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Makuta VFX’s Pete Draper on Working with RRR Director S.S. Rajamouli

RRR

by
in Interviews
on Apr 18, 2022

The culmination of director S.S. Rajamouli’s bombastic use of visual effects, RRR is on its way to becoming the biggest Indian blockbuster of 2022. Starting with the vengeful CGI fly in Eega (2012) through the mythical landscapes of Baahubali (2015-2017) and the jungle cat revolutionary warfare of RRR, Rajamouli has overseen some of the most jaw-droppingly creative spectacles of the 21st century. He was able to do this thanks to the help of Makuta VFX, who’ve worked on all of Rajamouli’s films in some capacity since Magadheera (2009). I spoke with Makuta VFX’s Division Head & Chief Technical Director, Pete Draper, about his journey from England to Hyderabad, the work that goes into setting up a VFX shop in India and what it’s like working on Rajamouli’s epic creations.

Filmmaker: What is your background in visual effects, and how did that lead to your journey from England to Hyderabad and forming Makuta VFX?

Draper: I always had a passion for computers. I’m 47, so, I grew up with the Commodore VIC-20. When I was eight, I’d be doing a lot of programming—I got to the point of recreating the Konami Track & Field game on the VIC-20. I ended up going to university and doing IT originally. I screwed that first year, because I was a bit drunk for the majority to be honest. I transferred and did engineering IT for the remaining three years. 

One of my classmates’s housemates was doing a design course and that introduced me to doing 3D animation. About ’90 I saw a show that originated on MTV, Liquid Television. They had Stick Figure Theatre on it, they had Aeon Flux and they used to show little CG animation demos. There was one called Grinning Evil Death (1990) by a guy called Mike McKenna [co-directed with Bob Sabiston], who was a student at MIT. This kid finds a ring in the box of cereal, takes it out, turns into a superhero with no powers at all and goes out to fight this big CG bug that’s wrecking the city. It was a combination of 2D cell and 3D [CG] animation, and that inspired me to be like, “Wow, this is actually practical now.” I went to computer science labs and asked, “Can I try this out? Can I use these systems at a bunch of SGI machines?” And they were like, “No, but you can use that copy of 3D Studio”—DOS version two or three, whatever it was. So, I bought a book, taught myself, scraped through the rest of my course, got a pass on that, got a showreel: very rudimentary fly-throughs of the student union building, spinning logos, that kind of bullshit. 

I graduated and got a job in a multimedia studio that was initially doing e-learning. About 2000 I shifted companies [and] ended up working in documentary and TV. Coming to India was a complete fluke—never intended to come over here, to be frank. I got a gig when I was a freelancer around 2008, based on some some cell animation I’d done of flying through the brain.  The supervisor, Kamalakannan R.C. wanted to do a title sequence for a film with a similar aesthetic [Ghajini, 2008 – a loose remake of Memento], so I did that for them. During that time he messaged me through Skype saying, “I’ve got this feature [Magadheera, 2009]. It’s currently filming and we’ve got this big complex episode to shoot next year. I’m concerned the VFX studio are not gonna deliver the quality.” I said, “Show me their pipeline: What’s your inputs, what’s your outputs?.” He told me and I said “Oh. Shit! OK, this is what you do.” [cracks knuckles and mimics typing].” Radio silence for about a day, then the following day: “…yeah, so can you come to India?” It’s November, I’m booked till like early February, so I can’t come as early as he wants—he wanted me to come the following week. I went February 14th, Valentine’s Day, landed here in Hyderabad and went straight to a place called Ramoji Film City, which is the largest film city in the country. I was jet lagged to hell and a lot bigger than I currently am, sweating like I’ve just come out of the sauna. 

Filmmaker: This was your first time in India? 

Draper: My first time, and I had a meltdown overnight. It suddenly hit me: you’re on the other side of the world for 11 weeks. What are you doing? Why are you here? Oh, yeah: money. I finished my first stint on Magadheera and flew back. I thought, “OK, finished, no issues.” I must have been back in the UK for four days and got a call: “The director was happy with your stuff. Can you come back and do more?” So, I came back, wrapped Magadheera. 

I was dealing directly with two guys: Kamalakannan and Adel Adili—originally from Isfahan in Iran, who’s now in the UK. We decided, “We work well together. Let’s form an operation. Let’s do what we did with this particular film: get the project, source the companies to work with and build from that.” It didn’t work, because studios were doing a lot of catch and release. They’d hire for one feature, then as soon as that was done go off to the next job. So, we thought, “Let’s get some private investment.” We ended up connecting with Dasaradha Gude, who used to be chairman of AMD India and now runs about seven different companies. And the director S.S. Rajamouli’s cousin is Raja Koduri, who used to work for AMD and Apple. So, we’ve got very big graphics and backend support from these guys. Rajamouli came on as a director of Makuta VFX on paper for two years to get us a footprint into the game. Just as we started working on Eega, he withdrew from that. That was great, I can’t thank him enough for that.

I thought [I’d be] going back and forth between [the UK and India]. Then the time here in India got bigger and bigger, to a point where I shifted all the stuff in the place I was staying at in England to my mom’s and dad’s place. And it’s still there!

Filmmaker: What is your working relationship like with S.S. Rajamouli?

Draper: When you get heavily involved, you don’t just liaise with him, you also liaise with the entire family: you’re eating with him, you’re ingrained into their entire dynamic. So, the first day I’m eating with him, I’m eating with his wife, his daughter, his son. They do treat you like one of their own. I went to his house just today and we had a nice cup of tea, a chin wag and all that kind of stuff. 12 years later, we’ve still got this nice dynamic. 

RRR has been a lot easier because we were on the same wavelength. We’ve come to learn what his mindset is and how he tends to think about certain things with regards to composition, lighting, framing, action, reaction, timing, empathy. It’s also because of the VFX supervisor Srinivas Mohan, who oversaw the entire process on RRR, but even then we’ll still get comments from Rajamouli. When I first came here for Magadheera I didn’t know the guy from Adam—what he was, what he’d done before, his track record, his directing style. And when I first met him, he could barely understand a word I was saying, and I could barely understand a word he was saying. 

Then I shifted to Chennai, where I was overseeing post-production and pipeline work, everything this other studio who I got brought on board to oversee was dealing with. I’d set all these things up within one environment for this particular film. We were basically responsible for the city and the stadium in the flashbacks. One song, the star Ram Charan flies up wearing his big cape. I’d set up all these flags, all these people—digital doubles and whatnot. Rajamouli came to the hotel room where I’d set up a render farm—nine systems rendering in a hotel room, very guerrilla. He looks at some shots and goes, “Flag here, flag here, people here, move people over, remove, add.” And I’m like, “There’s gonna be no continuity, these guys are gonna be out of place.” He went, “Don’t worry about it.” I fought him for a week about these flags, and at the end of it I go, “I’ll just do it.” It literally took me 15 minutes—and he was right, I was wrong. The thing I didn’t grasp was twofold. One, continuity is all perfectly fine, but when it comes to the shots he was trying to achieve, composition was the most important thing. So, even if something did jump, it didn’t really matter as long as the composition was working. Two, it was a song, and in songs you can cut, you can get away with a lot more of this kind of stuff.

That was a steep learning curve for me the second week of being here. I thought, “Oh, great. What’s the rest of it gonna be like?” But it worked perfectly fine, to a point where I wrapped up everything I needed to do within two weeks. I’ve got another eight weeks left. What the shit do I do now? I ended up being de facto QC for every stage of the process of this particular studio. If there was a single pixel track slip, I wouldn’t let it fly. Then I left and things went wobbly again—the last few shots were like, “Lets get it out, Pete’s not here anymore.” That was one of the reasons why I got brought back, sat in a room with four other guys in Hyderabad and blasted all these out in about five weeks. We literally call it the room of hell. It still exists.

The next [project] was Maryada Ramanna (2010), which was a remake of Our Hospitality. That was produced by the same producer who ended up doing Baahubali. Then we went onto Eega. I have one phobia, you can guess what: flies. I bloody hate flies. [Eega is about a murder victim reincarnated as a fly who vows revenge on his killer.] We had to study fly animation and locomotion. How do you get a character with basically none of this [massages forehead muscles] to emote, so the audience will feel an empathic connection between themselves and a fly, of all things? We pulled in one guy, Ed Hooks. Basically he tours the world and has written god knows how many books entitled Acting for Animators—because animators, by definition, aren’t actors. We haven’t studied the craft, we haven’t done stage acting or anything like that. Getting animators to be able to act themselves, so that they can have that performance with a character, is an uphill battle. Ed [is] old school stage. [He] worked in US TV for decades and found a niche no one else was covering. He used to go to Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney and teach all these animators how to emote and put themselves in the mindset of the character. What happens if you freeze frame? The character should tell you exactly what they’re thinking at that particular point in time.

We flew him across and had a three-day session. Rajamouli met him, gave him a copy of the script and said, “Tell me what you think.” Ed went, “OK, I will. You don’t need this, you don’t need that.” He just ripped it apart, but Rajamouli took everything on board. He took every single point that Ed said and made tweaks, corrections. But some things that we as Westerners think will help develop plot, or [perceive as] superfluous in a screenplay, are essential over here because the target audience is different. People will see physics going out the window, but that’s what’s expected—they want their heroes to be larger than life, they expect them to be otherworldly. One guy, Balakrishna, there’s a shot of him [in 2003’s Palanati Brahmanaidu] standing on top of a train. He basically goes like that [moves hands like a conductor] and the train that’s coming towards him flies off the track. People expect this sort of thing. Have you ever witnessed an Indian premiere live?

Filmmaker: I’ve seen clips, but not in person.

Draper: It’s a carnival. It’s mental and absolutely awesome. Eega—originally, the Canon 7D had just come out. We were gonna shoot this thing on the 7D, post-work four months, get the film out and do the next big one, which was gonna be Baahubali. And Eega ended up getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Then we ended up getting more investment—other producers got involved, there was co-production between two companies, more money went into it, cameras were getting bigger and better. Originally we were gonna go with the Alexa, but there was some major issues with the de-Bayer at that time. So, we went back and shot the thing on film.

We were sitting around the table brainstorming: we need to terrorize the crap out of this guy. What can we do? How much shit can we put this guy through, and what can we get away with that doesn’t sound ludicrous? And we’re like, “No, let’s go ludicrous. How is the fly gonna lift this basket of gun powder?” And one guy goes, “He trains for it”. And they’re like, “Let’s do a little montage. Rocky, brilliant.” All these sorts of gags, that was the thing. One of the biggest responses I remember seeing at the premiere, the hero gets killed. The next scene, obviously, is the fly comes out of the shell. Everyone went mental for this CG character coming out. 

Filmmaker: Is that the first fully CG sequence you did for Rajamouli?

Draper: Yes. It’d been flyovers and establishers and whatnot; this is the first major protagonist we did with him or any other director we had worked with here. Everybody’s scared to do it because there’s a business model here when it comes to marketability. The hero is gonna give a certain amount of revenue, the director’s name is gonna give a certain amount of revenue, the music composer is gonna give a certain amount of revenue. We are after that somewhere. That particular film, Nani wasn’t a massive star at that particular point. We killed him off after 20 minutes. So, there were only three big names attached: the director; Sudeep (who played the villain) who was a big name in Karnataka down south; and Keeravani, Rajamouli’s cousin, who’s the composer, and that’s it. The big hero draw is gone. So, Makuta is basically that—we fill that gap.

Filmmaker: You mentioned Our Hospitality before. Some of the bits in Eega could come out of silent comedy. Do you know if Rajamouli embraces that kind of slapstick?

Draper: I’ve seen his Blu-ray collection, and definitely. Buster Keaton, Chaplin—loves the old school, loves the old classics. Even more modern day ones, like Steve Martin. One of his favorite ones, if I remember correctly, was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. 

Filmmaker: I read that getting the final fly design approved on Eega took a long time. Is that true?

Draper: Originally, the film was supposed to be released around Christmas, and we wrapped the actual fly design on the 22nd. It went through so many iterations: It was a little too spiky on the hair, or too wiry, and it was gradually getting more and more fluffy. We had a bit of artistic license with adding the furrow of the brow on only two shots: one when he got the gun powder and he’s kicking it back, and another where he is crouching down and hovering, just about to launch himself out deep for the first time. That was it, everything else was all body language. We actually got Nani to do a load of performance tests by sticking a bag over his head. I went, “Give us anger, give us anger!” 

Filmmaker: There was no use of motion capture?

Draper: No, no, it was all key frame animation. It wouldn’t have transposed anyway. We’re doing lots of observation of how a fly will move, sometimes building things procedurally—get from point A to point B, launch, land, grab literally within a couple of frames. The motion blur will then dictate and make it as real as possible. It was technically fun with the rig. We had so many different animators and rigs: a Houdini rig, a Maya rig, a Max rig, depending on the artist who was working, then rendered out in Max and composited in Fusion or Nuke. We couldn’t be choosy at that particular point in time because we ended up starting the fly work around January, then it was every day until release. Thankfully by that time, a lot of stuff had already been done on the fly buzzing in the wide shots, when you don’t need the close-up shots. Anything where you saw the fly close-up was done between January and July that year. 

Filmmaker: How does the workflow change when you move on to something on a more epic scale like Baahubali?

Draper: A lot of it was standard—the way we’d worked on things not necessarily just with him, but with other directors since we formed. So, we knew what the timing and organization was gonna be. With songs, you have more for the same duration—more cuts, setups, gags, little interstitials you’re gonna have to do. 

The bigger work that we had on Baahubali was two stages. One was Mahishmathi city. The palaces and all that was based on the set design Sabu Cyril was doing. We bounced back and forth with him, god knows how many times, and took concept works that had been produced by another studio, Firefly. We went through so many iterations of the layouts for that until they actually started building a set. We got a LiDAR; we laser scanned the entire thing, then built upon that. Then you know: “Right, that’s final.” That was basically build a set, light the thing, different angles depending on the time of day, comp the thing together. Happy days, easy peasy. 

The complicated stuff was the waterfall, [which] was basically achieved [with] what’s called dummy particles, non-computational fluids. I had a guy go to Niagara Falls and shoot plates in different angles. It was winter there, so it was completely frozen. We took that image from Niagara, taking that shape there and that shape there, then blending them together and putting them on facing particles. Overlap and change the image from that to that to that—stick all that together and it looks like a waterfall. You don’t need to do computational flows. Treat it like a PlayStation 2 game, which is exactly what we ended up doing for a bunch of shots. 

Filmmaker: How do different sequences get assigned to each VFX house in a project as complex as Baahubali?

Draper: Another visual effects supervisor was assigning the work to different studios. They would have preference as to whom did what based on their knowledge of each studio’s strengths. MPC, for example, would get a lot of animal work, because they’re renowned for that because of Jungle Book and Lion King. Makuta will get a lot of extension work, a lot of set work, because we’ve done a metric ton of it and we’ve got the technique down, especially when it comes to scanning and supervision. Scanline, they’re absolutely the world leader when it comes to fluid work. So, they knew and know exactly which studio to use, what the capacity is, how much the shops can do within the timeframe that’s available, and whether or not they can handle the complexity of it.

Filmmaker: What can you discuss regarding your work on Rajamouli’s new film, RRR?

Draper: We did around 740 shots to my knowledge, the highest amount that a studio has done for this particular film. There’s quite a substantial amount of us in the trailer. That’s basically what I could say at this particular point.

Filmmaker: How early are you brought onto Rajamouli projects generally, seeing the script and set designs, etc.?

Draper: It depends. For Baahubali, very early. For Eega, it was exceptionally early on. For RRR, somebody else was overseeing that. Primary visual effects supervisor Srinivas would handle all that internally first, then bring us on, unless it was something [on which] they needed our input directly: “There’s this space, we need this to happen, give us your ideas on what you think this is going to be.” There’s a couple of environments like that in RRR. 

Filmmaker: How receptive is Rajamouli to suggestions?

Draper: We spitball ideas. It’s a crazy process. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort and he’s one of those directors who welcomes it. 99.9% time of the time he knows exactly what he wants, but he’s always open for suggestions if it’s something that will increase the audience’s enjoyment for that particular beat, whether it’s a look, a timing or an action.

That entire rampart in Baahubali, when all the guys go and hit all those arrow machines: the idea was originally that they just land, boop, like that [puts finger in ground straight up and down]. I’m like, “I’m not doing that. Let me give you a version.” We went off, started smashing things and doing rag doll simulations. And Rajamouli is like, “Pete, you’re going to give me brain splatter. Don’t give me blood, you’ll get an A certificate [cleared for public exhibition, but restricted to adults].” I promised I wouldn’t give him blood, and that’s one that they chose to include.

Another one was the shot of when the statue breaks up in Baahubali: The Conclusion. Originally, Rajamouli wanted it just to go straight through the corridor where Nassar was standing, but you know, the corridor is here and the statue’s here, and it won’t hit geographically. Rajamouli goes, “Oh, just cheat it inside. No one will know.” I said, “They’ll know! Someone will be there with a bloody tape measure, the same people who are working out that from Point A to Point B, the jump on the waterfall, he’d die.” (Why didn’t he die? Because the film wouldn’t happen.) “So yeah, people are gonna figure this out. Let’s use Rana’s head as a bowling ball. [Rana Daggubati plays evil king Bhallaladeva.]” I explained this to him and Rana’s behind me going “Do it. Use my head as a bowling ball, that’d be great!” We blocked a previz of it and showcased it to him and Rajamouli was like, “Yep, that’s great. Let’s do that.” So, that’s what we did. You pass ideas along to make things look cool.

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