Thanks to my shiny press badge, I was able to perch myself in a seat close to the stage, with a good vantage point. Then the onslaught came, as the doors were opened to the general public on the second day of the three-day Bengaluru GAFX Conference 2017, organised by the Department of IT, BT, Government of Karnataka in association with the industry body ABAI.
The session, ‘The Making of Baahubali VR’, was about to begin and given the fan following for the franchise, the hall was completely packed and people were even seated on the floor and standing along the sidelines to attend the session by Pete Draper, Co-founder, VFX Supervisor, Makuta VFX. Draper and his team had worked closely with SS Rajamouli during the pre- and post-production process of shooting Baahubali.
Speaking about the making of Baahubali, Pete said, "It took us some time to realise how big the feature film actually was. It was only during the post-production phase that we realised the movie was going to be really huge!”
Pete noted that because of the project he hadn’t been able to visit home for almost two years and then joked that he wasn’t bitter about it, because work was challenging and fun.
He said that while the first Baahubali film involved a small amount of VR, the team thought of actually creating a full-fledged VR experience to create buzz around Baahubali 2. The tentative concept was derived in 2013 and it was originally envisioned to be a fully 3D environment and a ‘magic carpet’ style (think Aladdin) experience. So the goal was to release a VR experience for Baahubali 2 which would either be a derivative of the movie or canonical.
Talking about the technical challenges involved, Pete noted that for a film like Baahubali it was difficult to convert assets on VFX as they built very large-scale buildings, which required massive work.
For initial testing purposes, the team leveraged existing assets from the first Baahubali movie to see how the experience would be. But once the pre-rendered solution was ready, Pete and his team realised that there were some problems. These included a ‘blown-up’ pixelated feel and the limited output resolution.
They realised that higher resolution opticals would be needed. Their current solution didn’t have the fidelity even while rendering 4K resolution. So they would need to look at 8K or 16K and there weren’t many machines that handle those kinds of loads.
Virtual reality (VR) projects rely heavily on optimisation of sensors when a person is exploring the virtual world. Pete noted that their initial VR project actually made three people sick and he was one of them.
The goal was to have a test video that could be used as promotional material around the time of the Baahubali 2 launch. So with strict deadlines the team looked to employ the ‘brute forcing’ technique to complete the project and provide a 360-degree virtual experience. Pete noted,
It was difficult to bring imagination into reality and it took us six months of research. We used 24 cameras with different camera angles and worked on high-resolution, fixed travel locations with limited output resolution. There were certain effects in the movie which were simple but were actually tricky to pull off.
So Pete and his team worked with CNCPT, a VR studio based out of the US, to finish the initial development. The final VR experience for The Sword of Baahubali, which involves converting assets and real-time stitching, was then generated by Amazon Lumberyard and optimised for the "HTC VIVE" VR headset. Pete noted,
They even used mini-cams for the VR purpose. It became a very good marketing tool and showcased Baahubali from a unique and immersive angle. Our VR capture camera the BB-360 has powered many Baahubali experiences.
During the final moments of his presentation, Pete then gave the audience previews of how the VR experience looked with a few demos and explained the challenges involved in the different scenes.
He then took a few questions from the audience about working with VR projects and other aspects of working on projects like Baahubali. On being asked if working on Baahubali was stressful, considering the fan following and expectations it had built up in India and around the world, Pete acted like the Greek mythological character Atlas and pretended to buckle under an imaginary weight on his shoulders. He then admitted that the expectations and deadlines were crazy and compared the challenges to climbing multiple mountains, each bigger than the previous one, till their final launch date.
Apart from the making of Baahubali, day two of GAFX witnessed other interesting sessions, workshops, and competitions like Fast & Furious 8: VFX behind the scenes, to competitions on character animation, traditional painting, 3D gaming art, digital painting, and various hackathons
While Baahubali has been a mainstream success, not all VFX studios and production houses have cracked the formula. Highlighting the challenges and the opportunities of VFX, a panel of five individuals who are at the forefront of the VFX industry in the state, shared their success stories, inspiring the youth. Ganesh Papanna, Director, Business, Sales & Marketing, Thought Cloud Studio, said, "There are three key things to success: the right investment, the right people, and the right subject. Chasing ones dream and having patience is the key."
Naveen Kumar, Founder, MRT Studios, who has played a major role in the Kannada industry's visual effects and has worked in over 25 Kannada movies, said, "Convincing the producers to use VFX technologies is a challenge, since the Kannada film industry works on a limited budget, but the trend is slowly changing as producers and filmmakers have seen the potential. Generally, the total budget of the film is completely spent on the production; however 10 percent should be kept for post production."