Meet the company behind Baahubali’s special effects
Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) was that rarity in Indian cinema: a big-budget action film with no reason to be embarrassed by its special effects. From the muscular sweep of S.S. Rajamouli’s direction to the intricacy of the production design, nothing else would have mattered had the VFX (visual effects) been anything like what we have come to expect from our films.
Though more than 15 VFX companies worked on Baahubali: The Beginning, Makuta had more skin in the game than any of them. This Hyderabad facility has worked with Rajamouli since his 2009 film Magadheera. They created the bizarre effects for his Eega (2012)—the film won a National Film Award for Best Special Effects—but what really put Makuta on the map was Rajamouli’s next, Baahubali, which grossed Rs650 crore worldwide when it released and had perhaps the most convincing large-scale VFX in an Indian film till date.
Makuta is the primary VFX company on Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which releases on 28 April. Makuta’s chief executive officer and co-founder, Pete Draper, estimates that they’re responsible for about 145,000 unedited frames—roughly 100 minutes in a 150-minute film. Over the phone from Hyderabad, Draper spoke to us about their work on the film and their contribution to a show-stopping sequence in the US TV series Legion. Edited excerpts:
How long have you been working on the ‘Baahubali’ films?
January 2013 is when we jumped on to the project; we started rolling in May-June. So a good four years now.
We have the last few shots left on the new film. SSR (Rajamouli) works like someone polishing a car: a general sheen, a more refined sheen, and then polish, polish, polish. His work in post (production) goes from broad strokes to refinements—adjusting some small trees that aren’t in the right place, for instance.
We’re used to his working style now, so we assume this is going to happen. We try to plan for it now. But then he’ll say, this little bit here could be different—and it’ll be something we haven’t contemplated.
How did things change for Makuta after the first film?
We got more exposure internationally than I thought would happen. I knew this thing would be big, but I didn’t realize how big it would be. It also made us better-known up north (India) than we were before.
On what basis are the many VFX companies allocated sequences?
It depends on how the VFX supervisor (R.C. Kamalakannan on Baahubali 2) decides to distribute the work. As a principal studio on this feature, we have the option of cherry-picking: We can champion this or that sequence. Since we have a history, the director or VFX supervisor will usually say, fine, you have done this sort of work before, do this as well.
We have been on set for pretty much every sequence on Baahubali 2, even those we’re not handling the VFX for. It has largely been a collaborative effort—one studio handled that portion of the environment, and so on. Sometimes, if you point the camera that way, it’s one studio’s work, and another’s if you point it somewhere else.
At what stage of the film-making process do you join the project?
We like to get in as early as possible, not to influence the design or anything, but to liaise with the key technicians. We prefer to come in around the time they’re figuring out shot derivations to advise them how to get the biggest bang for their buck. “You want this visual? Here’s how you can get it without wasting time, quality or money.”
In Baahubali 2, there was a lot of conceptual work done with regard to production design. Thankfully, SSR loves concept artwork now. Back in the day, he never used it, which meant lots of iterations and 3D. Now, he has already done the background work with his team, so he doesn’t have to bounce it off us as much.
Can you tell us which sequences you’ve worked on in the new film?
I can’t give away many specifics, but from what’s in the trailer, there’s the opening shot with the lotus fire; the entire Mahishmati city; the new kingdom with the foliage.
Were there any specific visual references for the new kingdom?
We wanted this second kingdom to be different from Mahishmati, which is at sea level. This one is very high up in the mountains. We wanted the aesthetics to be quite feminine. There was a lot of liaising with (art director) Sabu (Cyril)—he was the one driving the visual style. We originally worked to design this several years ago, when it was originally going to be one film, before the work on it was paused.
Are there certain effects that look simple but are actually tricky to pull off?
The most complicated ones are those that audience members see every day—which people have a direct reference for. For example, anything dealing with fire, fluids, smoke. Whether you know it or not, you’re an expert in fluid dynamics, because you see it every single day. You know instinctively if something is correct or not. When you’re creating digitally, you have to include all these nuances, or something doesn’t feel right. You may not know what—it could be the material, shading, lighting, or how pink the inner part of the eye is.
Do you look back on the first film and wonder if you could have done certain scenes better?
After the first film, we all knew we had to step our game up in all our set pieces. The statute lifting in the first film—which was delivered quite late in the schedule—we would have loved more time to refine it. But that’s what it’s like for artists. I’m sure three weeks after this film releases I’ll be thinking, I wish we had spent more time on this or that shot.
The Aubrey Plaza dance number was one of the most talked-about sequences in ‘Legion’. Was it handled by your Los Angeles office?
I have Baahubali stuck in my brain, I have to cast my mind back a few months.
For that particular sequence there was a lot of back and forth between us, the showrunner (Noah Hawley) and the VFX supervisor, John Ross, to determine the red, stylized, solarized effect they wanted to use for this little montage. It was primarily compositing work, as opposed to 3D, for that particular sequence.
Legion was done as a split: a large chunk by our guys in LA, and the rest back here in India. The majority of the 3D work was handled in India, while the visual and stylistic elements were done in LA.
Makuta went back to work a day after ‘Eega’ released. What are your plans once ‘Baahubali 2’ opens?
A big holiday. Time with my wife. We’re in discussion with regard to three-four projects, but I can’t tell you what they are.