The mega-budget, trilingual, sci-fi Rajinikanth-starrer Endhiran : The Robotwas conceived 10 years ago and made over a period of three years. This comes as no surprise to those familiar with Tamil cinema director S. Shankar, who is known for his preoccupation with awe-inspiring technology and the time he takes to film movies.
But here is the deal with Endhiran—it is not loaded with futuristic sets that take ages to make, or with complex visual acrobatics. All the Rs60 crore worth of special effects (out of a total budget of Rs.162 crore) have been lavished on one character—the robot, a clone of the superstar.
The challenge here was to build a robot that was a replica of Rajinikanth and have it act right next to him. “The scientist and his robot appear together frame to frame, but the robot has to keep becoming more and more human as the movie progresses,” explains V. Srinivas M. Mohan, visual effects supervisor for Endhiran—the man behind the cloning of Rajinikanth.
Futuristic Pre-production required more time and planning in Endhiran.
Half the time taken to make the movie was spent on just pre-production work. The team took a year and a half on just story-boarding—basically, charting out each scene as a picture, as in a comic strip, with camera angles, character positioning, et al. While this saves artists time during shooting, it requires much more effort on the part of the “backstage” crew during pre-production.
“The essential difference here is that the whole process was done using computer animation, as opposed to hand drawing or still digital art,” says Mohan. “This way, at each scene, we knew exactly where the characters would stand and how the camera would focus on them, even before we began shooting.”
“In Indian cinema, it’s common for the scene to take shape on the spot, evolving with inputs from the artists as well. But we were producing Endhiran Hollywood-style, right from the blank canvas, quite literally,” he says. This, of course, is in keeping with director Shankar’s fascination with Hollywood and all things American in his movies. Shankar, for instance, borrowed the technique of morphing from Hollywood, turning Kamal Hassan into a bird, a lizard and other reptiles in a song in his 1996 movie Indian. Ditto with the technique of freeze-framing, used in a song sequence in his 2003 movie, Boys.
Mohan says that all the computer graphics (CG) and other special effects used in Endhiran add value to the storyline. “It is very easy to use CG for everything these days, and it’s not realistic enough, especially when we are trying to depict a robot developing human characteristics,” he says. “So we have minimized the use of CG and gone in for Animatronics instead—which is really nothing but the technique used by Vittalacharya et al in their mythological and supernatural movies of the 1970s.” He is referring to the technique of electronically animating physical lifeless forms, sort of like electronic puppetry. “Developed by Stan Winston in his Hollywood studio, it has been used in bits in movies right from Jurassic Park; we have used it on the robot extensively.”
For the robot, Mohan, Shankar and Rajinikanth packed their bags for Hollywood, where they spent days capturing the actor’s facial texture, emotions and movements with a patented technique called Doom Lighting also used in Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Spiderman series. The face was then digitally affixed on a silicon body hand-sculpted by about 40 artists.
“They’d give Madame Tussauds a run for its money,” Mohan says about his team. “If only the robot didn’t have to get stripped down to its skeletal circuitry in the movie, the audience couldn’t really figure out the difference between the scientist, Rajini playing the robot and the silicon robot.”
But why did Rajinikanth have to go to all this trouble? Why did he have to act like a robot, get into sci-fi, when the stylish stride, the casual flick of a cigarette, the stroking back of the hair on his forehead would have done the trick? “Because he can’t perform all the robot stunts, of course,” Mohan replies. “Who said anything about this being a Rajini movie?”
Endhiran released in theatres on Friday.