about having a wild idea. You must also know how to execute it without burning pockets.”
The technology itself is expensive, but directors feel it’s often the lack of time that ends up deteriorating the overall quality of the product. “VFX is not something a director should attempt with limited time,” says Shiv Mohaa, the director of upcoming supernatural thriller Zero, 40 per cent of which needed CGI. “Planning well in advance can keep costs low, but you still need to spend a lot of time to get the results you desire.” Post-production took over a year. The director, who has worked with CGI even for his short film, says, “There are many online tutorials that one can learn from, to create CGI. So, even if I’m stuck while shooting a complex scene, I can always find answers online.”
It isn’t a lack of expertise either. “Do you know that most Hollywood films source their VFX content from designers in India?” asks Ravi. “These designers are keen to work in Indian films too, at a fraction of the cost, but you need to give them the time to deliver. We must also stop comparing our films to Hollywood. When we use these tools (CGI and VFX) to tell our own stories, that’s when these films connect with the audience. If they don’t, the audience is better off watching Hollywood films.”
But even if you have a script latent with potential, extra care must be taken in its execution, says Sathish Chandrasekaran, the director of upcoming horror film Darling 2. “CGI work should be given as much importance as you’d give a top actor. One must allocate the most time to shoot scenes that involve CGI, and it requires the combined efforts of the cinematographer, art director and the special effects coordinator. As the cost of every minute can run into several lakhs, it’s best that you’re absolutely sure of what you want, without having to shoot extra, only for it to be chopped on the editing table.”
Also, is there an assumption that films that use such technologies are meant to cater only to the A-class audience? “Not at all,” says Shakti. “I made Miruthan only so it caters to the galleries. Of course, there were a few hiccups when I was making the film, because a few departments didn’t understand what a zombie was, but we managed with pictures and visuals.” But does the industry brand you a CGI specialist because of these successes? “I don’t use these tools only for the sake of it. I just want to make the films I want to. But I’m excited to work with a producer who’s handled CGI for 10 years in my next movie,” he says, hinting at more CGI in his next film.