chat V. Srinivas Murali Mohan discusses the making of Chitti-the robot, with help from visual effects and animatronics

C hitti, the robot, with 1 terahertz speed and 1 zettabyte memory, has made people dance to his tunes. A month after the release of the much-hyped Endhiran/Robo, the aura around Chitti refuses to lift. Beyond Rajnikanth, Aishwarya Rai, A.R. Rahman and Shankar, the real heroes who toiled to infuse life into the robots, cannot stop smiling.

Global standards

V. Srinivas Murali Mohan of Indian Artists, the Chennai-based firm, has raised the bar for visual effects in India. Endhiran's budget of Rs. 160 crore, the highest for any Indian film so far, is still a meagre sum for the magnitude of visual effects that was required, states Srinivas. “We tried to deliver visual effects of international standards with budget constraints. The end effect is equal to that of a Hollywood film of Rs. 600-700 crore,” he says.

Srinivas and his team won the National Award for the skin grafting technique used in Sivaji. Having worked with Shankar in Boys, Anniyan (Aparachitudu) and Sivaji helped. “Shankar gave us the narration in December 2007. I was both excited and apprehensive after hearing the amazing concept. I was excited at the opportunity of taking on such a challenging project but was apprehensive if we can pull it off given the budget and manpower limitations,” says Srinivas, the Vijayawada-born programmer who shifted base to Chennai and founded Indian Artists 18 years ago with his partner Jayakumar.

Jayakumar, a chartered account, looks into the financial aspects while Srinivas heads the creative division. Two National Awards, for Magic Magic and Sivaji later, Endhiran posed fresh challenges. “Shankar came to us only a month before he had decided to begin shooting. We explained to him that the film needed at least six months of pre-production. He agreed to defer the shooting. We made 3D storyboards with animation for every scene and shot them in different angles. The editor came on board from this stage and edited the film, choosing the right angles, lighting, dialogues etc. For this stage, technically referred to as Pre-Visualisation, we took the help of P.C. Sanath of Firefly Creative Studios, Hyderabad,” explains Srinivas.

The 3D storyboards with animation paved way for VFX breakdown, which divides each shot into several layers. “For instance, Rajnikanth as Vaseegaran the scientist is in one layer, the robot in the lab forms the second layer and so on,” simplifies Srinivas.

Modern puppetry

For a film that relied heavily on visual effects, Srinivas and team felt that computer graphics alone would not suffice. The team took the help of freelancers from London, Iran, Germany, France, Canada and Hong Kong for high-end visual effects and animatronics. “We have limited number of skilled personnel in India and needed more people to be able to execute the tasks,” says Srinivas.

Help for animatronics came from Legacy Effects, LA, and visual effects were aided by Frankie Chung and Eddy Wong from Hong Kong.

Animatronics, he explains, is a mix of electronics and animation, which employs a technique similar to good old puppetry.

For one of the initial scenes where the robot attempts to walk and stumbles, six people held the robot and executed its moments. While the eyebrow and lip movements were controlled by a remote, animatronics enabled the limb movements.

Animatronics, with the presence of a puppet, made things easier for the actors unlike the presence of an empty space where computer graphics come into play later.

The prolonged climax portion was the most arduous for the team.

“Here, the idea was to make the footage technically enjoyable. We used Doom Light Stage to scan Rajnikanth's face in 3D digital format with very high details and in all possible lighting conditions so that the face could be replicated on the robots,” he says.

sangeetha devi dundoo

We made 3D storyboards with animation for every scene and shot them in different angles.