DECIPHERING FINESSE - In conversation with the men behind the visually ethereal movie - Zero

In conversation with VFX producer - Keitan Yadav, VFX supervisor - Haresh Hingorani, DOP - Manu Anand, and chief colourist - Ken Metzker, on one of the most demanding movie projects - Zero
Shahrukh khan, Zero, Red chillies, Keitan Yadav, Haresh Hingorani, Manu Anand, Ken metzker, VFX, Visual effects, Colourist, Grading, 3D, Super techno, Graphics, Movie, Bollywood, Cinema, Techno dolly

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BY ANISHA GAKHAR

Every once in a while there is a movie made, which boasts of extraordinarily enticing visual graphics, colour grading and cinematography. One such 2018 movie, the Shahrukh Khan starrer Zero, oozed unparalleled mastery and intricacy. A lot went into making Shahrukh appear like a dwarf, as simple as it might sound. Whilst chatting with the double duo at the redchillies.vfx office in Mumbai, it was fascinating for me to comprehend the exorbitant amount of unrivalled dedication, expertise and attention-to-detail, which was sautéed into the making of the movie.


Zero is a 2018 Indian romantic drama in Hindi, written by Himanshu Sharma and directed by Aanand L. Rai. The movie stars Shah Rukh Khan as Bauua Singh, Anushka Sharma as Aafia Bhinder, and Katrina Kaif as Babita Kumari. The story revolves around the protagonist Bauua Singh, a short man from Meerut who is in a love triangle with Aafia Bhinder, a scientist with cerebral palsy, and a film superstar Babita Kumari. This love triangle thrusts Bauua into an adventure to discover both - his true love and a fulfilling life.


Stage 1 of applying visual effects

Stage 1 of applying visual effects


Stage 2 of applying visual effects

Stage 2 of applying visual effects

Stage 3 of applying visual effects

Stage 3 of applying visual effects


THE INCEPTION

The idea of the movie was conceived after the making of Shahrukh Khan starrer, Fan. A man of handsome height had to be portrayed as a 4ft 6in tall dwarf, throughout the movie. After deliberation, the team chose to make Shahrukh appear shorter, instead of using a real dwarf and then replacing his face with that of  Shahrukh’s. This involved the use of an exaggerated amount of VFX technology, though.
“When we were first given the brief, we did not know what the story was, since it would only materialise if we could manage the highly-demanding visual effects without using the head replacement technique, which is most-widely used,” explained Keitan Yadav, COO and VFX producer, redchillies.vfx.
Manu Anand, DOP (Director of Photography) for Zero, echoed the sentiment, “It is good VFX when it is invisible. The fact that the audiences couldn’t make out that in the movie Fan, Shahrukh was actually 25 pounds lighter and 2 inches shorter than his usual self, with a different nose and in fact 20-25 years younger (with all these special effects being first-of-their-kind), gave the VFX team confidence to go ahead with the project.”
Haresh Hingorani (known as Harry), CCO and VFX supervisor, redchillies.vfx, suggested testing out the situation in a simulated environment. Keitan and Harry set up a scenario to test the waters real-time, and to ascertain the possibility using the technology in a song. The creative and production teams got into action and pulled out old footages of movies like Chennai Express and Dilwale, used VFX to pose Shahrukh as a dwarf in that scene to see how it faired.

“We wanted to retain the body language and emotions, by Using the original body of the actor. Indian audiences connect with their movies, expecting an immersive experience. We had to make sure that the scenes look convincing.”

— Haresh Hingorani, VFX Supervisor

“We were not sure if it would happen. The director checked with a few Hollywood studios, but they were quite skeptical about making a tall man look short without using face replacement. Movies of the likes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used face replacement in the past. The Hobbit made use of prosthetics to shrink life-sized men into heir shorter versions. We wanted to retain the body language and emotions. Indian audiences connect with their movies, expecting an immersive experience. We had to make sure that the scenes look convincing,” explained Harry.

The tests proved fruitful and the movie then looked doable to the team. Thus, began the actual process.

ON THE JOB

The team made use of advanced VFX techniques like forced perspective, a technique that leverages the concept of optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. It uses the background as a reference, to give the illusion of a short height. Harry, Keitan and Manu also talked about double scales, a technique which involves digital efforts. The team had to take 5 shots per shot - first shot being a previsualisation shot, second being a normal shot with Shahrukh in the pit at a level lower than his co-actor’s, thrid being a shot which had Shahrukh and his co-stars act at the same ground-level, fourth being a shot involving the co-stars repeating their moves but without Shahrukh in the frame, and the fifth being the one in which Shahrukh had to position his arms at a wider angle to show more of his body since it was going to be shrunk while applying visual effects.These shots were then consolidated  and composited at different scales; then merged into a single image. The body muscles of the actor were tracked using CG trackers, by placing them on his body whilst shooting, and then curating a matte image and then 3D image, from the previously filmed scenes.
The VFX team and the DOP had to look into very intricate and minor nuances of filming, whilst adding special effects. For instance, matching of the eye-level was an important aspect for which they used an intriguing technique: they made pits for Shahrukh to stand in. The sets were made around two feet higher than the pit level, with an aim to recreate the surroundings, keeping the actor’s height in perspective. The height differences that had to be balanced when the actor was sitting, sleeping or kneeling, were other details the team had to take into consideration. Two normal-sized persons shaking hands is very different from a pint-sized person shaking hands with a normal-sized one; adjustment of the distances between the bodies came into play in situations like these.
“During filming song sequences, we had to be sure about how Shahrukh and his co-stars would interact, especially while being on different heights. Sometimes we had to shoot him on a different height, the extras on another, and the background on another height. We used to have discussions as to how we’d create perspective, all the distortion and correction that needs to happen, and how some lenses make it even harder – something that we learnt in the process. Around 75% of the song was VFX, since Shahrukh couldn’t have been shot with a layer of rain between him and the camera, owing to the fact that his body had to be shrunk,” commented Manu.
The experts learnt a lot during the making of the film, for example they had to give up on the use of anamorphic lenses for the shoot, and use spherical lenses instead. They also performed an interesting test where they compared a body-double who was 5”10’ tall and a standee which was 4”6’ together in a frame, to see how much part of their bodies could actually be captured. For instance, a taller person would barely fit in a frame, while most of the body of a short person could be fit in one frame. Factors like how much of a person can be seen in a frame, overlap, and how much extra information does one need outside the aspect ratio, could not have been missed. In case of overlaps, the actor in the background had to redo the shot without the person who was overlapping him, so the two shots could later be merged into one.
“The most difficult job was that of Shahrukh. For instance, he had to take short steps because his legs were being rendered shorter. He had to be very aware about how he positioned his body in reference to his co-stars,” added Manu.

TECHNOLOGY TO AMP IT UP

The film took about a year and a half to be completed. After just three days of shooting, the experts realised that they’d need motion control to make the movie in time. “We have motion control in India, but we cannot record moves. Say we need to edit anything; we’d have to record the entire thing all over again,” said Harry.
“Most of Hollywood uses Supertechno’s Techno Dolly for motion control. The Techno Dolly is a 15-foot crane which gives exact motion, shot after shot. We were at IIFA in New York, when we decided to use the Techno Dolly. It comes in handy even for the DOP for tasks other than motion control,” explained Keitan.
The Techno Dolly is a user-friendly, compact and easily movable crane system, which can be operated manually or electronically. It can be used in both: live action as well as motion control scenes. It is a telescoping crane that allows precise recorded or programmed moves that repeat themselves. The telescopic arm can be extended and shortened, as per need while shooting. This enables swift planning, recording and an easy shooting experience on set. It gives the DOP freedom to design the moves well in advance, or record and sift through multiple shots and choose the best. “It helped us design some really amazing moves including rotational, diagonal, S-shaped, half circle ones, which would have been a tedious task otherwise!” exclaimed Manu.

Since Shahrukh had to act at a level lower (the pit) than ground-level, his feet couldn’t be shot, but the scene obviously had to incorporate his feet. Witness cameras were used for the same, to remodel his feet in 3D later.

Manu

“We didn’t really have any fights or differences during the making of the movie, in spite of this being a demanding film. There was one gentleman who would always keep our spirits high - and it was none other than Shahrukh Khan himself.”

— Manu Anand, DOP

THE PLAY OF COLOURS

Ken Metzker, chief colourist for Zero, was tasked with the colour grading in synchronisation with all the heavy-duty VFX and photography that was happening alongside. It may look like a facile task, but it involved a lot of brain-storming and expertise, for the outcome to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. “A lot of people underestimate the unbelievable scope of work that was involved in the making of this film. In the end it looks flawless, but the trail-and-error that has gone into it, is just incredible. My team and I used Filmlight’s Baselight v5 for the colour timing. It helped a lot, especially in scenes where the background was shot later. We were able to incorporate that and bring up the background to match the foreground,” explained Ken.

Ken

“A lot of people underestimate the unbelievable scope of work that was involved in the making of this film. In the end it looks flawless, but the trail-and-error that has gone into it, is just incredible.”
— Ken Metzker, chief colourist, redchillies.color


The filming involved multiple layers and shrinking, which shuffles the positioning of the pixels. The movie was entirely shot on Alexa 3.4K, in spite of the VFX. One of the songs, Mera Naam, took a year to be completed. It was the first to be started, and the last to be finished. A seemingly impossible amount of VFX technology and colour-scaling had to be employed. For instance, the rain water in the movie was shot at 800 fps while recording, while the song was being sung at 48 fps. The two elements had to be merged into one scene. 800 servers, out of a total 2000 for the entire movie, were hired just for this song; given the exorbitant amount of processing power required. Most of the second half of the movie was VFX, especially the 360 degrees of backgrounds.  The colour grading had to be done to accommodate all the effects, whilst retaining the realness of the scene.
“So this scene is being shot in a hotel corridor set, with a background created by visual effects. The song incorporates everything from morning sunshine and Holi colours being strewn, to rain and other hundred things happening in the background. It involved an immense amount of integration between us all,” added Ken.

THE CAMARADERIE

Keitan and Harry have known eachother since 1996; they eventually co-founded redchillies.vfx with Shahrukh Khan. Manu worked with the VFX duo in the movie Fan, which cushioned the comfort and rapport between them; not to forget the love for Chess that both of them nurture. Ken has also worked on projects with Manu and the VFX duo in the past.
“I have a clear take. It’s never the machine; it’s the man behind the machine. As luck would have it, we all met and came together for the movie,” said Keitan


Keitan

“I have a clear take. It’s never the machine; it’s the man behind the machine. As luck would have it, we all met and came together for the movie.”
— Keitan Yadav, VFX PRODUCER


“We didn’t really have any fights or differences during the making of the movie, in spite of this being a demanding film. There was one gentleman who would always keep up our spirits high - and it was none other than Shahrukh Khan himself. I am saying this with great humility; he really inspired us. Almost two years of shooting can get very tiring, but his energy and enthusiasm is contagious,” asserted Manu.
The four experts attributed the final outcome to the hard-work put in by all the teams together. The movie, if one goes by calculation, demanded 27 man-days per second. Processes were created and simplified to speed up the making, with the four men working in conjugation with each other and the dedicated teams.
“The making was a very smooth experience, in spite of the effort that had to invested. We could sleep in peace every day,” added Harry. Manu joked, “I did have sleepless nights during colour grading work, but all’s well that ends well.”
Roger that!

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