ON A VFX JOURNEY WITH BIJU DHANAPALAN
Biju Dhanapalan – the name evokes an immense amount of awe and respect in the VFX arena by the sheer magnitude of his track record. As animation and visual effects (VFX) supervisor, Biju has successfully contributed to 120 films across Bollywood, UK, Hollywood, and French productions, winning several awards and nominations. His artistic and technical collaborations with contemporary artists have resulted in interactive art installations that have exhibited at prestigious international venues, including Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Kochi Muziris Biennale. In parallel with his industry experience, Biju has been a faculty at the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, during which he designed and offered courses in motion capture, digital animation film-making as well as virtual production. His research projects pivoted around the integration of visual effects tools and methodologies with diverse fields such as classical dance, digital art history, aerospace, and pure sciences. Biju’s experience and expertise in the animation and visual effects industry has enabled him to contribute significantly to the industry. Designated as Subject Matter Expert for Singapore Government’s SkillsFuture program, he was instrumental in framing the Skills Framework (SF) blueprint for the fields of animation, film-making, and gaming industries in Singapore.
In an exclusive tete a tete with Manoj Madhavan, Editor of Broadcast & Film, Biju shares his VFX journey spread over a span of over two decades.
Q1 Tell us about your journey as a VFX Director. What attracted you to this field?
Visual Effects (VFX) is predominantly an interdisciplinary art form – an amalgamation of pure sciences, fine art, technology, performing arts and, loads of common sense. This attracted me to VFX and it has served as a platform for me to collaborate with artists and technicians hailing from diverse disciplines which has been extremely enriching.
My journey spanning twenty-eight years in the industry has been that of learning and unlearning, challenging as well as exciting and at times boring in parts.
I began my career as an animator for a daily business news show; next, I headed the graphics team for India’s first sci-fi TV series, and then of course feature films was the natural progression.
Q2. Please highlight some of your most creative and challenging VFX work. What were the major technical challenges you and your team faced for the VFX creation and how did the team overcome them?
Almost every film comes with its own sets of challenges that demand novel methods and methodologies, a unique set of tools, and of course unlearning to address them. If I have to cite one project, in particular, it would have to be ‘Jajantaram Mamantram’
. The challenges were in multitude and to begin with, it was the sheer scale of the project. We had over 700 VFX shots to be executed. To put it in context, a couple of decades ago the highest capacity hard drive available was 40GB. Thus, we had cupboards stacked with hard drives storing layers upon layers of ‘Jajantaram Mamantram.’
Of course, today petabyte data servers have replaced the wooden cupboards.
Another challenge in this project was filming the Lilliputians. I was certain I didn’t want to digitally scale down the actors during compositing; instead, we filmed them ‘small’ by positioning the camera away from the characters ‘proportionately’. The primary challenge was to maintain the precise camera angle for all the layers filmed for a given shot. This was easier said than done and more so in the absence of hi-tech angle measuring instruments for the thousands of layers filmed. I did try using professional protractor but the precision and the parallax reading errors were unacceptable. The solution came from observing a carpenter getting his angles correct by using a simple measuring tape! Knowingly or unknowingly, he was applying ‘similar triangle’ principles of geometry taught in school. In a similar triangle, if uniformly scaled, all the angles will remain the same and hence, there was no need for a hi-tech angle measuring instrument to replicate the angles precisely. We managed aiming cameras with extreme precision using the humble measuring tape thousands of times. Of course, there were many more hi-tech challenges that we faced and mitigated for this feature.
Q3. There is a feeling that Indian Studios are not capable of delivering a VFX laden movie like Avatar, Interstellar, and Avengers. Etc. Where do you think Indian studios falter when compared to the Hollywood VFX Studios? Do we lack technical and creative manpower when compared to the West?
Hollywood attracts the brightest minds from across the globe that creates brilliant VFX as we all see in their movies. So, comparing Hollywood VFX studios to Indian studios would be highly unfair. But Indian studios and technicians have made considerable contributions to Hollywood VFX blockbusters as well as to Indian cinema. Having said that, Indian studios do have a long trek ahead for sure. As you have rightly put, there is a shortage of technical and creative manpower in our studios. One look at our demography reveals that there is no dearth of either creativity or manpower in our country. We just have to figure out how to attract them.
Q5. Film technology has undergone major changes, right from the Kodak & Fuji film to digital cameras now used for shooting. Your take on these changing trends?
The sheer power of mathematics and the number-crunching prowess of modern computers have dramatically reshaped our world, and cinema is no exception. The ability to represent colours spatially across time in numbers exposed moving imagery to the world of computing. The possibilities of altering imageries and synthesizing through the computational process became accessible to the artists, and then there was no looking back! An entire ecosystem was born, right from image acquisition to manipulation to exhibition and consumption. As we all know digital technology is here to stay. The challenges are to create intuitive digital tools for the creative fraternity, be it cinematographers, illustrators, editors, musicians, editors, and so on. I think the techno-artists as I would like to call them who can harness technology to express themselves would gain tremendously. It is an ever-evolving process and I believe it will continue to be so.
Q6. Tell us about your current role/projects and what are your future goals?
All of us are aware that the VFX industry is exploring the possibilities offered by the virtual production technologies. During my tenure as faculty at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), I led a few research projects investigating the integration of real-time rendering engines (primarily games engines) with diverse fields such as classical dance, digital art history, aerospace, the natural sciences, as well as traditional filmmaking.
Some of the experiments revealed very interesting possibilities to create highly collaborative environments particularly in VFX heavy projects. VFX laden projects often call for long schedules of green screen filming and all that we see is green screen all around. Few days down the schedule, a ‘green-screen fatigue’ sets in and the key contributors - director, actors, cinematographer, etc. tend to break away from the collaborative/creative process of filmmaking. As a result, the onus for all creative decisions falls largely upon the VFX supervisor, where he is constantly facing a barrage of ‘what do you want me to do now?’ from all departments. At this point, the filmmaking process becomes highly non-collaborative, breaking the important creative flow. As a VFX director, I had been seeking means/tools to bring all the creative stakeholders back to filmmaking in the context of a VFX-heavy project. The real-time engines looked very promising in creating tools and processes mitigating the aforementioned challenge to a large extend.
For an upcoming VFX heavy project which I am involved in, I have been developing an extended pre-visualisation process using game engines. We did our first round of proof-of-concept filming and the results are very encouraging. We were successful in creating a platform where all the creative stakeholders could seamlessly collaborate. But yes, we do have a long road ahead. I believe Virtual Production and real-time technologies have the potential to transform the way we create content.
Q7. How do you look at the future of film production in the post Covid era? What are the changes you see in the VFX and the production pipeline due to the Covid pandemic?
Like any other industry Covid-19 has forced the film fraternity to adopt and adapt new ways of approaching filmmaking; starting from reimagining the narrative to filming in ‘bubbles’ to work-from-home post-production to home delivery of content itself. Many new possibilities have emerged out of this crisis. Some of the artists I know have been able to work for various studios across the globe from the comfort of their homes. I am also aware of various studios employing artists from across the globe the same way. Rugged connectivity and robust data security have been the backbone of this transformation. Yes, the visceral quality of working together in the same physical space has been compromised but the commute time, as well as the flexible work timing, has amply compensated. I think a hybrid model of working in the studio and work-from-home would be the norm. More tools for a collaborative environment will evolve to aid this pipeline. Recently I have been involved in a project where artists from different continents worked on one single shot using one physical workstation simultaneously. This has been a first for me.
Q8 Which are the directors you have enjoyed working with most in your journey so far? And which are the global VFX director you are impressed with?
I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with many outstanding artists and technicians primarily from our film industry and a few from Hollywood as well. Collaborating with auteurs such as Raju Hirani, Sriram Raghavan, Ram Madhvani, Rajesh Mapuskar to name a few, has been an enriching as well as a learning experience. Working with Tom Stern as well as Joel Hynek had been an absolute delight. Among VFX supervisors, I admire many but I would like to mention Roger Guyett and Dennis Muren.
Q9, You have been involved as a professor in one of the leading media colleges in Singapore for over 7 years. Please share your experience of the same and how can Indian media education sector evolve in the aspects of filmmaking, cinematography, VFX and animation.
I was always fascinated by the synergies involved in the interdisciplinary nature of VFX as well as film making. NTU’s wonderful infrastructure and environment for research and education allowed me to dive deeper into this space. As an animator, classical dance forms has been a constant source of inspiration for graceful motion. This led me into engaging Motion Capture technology to encapsulate the spatiotemporal data of classical dance forms, primarily Kathakali, a 500-year-old Indian dance form. The motion capture data served as a base for analysing the kinesiology of classical dance and material for emerging media artists to utilize for kinetic art. Further, the motion capture data served as a digital archival of tangible and intangible heritage. Visual effects tools and methodologies were also engaged in other areas like aerospace, art history, paleontology and so on. All of them yielded encouraging results.
I remember Iridium, the satellite phone company had once said ‘Geography is History,’ and I believe it largely holds for today’s information age. Abundant knowledge abounds and is a push or a touch away; focus shifts from where to procure the knowledge to what to embrace. It is imperative to learn how to retain the relevant and discard the inconsequential. The methods, tools, and techniques of animation and visual effects are continuously evolving. The cycle of constant learning and unlearning is what will keep us alive in this space. In India, we have a tendency to emphasise on just the craft rather than the art and craft of a discipline as a whole. I believe it is imperative to focus and strengthen the fundamentals to endure the shifting landscape of media and emerge as game-changers.
Motion Capturing Kathakali
Documenting history of Kathakali at the very own birthplace of Kathakali – Temple of Killimangalam Mana in Kerala
Kathakali motion capture at School of Art Design & Media, NTU, Singapore.
Kathakali motion analysis at School of Art Design & Media, NTU, Singapore.
Virtual Production/Cinematography Experiments
Setting up of virtual cinematography
Academy award winner Prof Ben Shedd filming with the Virtual Camera developed at NTU
Experimenting with short animation films using virtual production techniques