When the trailer of upcoming film Adipurush came out, it opened the doors for a meme fest. From comparing its visual effects (VFX) to an animated children’s film to the styling of its characters, everything was mocked at. The film’s plot and storyline could do nothing to save its grace either. Seeing the reaction, the makers of the film decided to postpone its release, fearing a poor performance at the box-office. The Prabhas-starrer film was supposed to release in January but will now premiere in June next year with a ‘better visual experience’, as per director Om Raut.
The development comes at a time when film lovers have been exposed to global cinema via OTT platforms and superb VFX in films like Brahmastra.
However, this was not the case earlier. During those ‘simpler’ times, bad VFX was not a hindrance to a project, provided people loved the stars and the storylines. Anil Kapoor’s ‘superhero’ abilities and invisibility as ‘Mr India’ not only made the female protagonist (Sridevi) fall in love with him but also left the audience in awe. The 1987 film was made at a time when VFX was not commonly used in films in India. Veteran cinematographer and special effects provider Peter Pereira, who worked on Mr India, later explained that ‘traditional mechanical tricks’ were used to shoot sequences before the camera, which are in contrast to the digital processes used in post-production today. In scenes where an invisible Mr India picks up things, they would tie them to black threads and later pull the thread out of the frame to make it look as if he’s flying in air.
Even a decade after that, nothing much changed in Bollywood. The 2002 film, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, was criticised for its substandard VFX. The film didn’t make the mark and flopped despite a star cast of Manisha Koirala, Suniel Shetty, Akshay Kumar and other A-list actors.
Similarly, even though cult shows like Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, Mukesh Khanna’s Shaktimaan were popular, the use of VFX remained limited or lacking. The slow-flying arrows, a flying Hanuman or the transition sequences looked highly artificial; yet the shows became popular for its content and enjoyed a fan following till date. Ironically, VFX has turned out to be caricaturish in recent projects as well. Some examples are the inclusion of Bill Gates in Half Girlfriend, Mohenjo Daro’s flying crocodile, the bullfight sequence of Kalank and so on.
The upcoming Naagin trilogy starring Shraddha Kapoor might have been put on hold, but it was reported that the film would be heavy on VFX. This would have been an upgrade from Sridevi’s 1986 film Nagina that showed her in the shape-shifting character but used poor VFX.
The Indian VFX scene transitioned with films like Koi Mil Gaya (2003) and Krrish series. Red Chillies did the VFX for Krrish 3 and the recently announced Krrish 4 is said to have even better and world-class VFX.
Around the same time, between the 1980s and early 2000s, Hollywood was leading the way in the use of VFX technology in films and making a mark globally. The 1984 sci-fi action film The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, became a hit with its visual effects working for the audience. Fantasy II Film Effects, the VFX company that worked on the film, is said to have used ‘stop motion’ to make the faceless T-800 appear. The subsequent sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which was released in 1991, also had VFX from the same company. It turned out to be the most ambitious computer-generated imagery (CGI) venture ever in those times. The company would later go on to make VFX for cult films like Aliens, Hellboy, Star Trek: Enterprise and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others.
However, as times changed with better investments and successful companies, the use of VFX has become a pertinent factor to draw audiences. This has been witnessed recently as the actors and makers promoted the recently released Varun Dhawan-starrer Bhediya. They made sure that the fact that the film, which has close to 800 VFX shots, was heavily publicised and made headlines. Moving Picture Company, which is behind the VFX of the film that also stars Kriti Sanon in the lead role, has provided VFX for films like The Mask of Zorro, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Die Another Day, Batman Begins and more.
The Indian scene
The reason for Bollywood lagging behind in utilising the technology at a time when Hollywood was producing classics, according to Namit Malhotra, founder, Prime Focus and Global CEO, DNEG, a visual effects and animation studio for feature films and television, is that we were making different kinds of films back then. “More and more filmmakers are starting to change the kind of movies we are making and so the standard of VFX is improving as well. Since the last 40 years, America has made films like Star Wars and continued to improve the art form whereas we were making different kinds of movies back then,” he says.
Malhotra is the third generation of the filmmaking family. Son of producer Naresh Malhotra and grandson of cinematographer NM Malhotra, he has co-produced Brahmastra and his company has worked on its VFX that were praised for its quality. As compared to Avengers: End Game’s 2,400 VFX shots, Brahmastra Part 1: Shiva had over 4,500 VFX shots, making it a potential record holder for the most visual effects used in any film globally.
“It is a very great feeling to see that as a family we have continued to enhance the quality of storytelling and improve the industry. Hollywood had realised the way they can appease the global audience early with larger-than-life projects. Our filmmakers like Rajamouli and Ayan Mukerji are now trying to make films bigger in scope and vision. The moment they make those kinds of stories, it automatically brings the use of VFX to the forefront and that’s where we can help design and deliver,” he says.
Back in the day, his grandfather worked as a cinematographer in films like Hamraaz, Naya Daur, Kanoon and Devar, and assisted Hollywood cinematographer Ernest Haller in the 1953 film Jhansi ki Rani. Carrying his legacy forward, Namit Malhotra has worked on several Hollywood projects and won Oscars for films like Tenet, First Man, Blade Runner 2049, Inception, Interstellar, Ex Machina and Dune.
In the past one and a half decade, the Indian film industry has seen VFX grow in scale and size and new companies coming up in the market.
Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan was an early player as he realised the massive potential of the technology. His Red Chillies VFX, which was established in 2004, has made films with VFX on par with Hollywood films as early as a decade ago. His Ra.One (2011) was ahead of its time in terms of the use of VFX.
Keitan Yadav, COO of Redchillies vfx, says that Indian cinema, in its collaborative use of VFX for storytelling, has come a long way in the past decade. “VFX marvels like Ra.One, Krrish 3, Fan, Zero, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Shershaah and Brahmastra are just a few examples to prove the various facets VFX has enabled a storyteller to touch upon. Amid the pandemic, the unprecedented rise of OTT revolutionised media consumption in the country, opening doors for new genres like horror, mythology, sci-fi and others, which are majorly VFX-driven genres. Upcoming advanced technologies have enabled VFX studios to refine the quality of the final output, plan and execute with precision and have a more efficient pipeline for prime projects. India has slowly but surely shifted to being taken seriously as a hub for global VFX requirements,” he says.
Yadav shares that VFX is a creatively driven, time-consuming and manpower-intensive process. “Avatar took a decade to make. It took another decade for the second one to hit the screens. Similarly, one of our projects, Zero, had up to 2-3 years of extensive pre-planning, along with use of creative technologies which made it far more efficient to shoot and deliver immaculate results,” he shares.
Apart from Redchillies VFX and Prime Focus, Indian companies like Tata Elxsi, Reliance Mediaworks, Prana Studios and Moving Picture Company are other major players in the market.
The right push
Earlier this year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the setting up of the animation, visual effects, gaming and comics (AVGC) task force in order to give a push for the AVGC sector in the annual budget. “The AVGC sector offers immense potential to employ youth. An AVGC promotion task force with all stakeholders will be set up to recommend ways to realise this and build domestic capacity for serving our markets and the global demand,” she was quoted as saying by media reports.
Yadav of Redchillies VFX says that the Indian government has provided the needed push by forming the AVGC task force, aimed to create more opportunities for the VFX industry, both locally and globally, while proposing ideas for a national AVGC policy to put India on the front-foot. Yadav, who is also a member of the AVGC taskforce, says that the Indian VFX industry is heading towards a golden era.
According to a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) titled ‘Blockbuster Script for the New Decade: Way Forward for Indian Media and Entertainment Industry’ in December 2021, it is estimated that if India can capture a 20-25% share of the global VFX and animation market by 2025, it will be able to generate 75,000-120000 jobs by 2025. Biren Ghose, vice chairman, CII National Committee on Media and Entertainment, and country head, Technicolor India, says, “Despite sporadic regulatory hiccups, in some states, this segment is growing at around 30% per annum which is the highest among the animation and visual effects (AVGC) sector.”
Globally, too, the VFX industry is set to grow at a good pace. According to a report by research firm Vantage Market Research, the global VFX Market was valued at $26.3 billion in 2021 and is all set to surpass $48.9 billion by 2028, exhibiting a CAGR of 10.9% during the forecast period 2022-2028. The Indian VFX industry, as per Namit Malhotra, is growing at a fast pace. During the first year of operation, their revenue was Rs 35 lakh and in March 2022, they closed with Rs 3,500 crore.
The growth, the report further suggests, can be attributed to rapid urbanisation, technological advancement, and an increase in investment by developing countries. “Asia Pacific captured the lion share in 2021 and is projected to retain its position over the forecast period. This can be attributed to the existence of a significant number of VFX industry companies and the high adoption rate owing to government measures that stimulate this industry in this region,” the report says.
As for costs, there is no doubt VFX comes as an expensive technology. However, the film’s scale and the budget are what varies the cost. Malhotra explains that a film like Ex Machina (2014), which won them an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, had the lowest VFX budget in the world, but the quality of work was great. “The answer lies not in the budget but in the vision,” he says.
“It depends on what a filmmaker wants to make and allocate the budget accordingly. In films like Brahmastra, 30-40% of the film’s budget is reserved for VFX,” he shares. The scale, too, does not matter. VFX cannot only be a part of magnum opuses but also small films and comedy films.
Going forward, Malhotra says that he might produce a few more films. He adds that his next big offering would be Ramayana and calls the project ‘close to his heart.’ “We plan to show it at the grandest scale and capability, and the world should see it,” he says. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Fast X, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery are some of their international projects currently in production.
As for Red Chillies VFX, an impressive amount of VFX has been used in all of its upcoming projects like Shah Rukh Khan’s return with Pathaan in January, Jawaan around midyear, and then finishing the year with Dunki. Yadav shares that they are also working on the upcoming Dharma Production’s film Yodha, along with a slew of new titles with Netflix.