Baahubali 2: The Conclusion's visual effects are miles ahead of the first part; here's why
Pete Draper, along with co-founder of Makuta VFX Adel Adili, has been working with SS Rajamouli right from the days of Magadheera, which released back in 2009 and in these past eight years, Makuta has played a key role in turning Rajamouli’s recent films like Eega and Baahubali: The Beginning into a visual spectacle. The company won the National Award for Best Visual Effects for its work in Eega (Makkhi) and as the principal studio behind the visual effects in the two parts of Baahubali, they have clearly outdone themselves. For the record, it was Makuta who worked on created the stunning waterfall sequence in Baahubali 1 and they worked extensively, along with VFX supervisors Srinivas Mohan (Baahubali: The Beginning) and Kamalakannan (Baahubali: The Conclusion), over the past five years.
Ahead of Baahubali 2’s release, when we sat down with Pete for a conversation about what has changed in terms of VFX for the film, we couldn’t help but notice the entire floor of the Makuta’s studio in Hyderabad was plunged into darkness, except for light emitting from the computer screens. “The VFX artists prefer it this way because they can see the colours clearly without any light pollution distracting them,” he explains.
At its peak, during the making of Baahubali 2, the team swelled up to 100 artists who were working on various simulations, models, digital matte paintings, animations and set extensions related to the film. According to Pete, the entire data generated for the film from Makuta alone is close to 110-115 terabytes. Considering that this Hyderabad-based studio is one among 30-odd studios across the world working on the film, it kind of puts things into perspective about the level of detailing and finesse that each of the studios has tried to achieve to create the world of Baahubali. The company had better tools this time, thanks to the technology support from AMD which provided them with workstations, graphics cards, high-end simulation boxes and rendering-support, all of which are said to have helped immensely in creating photo-realistic imagery that’ll be seen in Baahubali 2. Excerpts from an interview with Pete Draper :
Pete, two years ago, you spoke extensively about how challenging it was to create the waterfall in Baahubali 1. What was your biggest challenge while working on Baahubali 2?
As the principal studio for the film’s VFX, we got a chance to work on some of the most complex set pieces within the film. I can’t reveal too many details on what we worked on, but when SS Rajamouli shared his vision of how a sequence leading up to the climax is going to be, we championed that sequence. It was quite challenging because it’s integral to the story, ties up a lot of things and, more importantly, no one would have seen something like ever in Indian cinema in terms of its scale, drama and action. So, I went back to the team saying, if we nail it, it’s going to look incredible on screen. It wasn’t just about our team working for a great director and producer, but we owe a lot to the fans of Prabhas and Rana as well and need to do justice to it. It’s a fast paced action sequence with both of them doing heroic things. We worked on that single sequence for six months and that’s the amount of work that has gone into creating just one sequence from one studio working on the film. I simply don’t know how Kamalakannan and Rajamouli are overseeing all the work being done in 30 different studios. I would have gone nuts had I done that (laughs).
You’ve been working with Rajamouli and cinematographer Senthil Kumar right from the days of Magadheera (2009). I’m sure you would have had some disagreements with them over the years. Isn’t it?
Oh yes! I’ve argued with Rajamouli in the past. In fact, there were couple of shots in the 'Dheera Dheera' song from Magadheera that led to heated discussion between us. He wanted more flags and people in couple of shots and I stuck to my guns that it’ll break continuity. Finally, after a week of not convincing him, I gave in and completed it in about an hour. And it looked great. He was right because he was staging the shot; the director or cinematographer might move things around to get an angle right to say what they want to whereas we were concentrating on asset reuse and continuity. Some may call it “movie mistakes” but it’s all about the composition of the shot. If we have to show the passage of time from mid-day to night, it’s not practically possible to shoot it at that time of the day. So, we do a lot of sky replacements and try to tinker with the lighting and shadows to figure out where the Sun or Moon are going to be and develop the shot accordingly. One lesson I learnt from that experience was to just fill the frame (laughs).
Are you on the same wavelength with Rajamouli right now?
I would like to believe so (laughs). Now that we have worked with him for so long, I’d like to say that I understand what he would like and what sort of lighting and compositions that he and Senthil would go for, so we filter a lot of ideas before we go to either of them. Earlier, Rajamouli would sit with one of our artists to explain what he wanted and move things around in the frame which could take many iterations. Nowadays, I’m acting as a sort of stand in for Rajamouli at the studio (laughs) by trying to imagine how he frames shots with Senthil and give the same sort of emphasis on set pieces that are inspired from similar scenes. Another good part is that earlier, while bouncing ideas, Rajamouli would ask us to give him options directly in 3D, but now he has developed a taste for concept art and uses our team along with his own in-house concept artists to get a clear picture of what he’s aiming for. This becomes a blueprint for everyone, right from visual effects team to the set crew to the editor.
When we saw the trailer of Baahubali 2, we felt that the scale of the film was much bigger...
You probably feel that because in Baahubali 1 we primarily explored two principal locations — the bottom of the waterfall and some parts of the Mahishmathi kingdom, with few smaller scenes set in the hideout of Kunthala rebels, the snow-capped mountains, and Singapuram. In Baahubali 2, there is more emphasis to spaces inside the Mahishmathi and Kunthala kingdom. There are a lot more set pieces and has way more action and drama in the second part. Plus, we have taken the assets from the first part and enhanced them exponentially for this one. A case in point, in Baahubali 1 you have a wide shot showcasing the Queen's Palace and temple. They were built at the time to be viewed at that distance and not up-close. Now, we are going a lot closer to these elements and therefore we needed to enhance the finer details. Chronologically, we have worked the same amount of time for Baahubali 2 compared to the first part, but we adjusted our workflow so much that we were about to create a better output in a reduced time. We had much better workstations this time with faster processors. From the initial 32 GB RAM machines, we’ve had to increase them to 128 GB. Moreover, AMD sent us their latest CPUs and Graphics cards, and asked us to do whatever we can to push it to the limit.
I believe some of the footage was shot as early as 2013. What was it like when you revisited them? Did you feel that you could have done a better job in terms of refining the imagery post-Baahubali 1’s release?
Yeah and that’s exactly what we did. We had started working on some scenes a few years back and some months later, we were told that those scenes would appear in the second part. So, after finishing more half of the work on some sequences we had to keep them aside and started working on something else which we had to deliver in couple of months. When we revisited the CG shots we had previously worked on, so much time had passed that all of us felt that we could do better; we as artists had improved and we knew we needed to push the envelope more. In terms of design, when you look at the film chronologically, you would like to see a progression of time. For instance, if you look at a house, there are bound to be some cracks in the walls, a new staircase, extension, changing the roof, after 20 years. We applied the same practices in the design work and workflow.
What we were doing initially is called Matte Paint projection; we had 3D geometry with a rough render on it which then it goes to matte painting to develop the aesthetic and then re-projected onto the geometry and re-painted where there were any gaps. When you look at it, it'll fully be in 3D. We did that for one scene in the film and process took forever, although it looked convincing. Thankfully, we had done a real time VR version of the same environment about 18 months back to showcase in LA with AMD. We also had pre-rendered VR360 of the entire length of the set which was like a proof of concept that VR for this film would work. Because we already did that, we had the majority of the 3D textured assets built for the second part. We could then point a camera at whatever we wanted to and it was working. We managed to get these additional elements sorted out and complete the shots with better quality with less back-and-forth between departments.
So, you are saying that everything in Baahubali 2 is going to look way better than Baahubali 1?
Yes, without a doubt! If Baahubali 1 was the starter, this is the main course and the dessert. It's not just the set piece or VFX, it's the full package. Visually, we have pushed the envelope, in terms of lighting, rendering, camera movements. We have learnt a lot from the first part. We know where we were losing time, however, it's art — as artists you are never 100 percent satisfied. Any artist, no matter what their medium is, be it VFX or fine art, will always look at their previous work and say — I wish I had done that bit a little more. I mean it took Da Vinci 15 years to paint the Mona Lisa. Even though our producer Shobu has been more than patient with us, I don’t think he would be very happy if he’d have to wait 15 years for us to deliver his film!
Has Rajamouli told you anything about what he could have done right in his past films?
I remember one particular incident during Eega which stuck in my mind. Two days after the film released, we went back to the studio to rework a scene for the Hindi version to improve how the water flowed through the trench when it had just been born. Rajamouli told me that he didn’t want the shot to look like the ramp shot in Magadheera’s climax. He told me that he always thinks about that one shot; there's a shot where after the bridge collapses, the surface on one side of the cliff lifts up to create a ramp like structure for the jeep to fly mid-air and all of a sudden, the surrounding crowd disappears. Ever since I’ve kept that in mind to take that as a challenge for every single shot. He told me about this five years ago and even today — I keep thinking that I don't want him to think that this is the “ramp shot” of the film. I don't want anyone pointing fingers at us saying that we have done something wrong and for him to be satisfied with what we at Makuta have done.
Watch the VFX breakdown of Baahubali: The Beginning, by Makuta VFX here.