July 10, 2008

IT Playing a Major Role in Bollywood

Watching the movie, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic one sees Rishi Kapoor acting as God, working in a virtual heaven, looking at people on earth through his magic ball. Then there's Rani Mukherjee skating on the water in a swimming pool.

Earlier, in Jodhaa Akbar you had a massive battle front with thousands of soldiers, elephants, horses all in one scene. The cute baby Hanuman endeared himself to millions of people in India with his expressions, pranks and antics.

Indian movies now routinely compete with Hollywood movies making use of technology, special & visual effects and animation. And as they do this, technology companies are now finding their hands full of work in the film industry.

Not only do they provide state-of-the-art back-end support and management, they are also now increasingly providing animation skills, scene creation on the computer and even helping the director take better technologically enhanced shots. In fact, for some IT companies, media and entertainment is emerging as a vibrant and significant business.

"With Sivaji: The Boss we reached out to the large south Indian audience, while its English version gave us an international reach. We're working on some Hollywood projects too," says Kulwinder Singh, head of global marketing in Satyam BPO.

For the latest Kamal Hassan movie Dashaavtaram, Satyam worked with the director to make the scenes more effective and real. In a scene with a 12th Century setting, Kamal Hassan was pinned down to an idol and then submerged into the river using two boats. "We technologically created the scene and combined it with Kamal Hassan's live acting. We need to be very accurate with the effects as audiences should not be able to differentiate what is real and what is a special effect. Also in scenes where two or three of Kamal Hassan's 10 characters meet, we had to do tedious technology work to make it look real," says Singh.

Graphics and computing power often forms the heart of special effects. For Om Shanti Om, Nvidia provided its technology Quadro a graphic processing unit (GPU - also called visual processing unit) that works well for high-end graphic capability and effects. These can handle a range of complex algorithms better than the general- purpose CPUs can. In the song Dhoom Taana, Deepika Padukone was made to dance around statues with a plain background. Then shots of the likes of Rajesh Khanna, Sunil Dutt and Jeetendra from old movies were selected and these were composited with Deepika's dance to produce the song.

"The two issues the Indian film industry has to deal with is creativity and technology. You might have the technology but you still need creativity to make effects look convincing," says Prasad Phadke, head of the professional solutions business in Nvidia India. "For good animation effects, we need good graphics and colour composition. The market in India is booming. A forecast says that in one year 70 animation films will be released with Indian content based on the mythological stories such as Ramayan and Mahabharat," says Phadke.

Digital content creation has grown three-fold in the last few years. "But government rules for local contribution to movies need to be sorted out for it to grow without any hitch. We need tax benefits for local studios to do better work and see growth," says Phadke. Nvidia says it has doubled the Quadro business year-on-year in the last three years. Depending on the kind of work done, a company may make about $10 million to $15 million or more for the special effects in a movie.

Then there are companies like IBM that provide back-end support, which it did for production houses like Toonz Animation. "After creating the cartoon and computer images, adding colour and doing the 3D modelling requires huge compute power and capacity," says Viswanath Ramaswamy, country manager (projects), IBM India. For Hanuman, IBM provided 5 high-end workstations for partial animation, 5 high-end workstations for compositing and 25 high-end workstations for 2D ink and print.

Most applications are built on Linux platforms. A motion picture animator prefers Linux as most of the everyday tools are already available on that platform, and the number being produced specifically for Linux is increasing at a remarkable rate. Special effects constitute about 5% to 10% of a total movie structure. A complete animated movie is more complex to create and has additional technology needs. IBM is also associated with Hollywood movies, Happy Feet and Lord of the Rings, to name a few. "Its a niche segment in India, but is seeing tremendous potential and growth," says Ramaswamy. For movies Jodhaa Akbar, Dhoom and Rang De Basanti, Tata Elxsi has worked on the visual effects. Taking live shots of an Air Force base or of a MiG 21 plane is prohibited making it impossible to shoot the scenes with proper action. So, for Rang De Basanti, the company used drawings of MiG 21 and created 3D models of the plane on the computer, a process that took a couple of weeks. On the other side, shots of the four actors running towards a building were taken separately. Combining the computer image of the plane flying off and the boys running, the final scene was created on the computer, in all the process taking about 5 to 6 weeks.

In Dhoom, the idea of virtual sets was used to show Hrithik and Aishwarya stealing from the museum in an ancient, heavily guarded fort in Rajathan. "We did some live shooting in Mumbai and recreated the forts on a computer. We were able to give the actual effect and enthrall the audience, after adding the live shots to the virtual world," says Pankaj Khandpur, creative director of Tata Elxsi's visual computing labs. "In Jodhaa Akbar, the battle sequences are about 80% virtual, clubbed with some real shots. These are known as CGI (computer-generated imagery) elements. First a scene was shot with some rows of soldiers, 20 elephants and horses. These images were then recreated to multiply the number of people and animals to show the full battle ground," says Khandpur.

Tata also did some period restoration effects for Amer Fort, in a bid to give an ancient look and feel. In a scene that had Aishwarya looking out of a window, one could see the scaffolding and recent painting effects clearly in the shots. Technology was used to remove the scaffolding and signs of the modern day changes.

"To support our work we had installed about 40 terabytes (TB) of storage capacity. For Jodhaa Akbar we used about 8 TB of storage, 200 CPUs for rendering (a process of generating an image from a model), 8 persons for IT management and 70 CPUs for artists working on the creation and reworking of images," Khandpur says.

"In Jodhaa Akbar's three and a half hours, special effects constituted 40 minutes," he says.

(Additional reporting by Debojyoti Ghosh & Swati Anand)

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