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'Prasanth wanted Yash to play Hanuman'

January 31, 2024 10:34 IST
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'Since God was being shown in live action on such a large scale, Prasanth was initially sceptical about going with an animated character.'

IMAGE: Teja Sajja in HanuMan.

Prasanth Varma's Telugu superhero action-adventure, HanuMan, starring Teja Sajja, took everyone by surprise with its phenomenal box office run.

Even after two weeks, it has the audience hooked.

On the day of the Ram Mandir pran pratishtha in Ayodhya, the writer-director announced its sequel, Jai HanuMan.

VFX veteran Udaikrishna Pandamaneti played a crucial role in seamlessly integrates live-action and animation.

He looks back at the film's VFX achievements and tells Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, "We had to seamlessly integrate the Hanuman statue with live-action footage in a complex digital environment."

HanuMan is the surprise blockbuster of the year. Were you confident of it breaking the box office?

To answer your question, let me quickly retrace my journey of over two decades during which I collaborated with UTV, Disney-Hotstar, Tata Elxsi and Red Chillies Entertainment among others in Mumbai, and other leading MNCs in Chennai and Bengaluru.

I have been a part of the Bollywood, Tollywood and Kollywood industries, and films like Raees, Zero, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion and Rudhramadevi to name a few.

In 2021, Prasanth Varma, the writer-director of HanuMan, approached me.

The Telugu superhero film was announced in May 2021 and they wanted to start with a mind-boggling teaser.

Despite the shoe-string budget, I took up the teaser as a challenge to use as a showreel.

The teaser was launched with Prabhas's Adipurush. While that didn't live up to sky-high expectations, ours was a blockbuster!

Made on a budget of just Rs 32 lakh (Rs 3.2 million), every frame underlined our desire to push the envelope as far as VFX in cinema goes.

Encouraged by its overwhelming success with audiences globally, the producer (Kniranjan Reddy) increased the budget.

The film rolled in June 2021 and over the next two-and-a-half years, Prasanth and I worked closely to refine and expand on our initial concept, elevating every scene and enhancing the visual effects.

To get back to your question, yes, after the stupendous reaction to the teaser, I was confident HanuMan would be a hit but 20 percent doubt remained over the audience's acceptance.

Fortunately, despite releasing in Sankranti with big films like Mahesh Babu's Guntur Kaaram, Nagarjuna's Naa Saami Ranga, Dhanush's Captain Miller, Vijay Sethupathi's Merry Christmas and Venkatesh's Saindhav, em>HanuMan held its own.


Photograph: Kind courtesy Udaikrishna Pandamaneti

Please expand on some of the changes that came with the budget increasing.

Well, Prasanth had shot an underwater sequence before the teaser was launched which we later re-shot in a swimming pool in Mumbai for more depth, adding 3D fish and pearls.

Creating a convincing underwater environment, with realistic lighting and clarity of visuals, was time-consuming work and called for ground-breaking VFX.

Even the Anjanadri scenes were a challenge. One sequence in particular ran without any cuts for two minutes, showcasing the dystopian village with 3D trees, water and Hanuman looming large.

We had to seamlessly integrate the Hanuman statue with live-action footage in a complex digital environment.

We achieved our vision with a mix of two softwares used in Hollywood, adopting state-of-art existing technologies while also leveraging advancements in real-time rendering engines for intricate detailing.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Udaikrishna Pandamaneti

The 3D title song sequence when the film opens is amazing.

(Cuts in) It was storyboarded in 2D ,but inspired by the visual effects of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, we decided to give it a 3D feel and roped in Eitri Studio.

The film was a collaborative effort with me leveraging my two decades of expertise while getting into strategic partnerships with different animation studios like Dhruv, ECS, Visikefi as well as freelance technicians across the country to execute our collective vision.

Given the budgetary constraints, it was all about strategic planning, meticulous allocation of resources, cost-effective technologies, innovative solutions and optimizing workflow.

A colleague with whom I had worked in Mumbai designed a model of the Hanuman statue for us in Bengaluru after which we did the texturing in our studio.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Udaikrishna Pandamaneti

That giant-size Hanuman is the talk of the town today.

Yes, since God was being shown in live action on such a large scale, Prasanth was initially sceptical about going with an animated character.

He was toying with the idea of signing KGF star Yash to play Hanuman and incorporate a live-action portrayal.

But I convinced him to let us design a 3D model, assuring Prasanth that it would not appear cartoonish.

Our animated Hanuman took us almost seven-eight months to complete, with enhancements going on till the last minute.

But now, our photorealistic Hanuman in the all-important climax song is the film's USP.

The film is a triumph of Prasanth's vision, my experience and pipeline designing while working within budgetary constraints.

IMAGE: Udaikrishna Pandamaneti, right, with HanuMan Director Prasanth Varma. Photograph: Kind courtesy Udaikrishna Pandamaneti

What was your budget?

(Frowning) Well, I can't reveal the exact figure, let's just say between Rs 7 crore and Rs 9 crore (Rs 70 million to Rs 90 million).

That's incredible! It's not even a miniscule of Hollywood fantasy adventures and way below even our VFX extravaganzas like Brahmastra.

(Smiles) Yes and it's brought a flood of compliments and offers in plenty since the teaser released.

In fact, I would say the teaser was our real superhero.

Which is your favourite VFX-centric film?

(After a thoughtful pause) Among the Hollywood blockbusters, definitely the Aquaman and Avatar franchises, the effects were really high-end.

In Indian cinema, I would pick the Baahubali series, S S Rajamouli's Oscar-winning RRR and Brahmastra.

I have to admit that we are way behind the West, but now the quality of the visual effects in our country is fast improving.

IMAGE: Riteish Deshmukh and Jacqueline Fernandez in Aladin.

Among the films you have worked on earlier, which one was the most challenging?

That's a difficult one. I think it would be the 2009 fantasy action comedy, Aladin, featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Riteish Deshmukh and Sanjay Dutt.

It was directed and produced by Sujoy Ghosh, with Eros and Sameer Rajendra.

I was working as a technician in Mumbai with Eros and the visual effects took us almost two years.

Unfortunately, the film didn't work commercially, but the effects are still talked about in the industry.

Arnab Chaudhuri's 2012 Indian animated action film, Arjun: The Warrior Prince, produced by Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur for Disney and UTV, also flopped, but that too was another challenge and took almost two years.

I remember one really tough swayamvar sequence we had to shoot in 2D, but give it a 3D feel.

Tata Elxsi worked on this sequence for almost a year-and-a-half.

The film was appreciated at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival where it was nominated for the top prize, the Cristal Award.

It also won Tata Elxsi the Best Indian Animated Feature Film at the FICCI BAF Awards.

What's next on the cards?

The use of machine learning and AI has helped us achieve realistic animation.

The success of a regional film like HanuMan globally will lead to increasing integration of technology into the storytelling process, of virtual elements into live-action footage, creating more immersive worlds.

In this scenario, my new venture, BeastBells Media, which launches in February, is a significant leap forward in VFX and animation.

With studios in Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai, we are looking to foster innovation and collaboration.

Our state-of-art facility will serve as a hub for cutting-edge technology and unparalleled creativity.

We also plan to inspire and mentor VFX animators and artists, helping them realise their full potential and push the envelope.

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