2.0 or Robot 2, starring Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar, will hit the theatres on Thursday, and the sequel to Enthiran is being released in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu simultaneously. At a promo event in Mumbai on Monday, the film's director Shanmugham Shankar said that, apart from the stars, "VFX is the third hero of the film." Really, VFX is the indispensable hero: the entire project was conceptualised, scripted, directed and produced with visual effects in mind.
Enter Walt Jones, VFX supervisor for TAU Films, who tells The National that 2.0 was the "most challenging" role visually that the firm has ever worked on. Jones's team also worked on BaahuBali but he says he doesn't want to compare the two experiences.
"We came on board early in the process [for 2.0]," the Los Angeles-based Jones tells us over the phone. "It was more than six months, I think before the shoot started. There was a lot of pre-vis [pre-visualisation]. A script is nothing but words. We try to put those words into how the director visualises it. When we sat with Shankar, it was an abstract concept and it was a challenge to get every shot right to match that vision.
“It would be wrong to compare, because each project is different, but yes, this was the most challenging, compared to other work that we have done in Hollywood.”
On working with Rajinikanth and Kumar
About the experience of working with two superstars of film in such an environment, Jones says: “Rajinikanth was a pleasure to work with, and I am not saying it as a cliché. He was very nice, a gentleman and it was fun. Also, he was used to some of it because of the first movie, even though we did a lot, lot more work compared to that one. For Akshay it was a new thing and he was always keen on the set.”
Jones is loathe to give away the plot but, as the movie's trailer and Shankar himself suggests, a half-bird-half-human mutant (played by Akshay Kumar) takes siege of a city by making cellphones disappear. The much-delayed production will see Rajinikanth reprise his two roles from the first film – the scientist Vaseegaran and eccentric robot Chitti. At the end of Enthiran, Vaseegaran was forced to retire Chitti after he went rogue. In 2.0, Vaseegaran reboots Chitti after Dr Richard (Kumar) wages a war on cellphones and technology.
As many as 25 VFX studios worked on the film to save time: the most important ones were Jones's TAU Films, Double Negative and The Third Floor, with experts associated with films such as Life of Pi, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, Pacific Rim, Black Panther, Thor, Blade Runner 2049, Venom and many more working on the movie.
Jones and numerous VFX artists collaborated at different levels, and brought in individual expertise to make the film work at one-third of the budget, and yet this was still one of Bollywood's costliest films to make. Official figures suggest the film cost of 5.43 billion rupees (US$76 million), about $6 million more than Aamir Khan's Thugs of Hindostan, which ended up a dud at the box office after its Diwali release. Incidentally, Aamir Khan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were initially approached for the film, but they declined.
“As a VFX producer, no budget is enough because there are so many things you would like to do,” Jones said. “We work with the task at hand and how best to get the script across visually. Beyond that, what works or not, is something that is not under our control.”
Despite the challenges, Srinivas Mohan, Shankar's deputy and central VFX supervisor for more than 16 years, has insisted there has been no compromise. Usually films are made in 2D with 3D effects applied in the post-production. 2.0 used 3D to shoot every frame.