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‘Pathaan,’ ‘Tiger 3’ VFX Head on Bollywood’s Growing Use of Pre-Viz: ‘Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan Are Very Hands-On’ (EXCLUSIVE)

The spectacular, death-defying action sequences in 2023 Bollywood hits like “Pathaan” and “Tiger 3” involve not just stunt work, but also a huge amount of visual effects (VFX).

Leading Indian studio Yash Raj Films’ VFX division yFX was founded in 2016 with its first major project being Ali Abbas Zafar’s wrestling saga “Sultan,” headlined by Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma. There were more than 2,000 VFX shots in the film, including CGI virtual sets, crowd multiplication and digital prosthetics.

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The division is presided over by Sherry Bharda whose credits include the Dhoom and Tiger franchises, “Sin City” and “Genghis Khan,” amongst many others. Barda, who is an AMPAS member, reveals that several of the sequences in “Pathaan” and “Tiger 3” were shot during the pandemic, which came with its own set of challenges including travel restrictions and a limited number of people on set. It also meant that a lot of live location work had to be executed against a green screen and then be moved into a virtual or a computer generated space.

“Pathaan,” starring Shah Rukh Khan, and “Tiger 3,” headlined by Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, are part of producer Aditya Chopra’s Spy universe that began with “Ek Tha Tiger” in 2012. One of the highlights of “Pathaan,” which released in January 2023, is a sequence where the Khans [who are not related] appear together in a high-octane action sequence. The Khans reunite for another sensational scene in November 2023 release “Tiger 3.” The sequence was planned fairly late in the day with a Diwali holiday release date locked.

“The scale of it had to be even bigger than ‘Pathaan,’ because now the audiences had seen and appreciated what had happened on the Tiger-Pathaan sequence there. But given the limited time, we used extensive 3D visualization,” Bharda said, explaining the process in layman’s terms for Variety readers. “It means actually, on the computer, animating and putting into place every shot that is eventually going to be then shot on a live stage, so that you were making the sequence before you even went to shoot. So the locations, camera angles, what the actors would actually do, the prison set, the bridge, the vehicles, all of this was mapped out very early on, on the computer, down to accurate world scale. So that when the shoot actually happened, it became just a process – all that thinking and planning and collaboration had happened earlier on.”

“And we knew if we didn’t do this we would be dead in the water because there was no time for that usual ‘fix it in post’ situation, it had to all be planned from the beginning. So this process called pre-visualization, which we do to a large extent on all action sequences, just so that we can have this planning down earlier, we did this at a much deeper in-depth level for this one particular sequence because of the limited time,” Bharda added.

The key to make action sequences work is collaboration between the production designer, DoP and the action director, Bharda says. “These sequences can’t be made in a linear fashion, they all have to be fairly interactive and inclusive, because where one person hands over to the other, it cannot be downstream, it all has to be planned before,” Bharda said.

“These sequences usually need an alignment from all the creative stakeholders in the process. So Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, they are very savvy and hands on in this process. When the director shows them the pre-viz that we’ve done, which is almost like a small simplified version of the actual edit that they’ll see eventually, they have their ideas, they have their thoughts, they know what they’re supposed to do on set. They will ask VFX questions, both at the shoot and earlier on about what their role is what how they’re supposed to achieve a certain shot so that VFX is able to pick it up later on,” Bharda said.

VFX isn’t just about action sequences, it also includes what are known as invisible or narrative effects. Bharda’s credits include comedy drama “Hichki,” social drama “Sui Dhaaga” and family drama “The Great Indian Family.” “These are the ones actually I love the best, where we have to come in and out of a scene and not be there at all,” Bharda said. “Of course, that is the goal we strive towards for everything that we do. VFX has become fairly democratized, over the years every project, whether it’s big or small, now uses some level of CG or visual effects including putting a scene outside the window or putting content into a television screen or moving scenery outside a car. Everybody needs that little bit of VFX today, and because filmmakers have come to realize how this can be much more efficient than actually going to location and shooting, it’s being adopted a lot more,” Bharda said.

Bharda is now in the process of setting up the yFX Virtual Production Lab, which will deploy game engine technology. The purpose of the lab is to facilitate early collaboration in a digital world that mimics the physical world. “It is becoming the mantra now of filmmakers to ‘fix in pre’ rather than ‘fix it in post.’ That means plan for it in advance so that it doesn’t become a bandaid fix later on,” Bharda said.

Animation, VFX, gaming and comics, which are booming, has been designated a ‘sunshine’ sector by the Indian government. “One of the things I would personally love to see is more women coming into the sector,” Bharda said. “With government funding and process, we’re on our way to making this an industry that is certainly going to be perceived as a choice for the next generation.”

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