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In earnest pursuit of aesthetic appeal

Visual effects is a tool that gives the director a great deal of freedom to put his thoughts on screen, says Michael Earnest. He talks to CHITRA MAHESH about his passion for art and cinema.

Michael Earnest.

QUIET, UNASSUMING and modest. He speaks softly but in such an impassioned way that he comes across more as a lonely artist, following his own drumbeat. Artiste of a kind. And he has an interesting tale about how it all happened. Meet Michael Earnest, visual effects supervisor with a background of fine arts, film, digital visual effects, and computer animation filmmaking.

``I studied B.Sc., Math, but was more into drawing. At home everyone was a teacher or a lecturer. My mother tried hard to make me study and become a teacher,'' he says. But then fate had other ideas. Earnest lost his father when he was very young. A father who took him to the movies — such as `Bicycle Thieves" and "Citizen Kane" — and inculcated in him a love for them. But after his father died, his mother was not keen on him seeing films.

``So I turned to drawing. In my town, Thoothukudi, there was an artist, who had a studio of sorts called Shantha Arts. He did a lot of photo realistic work, though he was only a signboard artist. And since he liked P. C. Sriram's photography, all his signboards used to have something out of his films.'' That again rekindled his interest in films. ``I was unable to study Math,'' he reminisces. Then one of his professors saw his drawings and guided him to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

It's not just enough to have the talent. Especially when competition is so tough as he was soon to find out. ``Out of all the applications they get from all over the country, they select only 100. I was selected for the final interview.'' Earnest was in his third year (Mathematics) and had to decide between the two. ``Everyone at home was against my going for the interview, so I went without telling them.''

Earnest found the campus heavenly. After a three-day workshop, he found that he did not pass the tests. It was disappointing, but he did not give up. He stayed at home for a year and tried again. He reached the interview and this time he was confident as well. But he did not make it. He was frustrated and on an impulse joined the Visual Communication course at the Loyola College, Chennai.

Eventually he proved to be the best outgoing artist and convinced folks at home about his passion for art. He specialised in photography and advertising drawing, and did his internship with O&M. "At that time, P.C. came for one of our campus photography exhibitions at the Lalit Kala Akademi. I was given a special prize for a black and white rangoli of a beggar child. That is how I got to know P.C. (Sir)."

It was only when he moved to the next level in advertising that he discovered that Sriram was running an advertising unit.

``I asked him whether I could join him as an assistant. He told me to go and do the advertising part first.'' It was this highly educative experience that made him realise that he did not want to be an ad filmmaker.

``One day P.C. Sir announced that I was no longer in JS films. I was shocked, wondering what had gone wrong. He then laughed and said that `from today you are my assistant.' He moulded me in a different way — not as a cinematographer. He used to tell me that I was an artist and that I should blend film and do something different. I saw the making of `Forrest Gump' and read about the making of `Star Wars.' I decided to learn visual effects. Because visual effects is a tool that gives the director a great deal of freedom to put thoughts on screen.''

In this context, it should be pointed out that there is a misunderstanding regarding the concept of computer graphics, says Earnest. Special effects are something done manually like pyrotechnique and physical effects. Visual effects are entirely different. People confuse the two, he explains. In the 1920s, matte painting was introduced as a major visual effects tool. After "Star Wars," projects depended on this technique. ``Visual effects have been used in our country in `Maya Bazaar' and `Sampoorna Ramayanam,' " says Earnest.

He worked on the "Jeans" project, which stars Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth

According to him, Indians are developing visual effects plug-ins in America. The leading powerful software today is Maya, designed by an Indian. ``But we do not have the methodology to implement that software,'' he says. ``Actually I got admission into major schools in Canada and in the American Film Institute. But I couldn't get an educational loan. It costs between Rs. 10 and Rs. 20 lakhs. And at that time the banks were reluctant to give me a loan because many of those who had borrowed for education had not returned the money. Yet again I had reached the door, but couldn't open it. So I started designing on my own. In India you need a company to make computer graphics. In Hollywood, a visual effects supervisor or consultant hires a studio and gives ideas to the director. Now those who provide the equipment have started doing computer graphics.''

Earnest has worked on many projects including "Jeans," which had many computer-generated figures. Earnest is quick to correct me by saying, ``No. That is compositing. It is not a digital image. Computer graphics has not been explored fully in our country. They use only one area, compositing, that too in a very limited fashion, for instance, in a double role or when a crowd has to be filmed, or when the crowd has to be multiplied. The technique is not used to extend the horizon, or increase the elevation of the sets, which actually reduces production costs."

For "Vaanam Vasappadum," Earnest is developing a few shots, designing the sequences and adds that he would like more people like him to bridge the gap between the computer animation industry and the film industry.

How would he go about designing a war sequence, for instance? I will design an entire scene — deciding what portions should be live, what should be digital and what could go as dummy models. From concept drawing to the storyboard level, I have to make a rough cut of the animatics and alter the length accordingly.'' Otherwise the computer graphics person will call the digital shots and the timing, script and everything that the director expects from the screenplay will go wrong. You know, one can even make digital horses, crowds, in fact everything! It's only an illusion that has to be visually manipulated.'' And Earnest is confident that he could do something as good here.

``There is so much that is possible. Our mythological stories can be presented with stunning visual effects. In a way much better than Hollywood. Even now I am developing a script for a documentary on ancient India, submerged in the Indian Ocean. I am collecting some material on that. I am planning to do that for National Geographic. This documentary will show how old we are as a civilisation.''

Earnest is working on a project being handled by P. C. Sriram and also has an offer from a company in the U.S. and another from Raju Patel, who also produced ``Jungle Book." For this work he will have to interact a lot with the visual effects team in Los Angeles. He also has several ideas for children. ``Kids films does not only mean cartoons. I remember seeing Superman when I was young and trying to fly. That's a totally different world of imagination like `Alice In Wonderland.' I can put in whatever I learnt in my career into that. I have even a story for that, a fantasy. Visual effects will come naturally.'' Earnest has spoken to his professors in college about starting a postgraduate course in computer animation. ``They asked me to design the syllabus, which I have done. I worked four months on that. Hopefully, it will take shape very soon.''

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