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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Special Report: This Little-Known 'Hyderabadi Studio' Made The 'Baahubali' A Visual Mega Spectacle

India’s most expensive motion picture, Baahubali, owes its world-class special effects to a very young company.

Makuta, established just five years ago, was the principal studio for S S Rajamouli’s blockbuster film, which consists of 90% computer-generated imagery (CGI) and graphics, with some 4,500-5,000 visual effects (VFX) shots.

Everything about the period drama set in medieval India appears larger than life—including the kingdom of Mahishmati, with its gigantic temples and courtyards, the landscapes comprising mystical waterfalls and mountains, and the epic battles.

So, how did the Hyderabad-based studio help pull off the grand two-part saga?

“We were originally approached three to four years ago, when the general story outline was very different,” Pete Draper, a British citizen and the co-founder of Makuta, told Quartz. “It was more fantastical in places, though the DNA of the story still remains.”

Draper’s team is behind the stunning over 1,500 feet high waterfall that Telugu superstar Prabhas’ character, Shivudu, climbs. The scene—which is integral to the movie—was mainly shot at Athirappilly Falls in Kerala, and later Makuta converted it into a splendid, larger-than-life spectacle, with computer graphics in almost every single shot.

“The entire process took around two years, with Makuta initially starting research and development work on fluid dynamics,” he said.

The grand temples and palaces, too, were Makuta’s doing. The minimal sets were digitally extended, and often replaced, to give the large, grandiose scale.

Besides Makuta, Baahubali—hailed as a VFX spectacle—used as many as 16 other VFX studios, requiring 600 artists. That includes another Hyderabad-based firm, Firefly Creative Studio, which digitally created the armies and animals, and Kuala Lumpur-based Tau Films that made the CGI bisons, among others.

Pocket change
Surely, Rajamouli took a giant leap of faith. Especially because the entire film was made on a budget of Rs254 crore ($40 million)—a quarter of what is usually spent on Hollywood’s special effects blockbusters.

Typically, big-budget Indian films, heavy on special effects, fail to deliver the goods.

“Audiences are used to watching photo-realistic effects in Hollywood films, and the challenge was to recreate that on an Indian budget,” visual effects supervisor Srinivas Mohan told the Variety Magazine in May.

“VFX on Indian movies can achieve 80% of an Avatar-like shot for one-quarter the cost,” he added.

But, Rajamouli’s Baahubali got it right. A year ahead of the first shot, the Telugu filmmaker and his team started the preparation work on special effects.

The returns have so far been extraordinary: Baahubali has trumped several records held by Bollywood films since its release on July 10. The film got the biggest opening day collection, followed by the biggest opening weekend collection, for any Indian film.

This is surely a lesson for Bollywood, whose special effects films have been some of India’s biggest losers, and for Hollywood.

Baahubali’s “impressive results only set one to wondering why the American studios don’t insist on getting more for their money,” the Guardian wrote, calling the Telugu film’s budget of $40 million “pocket change by Hollywood standards.”

Not the first time
Interestingly, Makuta actually owes its formation to Rajamouli.

Draper and two other independent visual effects artists—Adel Adil, who built the city of Maheshmati, and R C Kamalakannan—collaborated with the filmmaker on his 2009 Telugu movie, Magadheera. In 2010, the three decided to form a company.

Two years later, Makuta worked on Rajamouli’s Telugu film Eega—another VFX success—and has over the years worked with other iconic directors, including A R Murugadoss.

And after Eega, Rajamouli “warned” the team at Makuta that he had even bigger plans for another special effects film.

To pull off Baahubali, the studio had around 50 artists working full-time and hired 30 to 40 temporary contractors.

Most of Baahubali was developed in Hyderabad—home to Tollywood—and used local talent.

“Yes, there were some international artists working on the show, myself included, however it was principally a homegrown feature produced by homegrown talent, of which they should be proud,” Draper said.

According to Draper, the collaboration with international studios was not simply due to their quality and expertise but also because the existing studios and talent in India were already working at full capacity.

So, does the successful execution of Baahubali mean that Indian cinema has finally come of age when it comes to special effects?

“Yes and no,” Draper said. “India has no shortage of skilled artists in any way. However most features do not give ample time for post-work to happen. Productions want a fast return on their investment, but for quality, time and therefore money needs to be invested.”
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