Rhythm and Hues, a Los Angles-based animation and visual effects studio, is flush with its Oscar win for Achievement in Visual Effects for Golden Compass. With its branch set up in Mumbai in 2001, Rhythm and Hues, India, Managing Director Prashant Buyyala tells Sonia Chopra about the studio’s achievements and its magical journey.
Congratulations on the Oscar win. Looking back, how hard was it to work on Golden Compass?
Thanks. The film was extremely challenging as all the creatures you see in it are digital. As you know, an animal accompanies each protagonist in the film at all times. We had to go down to the minutest details like matching the eyes of the human and the animal. The golden monkey went through innumerable changes till we finally decided on the one that you saw.
We required 500 artists between LA and Mumbai for a year to get this work done. It was a huge collaborative effort.
Was the bulk of the work done in the US or India, and what was the difference in the nature of work done in both countries?
It is an absolute fallacy to believe that there was any difference in the quality of work done in both the countries. It’s not like the more creative work was reserved for LA and the more time-consuming or work involving manual labour was dumped in India. In fact, the actual compass that you see in the film was developed here in our Mumbai office.
Were there any innovative techniques you used specifically for GC?
We used a lot of innovative techniques like Fluid Simulation where a daemon dies and bursts into dust. Then there were other challenges like shots where the little girl is stroking the cat’s fur; in this case we shot the girl stroking a green pillow and added the cat digitally later. We also added computer-generated hair of the little girl that fell all over the cat to make the shot realistic.
The most difficult portion?
Had to be the battle scene! There were hundreds of people on the field, each accompanied by their respective animal. There were both people and animals fighting, dying and bursting into dust simultaneously. It was a nightmarish sequence in terms of sheer work.
Even your work in Chronicles of Narnia was spectacular.
Yes, we’re very proud of our work in that film. Most people think that the lion was shot and then enhanced through computer graphics. But the entire lion is digital, and every shot has the animal go through a range of emotions. We had to capture all of that.
Tell us about some of the other Hollywood films that R&H has done?
We did Babe way back in 1995. Some of our recent films include Ring 2, where we did all the water effects, Happy Feet, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Electra, X-Men. In Daredevil, you see a computer generated Ben Affleck! We even succeeded in bringing back a dead Marlon Brando in Superman Returns!
How is the studio’s working and philosophy different from other film animation and visual effects studios?
The main differentiating factor is that artists, not investors, started the company. Their main aim was to do quality work, not earn profits. Which is a good thing, because this business has razor thin margins [laughs].
We started in Los Angles in the ‘80s with about three to five people. At that time we did the usual dealing with egos and making our mistakes and gradually grew to where we are. It was a very expensive process. Currently, Rhythm &Hues enjoys the reputation of being more artistically driven rather than financially driven, and is known to treat its employees really well.
How did you think of entering India?
The industry was becoming more and more global and we wanted to be a part of it. We now have two branches in India, one in Mumbai and the other in Hyderabad.
There were various reasons for our entry into India–Bollywood, of course, was a major reason, with the large number of films produced. Other factors included low cost of living, raw talent and comfort with the English language. We tend to underestimate raw talent. A majority of our great work has come from people with not that much experience.
Why not outsource instead of taking the pains of setting up offices here?
Oh, we did try very hard to outsource, but could not find any facility to our liking. We realised we would have to start on our own. Once we decided that, we were quite lost for a while. We then set up our office in Mumbai in 2001. Now all three offices are run as one company, using the same production pipeline and sharing work between facilities. Also, we don’t have a typical office structure–very vibrant interior with huts and paintings.
Any difficulties in running an office in India that you didn’t anticipate?
Our policy encourages treating all employees equally, but India has a very strong hierarchical system. It took a lot of effort initially to break that down.
What are the company’s future projects and plans?
We are busy with The Incredible Hulk, Mummy 3, Fast and Furious 4 and Land of the Lost among other films. We are also very keen on developing original Indian content.
Lastly, what was the reaction of your team when they knew they won the Oscars for Achievement in Visual Effects?
It was fantastic. We were all watching the live telecast in Mumbai at 6 a.m. and everyone went ballistic on hearing that we had won. It was a great moment when we held the Oscar in our hands. It’s actually quite heavy!