Sunday, October 23, 2011

Two Months In!

Mocking up shots for PreVis
Today marks the two month anniversary of my arrival in Mumbai. We are getting closer to shooting every day. We are madly prevising and planning and R&D'ing and trying to pull together an organizational plan, both in terms of production and pipeline. We are acquiring talent from some of the more experienced shops around Mumbai which is having the expected effect, namely lots of new and different ideas about how to move forward, all of which have to be evaluated and placed into the context of this shop. You can't just come in and replace everything, but you do have to turn the ship. People have to embrace new and controversial ideas. In many cases this is a task of convincing everyone that there is no Magic Bullet, there is no One Best Way and that preparing for all eventualities only prepares you for the things least likely to go wrong. What is required is for everyone to agree on one way to proceed, one way to organize, one file format, etc. It almost doesn't matter what you agree on as long as there is one way to go and everyone knows what it is. That one way may change, but it's changing something that everyone will know is changing. It's the foundation that allows the change to happen without destroying everything.

I spend almost every day talking to somebody about discipline. Now that we are in PrePro the tendency is to ignore all the would-be rules, like filenaming conventions, versioning, always calling the coord before showing The Boss, etc. It's no big deal, it's just PrePro. What always happens, though is that people don't try to learn the discipline until they are under fire and then it becomes duck and run when it needs to be stand and fight. I am desperately working to convince everyone to pay attention. Right now is Boot Camp and if everyone gets used to keeping their boots shiny and their bunks made, we'll still have a nice place to work when the going gets tough later on. It's in the rush to finish that people throw everything to the wind when they need to rely on their training and stay the course. That discipline is what makes shots go through the pipe instead of spilling out onto the ground.

Wow, that's a lot of metaphors.

We've had a lot of meetings with the director of the film. He's spent a lot of time with us going over shot breakdowns for what we will shoot in December. This is in meetings with us, DoP,  Prod Designer and Action Director. Basically Heads of Department. It's a very open forum with even the PreVis leads chime in with ideas. This kind of openness requires a steady hand at the wheel. You need to hear all the ideas without being prejudiced by where they came from and then you must decide what to do. I think it's a good way to go but it is mentally taxing. I think this director is doing a fabulous job of keeping his creative environment simultaneously open and decisive. Haven't seen much of either trait lately in Hollywood. I'll leave it at that.

This week will see the release of The Next Big Indian VFX Film in Ra.One. We are all waiting to see what Red Chillies, the VFX Company owned in part by the film's star Shahrukh Khan and VFX supe'd by Hollywood vet Jeff Kleiser, have come up with. It's certain to influence everything we are doing.

This week is also more holidays in India. Diwali is Wednesday which is the big one. Then we have a month to get ready to shoot. It's going to be a very busy November.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Test Shoot at Mumbai Filmistan

I made my first outing onto a Bollywood stage last Friday.  We shot a camera and VFX test at a studio called Filmistan (not to be confused with Film City, Camerastan or any other similarly named Mumbai film lots.) We tested an Arri 435 film camera against the latest Red Epic digital capture device. We shot the regulation grids and charts and skin tones, looking particularly at contrast and dynamic range. We also shot some effects passes using the Red Epic to check out the mattes from chroma and the viability of repeatable heads. 

We were in one of the smaller "floors" as they call them here. There are some nice studios in Mumbai (I am told) but this was not one of them. It wasn't a lot worse than the dumpy warehouse we shot in in Melbourne, but it was worse. No grid, oddly shaped spaces and very dirty, even by film studio standards. It wasn't too hot though which was a blessing. It was certainly workable and not uncomfortable per se but all the things you're used to, even in the makeshift studios in Australia and Canada, are simply missing. Power is hard to come by. There's no sanitation. Of the restrooms, I was told "You don't want to go in there."  There were no chairs, no fire and safety areas, no controls on power and no safety officers. You just have to look out for yourself. Morocco was the same, only in India people also look out for each other, so it's not quite so dangerous. I'll be interested to see how things change when we're in full cry with big name actors around. Supposedly the big names shoot on the nice stages unless the film they are doing is self-financed in which case they apparently would rather have the money in their pockets so they shoot at places like Filmistan. 

We did somehow manage to get a nice green screen with the spandex textured surface which I was told was non-existent in India. Probably scammed off one of the other VFX heavy Bollywood projects headed by an American who demanded a "real" green screen. I was told to expect something like a Green Bay Packers jersey unless I used my Hollywood clout to demand a good screen. I guess that worked!

Beyond the building itself, everything was pretty well sorted. The lights were not numerous but not old either. Lots of Kinos and Arris in good working order. Flags and stands were all in good shape and the people working them were professional and efficient. It worked like any other experienced set I have been on. There were a few loose ends here and there but not more than I have seen elsewhere, especially on a one-off test day. We did have HD video assist and we had a mixer (SD) for lineup. The VFX team handled all the data from the Red as we have the expertise there. We're asking for a load of work to take on the DIT and data transfer to editorial etc. but the guys are game and they know what they are doing technically so at least we can be sure that the image quality matches our exacting standards. We had a MacPro on set which allowed us to look at the HDRX output of the Red right after we shot it using the Red software. We are planning to build up a cart that will allow us to do on-set compositing of digital backgrounds in addition to QC on the Red data stream and various other VFX related malarkey. That's something you don't always get.

So it's a mix of low standard amenities but high-standard filmmaking tools. Obviously it's all about the image quality in the end, so it's the right place to put the focus I think. The set design and performances will put good things in front of the camera. It's less important what's behind it. I get fat at Crafts Service anyway.

More on the results of all this in an upcoming post.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A little of the day-to-day

Working conditions are genrally pretty good. Everyone has decent monitors and appropriate computing technology. It's clean. There is air conditioning. The light is pretty good. It's a cube farm at best, though. Most places it is rows of computers set on a long desk that seats between 8 and 20 people. The chairs are good and desks are fine. There's just not much personal space. Doesn't seem to be a problem. Everyone works shoulder-to-shoulder. By American standards it would be considered a sweat-shop, but it's really nice compared to most Indian businesses and it's not uncomfortable.

Working hours are usually 1030am to 7 or 8pm. It took me a little while to get used to the late start. I'm still usually one of the first ones in. This seems to be standard Indian hours. I think the horrendous commute times have made the whole commercial schedule slip later. Maybe it's just Indian time.  Lunch is in the canteen everyday. I eat there a lot. Many people bring their own food which is prepared by the canteen staff. People like me without people at home to make lunch for them pay for the local fare which is usually rice and curry or dahl or masala. It costs about US$2/day for everything they have plus a soda. So far I am enjoying the food fine. When we do go out often it's fast food and that stuff, from the chains mind you, not the street stands, is pretty horrible. There are some nice restaurants around, but we usually don't take the time to go out.

It's a six day week every week. People take it for granted. It's one of the aspects of work here that echoes days gone by in most parts of the VFX biz in America. I will say though that I don't think it's much different than it still is in smaller or newer companies in The States where people work ridiculous hours because everyone else is. 

Organizationally the company suffers from the same problems most small tech-related firms suffer with. There's a lot to be sorted and not many people to do it and when the going gets tough the discipline goes out the window and everyone just works till they drop. We are trying to change that. It's fairly endemic here. Copied from the US model when the US model was even more broken that it is now. Those old US problems manifest themselves all over. Tech guys who don't know how to talk to artists. CG guys who just want to show off how cool the CGI is rather than actually make the movie look good. Animators who want actors on the set to be told what to do so that the animation will be easier, etc. Patience is required but the willingness to move in a different direction seems strong to me. People are listening up. They realize they won't move forward without change. Seems obvious but we've all seen the "it's good enough" mentality wreck projects. That's not apparent where I am in Mumbai. People are motivated to do better work  than they have done before. We're changing the way things are being done. The trick will be to hold it in place when the pressure comes on full.

I'm finding a mixed level of talent but always some good talent, so there's always a place to start. It's not as much of a "just throw bodies at it" mentality as I feared.

Team building is no problem. It's a relatively egoless and flat structure where everyone feels comfortable contributing and no-one is told to shut up because it's above their station to talk. Ironically, in a society still attached to their own class structure and to Britain's as well,  I find the openness to ideas is much greater than what is available to most VFX artists in the US. Communication systems need to be improved though so that the teams can work more effectively. People use cell phones to communicate because the email is so unreliable.  That has to change. The information flow needs to be consistent and effective. That's a solvable problem, I think. It just needs to be made a priority.

 Overall the situation in this small company is completely workable. We still need to improve lots of things and we need more talented artists, but we're not floundering and there's no foot dragging on the required changes. Might be the honeymoon but we are making hay while the sun is shining.
Contrast is everywhere.
Here's the lane the building is on. It's not as smooth as it looks.
And here's the building. Somewhat incongruous.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Indian Bureaucracy - Part Two - Foreign Registration

After you get your visa and get to India you have to register with the police as a foreigner residing in the country. This is really common if you're staying anywhere as an ex-pat for any period of time. Sometimes it's as simple as filling out a form and having someone stamp it or a quick visit to your local constabulary.

In India I was given a guide (a godsend really) from HR at the company in addition to a driver and we headed off on a Saturday morning to the main police station in South Mumbai which houses the FRRO, Foreign Regional Registration Office.  I was given this big folder of paperwork, mostly the same stuff I needed for the visa in the US. I also need my passport/visa and four more passport pictures and money to pay the fees. People were not at all certain what the fees would be. Anywhere up to 2000 rupees was estimated. It ended up being just 150 rupees, which surprised the HR guy. When I got to the entry to the FRRO the people at the desk reviewed my papers and then wrote some numbers on the cover and said I needed to watch for the counter inside. They then sent me through a door that my guide said was for foreigners only and so he could not follow. He said I would find a computer and I should enter my information. 

There was a big room filled with folding chairs and lots of people from all over. There were computers in the back. I sat down at one and answered all the questions, Passport number, visa number, type, where issued, airline I flew in on, DoB, parents home, where I'm staying, airspeed of fully laden swallow, etc. I then needed to print it out. After asking, "What next?" I was pointed to the front of the room where there was an LED sign displaying counter numbers and which number was being served. 

I found out that not everything is covered by this system. It turned out I was scheduled for Counter 3A, which was not on the board and was turned away from Counter 3 when it hit my number. I was told to wait for someone to come get me, which eventually did happen.

I had to go in and review the paperwork again, then wait, then pay the fees,  then fill out a booklet with the same information on the printout that I had given them earlier. I guess they didn't save that data. Maybe that's good. Anyway it was typical duplication of effort.

Then I had to wait again. 

Then they came out and handed me the book, now stamped and certified and said I was done and could leave. The HR guy was thrilled. It took 2 1/2 hours (mostly waiting) and we were done at 1230pm. He thought it would be at least 4pm before we got done. 

So now I have my little black book that identifies me as a legal foreign resident of India. Apparently this is an important document in some circumstances which I hope not to find myself in. Or maybe I just need it to ride the train. Possibly I can wave it at shopkeepers who charge me the Tourist Rate and get the local price instead. Haven't had to try that yet. As I said, patience was the key, and having your paperwork sorted made it go twice as fast as usual apparently. Kudos to the people at my company in India for making sure it was together.