Sunday, February 19, 2012

Working in Hyderabad

We have moved our production to a place called Ramoji Film City outside of Hyderabad. We have been here about three weeks with three more to go. Ramoji Film City is a trip. You can read more about that in my John in India blog.

Getting ready for a big day in Hyderabad
We are outside here at RFC.  The weather is even more stable here than it is in California, which is why Mumbai and Hyderabad are the capitals of Indian Cinema. It's hot though, and you have to protect yourself from the sun. It's been about 90ºF every day and getting hotter all the time as the sun starts heading towards us following the Solstice. We expect to crack the mid 90's this week. Luckily I have all my set gear from days in Morocco on The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. I guess this is The Return of the Dorks of the Desert. We're not in the desert though. We have two major sets, one is a public square which features a big statue celebrating our film's hero and hosts one of the famous Bollywood Musical Numbers. The second set is a two block long city set. It's impossible to shoot in Mumbai, so we built a couple of blocks of city-scape to stand in. It will be all set extensions all the time in this set. Big green screens at the ends and down the alleys.

A Big Wall gets a coat of Really Green Paint
Originally the square was to be set in amongst buildings, but we convinced the production to set it on the waterfront so that we could paint in the most picturesque part of Bombay rather than something random. We inherited a slightly larger green screen for our trouble but the trade-off is so worth it as we will have a great backdrop (that we can shoot with a camera) rather than some generic building we would have to build in CG. I am finding that here in India there is still a very linear mental relationship between money and quality. They just assume anything better will always cost more and so plan to do simple things. Generally this is a good rule, but the enthusiasm for CG sets has twisted the equation. It's cheaper to use a photo of real Bombay and do some water in the foreground than to build a bunch of "simple" generic houses with no real production value and light and render them. "You can have Bombay and it's cheaper!" totally does not compute.

The Finished Product
It will be Bombay one day
The other adjustment that we made to the production design was on the so-called Commercial Street. The plan was to build ten of the the twenty buildings up to 20 stories and then leave holes in between for CG buildings. I asked then to build all twenty buildings up to 30 feet and then let us extend all the buildings where needed. That way at least the shots that shoot below the 30 foot "waterline" won't  have any VFX. That I think is working out well. We get into lots of trouble with the sun or the shadows coming through above the "waterline" that are supposed to be blocked by buildings, but we would have had that problem and worse if we had some tall buildings and some holes. I am expecting a lot of hassle cleaning all this up but we have gotten the reference photography and measurements we need to make it all work.

How many sponsors can you count?
Plus, it's more visible screen real estate for the product placement! That may sound tasteless by American standards, but here, product placement is such an important source of funding that it is as accepted as commercials before the movie :-( are in the USA. On this film, it is rumored that the money paid to have logos, storefronts, signboards, shoes, motorcycles, cars, jewelry and watches have actually turned a profit against the cost of the sets in which they appear. 

I was told to expect a very different style of work at Ramoji than we had at Mumbai, but if that is true it has been masked by the other more obvious differences, like shooting musical numbers and action. Those are stories on their own.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Shooting VFX in India

Making it dramatic in Mumbai

Well it's been a while since the last post. All I can say, is: I've been busy! We started shooting in December and went for 20 straight days. Yes, indeed, it was "full on" as they say. The facilities were very rough but once your'e in the set it's all the same: cameras, lights, chroma screens, smoke, and tight deadlines. Less of the "can you fix that" than is fashionable in the USA, though. We did shoot off the set a lot but it was still a big set than covered most of every shot. The CG additions will be of unbuildable scale which is the way it should be.
Lunch at Filmistan, Mumbai

My mantra for shooting in India remains: It's more the same than different. That's not to say that there isn't a lot that's different, though. I will also say that, like anywhere, it depends on who you are working with. In my case the director is extremely well sorted out and as such we have had a lot of help getting what is needed to make the shots better. That's not always been the case on set no matter what the continent.

The first thing that you expect when you start working on sets where budgets are small is that there will be a deficit of equipment and that there will be a lot more "make do" with substandard chroma screens, equipment failures and reversion to the old ways of measuring with tapes and ladders. In our case it's been a very mixed bag, but a wide-ranging one, meaning there has been very very good along with the not-so-good.

In terms of chroma screens, we acquired some very nice ones that a previous show somehow managed to get into the country. This has been a great boon to us. These are the nice spandex fuzzy ones. Very good news to see these. I had been told to expect painted plywood and screens the color of Green Bay Packer jerseys. Of course we had those too and every time I asked for a screen, that's what they brought out. Every time. So every time I had to ask for the good screen, which everyone was reluctant to produce for reasons ranging from "it's not yet in a frame," to "we don't want it to get dirty by using it," (!!!) and "but we worked hard painting this one."

Persistence has been the answer. You just have to keep demanding it and eventually the good screen is produced. The DoP has been a great friend in that way as he has unequivocally supported the use of the good screens at all times, even being kind enough at one point to shout at the guys with the painted boards (in Hindi) that "I never want to see that %$#@ thing again! Get it out of here!"

The "Grid" at Stage 3
OK, it wasn't that kind, but it was good for us and good for the movie. That's what I mean about the importance of your crew. You can have all the money to buy the best screens but if the DoP's main interest is simply getting a shot in the can and leaving VFX to clean it all up later, he'll shoot a painted board and move on. The crews that work on this film are top-flight and reflect the respect that is evident for the Director and the operation he runs. The Production Designer has been equally cooperative and helpful. He has held up shooting to tear down wooden scaffolds for us so we didn't have to hang green cloth over everything. He has watched us trying to get our tracking stickers to adhere to a painted canvas and has showed up the next day with dozens of white crosses and rigs to put them on the screens and move them from place to place quickly. Nice. World Class, as a matter of fact.

I had to work overtime to get our VFX cart in shape. It's hard to get electronics and such because the taxes and duties on imports are extreme. We did finally get most of what I asked for about two weeks into the shoot. Before that we just made do with what we had and have blended our new gear into the system as we go. We got a D5 Disto and that has been a revelation. No-one had ever seen such a thing and have been really fascinated by the ability of the device to do internal triangulation for measuring distances that cannot be reached. It's made it so much easier to explain how to pin camera positions within a known volume. When the measuring is easier people are more willing to do it. That turns out to be particularly true in this environment.

 From top-class screens to old pieces of wood,
It all finds a home on a Bollywood set.
We were not able to build or rent a full-up HDRi setup like Hoyt Yeatman's Device or similar robots, so we reverted to the fisheye DSLR model. After struggling with a hand operated tripod and the camera's internal bracketing software, we finally managed to get a good Novoflex indexed head and a small windows machine running a full-function bracket controller so we are finally getting full-range predictable HDR images. Not as elegant as the robots but fully functional after we do all the conversions.

In a way the HDR solution is an example of how to take advantage of what India offers: which is abundant labor. You don't invest in a robot (or a forklift) because you can more easily afford the guys to sit down and do the HDR conversions "by hand" (or get 20 guys to carry a stack of plywood across the stage.) In one famous incident on set, the steel floor, which was perforated steel, rusted. So they ran silver paint over the floor, which had the knock-on effect of revealing that the floor under the perforations was no longer black. In the US, we would have shaken our heads, ripped up the steel, painted the floor and laid the steel back down. Here they went into the street, hired twelve guys who sat on the floor and hand painted the holes by sticking their fingers in a pot of paint and painting the floor through the perforations with their fingers. It took them four days but in the end the line producer was pleased that they had chosen the least expensive solution to the problem. OK then.

The Finger Painters hard at work
As far as our elements go, this crew has been brilliant at working us into their scheme. We get HDR when we want it. The camera guys and the ADs are all helping us get whatever measurements we need, and as mentioned, dispensations on the part of camera and art dept. have been really really great. Sometimes you do find a crew that really just wants to make a movie. That has been my experience here.

The Team! Myself with VFX Supervisor Prasad Sutar
India is a land of contrast. There's no better way to say it. Our video assist is very low-tech by today's standard. We are shooting Super35 3-perf, primarily on Arri435s. Our Video Assist is SD video tap running into a DVD Recorder which is operated manually by the standard remote you would use if you had this device at home. It runs into an old 10" Sony video monitor. We had a mixer on set for a few days but that got the hook when the guy sitting next to the Video Assist, running Final Cut on a MacBook, was suddenly able to do full comps faster than the Video Assist could figure out how to mix live with playback. Yes, right next to the oldest Sony monitor still working, there's a full edit suite running on a laptop, editing the movie as we shoot it and defining the next setup based on a combination of replacing Previs in the cut and adding needed shots as we look at the actual movie. Most Hollywood movies can't take that kind of commitment to the cut and would need a separate generator to power a complete Avid suite out in the truck. Sometimes India moves ahead of the curve because they simply cannot spend so much money that it's not worth it because that expensive stuff doesn't exist in India. In some ways the whole project is a reflection of this. The VFX budget for a film like this, if it was done in the USA, would be so large that the producers would can the project. Here, because of the low cost of labor and the inability to make meaningful cost projections, they simply get on with it and make whatever movie they can. Projects that are worth doing get off the ground because they are good projects rather then getting shelved because of the cost projections.

There are occasional tragedies. The motion control rig we got was unable to track its own remote operation head effectively and due to a misunderstanding that I still haven't figured out, none of the Kuper data was actually saved. (???) I'm not sure how they equated my constant questions about data formats and file transfers with the idea that we didn't actually need the data. So again, we will brute force it and that will be less expensive than any other option. It's actually less money that we would spend just having me worry about what those options might be.

Since Christmas we've had a six week break from shooting which we have used to turn over shots, start scanning film and building post-vis and concept movies to determine the final scope of work on what we have already shot. We also spent that time prepping for the next phase, to be shot at Ramoji Film City outside Hyderabad in February.