R C Kamalakannan is a difficult man to get hold of. He's been behind the scenes for so very long that not many people can quickly point to him and say 'that's the guy' when you wonder who crafted the breathtaking visual effects (VFX) in Vijay's fantasy flick Puli — that released in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu last week. Like a lot of other creative people, anonymity is a shroud that he wears easier than most people associated with Indian cinema. "A lot of my neighbours have no idea who I am or what kind of work I do," he chuckles, as he lets us into an apartment in a complex on the outskirts of Chennai. Inside, one of the bedrooms is filled with servers, high-intensity monitors and plenty of wires running into the kitchen — where a heavy duty UPS ensures that the general efficiency of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board doesn't disrupt work. "This is my nerve centre," he explains, pointing at all the servers that have been switched off after months of heavy duty, 24x7 usage. It's hard to believe that the kind of cutting-edge VFX that Puli is packed with were generated in this cramped, slightly messy space. Then again, artists never cared much for ergonomics.
His story is astounding. From dropping out of Pachaiyappa's College, Chennai (because his attempt at getting a BSc in Physics wasn't "working out") to handling crucial VFX work in blockbusters like Ram Charan's real time-period flick Magadheera and the game changing Eega (Naan Ee in Tamil), there's practically nothing that he hasn't tried his hand at. Looking back at the choices he has made in a four-decade long tryst with the entertainment industry, he says, "My family thought I was going to College, except I would head to the audio cassette shop every morning. After I set up a second branch in KK Nagar, I told my parents that I had dropped out. They reacted pretty violently. My dad was against it but somehow I convinced him," but adds quickly, "Normally, I get bored with any new stream after a year and a half, so I move when I hit that point." And moved he has. From audio to VHS to video editing to subtitling till he finally discovered CGI and finally VFX.
While working with a firm called MR Brothers, who had a string of Quick Service System (QSS) Labs to print and distribute cinema prints across the country, he was given a chance to attend Photokina — the world's biggest photo and imaging expo, in Germany. That was a game changer. "That's when I first saw the Commodore system — a 48k small system with very little storage — and this was the processor I used to create the back shots for ads like Pudin Hara. We couldn't do much more than that in those days," he explains, detailing his partnership with ad guru Jayendra which spanned over 100 commercials. All through, money to buy the tech was always the issue, especially when there were no corporate handouts. But he managed, "There were no PCs at that time. I wanted to buy an SGI and so I bought one called Octane which cost $60,000. It was quite a large amount at that time even though it was only Rs 17 to the dollar," he laughs ruggedly.
As soon as Personal Computers and 3D Max became available, the whole industry wanted a piece of it. "In a film called Kadhalar Dhinam, I worked entirely on a PC. We had 3D Studio Max in which we had to give key values using characters. There was no GUI at that time. It was very tough and took a long time. After that we teamed up with A M Rathnam for Dil, Dhol and a whole lot of films. That's when VFX started becoming big. Ramana with A R Murugadoss was a big turning point. Then came Amman with Thenandal Films. People will say that it wasn't very professional, but it was our transition phase. When I see it I know that it isn't seamless but then even when I see Star Wars today I know that it isn't seamless. It's all about what was possible at that point in time," he says.
The Rajamouli Effect
And then he met this reserved, dimunitive director called S S Rajamouli, while setting up Prasad EFX in Hyderabad, "He wanted an Eagle for his film Sye (2004). He liked my work a lot but wanted to know why I seemed dissatisfied and so I told him that it had a plastic look and the lighting and the shading were off and it looked artificial. But I also added that if as a client he was satisfied, I would not work on it further. It was a small conversation. But later I got a call to work on Yamadonga," he explains, of a partnership that spanned several path-breaking bits of VFX work that ended shortly before his recent masterpiece, Baahubali. The parting possibly had something to do with Kamalakannan's exit from Makuta VFX, a company that he co-founded with Rajamouli as a major investor, "I was the one who convinced him to invest heavily in setting up our own studio. He told me very clearly that I had come this far working with various teams of people. He told me that it might be a mistake to settle with one group, but I figured it was time. I don't know if it was the right or the wrong decision. After Baahubali I was a little more convinced that it was the right decision," he adds with contemplation. But the collaboration had done wonders. Puli was a direct result, and with a star like Vijay in it, a whole lot of people were seeing his work.
With Puli done and dusted, Kamalakannan says that soon all the computer equipment in the room will be disposed off, "I always dispose every bit of hardware, after each film is done. Even the team is disbanded, which is easy because I use freelancers from 18 countries." Is he taking the concept of a fresh start a little too far, we wonder, "Not at all," he laughs, "It's just a habit. The systems will be top of the line and the youngsters working with me will be happier. There have been so many times when I used to worry that we had lost money because we did more than what was initially discussed for the same budget, but I consider it as an investment in my son, who is also learning VFX. Instead of a foreign university, I'm investing in films," he laughs.
Reflecting on the quality of animators and VFX students in the country, he complains, "India is not a creative country. Our gene is more mathematical. In programme-oriented jobs we do really well, but for things that are intensely creative and require you to think beyond what is asked, we never push ourselves. But things are changing. Indians are the only ones who are open about sharing their showreels on Facebook. I think we're lazy because we don't learn from the work others are doing. Sixty percent of the industry is self learnt. This is why I believe students should be allowed to pick their career path after their graduation and not after +2."
True on every count except for one. As we exit the building, the security guard downstairs notices the camera equipment and conspirationally asks, "Kamalakannan sir right? I thought Puli was done. Has he started his next film?"
So much for escaping scrutiny!
Ramana and the Ash Effigy
Ramana was a big turning point. The scene where the building collapses and Simran is burnt and her ash form is intact till Vijayakant touches it was revolutionary. Till then VFX was just small scale. Full 3D areas came in only in this film. Murugadoss still says that VFX will never come close to that effect we created. It took 60 days for that one job | Picture: SHIBA PRASAD SAHU
Tamil | 2011
A R Murugadoss and Suriya's sci-fi thriller about the reincarnation of Pallava King Bodhidharman
Stunning period shots depicting China and the reincarnation process
Telugu | 2009
Rajamouli turned a normal action comedy into an interlocked period flick starring Ram Charan
War scenes and an entire fort created after shooting was done against a green screen
Telugu/Tamil | 2012
A delightfully funny revenge story of a young man reborn into a fly's body
Complete creation of the fly and several animated sequences involving Sudeep hunting the fly
The Production Paradox
Everybody except me will be satisfied with the end product. A M Rathnam once told me that 80 percent quality was all that was needed for a hit and 90 percent for a blockbuster. he said I don't ever want your 100 percent. Producers have a point because the release date is key to a film's success
Rs 1.2 lakh per VFX scene
RS 1750 per VFX scene
Other Indian Films
Rs 500 per VFX scene