The foreign hands

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By International technicians are giving Bollywood films a cutting-edge global look, says Suktara Ghosh
  • Published 14.08.11

It’s expected to be an extraordinary ride in terms of visual special effects. There’ll be flying men and Shah Rukh Khan’s eyes will glow blue — all made possible by the latest computer technology. Meet the key man behind the visual magic in Ra.One — Jeff Kleiser, CEO and co-founder of Synthespian Studios. A pioneer in the field of digital animation and visual effects (VFX), he has been the behind-the-scenes star in Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men, Fantastic Four and Surrogates. He’s also the VFX supervisor in Ra.One.

Cut to a different scene. Carlos Catalan was the man behind the camera in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance and now has shot the Hrithik Roshan-Farhan Akhtar starrer Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD). Says Ritesh Sidhwani of Excel Entertainment: “Zoya wanted an outside eye for her first film and simply loved Carlos’s work. Then we signed him for ZNMD, and of course it helped that we shot in Spain and he is Spanish.”

Mumbai’s filmmakers have figured that it’s crucial to have a terrific story and a starry cast — but you also need a spot of extra oomph. They are roping in the hottest international talent for everything from cinematography to VFX to music composers and even stunt companies.

Rana, for instance, will set the screen on fire with three Rajnikanths — a visual extravaganza made possible by the very latest VFX. The man behind the techno-magic is Charles Darby, creative director, EyeQube Studios — an Emmy winner who has worked on gigantic mega-movies like Titanic, The Matrix and a couple of Harry Potter films. “Rana will have highly inventive visual effects on a huge scale. It will probably be the most complex work so far attempted in India,” says Darby, who shuttles between London and Mumbai and is also working on Desi Boyz and an upcoming 3D film with Eros.

Ra.One of course, has pulled out all the stops and gone on a global talent hunt. Legendary Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, who has composed music for blockbusters like The Lion King and The Dark Knight, is doing the background score. And Italian cinematographer Nicola Pecorini has ensured the film’s lightning pace while shooting the high-energy action sequences.

Audiences can thank
cinematographer Jason West (below) for the uber-cool look of Don 2 (above)

Ra.One is for a global audience and Shah Rukh felt that it deserved specialised technicians who could make it globally appealing,” says Ram Mirchandani, creative head, Eros International, which is co-producing Ra.One with Red Chillies Entertainment.

Bollywood has discovered too that foreign directors of photography (DOP) often give a movie a distinctive visual — without adding much to costs. Excel signed cinematographer Jason West for Rock On!! for a fresh look and now the Londoner-turned-Mumbaikar has shot the edgy Delhi Belly and Don 2.

“I take inputs from the director and production designer on the look of the film. I plan 70 per cent and leave the rest to inspiration of the moment. I find this keeps things fresh,” says West.

A foreign DOP also often works better with limited equipment and a tight budget. Says director Dibakar Banerjee, who shot the much acclaimed Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (LSD) with Greek cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis: “I wanted a DOP who has shot extensively in the digital format, across technologies and at micro budgets. Andritsakis was one of the star students at the London Film School with a name in the UK independent film and music video circuit as someone who could work miracles with a skeletal crew, gear and budget.”

Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis is well-known in the UK independent film and music video circuit for working wonders with even a skeletal crew and budget

Actor/writer Deepa Sahi, debuting as director with Tere Mere Phere (TMP) — a road rom com starring Vinay Pathak and Riya Sen — also chose to hire Bulgarian DOP Christo Bakalov for similar reasons. “I needed someone who could work without truckloads of equipment and could deal with the ever-changing light of the mountains. Besides we opted for Red One Camera (a type of digital camera) and Baki had already shot on Red,” says Mehta. Bakalov (along with cinematographer Rali Raltchev) had also worked in Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya.

“International DOPs work alone with a limited crew, which gives them good control over the project,” adds Rajeev Agarwal of Rajtaru Studios. He, and his brother Tarun, signed English DOP Harvey Glen for the upcoming Sadda Adda, directed by Muazzam Beg.

Crucially, foreign cinematographers are said to not only catch beauty on the camera but also ensure that the story is told well visually. Says Banerjee: “Andritsakis tells a story with the right visual at the right time.” “I try to capture the energy of the story and the actors, and do something intuitive that the audience can experience. For LSD, we’d set aside every conventional filming practice to give the film its raw, undirected look,” says Andritsakis. He has followed it up with Chalo Dilli and Banerjee’s upcoming Shanghai with Abhay Deol and Emraan Hashmi in the lead.

Jeff Kleiser (right), CEO and
co-founder of Synthespian
Studios, is the man behind the
visual effects magic of Ra.One

Baklov too had quite a time shooting TMP in Himachal. “It was a great challenge to achieve the right atmosphere despite all the difficulties we had shooting a road movie in the Himalayas during the monsoons,” he says.

Filmmakers feel India doesn’t lack talent but there are gaps in some areas like VFX compared to the West. Says Mirchandani: “We’re hiring a foreign stereographer (they assist in creating good 3D visuals using the right lighting etc.) for our 3D movie simply because we don’t have one in the country yet.”

Adds Sidhwani: “We’re using people depending on talent and necessity. For Don 2, which was shot in Berlin, we collaborated with the Cologne-based Action Concept Film and Stunt Production Company. They adhere to strict safety regulations and have their own action directors, martial art trainers, etc. They even have a model highway where you can shoot racing scenes or blow up cars in a very controlled scenario.”

His ability to deal with the changing light of the mountains was one of the reasons Deepa Sahi chose to work with cinematographer Christo Bakalov for her road rom com Tere Mere Phere (above)

At another level, director Prakash Jha, was struck by the music of New York-based composer Wayne Sharpe when they met way back in 1998. They collaborated for the background music of Gangaajal, for which Sharpe won the National Award for Best Background Score. Apaharan, Raajneeti and now Aarakshan have followed. Sharpe has also composed for Sanjay Chauhan’s Lahore and Tanuja Chandra’s Hope and a Little Sugar. Coming up is Sanjay Chauhan’s science fiction film and Mangesh Hadawale’s Dekh Circus.

“His music has a distinct Indian flavour but a very Western base. For Aarakshan, he’s used the American Dobro along with sarod, flute, violin, percussion and pakhawaj. We’ve also used the hymn Vaishnav jan toh,” says Jha. Jha and Sharpe shuttled between New York and Mumbai to work out the score and also has regular conference calls on Skype.

“There needs to be a synchronicity between the story and the sound. With a controversial topic like reservation, we had to treat the music and character themes with special care. I found it very exciting to incorporate instruments typically associated with roots, folk and Americana music. It is a ‘gritty’ sound,” says Sharpe.

Another musician, Vladimir Persan, a composer from Azerbaijan now settled in Dubai, has done the background score for Sadda Adda. “It’s a multi-style score. From a classic Hollywood orchestrated theme to alternative rock to house to gypsy guitars,” he says.

Composer Wayne Sharpe has scored the background music for Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (above)

Getting the look right is also crucial for the top stars and Robin Slater is making the most familiar faces of Bollywood look real good. The two-time Oscar nominee make-up whiz is back again (after My Name is Khan) to work in Karan Johar’s remake of Agneepath, starring Hrithik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt.

Working in India was great, she says, but she did come up against unexpected difficulties. “My biggest challenge was that I didn’t know that the Indian head was flat at the back unlike the Western head, which is round — so the prosthetics were a problem. As for the look, I’ll be airbrushing along with old make-up techniques. I find the mix of old and new perfect,”she says.

Amazingly, the producers say the costs don’t zoom as much as might be expected with foreign talent. “I’d say it’s cheaper,” says Sidhwani. “People here have a problem working within a budget once they become famous. But a foreign DOP works with a limited budget and crew and still gets a quality product.”

Agrees Sahi: “The cost difference is really not that much. Europe makes very few films a year, so you find many technicians, who’ve the time and inclination, willing to come over.”

Well, as long as good films are being made, we aren’t complaining, are we?