Please tell us about yourself

It was such an enriching experience meeting Srinivas Mohan of Indian Artists who gave such an exhaustive interview/information about the VFx works in Endhiran and it was a joy to take pictures with the Chitty Robot of Endhiran.  

We all know Endhiran is the product of great teamwork. And one of the major key players of this team work is Mr Srinivas Mohan of Indian Artists who was responsible for Vfx works in the film. In this exhaustive special interview to Senior Editor Jyothsna Bhavanishankar and Inian, Srinivas talks about his work in Endhiran, the climax, the status of animation industry in India, its challenges and many other interesting topics.

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While VFX may be his current passion, Srinivas says that he never really thought about it until later in his career. “I joined college but had to quit after my first year,” he says adding, “I started working as a lorry cleaner, then as an electrician. Then I went into audio-cassette making, with song selection, then onto computers and programming and animation. Another friend then helped me train in animation design. I even designed a few logos for Kamal Hassan, and it took off from there.”

“One movie which really struck me was James Cameron’s Abyss,” Srinivas says, talking about his inspirations, “There’s a scene where a character comes out from the water, and that was a stunning visual that stuck with me. Only after I started doing VFX, I realised how things like those were done.” Success hasn’t changed him either, he thinks, and though he’s moving on to big things (like Shankar’s new movie which he can’t talk about until it’s officially announced) he says, “For me there’s no difference between the kind of work I did back then, and now. Situations may have changed, but the way we work is the same. Even doing house wiring as an electrician and now VFX… It’s just about what the requirement is.”

A brief on your background and how you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and cool career such as animation?

I am a computer programmer from Andhra Pradesh and came in 1991 to Chennai to learn 3D animation. There were very few people in the industry then. My idea was to do a one month course here as I was very passionate about animation and there were many tools available. While doing a course, Indian Artists came to my institute and were impressed with my caliber and took me onboard. I did a few freelance jobs in advertising for them for 6 months.

I was a share accounting software programmer during the beginning of my career. One of my competitors had designed his program in such a way that it had some animations. It had me amazed and as a competitor I wanted to try out the same thing. So I found out about the software they had used and learnt it in a week. I started working with it and found it to be very interesting. But gradually I forgot about it. A client had seen my logo and they wanted some animations for a program of theirs as ministers were coming to view it. I gladly agreed. I am from Vijayawada. Also most of my friends are in the video industry. They requested my help for the marriage videos they were doing. Slowly I started working on this in parallel. At one point of time my friend Balakrishna noticed my talent and he proposed we start an ad agency in Hyderabad. I was reluctant as I knew nothing about that industry but I wanted to learn. I told him about a course in Chennai which I wanted to join. I shifted to Chennai for the course. While I was here, I used to go to my friends’ video studio and implement everything I learnt there. They were awestruck. Indian Artists Computer Graphics invited me to be a part of their team after they saw my work. I started doing small advertisements for them. We did some work for PC Sreeram sir as well.

 As Chennai is the hub in south India for such activities, I continued here and I am currently the CEO of the company. The journey has been quite hard. In those days, there were very few professionals in computer graphics (CG) which is a part of Visual Effects (VFx). Visual effects is anything that you do visually which includes animatronics and such allied areas.

Tell us about Indian Artists

Indian Artists is an 18 year old company and I can say it is one of the oldest in the industry. We started with subtitling TV serials and went on to do films as well. We did advertisements using VHS tapes. Our entry into filmdom was through Shankar’s Indian; we did the title in the film. We did not have 3d tools those days and everything in the title was painted. We have worked with talented directors like Shankar, Dharani, and Murugadoss in their films. We also have got 2 National Awards in this journey, one for Magic Magic, a stereoscopic film in 2001 and the other one was for Sivaji for the white skin grafting work. Now we have worked for the most exciting and interesting project Endhiran. We have done many commercials for P C Sreeram and Jeyendra who have always supported us. On the film production side, producer A M Rathnam has encouraged us from the Boys days. With Shankar we have worked in Anniyan, Sivaji and now Endhiran.

Ad Agencies didn’t have much of VFX/Animations?

There wasn’t much of Visual Effects or Animations involved in ad agencies. But a lot of new techniques come out in advertisements.

What were the advertisements you worked in?

We did ads for Nippo and Modfurn. My project was for GE Electricals. I had designed their animated logo.

How did you feel when you got your first break in films?

Before I got my first break in BOYS, we did a lot of titles for movies. AM Ratnam used to dub Tamil movies into Telugu movies. He gave me my first project which was the title for the movie Arunachalam in Telugu. Later when AM Ratnam was doing BOYS with Shankar sir, he recommended my name to Shankar sir. He gave me an opportunity and from there it began.

Your specific role in Endhiran ?

I am the Visual Effects supervisor in Endhiran. In December 2007, director Shankar narrated me the entire story of Endhiran. I was very excited as the story and the concept were very new, fresh and wildly imaginative. I was also anxious as such a script has not been executed not only in south India but in entire India as well. I was concerned as to how I would translate his idea visually and it was a challenging job. I suggested to Shankar to incorporate certain steps which are not being followed in our Indian industry, the first thing being pre-visualization or previz. Shankar also understood its importance and agreed to it. A lot of pre-production was needed before we went out for shooting especially when visual effects formed 90% work in Endhiran.

A major plus point for me in Endhiran is Shankar’s clarity on what he wanted. This helped us move forward smoothly.

We did a small test with the train sequence in which Rajni jumps, walks and showed it to him. This was one of the first tests on previz. And Shankar was very happy.

Out of 60 scenes, we have done previz for 40 scenes. After this my job was to divide the entire shot i.e. VFx breaker. In the sequences where the scientist interacts with the robot and in the robot dance, there are many layers in one single frame. The first one was Vasee layer in which we shot Vaseegaran in the green screen, next was the Chitti layer i.e. the dancing robot. This was created in CG. We had to use live puppets for some of the close-ups which are called animatronics.

After the VFx break down, my role was to find out the best talent available. I executed 60-70% of the work in India and for others I went overseas. Based on the VFx breaker, we went to LA and chose Stanwinston studios. We also visited ILM, Tippet studios and Café Fx in Hollywood and when we showed our previz work, they were all awed by our international concepts. After hunting and finalizing the best talents, execution of work began. Till the project got completed, I had to constantly interact with cinematographer, editor, art director, director, artists for various requirements. Everyone helped and it was a team work. If for others, it was a two year project, then it was a three year project for me, director, cinematographer and the editor as one year was involved in pre-production.

Tell us about one of your exciting projects

Climax was the most exciting and interesting part of Endhiran. Although other sequences had blended CG, the climax was more challenging. Everything was created and nothing was live except for the background. The ball formation, the snake, drill, catching the helicopter and even the helicopter was CG. While shooting the scene, imagination of the highest order was required to gauge the position of various objects on screen. It was a tightrope walking as a little slip on any side will mar the sequence as such. We could have gone for realistic side but that would have cost us huge amounts. I took two supervisor’s help for this bit of work from Hong Kong. Frankie Chan who helped me to a great extent in climax and Eddie aided me in the fight sequence. Climax was very challenging and everybody worked hard and we are happy that it is being appreciated.

What do you think about special effects in Indian cinema

Shankar is a Guru for visual effects. Right from the beginning of his career, he has always included some components of visual effects in every film of his. Gentleman, Kaadhalan, Indian, Boys and Anniyan had different levels of special effects thrown in. In Sivaji, we had the white skin grafting which has reached international levels. When I went to Hollywood to discuss with the technicians for Endhiran, they were already aware of our work in Sivaji which spared me from the formalities of introductions. It was a brilliant concept and has reached well. Shankar is a rarity not only in the Indian context but also in Hollywood scene. He is a multitalented person. Shankar is an excellent creator and a great executor. He is very clear about what he wants. Working in Hollywood is much easier than working here because there you don’t need to play multiple roles. However here, the director is a one man army as he needs to take care of many things in addition to creativity.  Shankar excels in this.

What do you think is the most important aspect for Visual Effects to work?

Believability. The audience should not feel the presence of Visual Effects. It shouldn’t disturb the flow of the movie. We need to make the audience believe in the visual effects and for that we need to make it work. If anyone sees its falsity, then we have gone wrong somewhere. We either overdid it or underplayed it. While watching Bahubali, I felt certain scenes to have overpowering visual effects but the story demands it. We have tried to make it as natural as possible. We have employed Visual Effects in several scenes but you tend to notice it only in the climax. It needs to blend with the storyline. It shouldn’t stand out.

What were the difficulties you face as a Visual Effects Supervisor?

In Bahubali we have adopted an entirely new technology. We always look out for new technologies and try to incorporate it in films. That is the biggest challenge we face. We can’t afford to fail with big stars. We have to ensure that the technology is a success when incorporated. Fear grips me every time I try something new.

Interacting with Anthony, Randy & Sabu Cyril?

As you all know, Endhiran was the combination of many talents. Everybody worked very hard from the beginning to end. Since previz was very strong in Endhiran, each one of us knew the work of other and had good clarity. There was clear communication between the team members.

Randy is the best visual effects person. Nobody will notice that Rajni and Chitti are being played by the same person. The shots are perfectly blended and people cannot make out the differences. That’s our success. For Randy, it was doubly challenging as he has to shoot the same sequence twice, one with Vaseegaran and the other with Chitti. He has to light twice, mark in the floor about the lighting conditions, placement of character etc. Sometimes, the sequence will go to the next day also in which case he has to match the lighting, go through the process again. It was very tough but Randy pulled it off. His report which ran to 1500 pages has helped us to create the CGI perfectly.  Randy is definitely an asset.

Sabu Cyril is a Gyani. He is a repository of knowledge and one can learn so much from him. He helped us in designing the robot and its movements too.

Normally editors will be there when the film commences and come in after the shoot gets over. However it was not the case with Endhiran, and Anthony was involved for three years like us. Anthony’s vision was the major advantage for Endhiran and as this matched with that of the director’s, it helped majorly in the final output especially in the climax. In this scene, there will not be anything as everything was created. But Anthony has to edit using his imagination as regards to the duration of movement. The team of me, Shankar and Anthony had lengthy discussions and after I completed the 3D work, we would again have talks and there would be changes and things like that. As Endhiran is not a routine film, it required a different kind of approach. We all worked in sync and our efforts have played dividends.

Please tell a few words about the Visual Effects scenario in today’s colleges.

The Light Stage is yet to come in our Universities. When I visited NASCCOM a few days back, I had suggested a few details. The education system needs to dwell in-depth and provide quality education. Only then can we provide eminent output. We need more people from artistic background because at present, we have many people with technical backgrounds. We have sufficient people to do Bahubali-2. But if another project bigger than that arises, then we lack talent. It needs to come from government institutions. Private institutions do offer training but it is only for outsourcing jobs. We need real artistic talent. Art background is more important than operating knowledge.

What do you think Endhiran has done to animation industry in India overall?

When the concept was narrated to me, I envisaged that Endhiran is going to bridge the gap between Hollywood and Indian visual effects industry and it has come true. Endhiran is going to be the bench mark for all future generation. The future projects have to work much harder to reach this mark in Vfx department. I have also brought in here animatronics and doom light technology as allied components of Vfx.

Under doom light technology, Rajni sir was scanned under high resolution 3D light in which his face is lighted under different conditions and facial texture details were taken. The face is not false, it is true and these details were incorporated into the computer and this is what helped us in the film. These images have been utilized in the climax scene and wherever it was impossible to use Rajni sir.

Challenges faced by the animation industry in India?

Budget is the major challenging factor in India. We have the talent and the knowhow but budget is the limitation. In Endhiran we got the required budget and we utilized it effectively. To complete the entire film in 160 crores on par with Hollywood standard was indeed difficult. When you take films like Mummy, the budget was more than 1000 crores and when I have to work much lesser than that but with good standards, it sure is difficult.

Another challenge is the clarity factor with the director. The directors here are not well equipped to do such projects and don’t believe in the long pre-production period. But with Endhiran, things have changed and a revolution of sorts has happened now. Directors now have realized the value of pre-production work and fixing of everything before they go for the shoots. In future you will see a lot of Endhiran kind of films in low budgets.

Any current project?

No, I am in a relaxed mode now and have not accepted any project. I want to educate the directors, cameramen and other crew members and then take on the right kind of projects.

Advice to aspiring animators?

This is one of the interesting and upcoming fields. There was a time when parents wanted their children to be engineers or doctors but now they want to be animators. This industry pays well too, but it is not the money that matters. It is the passion that counts and hobbies are coming to light.

Don’t worry about tools, operating system and its functionality. You need to be artistic. Art forms the basis. If you are learning from scratch, then try to master Arts. If any basic thing you create is wrong, then the audience will also be able to tell it’s wrong. The audience knows what is right. So you need to learn what is right first. You need to observe the surrounding. You need to observe nature and your surroundings. You need to observe each and everything and note the tiniest of details. You also need to have a good knowledge about Physics. We are trying to create an exact replica so you need to know the lighting and physics behind it. Hence we need to get it right for the audience to not see through it. Either you can be a still photographer or an artist. These people have excellent observatory skills and have an eye for detail. We must always try to learn some form of art.

How does one equip to become an animator? 

It is imperative to be imaginative to become an animator. You don’t have to worry about the tools. We can always ask someone to operate the tools. Of course, knowledge of tools would definitely be advantageous but that’s only 50%. You also need to be observant about nature because everything is already there in nature. You cannot dispute nature. Artistic skills rather than operative skills are preferred.

Are there good training centers in Chennai to learn animation?

Yes, Mac Academy, Arena Multimedia etc. Earlier there were only multimedia divisions but now it comes as a degree course. After 12th standard, interested people can opt for such degree courses. There are also many universities offering these courses.

How affordable are they? 

It is slightly expensive as this field is in its nascent stage. But it is worth spending because the future is for animators. Once you learn the technology and process, it is a happy profession because your hobby is going to be your profession.