They say the best visual effects are the ones that remain seamless and inconspicuous—the ones that succeed in merging harmoniously with live footage without distracting the viewer. It’s safe to say the work of Lavan and Kusan—of Digital Turbo Media—belong to this kind. Anyone who has seen the making videos of their recent work would agree. Their work is on par with anything conjured up by the best from international cinema. Did you know that The Priest has around 50 mins of VFX shots? And Kala, 29?
Malayalam cinema has been so far known vastly for its skillfully executed drama-heavy narratives, but what about our VFX departments? Have they progressed enough to be placed in the league of the world’s finest? Are producers investing enough in them?
Speaking to us for both of them, Kusan Prakashan tells us that given the limitations of the industry, it still has a long way to go. “Ours is a small industry, and it’s about pulling off the best work within the confines of those limitations while keeping one’s mind on recouping the budget at the same time. It applies to every department, not just VFX. But despite the constraints, our industry came up with My Dear Kuttichathan, a technical marvel that made us all proud. And now, we are all looking forward to Barroz (Mohanlal’s directorial debut).”
Speaking of large-scale films, such as Priyadarshan’s most awaited Marakkar, Kushan opines that if more filmmakers explored similarly massive ideas in the future—in a pandemic-free world, that is —it would provide employment opportunities for many. “The entire VFX personnel from Kerala alone wouldn’t suffice for a film of that scale. We don’t have enough people working in this field because such films don’t happen often. Besides, a VFX department has many sub-divisions—modelling, lighting, animation, rotoscoping, and so on... One person cannot handle everything alone.”
Working on The Priest in a post-pandemic scenario, Kusan explains, was challenging. The climactic exorcism, in particular, demanded the meticulous planning and coordination of numerous people. “One frame alone is the combined outcome of various tasks—cinematography, compositing, lighting, green screen, matte painting, digital intermediate, colour correction, and so on. That means multiple technicians working in conjunction with the director, cinematographer, editor, and art director, among others. But once we get a clear idea of the pipeline (creating the key shots, which are difficult to do), then everything gets relatively easier, even if people are working from home.”
Interestingly, the duo worked on Priest and Kala simultaneously, despite the varying development times of both. But a thorough discussion in pre-production ensured that the team had much clarity on what was required. “Since the filming of Kala was restricted to one location and considering the early release plan, lockdown, and everything, we wondered whether we could pull it off in a limited time.
But we share a great rapport with its cinematographer Akhil George (also co-producer) whose efficiency and clear communication proved hugely beneficial for us,” explains Kusan, while pointing out the advantage of VFX in matters of continuity. “We can use minor effects to handle continuity errors resulting from climate and location changes. People usually say that VFX is expensive, but it can also save costs, like in the above situations. I’ll give you another example. We are currently producing (under the banner of AAAR Productions) a Malayalam-Tamil bilingual movie shot in different locations and with different actors for both versions. VFX can be so helpful in this instance.”
Ask about the biggest project they’ve worked on, and the answer might surprise you: the 2016 sports drama, Kavi Uddeshichathu, starring Asif Ali. According to Kusan, the film has “around 1000 vfx shots”. “We had to apply VFX to the volleyball sequences. Oddly enough, most people didn’t notice the difference at the time. Crowd multiplication was one of the things we had to do. We pulled it off in 28 days,” he adds.
The Lavan-Kusan team is currently among the most sought after VFX teams in India. One of their most notable Hindi projects was Vasan Balan’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, an experience both challenging and gratifying for them. But the journey to get here wasn’t an easy one. Kusan describes himself as someone who wasn’t a studious kid, unlike his elder brother Lavan Prakash. Long story short, it was upon Lavan’s insistence that Kusan, who was up until then doing odd jobs here and there, decided to pursue a career in visual effects. Lavan became a mentor to him, showing him the ropes.
Now the brothers discover new developments while passing on their knowledge to the younger generation in the process. For this, they have co-founded an academy integrated with their production studio, training a limited number of students.
“It wouldn’t be possible for our team members to give equal attention to them otherwise,” reasons Kusan. The team expects their students to be passionate and dedicated. Kusan believes that experiencing a production firsthand will make the students more confident. “We want to ensure that they get as much practical experience as theoretical knowledge.” Kusan hopes to see effects studios in Kerala grow in number and get noticed for their work in the near future. “The larger the canvas, the wider the opportunities for technicians,” he says. “We can produce superhero and fantasy movies as well.”