The Execution of Gravity Illusion
My Dear Kuttichathan 3D,1984.
This is in continuation of Gravity Illusion. keynote presentation.
Please read Gravity Illusion before reading this.
WARNING. A memoir (12,000 words) by Jijo. Since it's about a rotating set, one should expect tumbling to occur frequently in this non-linear narrative.
There exists no other external views or working stills of the film's rotating rig than the one given above. To prevent disclosure of how the 'magic was achieved' in the said film, photographs explaining enchanted rickshaw, haunted school bell/ skeleton, etc., were never taken. This applied to gravity illusion also.
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FEBRUARY - MARCH 1984.
At the newly constructed Navodaya Studios in Kakkanad on the outskirts of Kochi, the rotating set sequence was picturised in the month of May, 1984. This took place almost towards the end of the 90 day shooting schedule that it took to complete the film 'My Dear Kuttichathan'.
By the end of February, Raghunath Paleri had completed the scriptwriting. Then a team of executors - assistant directors and production personnel, had taken up their assigned areas of work to prepare for shooting in March 1984. The rotating rig's fabrication and erection was being done by SILK (Steel Industries Kerala. LTD.) personnel near the shooting floor. With the construction happening outside, we were shooting other sequences within the indoor sets on the studio floor.
Raghu had written a brilliant opening scene set in the children's room … the room that was to be constructed within the rotating set. That scene saw the 3 kids getting acquainted with Kuttichathan - the poltergeist … and then the children had their first fall-out too. Finally there was a closing scene in the set, in which the drunken father suddenly walks in and sees footprints on the ceiling!
Both the opening and closing scenes had been written down to the last detail. What about the song in between these two scenes? Well; in the script it was initially noted merely as "A song sequence - Kuttichatan takes Lakshmi, Vijay & Vinod on a walk up the wall & ceiling'". But much else had to take place before the visuals could be conceived. To start with, we needed the music composed and then the lyrics written to the tune. We had the song in our hands by March, 1984. But a conceptualization would also depend on how the rotation of the set would actually happen … and, the dynamics (dance movements) within it when it rotated. These, nobody could even foresee before an actual demonstration/ trial took place. There was a big 'if ?' looming and when we consider that this was in S3D - the first Stereoscopic Three-Dimensional film in the subcontinent - it was definitely a very large 'IF ?'
But before we go to the creative black holes, let me fill the technical potholes ….
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the early days of April 1984, during lighting breaks at the main shooting floor, we used to drop into the construction site of the rotating rig to see it taking shape. That was when some of the logistics shooting inside the set dawned on us ….. While the children were performing and the camera rolling, everybody had to be OUT of the set. We would have to supervise the action from outside while it was being shot. The lighting, scrims, cutters, bouncers, switchboards, other animation rigs and even the camera have to be firmly fixed to the room for a given shot …. everything bolted down onto their respective bases. No operator of any of the systems - camera, lighting or audio, could be inside. The only living beings with a free run inside the set would be the four children (un-chaperoned)! No remote operation of any equipment was feasible. The only option was to power up or down (on/off) individual components from the outside. Well, …. how do you take the power lines in? Also ….. yes, we do kept saying 'set rotation'. But, how do you physically rotate it?
The second problem above, Sheker & myself had considered to address with some kind of an electric motor drive. Well, that was during the concept stage. But by the time I had the song with me and understood the melody & beat variations maestro Ilayarajah had painstakingly put in, I realized that the set cannot be given a fixed r.p.m. of our convenience. The giant rig would have to undergo the same variations - walk, stop, turn around, walk again - which I knew the choreographer would make the children do to the song's beat. The rig would have to undergo those movements exactly as the children moved within it. During the time of conceptualization, the best we could do was to envisage a slow rotation … graceful movements ….. which maestro Ilayarajah, as per my brief to him on the song situation, had composed. The tempo of the recorded song was 6/8, 94 beats per minute. Yet, this was not as slow as we would have liked. Sheker had wanted it as slow as Strauss' tempo (3/4, 60bpm) for Blue Danube Waltz - which Kubrick himself had used during the space shuttle docking scene in "2001 A Space Odyssey ". This tempo, for more than a century, had proven itself ideal for all sorts of rotating bodies! I knew that the effective tempo could always be halved by having the movements (in this case, footsteps) occur at alternate beats. It was of great help that Rajeev Kumar had a very good rhythm sense. I had expected to rely on 'chenda vidwaan' drummer Mathew Paul. But he was already entangled in the rigging strings (more of that later!)
"You would have to get a variable-drive gear system between the motor and the structure's axis …. if you want to vary rotation speeds …. or reverse direction of rotation, so that the kids can walk back".
That was postulated by Sheker, the only person around for me to consult. He was aiming for the skies. With what was materializing in front of us, he would have been envisioning an all-purpose-fully programmable-rotating-set of the future. (We were channelling a fourteen-year-old Christopher Nolan who was putzing around with his father's Super8 camera somewhere in Chicago. Who knew!)
"….. Or, … a giant variable D.C. motor … directly coupled on to the axis shaft".
I too was firing arrows in the dark (अंधेरे में तीर छोडना).
"Vallathum nadakkuvo? … Better decide something quick, before Papa decides to pull all of us up by our ears"
That cautioning note was from Amaan, the skeptical senior Art Executive who had been listening with growing befuddlement.
"Seriously, whats wrong with a gearbox?"
"No time for custom building, my dear sir. To achieve such an r.p.m reduction, any engineer would tell you that a worm drive is needed…… and, I don't have to be an engineer to tell you that with 25 tonnes rotating, the torque of that thing would tear up any gear …. if it is reversed as we want it to happen".
"(deep sigh) …. O.K. then, friction …. belt drive, I suppose".
"If we are willing to whittle down our ambitions so easily, lets do it the old-fashioned way …. muscle power!"
"Really? …. how many people? Are you sure?"
Myself, thinking aloud -
"It would look untidy, prone to human failure ... when fatigue sets in. But for achieving the purpose, since it is only for a few shots, it should suffice. … plus, we have no other options available at such short notice".
I was talking from my experience of turning around a 250 tonne Tuticorin vessel*, on water, while the camera was running. It would need many hands, but it could be done.
* the huge load carrying wooden sailing ships native to Tuticorin.
Hence it was decided to rotate the rig with a dozen men - six men on each side.
And then came the moment when all of us were addressing the problem of taking the power cables into the rotating structure.
"Could be through the centre shaft ….. it is a pipe ….. there is a hole through which cables can be taken inside ….. ".
Babu, the Key Grip retorted -
"Ente ammo, .. enthonna ee parenney? …. The cables would get twisted and …….. shredded"
" … can't risk 440 volts on a metal structure with children inside".
"Can it be coiled …….. like in the car carburetor?"
"Who is going to keep track of those ... many, many rotations?"
"…. It calls for current collectors … graphite brushes rolling over copper rings … can somebody locate a mothballed genset?"
"Jijokutta, remember the big wooden cylindrical frame we had in Alappuzha Udaya Studios Film Laboratory? ….The one we used to wind developed film reels for drying right after the film had come out of the chemical bath?"
That was Chief Electrician Balan's voice from behind us.
"Of course I do Balansar, though I was only 6 years old then. ….. But how is it relevant here?"
"Before I say that, ……. Tell me, what is the maximum number of rotations any single shot in this set is going to need? …… I mean the maximum number of rotations you would need for a shot in any one direction ….. clockwise or counter clockwise?"
"I don't envisage a situation where in a single shot the kids have to go around more than one full round - south wall, ceiling, north wall, ground - back to ground …. that is 360 degrees …. one rotation either clockwise or counter-clockwise …. Oh, I get what you mean …. to trail the cable ….. but, suppose I need 12 takes of the same, one immediately after the other?"
"I can give you twice that ! …. 24 takes, one after the other …. It works like this … before the shot, you would know in which direction the rotation is …… we would have to have the cable wound around the set before the shot in the opposite direction, 12 times. I have sufficient three phase + neutral x 720 gauge copper cable length (gafferspeak for cable that can carry enough juice to light up our hometown Alappuzha beach) for that. On a single go it can unwind a dozen times, then in another dozen times it could wind back. We may need to assign two persons on both sides to take up the slack".
So it was decided. One more low-tech solution. Yet dependable, during the duration of a few days(so I thought!) of shoot.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
FIRST WEEK MAY 1984.
On the very day the SILK rotating rig erection was completed dozens of carpentry teams started work on the set. The steel rig frame could easily be rotated by two people. With its bush-bearings greased, a few sandbags positioned here and there as counterweight, we would get effortless rotation. While the set-ups on the rig went on, or when it needed to be kept steady, there was a support system from the ground to keep the rig from moving and to prevent it from sagging at the center.This was about where the trapdoor entry into the set from the ground was positioned.
Within a week the timber framework of the set was done. While the set decorators and painters began their finishing work, during the shooting breaks, I started spending more time here at the rotating set. Sheker, by then, was improvising gravity cues - to enhance the illusion.
These were ...
1. Solid masonry wall of exposed brick construction - except that the bricks were made of styrofoam (thermocol).
2. Suspended drapes and fabric chandeliers seemingly hanging free - they were stiffened solid so as not to move when the room rotated.
3. Huge portraits of the girl and her mother (as painted by the artist father) - to give a definite visual reference of UP/ DOWN.
4. Some kinetic sculptures (mobiles) - again stiffened, so as not to move.
5. Styrofoam replicas of every item in the room (fridge, chair, bookshelf, books, etc.) Those were to be substituted for the real ones while shooting the rotating shots. Sheker also kept suggesting
" ... if possible, the objects' real life working should be casually shown - like taking a water bottle out of the fridge - to show that it is real".
I saw some lightweight cane furniture there. Among them was a cane seat swing. As he saw me looking at it sharply, Sheker said
"Amaan in his enthusiasm had bought that. I still haven't decided what to do with it. Don't worry, we'll arrest its movements, if we are using it".
"Don't ! .. I was wondering how it'll behave if it is left free when the set rotates. It will be possible to have interesting interactions ….. between someone sitting in it….. and those standing on the walls. Let's have it suspended on ball bearings …. so that it can go full circle!".
That was when somebody from the production department came with a helium filled balloon meant for the next day's outdoor shoot, if okayed. And while our conversation was going on, they had tied it to a chair to prevent it from escaping. Observing that, all of us agreed that a balloon apparently floating upwards could be another gravity cue.
At this time it was decided to have ramps (masquerading as a style feature) built into the corners where the ceiling and floor meet the walls. This was to make the dance steps easier for the children when traversing the 90 degree transition angle from one plane to the other. Sheker had designed the room with a sunken area - with different floor levels, so as to enhance the 3D depth.
Since the rotating room's base was more than one man-height above the ground level, it was decided to build a six-foot high wooden observation platform that would hold a twenty-strong shooting crew who during 'action' would step out of the rotating room and supervise a 'take' from the outside.
One of the nightmares for a film director in the 1980s was his audience deciding to take toilet beaks during song sequences and walking out in droves from the cinema hall! Songs which couldn't hold audience's attention were ill-timed, ill-conceived and poorly picturised, so they walked out. The only people happy with such songs were the canteen contractors in the theaters. (We are talking of those times when inside the auditorium popcorn was not delivered, …. one couldn't text messages on their phones or surf sites on their iPads).
By the '90s, filmmakers had found methods to solve this issue by resorting to
(1) Quick visual changes & drastic cuts from varied angles for the song visuals - a trick adopted from music videos.
(2) Series of shots those were visually contrasting and dazzling.
(3) Overpowering rhythm beats.
In fact in the ensuing decades it was imperative in the Indian films that 'item numbers' had to have hordes of dancers suddenly materializing …. and/or, with the barest excuse the principal characters have to roam around the globe for the duration of the song. I am not finding fault, for I too have resorted to such devises to hold the attention of a demanding audience. A song situation is always a challenge … and it cannot be approached with a care-two-hoots mindset. Starting with the film 'Manjil Virinja Pookkal' (1980) when I was new to this industry, I have made sure a lot of efforts were invested in song conceptualization, music melody, lyric, choreography and shot division. It required a lot of homework from the director. I am not proficient enough in some of the above said areas. For instance; in the selection of a melody, assessing the density of poetic imagery in native language lyrics, etc. In such situations, I had usually urged colleagues and members among the team who were talented in those areas to come up with their best ideas. I was always both fascinated and apprehensive about song picturisations.
In this case, since everybody in the unit had started humming Ilayarajah's melodies for the 2 songs, I realized that the first battle for a successful song had been won.
Sometimes artistic sensibilities tend to overpower logic and reason. There is an ironic anecdote by an art director of the 1970s. To comply with his director's desire for a song sequence within the kitchen of the penniless hero's mud hut, he ended up making the kitchen set way too larger than the rich heroine's mansion! Yes, be it a hut or a mansion, if you have to take a camera crane into it, consider how big that kitchen would have to be!
Now, imagine my plight ….. I had to picturize an entire song within a rigidly confined space 30ft by 14ft by 9ft !
Not just that ….. this four minute song happens to come in the midst of a preceding scene and a succeeding scene in the same room ….. That is, for nine minutes * my camera is confined within the above mentioned six bounding planes. Is there a better recipe for visual monotony?
* except, for a couple of shots that were intercut to show the Black Magician at his Occult GPS trying to pin down Kuttichathan's coordinates.
Hence, frankly, I was scared. The only way to escape visual drudgery was to assure the best performances by the kids, humorous lines that would evoke laughter, good dialogue delivery …. and gags that would keep audience glued to their seats.
Yes, I was always seeking gags for picturizing the song's aantras or charanams; always asking for my colleagues' suggestions, as we proceeded with trials and rehearsals for the gravity illusion song.
It would be simple to say that the ultimate gag is having the kids walk the walls. Sure. But what happens once this bolt is shot?
1. The first (obvious) suggestion was to have them get on the ceiling fan.
[During rehearsals I remember telling Babu to additionally strengthen the custom-made ceiling fan's blades - so as to take the children's weight. That was when I noticed there were only three blades …. and asked them to redo the fan with four - since there were four children. Babu looked lost. Rajeev Kumar immediately dissolved the impasse by standing on the fan's center hub and doing a Kuttichathan impersonation - hands on his hips, eyes rolling and swaying to the melody. Wonderful! That image remains etched in my mind].
Some additional gags ….
2. Children running around the (vertical) wall mirror.
3. They jump into the room through the window and the door - at surprising angles.
4. Bouncing ideas with Raghunath Paleri helped to get some improvisation done. It was conceived that the youngest boy, Vinod - played by child Mukesh, was timid ... and hence always reluctant to get into an adventure. This gave me an excuse to make him sit tight on the cane swing, while the other three proceeded up the wall …… and then, incorporating a later enchantment of the swing to draw the reluctant boy into the adventure. These stages of progression were segmented into song lines (music interlude) on the shot-division-sheets.
[An example: In the second musical phrase of the song, there is a one bar (two beats) flute flutter. A visual equivalent for this was given with a red and green overcoat falling off the swing. (see video above). I vividly recollect deputing assistant director Paulson - since every other hand was occupied during this shot, to string up and yank the red & green overcoat from under the child Mukesh on that flute frullato. Such visual variations for music phrases I had learned by observing Director A. Vincent at work. Though an acclaimed director, the veteran always came down to picturise songs in the films produced by Udaya Studios at Alleppey. Our editor Sekher Sar also belonged to the Vincent Master school.]
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SECOND WEEK MAY 1984.
A mishap almost took place on the first day of the trial. After the set work completion, it was found that the structure was very unevenly loaded. The carpenters, as per their usual practice, had strengthened the 'room floor' with a maximum support of wooden reapers under the 'floor'. (You may notice this in the photograph here).
It just wouldn't enter into their comprehension that there was no actual 'floor' for a rotating room. (Every side that rotated to the bottom became the floor!) Since it now became 'bottom heavy', it took all the people in the studio campus to heave the set over for its first rotation. But to everyone's horror, the obvious but unanticipated outcome was as follows …
The octagonal structure - the whole 25 tons of it, having acquired a great gravity potential, started rotating furiously when it tipped over the first half-circle (180 degrees) !! Gaining enough momentum, it went around 10 to 15 times! People either ran away or stood rooted to the ground at this ferocious spectacle. Then it slowed down and started rotating back creaking, thumping and groaning 7 to 8 times. So on it went … oscillating back and forth, till after about 3 endless minutes, it ground to a halt. Even now when I think of that, I go red-faced. A natural law had been overlooked. I felt like kicking myself for not anticipating the obvious. Once the imbalanced rig was tipped over, of course it would roll!
The rotations stopped. Silence fell over the crowd again. Thank God, the bearings held. Everybody was wondering how to react.
Then there was a command,
"Good! The thing has proven itself … it can take even such a ferocious beating ….. So let us move to the next"
That was my Papa calmly rousing everybody from their stupor and pushing them to their business.
Papa, the senior-most person there, turned to the young erection engineer from SILK, who by the time the rig had terrorised the rest of us with about 26 rotations, had already calculated the re-distribution of load. The youth said to papa with equal matter-of-factness.
"About two dozen sandbags should do the trick, sir. It may take a day to judiciously distribute the load opposite the heavier side".
Yes, I did mention that 'a mishap almost took place'. It would have happened … if as per tradition set by great architects, Art Director Sheker had wanted to be inside the rotating set during its first 'launch'. His chivalrous request to 'stand-in' for the children during the first run, so as to prove it safe enough for them, had providentially been denied.
"After a dry run", I had told him.
A strange thing happened sometime during the completion of the rotating set. The rotating set was the last set-work the carpentry department (consisting mostly of workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu) was engaged to do. By the time it was over, the chief carpenter disappeared! It is not known whether this was before or after the near-disastrous trial. But the fact that the chief settled his accounts and quietly left before any of his crew members were dispersed, shows that he would have been under severe strain (and severely doubtful of the outcome) in executing this unconventional set, and hence sought the maximum distance between his handiwork and himself at the earliest. He had worked with us for at least six films in the previous six years. Yet he never came back ever … even to accept the accolades once the 3D film became a hit.
After the set proved itself to be 'safe' for rotation, during rehearsals the performing kids had a roaring time doing 'ceiling walks' and 'walking up the walls'. In fact, it got addictive … and we had difficulty in disciplining them … and getting them out of the set. Why blame the kids!? … Every time there was a rotating trial or rehearsal, I got a long request list from aspirants among the shooting crew eager to take a ride inside the set. The only problem was that it was labour-intensive … given the fact that twelve people were needed to operate the rig, and two others to control the operation.
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THE SHOOTING COMMENCETH
I remember that it was an early morning on a Saturday when we first moved into the rotating set to shoot. Having completed an outdoor call sheet quite early the previous day evening, at 7am I was the first person at the set (of course, after Papa) to push the unit and crew towards an enthusiastic start at this most challenging venue. Already the film was behind schedule - having taken inordinately long time in executing F.P. (forced perspective) or off-the-screen shots where objects are made to come towards the audience. It is common knowledge that a new shooting location or a new studio-set will take a longer time to break-in. The props and decor would be just coming in, even as the set-lighting would be going on. Art department personnel would be battling for space with the lighting crew.To bring some organization to this chaos, there is this thing known as a 'lighting call sheet'. This is a time-allocation when only lighting takes place. Before that, the art department would have completed their work and moved out. Only after the 'lighting cal sheet' the performers would come in for the shooting. But we used to follow a different system which Papa had perfected. Fix the first camera angle and call everybody - yes, everybody! Once they see where the camera points to, work shall be done! Seems nonsensical but it works: that's how human beings are.
With Production Exec Mr. Anand under fire from Papa, and our Line Producer Mr. Tom having missed the visa deadline of the foreign crew members in India, both were behind me at around 10 o'clock to see that at least one shot - the first shot, was taken before the noon break that Saturday. Well, as it turned out, no shot had been taken even by the evening coffee break. Lighting, cabling, bolting down switch boxes, etc. was taking so much time. Even a full-floor set (like the ones you see in mammoth dance numbers), twenty times the size of this rotating room, wouldn't have taken half this time. Late into the night, 10 pm, we called it a day without a single shot having been taken.
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Next day - Sunday morning. I was there again by 7 AM after the morning Holy Mass. Anand and Tom were again behind me by 10 am. The first shot which we were attempting - for which the prep was going on, was the song opening - the opening shehnai (Hindustani reed instrument) melody of eight bars. Three kids walk up from the floor to the ceiling on that shehnai phrase. For this, on cue, the set has to rotate 180 degrees to the 8 music bars. The idea behind in attempting this shot as the very first was because of its medium complexity and also to see how the result would come out on the screen. (Alternatively, we could have attempted static shots for a beginning). After the noon break, we let the kids in and started rehearsing. Loose light cutters, scrims and cables started swaying during rotations and hence had to be secured before starting all over again. As a director, I always have an intuition as to when the combined performance peaks …. that is to say, … when maximum efficiency can be anticipated. While attempting a complex shot, given the variables - background action, artiste acting, rigging, lighting conditions, camera operations, etc., you can see when a combined peak in execution is just about reached. If you start your takes beyond the peak, then due to the monotony of repetitions you risk losing the best execution. You also lose your own sense of judgement. What I judged as peak performance started coming just before evening coffee break. I discussed with every anxious soul - Sheker, Ashokji, Rajeev, Raghu, Amaan, …. camera operator Soman, audiographer Kurup, still cameraman David, ….. choreographer Madhuri, the three kids and their parents, stereographer David Schmier, …. and particularly with Balansar & Babu of the unit crew, and finally the SILK engineers …….. and then, I called for a take. Chief camera assistant Ayyapan loaded the film magazine onto the camera that had been left fixed there for the last 36 hours. We were ready.
That was when, to my surprise, Production Exec Anand called in an objection. He pulled me aside to request delaying the take till after the coffee break. The reason? Well; on other days he would somehow see to it that the morning shoot doesn't commence on 'raahu kaalam'. But today, he never saw this coming! Sunday is the only day in the week where 'raahu kaalam' falls in the evening! To start the very first shot of a most important sequence at an inauspicious hour was taboo, according to Anand! Though I don't believe in auspicious timings, normally I would have given in to Anand's sensitivity. However, this time I couldn't afford to. Over the P.A. system I called everybody to a shot prayer, had the pooja done, camphor lamp lit and coconut broken. Then we took the shot. It went to seven takes. (four incomplete and seven full takes; as per the shooting report).
Everything was just about fine. Nothing spectacular. The illusion has now been seen only by the camera: till it was developed it remained unseen on film. I remember instructing child Sonia (who was in the camera foreground) to keep an expression of sheer amazement (despite the fact that wall-climbing by then had become a routine for the kids) and also to keep looking at the vertical plane ahead of her as if it were 'UP' …. and while moving forward to keep surveying overhead an entire new world … though it was only the ceiling of her room.
Exec. Anand personally took the exposed film of the very first take of the first shot by the night 6.30 train to Prasad Film Laboratories in Madras. We took one more shot that day - a lengthy shot in almost the same lighting setup as the first shot. It was the first aantra / charanam. It had only a 90 degree set rotation where kids climbed onto the window from the ground. But, in this shot I had also incorporated the first cane basket swinging upward - to test how this illusion works. Just before the first take, I got this brainwave to further disorient the illusion. As we exited the set to the observation platform, I rushed back to instruct Soman, the operative cameraman, to further rotate the camera on it's own axis on the last four bars (lyric "kayyodu kaikorthu koothaadaam").
It was almost midnight when we packed up. I can say nobody was tired that day - not even the kids.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The second day was largely spent on shots where the set needed to remain static. It required just the positioning of the rig at the orientation the action was staged in, and then positioning the camera - either (1) upside down or (2) 90 degree clockwise or (3) 90 degrees anti-clock or (4) right side up - depending on how the illusion was to be perceived. For these shots, crew could remain inside the set. More or less like shooting in a conventional set.
I could do some trolleying too.
We were not venturing much that day …. just waiting for the lab results … keeping fingers firmly crossed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
News first came from Madras Lab when we got a phone call at Kakkanad Studios. (there was only landlines those days). The last time Anand from the Lab made such an emergency call was to the Malampuzha shooting location during Padayottam (1982). It was to inform that the film negative of one of my shots got fogged in the Lab's developing machine. It had a hundred dancers in it. But this time the call was not about any disaster …. but to inform that the film roll had created quite a sensation among the lab technicians when they had test-projected (in 2D) the first gravity illusion shot after development and printing. It seems everyone was asking Anand how this feat of wall-climbing was achieved?
The print reached Kakkanad early morning on the third day. There was excitement in the air as everybody thronged into the projection hall. This hall within the studio had a temporary 35mm film projector set up with Stereovision 3D projection lens. The sole purpose of this was to analyze the f.p. (forced perspective or off-the-screen) shots which had to be taken on a trial and error basis till it was made sure the objects came out adequately into theater space. This was the first 3D projection arrangement in India, and of course the only one for us to view the picture in 3D. All f.p. shots would be developed on priority at the Lab, and sent overnight to us for assessment. The first gravity illusion shot had also now been sent on such a priority.
There was nervous silence in the darkened hall as everybody donned 3D spectacles and waited. I noticed that Sheker was not speaking much. Audiographer Kurup - a projectionist himself, took over from the junior projectionist to make sure no mis-framing occurred at the initial projector roll. It was of course, a silent print. As we waited the projector started whirring. The first image came up on the screen - a steady shot of the room where 3 kids stood on the floor near the wall. Then …… they slowly walked up the wall ….. and got onto the ceiling! An exultant roar went up from the audience ….. I think I am the one who shouted first, to compensate for Sheker's anxious look.
[Now, shouting was a regular feature in this hall …. when objects jumped from screen and went past your head. In fact, we used to rate the f.p. take with the intensity of the shouting it evoked. I heard the same said while at 3D filmmaker Murry Lenner's screening suite at Manhattan. Children shouting there also is a regular affair].
An introduction to Ms. Madhuri and song shoots ...
On one fine morning, while listening to the trumpet melody in the 2nd song, Rajeev Kumar had a sudden brainwave to shoot that melody with 'elephants'. It is to my papa's credit that he appreciated a brazen idea coming from the novice. He immediately arranged to shoot the very next day itself in the Kodanadu forests - 50km east of Kochi. It so happened that there was this baby elephant called "Giri" - everybody's pet, there at Kodanadu. When it was over I think the Giri also had great fun horsing around with our actor kids. Two decades later Rajeev repeated this feat in his film "Raja Ko Rani se .."]
As we piled out of the screening hall to continue the work with enhanced enthusiasm, I saw everybody beaming. Everybody except Choreographer Ms. Madhuri and her assistant Viji !
"Why Akka, ….. is everything O.K.?"
Madhuri with an unsure smile
"Then how come you are not looking as thrilled as the rest of us? …… Did the kids miss any dance steps? … Amma Viji, what's wrong?"
"Sir, madam feels that it was more exciting shooting ….. she was expecting something fantastic on the screen!"
"What could be more fantastic than the magic of 3 kids walking up the wall? …. thats exactly what we had envisioned !! "
"Not that sir", started Madhuri hesitantly "…. didn't you notice the excitement when we were shooting this two days ago? …. isn't it missing now somehow?"
Oh, what she meant was that all the great effort that had gone into the execution was not visible on the screen !
This was what Madhuri was referring to:
There is this huge octagonal steel structure looking like an ISRO rocket laid on its side. By nightfall, this structure, with 120KVA illumination burning inside, is an alien space ship just landed on earth and doing a taxi run. Inside it, there are three/ four infant earthlings trying to keep themselves safe at the lowest point by desperately running back and forth as the huge horizontal kitchen mixie machine kept rattling them with its erratic whirling.
Then there is the song blaring out loud, keeping the entire neighborhood awake.
Adding to the melee from the 'launch platform' is Madhuri, shouting numbers at the poor trapped human kids. Beside her are two dozen other humans watching the whole show sadistically.
More furore below ….
On the ground, Rajeev is shouting through his megaphone the rotation cues.
"ONE - TWO - THREE .. now clockwise TURN … side THREE to bottom"
"ONE - TWO - slow, slow .. now HOLD … side ONE for 2 bars"
Rajeev's instructions for the operators are essentially same as Madhuri's instructions to the kids. There was one difference. The designer, the instructor and the operators of the rig had jointly worked out a system by which their rotation referred to the numbered facet of the room.
Displayed on the sides of the rig with huge lettering #1 was top, #2 was south wall, #3 was bottom, #4 was north wall.
That was because, for the 12 operators while standing on the ground, there was no way of knowing the orientation of the room at any given moment. I found this improvisation ingenious.
Choreographing the rig movement was not as difficult as it may sound. For many years we had been used to teams of operators who handled camera cranes and trolleys. They would make their jibs and dollies move in perfect time to the music playback. In fact, it is easier to train the operators at keeping the beat than the performing artistes!
With all this tumult going on, there was a huge crowd from the studio neighborhood - mostly relatives of the crew, who had come to watch the spectacle.
Madhuri reminisced -
"Two days ago, .. so many people saw the grand spectacle being staged …… but now, … what we see on screen …."
The Choreographer's words trailed down with disappointment.
Yes, with all that effort gone in, still we see only a static room … and four kids merely walking up!!
Madhuri Akka had a point there. But I told her it was one of the ironies of filmmaking. It had nothing to do with our gravity illusion.
I mentioned to her the rose flower analogy (*kindly refer notes)
Madhuri Akka was just about mollified.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I hadn't anticipated camera operation within the rotating set. Mr. Soman is a camera technician who had designed and built a 70mm camera all on his own. It is he whom everybody calls when they require their camera fixed onto moving vehicles with various custom devices designed by Soman. He shoots those car races, chases and stunts that so thrill the audience. We had assigned Soman the charge of all mechanical riggings of Kuttichathan. He was executing mainly the haunted rickshaw, the barroom levitation and the fire flute.
It was Soman who pointed out that in shooting the gravity illusion, the camera can't be left without being operated - even if it does cover the area you require. The frame needs constant recomposing when the subject within it moves. Otherwise, it would look lopsided or mis-framed. He brought this to cinematographer Ashokji's notice and this was brought to my knowledge. I had never considered this aspect. So it was Soman, harnessed to the rotating set, who who went around head over heels operating the camera. He took up this additional responsibility of filming some of the crucial shots. One may note that in recent years such camera operations are done through gimbal mounted remote camera jibs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
INTO WEEK TWO OF THE ROTATING SET SHOOT
In shooting the scene/s scheduled for a given day, for this 3D film, I had almost completely resorted to taking shots setup-wise. This was just an elaboration of what I was sometimes forced to do during Thacholi Ambu (1978) and Padayottam (1982). Once a given camera angle is setup, you finish all the shots of the scene from that angle - this saves time on lighting and background arrangements. Since you are skipping those in-between shots in the order of continuity (for a later setup), it calls for precise planning.
I have seen hilarious goofups in continuity made by the associate director while shooting Kadathanattu Makkam (1978) and learned from Stanley Jos how to avoid that while doing Thacholi Ambu (1978).
When working with child artistes shooting setup-wise becomes a bit tricky. But, if you do a proper rehearsal of the entire scene before the actual shooting starts, it can be pulled off. With the rotating set, I had to be thorough with this setup sequence. Each setup would take hours to execute. In fact in a 15 hour daily schedule (2 call sheets), we could never achieve more than one or two setups a day. At about 3 shots per setup, we were canning an abysmal six shots at best!
By about 10 days of shooting within the rotating set, fatigue had started to set in. Everybody's nerve was on edge. Sheker and Tom had an altercation in public. The argument was as to who was responsible for the prep delays. They later patched up over 2 mugs of beer and a conclusion that it is neither of the two of them, but the director who should be held accountable. The actual fact was that everybody had become disoriented - literally and figuratively.
Here is a funny instance of what I mean by disorientation. In the 3 films we had worked together - Manjil Virinja Pookkal, Mamattikkuttiyamma & Kuttichathan 3D, I have always found cinematographer Ashok Kumar (Ashokji) a calm and cool character ….. speaking in husky bass like a Hindi film hero - when things go right. When things got out of hands he would be the epitome of a Hindi film comedian pleading in a shrill voice for every unit hand's help to get his lighting right.
Before going in for a take after the rehearsals of one of those rotating setups, Ashokji, with his assistants Vijayalakshmi and Nagarajan, strode in his Hindi film hero style into the set from the observation platform for some last-minute lighting corrections.
Ashok Kumar (in husky low register)
"Suno Bete, … I notice a dark spot there which puts Sonia in shadows when she crosses the ceiling fan. Listen, turn on that Junior light we have here on the ground …. (shrill voice) …. Arey Bhagvan!! my junior light …. where did it go …. we had fixed it right here …. on the ground, here in the left corner … Balancheattan! Babu? Who took away my Junior light yaaar?!!"
The transformation to Hindi film comedian was complete.
That was when Vijayalakshmi tapped Ashokji's shoulder to point diametrically opposite to the place they were searching for the disappeared light
"Ashokji …. the Junior light we had placed down on ground left …… is now up there at ceiling right!"
After a double take, further bouts of lamentation was heard from an already vexed cinematographer. For 3D shooting, the lighting has to have an intensity of illumination T 5.4 minimum. This is to get the depth of field that 3D demands. In this rotating set, Ashokji found he could hardly boost beyond T4. (Sheker had helped him in this by providing bright yellow sidewalls - the tradeoff being that yellow surface would look 'detail less' in 3D). So, while this inadequate intensity of illumination was being addressed, an additional migration of lights around the set was too much for the cinematographer to bear.
Since shots of the song sequence were now being completed in checker board fashion, by the 10th day of song picturisation only I who knew the general pattern in which the visuals were progressing. Everybody else had largely reposed their faith on me! Even the assistant directors were not able to grasp the continuity of shots … partly due to the fact that I had difficulty conveying a visual narrative and then transposing it into how that visual was being realized in the rotative setups. Every time inside my head I was working out the rotative setups needed for a visual …. and then conveying just the execution methods. Everybody followed my instructions and focused only on the immediate shot ahead of them. It would have been very simple if we had computer tools and digital image grabs those days. With a rudimentary storyboard or even a previz application, things could have been made known to everybody around. So by the second week I had painted myself into a corner where even Sheker couldn't help me. I had two parallel tracks running in my mind. One was the shot-to-shot song visuals, the other, the operative steps to realize those visuals. It became my responsibility to keep track of the action continuity as well - all the shots being taken at random. I am sure Ashokji had given up on the losing battle to maintain his lighting continuity.
My sleeping hours were down to four those nights. Dreams were full of disoriented landscapes which I was trying to set right with my unit crew. But daytime was fine. Even with so much responsibility weighing on my conscience (I usually delegate away tasks as much as possible) I enjoyed a surprisingly blissful confidence those two weeks. One reason was that the shots looked promising … both in the execution and later in the rush-prints. The other reason was that I had Holy Eucharist everyday. Most of us humans turn to the Almighty during our hours of crisis. I possessed an internal calmness those days.(Though I do remember once yelling at poor Ashokji for doing in haste a camera pan just before the youngest boy Mukesh, perched in a precarious position, could render his reaction. That reaction was lost. It was a take we all knew could not be repeated). And the improvised gags kept coming and coming ….. till the checker board of shots was completed ….. almost.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
THE 'MISSING' SHOT
From the time I first heard the song track of the 'gravity illusion song', I was irritated by a four bar phrase of Korg Synthesiser notes in the song.
It came just before the opening voice part (pallavi).
First of all, it was too short and abrupt for any visual rendering. Secondly, it was comical and jarring - compared with the poignance of the rest of the song. If I had been present at Prasad 70mm recording division at Madras during the recording, I would have requested maestro Ilayarajah to cut it out. But, having personally come to know that the maestro was one person who sometimes saw things more clearly than even the conceivers themselves (!) (this statement was made by none other than Mani Rathnam himself), I thought it better to attend more pressing issues at Kakkanad and depute Raghunath Paleri for the recording session at Madras. And, our guru/ editor T.R. Sekher Sar, had also attended the recording session.
Now, listening to the vexing four bar phrase, my irritation kept growing. Since I couldn't call up and complain to the great maestro, I vented my frustration on poor Raghu …. and also at Sekher Sar when from Madras he came down to Kakkanad to oversee some of the shoot.
"Sekher Sar, how am I supposed to visualize a 4 bars comical phrase? Didn't you notice … it stands out from the rest of the music?"
(The entire song was with acoustic instruments - flutes, violins, nadaswaram. This one piece alone was synthesizer keyboard).
Sekher Sar -
"Jijokutta, …. Ilayarajah is a Tamilian like me …. you know about our Tamil sensibilities …. even I had thought you could show a Kuttichathan's funny face on those 4 bars!"
That was Sekher Sar bend over backwards to humor me!
"But since you yourself had said …. everything else about the two songs is just great ….. consider this as just a minor issue …. has to be taken in your stride"
In those days of my unbridled zest to have everything done as I intended it, Sekher Sar had sometimes made me aware how God intends certain things differently …. things pertaining to filmmaking discipline.
Then Sekher Sar made a wink and a suggestive snipping action with his fingers. (That is again one visual that remains with me even after 3 decades - like the one, the Kuttichathan impersonation, Rajeev did on the fan hub). What transpired through that silent communication between the editor and this director was an ultimate way around. We had many times in the past done 'music edits' on the song tracks without even the music director realizing it. It was a technique that needed acute rhythm sense and a proper selection of the edit points. Even before computers entered the recording profession, I had surprised my colleagues by doing such edits which most of them were even unaware that it could be done at all (*refer notes). But there is a sensitive issue of etiquette involved. It is not fair to do a hatchet job on another artist's creativity. Yet, I knew I could remove those 4 bars without even Ilayarajah realizing.
(In fact, out of sheer necessity, I had done one such 'job' for film Poove Poochooda Va (1985) and confessed to the maestro later. He said he never noticed … but said he had been wondering about a landing chord in D minor - a transition in that song inmajor scale, that went missing due to my edit! That taught me the lesson that there was more to music editing than in/out points).
At the back of my mind I knew that in an absolute sense there is no such thing as a 'wrong music phrase'. It would be like saying 'a bad color'. There is none. The propriety (or impropriety) of a single music piece is in its placement …. like that of any color when selecting a color pantome. It would be my responsibility now to find a visual to make the 4 bars of Korg look proper. It was a challenge. Challenge? Fine! But there was no answer coming in the last two months. And now we were onto the last day of shoot. On the checker board of shot divisions, I had already picturised the introduction music before the 4 Korg bars …. and also the pallavi lines after that. If this gap ought to be filled, now there was not much leeway. I had resigned myself to the eventuality of chopping away those 4 bars.
On what was supposed to be the very last day of the song shoot (there were many such days expected to be the last), during a lighting break we were standing beneath the rotating set at the trapdoor entrance. Raghu and I were watching as art and direction assistants went about their tasks.That was when a flamboyant Mathew Paul (Chenda Mathen) walked in from the nearby floor where his 'fire arrow' riggings after many, many disastrous failures, had finally been done right.
His department had been at the receiving end of many jokes for their initial failures.(*refer notes). With most of the riggings now successfully completed, Mathen now found time to drop in and return the compliments he had once received from the rest of the departments.
Mathen (in a very loud voice) -
"Hello sirs, I hear that you aim to set a new record in inefficiency …. Mr. Paleri, what will Papa have to say about this? (doing a Papa impersonation) 'Aaooo, enthayee? .. Remember! … we have a job to complete ….. this movie has to get released someday' … And, you guys are hanging around here for three weeks?"
Actually, Mathen had already executed two riggings within the rotating set - 'the animation of toys' and 'the rum bottle floating'. Now he was there only to rub salt into the wounds.
"I see, …. this set rotates, eh?… wonderful !! But seems like everybody is tumbling around here ….. anyway, whose crazy idea is this?"
That was when Sheker was coming down the trapdoor steps listening to this one sided conversation.
And for the second time in three months I saw Raghu, without hesitation, give the credit where it was due.
"He. This man here … calls himself an art director …. he is the one who sold us this idea".
Raghu says this pointing to Sheker.
"What do you mean?"
"I was telling this inquisitor that it was the art director who mooted the absurd idea of rotating a stationary set"
"I would consider the writer equally guilty"
"No, no, I was misled …. I was told that the magic can be .. as simple as this … (snaps his fingers). It was the art director's absurdity"
"It is the writer's concept that is absurd. Everything in the book of art direction about this magic stands up to the scrutiny of logic "
"Oh, yeah? Cite one instance where my writing doesn't meet your stringent standards of logic in the book of script writing".
"Oh, that is easy! …. All components in this rotating room above us follow the law of gravity. Now tell me dear writer, why doesn't the girl's dress fall down when they go upside down? If that too is magic, where in your narrative did you cover that logic?"
So far I was only half listening to this trash talk. At this point I looked sharply at Sheker.
"What did you say?"
"What you heard just now …. this writer hasn't explained what makes garments defy gravity. At the least, I would have expected Kuttichathan to straighten up the dresses of …."
"THAT IS THE SHOT …. I got it … I got it"
That was a shout from me.
"I got the missing shot … "
Everybody was startled.
Before I could call everyone to execute this, word had got around in hoarse whispers " … there is a shot missing!" …and people started gathering around me
"Sir, we hear there is one missing shot to be taken ….. are there more such missing?"
"No, no, hee hee, don't worry … no more, … only one … in fact it is quite simple .. most simple …. just bring down the rig's side #1 to the bottom, arrest the rig for a static shot, camera position upside down and locked. Call the children, ask Das to string child Sonia's cap and skirt with threads …. on 4 bars Korg music the skirt has to be pulled up ….. flowing upwards to cover her face … quick, quick".
Thus the 'missing' shot was taken …. and with a couple more shots, the song was completed that day.
Today, I would consider this as the best shot of my film career. Not only the way the visual had come in to fill a crucial gap, but also there is a tongue-in-cheek humor about the magic here.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A GIRL IN STALLS FRONT ROW, VADODARA.
Early in the spring of 1985 we were releasing Chotta Chetan in Rajsree Cinema at Vadodara. I was then in charge of the team that covered Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Bhavnagar & Junagadh in Gujarat - six centers in one week. After completing the 3D theatre conversion (*refer notes) overnight, observing the audience reaction for the very first show was always our habit ... before we proceeded to the next center. At Rajsree Cinema, Vadodara, I noticed this girl of about eight years sitting with her family in the front row of seats in the stalls. (I haven't figured out why they called the first class section as 'stalls' in north India. Was it because they were right behind the canteen stalls?) The girl, holding on with both hands to her 3D spectacles, was not reacting to the gags. Very unusual. She wasn't startled like others when off-the-screen objects came hurling! Is she immune to stereoscopy? I wondered. (about one-in-a-million people are … their brain cannot be fooled into thinking that the two images seen through the 3D glasses represent a real life vision). It was not just the 3D. This girl seemed immune to the film's humor; not even a smile when on screen Master Suresh tripped over and fell. Quite a tough nut. Maybe, …. Gujarati kids are different from those in southern Indian states …. I was hoping this immunity to humor is limited to eight years old Gujju girls of Vadodara alone. That was when child Sonia's skirt dropped down .. whoosh! I saw that girl jump out of her seat shrieking and erupting into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Thank You God! So it worked for every eight-year-old-girl-child in Vadodara too.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
THE LENGTHY SHOTS.
Some of the lengthiest shots in Kuttichathan were those in the rotating set. This was to sustain the visual …. so that the audience got the orientation (or disorientation?) right. It gets more difficult to sustain audience interest (in our case, the performers' interest too) as the duration of a shot increases. A full 360 degrees walk by the kids in the first pallavi is one such lengthy shot within the rotating set. And, just before the song starts, the very last dialogue shot is also one of the lengthiest. I purposefully kept the yakketty-yak and humor punches going without a cut in this steady shot. This was to prolong the anticipation and also to contrast with the visual dynamics when the song started. Surely, my talented little actors were at their best here.
1. Johny, unit hand 2. Appukkuttan, sound recordist 3. Velappan, makeup chief 4. Warrier, accountant 5. Benny, unit hand 6. Bakker, unit driver 7. Pradeep, unit hand 8. Ramesh, production assistant 9. Francis, distribution head 10. Ayyappan, camera chief 11. Ponnan, key gaffer 12. Sidhan, camera assistant, 13. Siby Yogyaveedu, assistant director 14. Paulson, assistant director, 15. Ponnappan, production manager 16. Kanakappan, mess chief, 17. Jissmol, my sister with her infant.
18. Fazil, director (also in inset above, seen with Jerry). Fazil, a key member of Kavalam Narayana Panicker's stage troupe in its founding years, had during his college days along with actor Nedumudi Venu had made mimicry an artform in Keralam. Fazil was a college mate to my cousin Boban Kunchacko. He had coached my sisters from their young days in mono-act performances for school/ university competitions. Film "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammaku" was Fazil's second directorial venture with us; "Manjil Virinja Pookkal", 1980 being the first. (for both films, Ashokji was the cinematographer). Fazil started his career with our film "Theekadal" 1980 as its scriptwriter. I understand that film "Manichitrathazhu", 1993 remade into many languages - Tamil and Telugu "Chandramukhi" and Hindi "Bhool Bhulaiyaa" - is considered as Fazil's most celebrated work.
19. Isaac Peter, industrialist. Isaac chettan is my sister Jissmol's father in law. He had come with his family to congratulate the makers of the film "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammaku". The film was celebrating its golden jubilee run at his theatre "Isaac's Saritha 7omm" in Ernakulam.
20. Jomon, Jissmol's brother-in-law (Isaac Peter's youngest son).
21. Appachan, my Papa and Baby Punnoose, my mother. 22. Gopinath, head of finance.
A. Gunasingh, background score composer & flutist. Gunasingh was the music director of my film Padayottam.
B. Jerry Amaldev, music director.
C. Visvanathan, recordist.
D. Siby Malayil, associate director.
Siby, a neighbor of mine at Alappuzha, and one year senior to me in school at Leo XIII th. Siby, with a past full of film society activities, came to learn filmmaking with us during our film "Mamaankom" 1979. In the next two decades, with 50 films under his hat, Siby would become the director who made the most commercially successful and the most award winning films in malayalam cinema.
TOTAL 28 SHOTS
With the rotating rig operating, I had taken exactly 29 shots - all different. twenty-six for the song and three of chathan doing his ceiling-walk prelude. Of these, 28 are in the film. Only one shot was discarded - when the shot with room tumbling around the youngest boy Mukesh was extended by editor Sekher Sar's decision. Of course, I fought tooth and nail to save a 'precious' shot of mine.
Sekher Sar -
"This one shot looks fine for the entire six bars of nadaswaram … why we should cut to a different 'not as good a shot' for the last 2 bars? ….. I am removing it"
"Ayyoo Sekher Sar! ….. You know, how much trouble we took …… how much time it took for that shot?"
Sekher Sar -
"Jijokuttaa …. that is no reason to pass on that trouble to your audience!"
What he meant was not to be a 'perfectionist'. By one definition, perfectionist is a person who takes a lot of pain …. and gives it to others.
TO BREAK THE ILLUSION OR NOT?
One of the ongoing debates between Sheker and myself was whether in any of the shots 'the point of view of the children' could be shown or not. Now, that would mean breaking the illusion - by showing the audience the reality. Sheker was dead against that. But I had a problem … actually, two problems. On reaching the ceiling, when the children go upside-down, if for illusion's sake you keep maintaining the upside-down view, their face expressions and thereby the emotions would be lost. The other factor was that, even this magic of an upside-down world shall get visually monotonous beyond a point.
The issue was resolved a few days into the shoot when I showed editor Sekher Sar one shot taken rightside-up. It was then decided that in the second half of the song (second charanam) we shall show things as it is …. though it may look silly ... for example, to see a ceiling fan set on the ground pointing upward.
THE LOST GRANDEUR OF A SHOOT
Choreographer Madhuri had been with us from the times of Thacholi Ambu (1978) which had a sequence of 200 dancers ….. and it was she who choreographed the heroine's dual personality song in Manjil Virinja Pookal, (1980). What what is known in lay parlance as 'double-act' Madhuri's assistant Viji had danced as the heroine Prabha's (Poornima Jayaram) body double.
Director Fazil had conceived two personalities for Prabha - one sophisticated, the other folkish. Since it was the director's first time, it was up to me to keep track of the visual transitions - body doubles, camera masking, etc.
Madhuri Akka had a point there when she felt that our grand efforts for staging the gravity illusion were not seen on the screen. And I told her it was one of the ironies of filmmaking. It had nothing to do with our gravity illusion. I told her the rose flower analogy.
Consider a simple romantic shot being picturised - A hero is offering a rose flower to the heroine at sunset (the golden hour).
Illustration by RK
Since the mood intended is of dusk, …. a dozen strong lighting crew would get yelled instructions from by the cinematographer to keep the ratio of illumination constant, as the ambient light keeps falling.
The smoke riggers would be battling with breeze as they tried to keep the mist on the backdrop meadows flow gently.
A harassed florist expert would be replacing fresh roses for the umpteenth time as rehearsals progressed.
One group of art assistants would be carefully positioning the nozzle that at the crucial moment drops from above a water droplet on the rose…. while another group would be adjusting the fan that makes the flower sway gently. Assistant directors would be busy quelling the arguments between the riggers, the florist and the two art crews when their operations interfere with each other's.
The touch-up girl would be running into frame to wipe away the 'raindrops' that falls on the heroine's face - lest it seem that she is perspiring. The wardrobe boy would be jumping in to brush off the drops on the hero's vest. Wardrobe boy and touch-up girl collide in the frame, cursing each other. The director would be shouting for calm.
The watching crowd would be thrilled to be present at this battle ground.
Illustration by RK
After all this song and dance gets over, what do you get? On the screen you don't see any of the foregoing madness. All you see would be — A hero offering a rose flower to the heroine at sunset; that's it!
"You won't miss the rest of the exercise … would you?"
Madhuri Akka seemed just about mollified.
RIGGINGS IN 3D
Mathen here looking angelic in a photograph.
Actually he is poking fun of the still photographer.
That is what evokes a smirk from Sheker.
I don't quite remember how Mathen landed up in charge of this task. For this first film of his (though, he had some previous experience in helping with sound effects for my Padayottam 6T stereo) he was put in charge of all stringed riggings.
It included " ... the speaking skull, haunted skeleton, beer tray floating, spring doors moving, levitating objects ... " …… and the most toughest of all " ... flaming arrows from the haunted cross bows ...".
To help him, Mathen had Amaan from the Art dept. and also Tailor Das - a man with magical fingers on anything to do with thread and needle.
Since many of these riggings had to be achieved in 3D 'off-the-screen' effects (i.e; f.p. - forced perspective), the riggings were separately setup. And whenever they announced that a rigging was ready, we would break the picturisation of the scene we were currently engaged in, and go to shoot Mathen & Co's handiwork. Because this turned out to be a very taxing exercise, Mathen could rarely be free to attend any of the other areas (such as music) where his proficiency lay. It became a common cause for everyone to lampoon the rigging failures. Many a times we would suddenly be summoned to setup and shoot one of Mathen & Co's riggings …. and almost always we would come back disappointed to resume the interrupted scene. Either their rigging mechanism would have failed, or the threads would have got entangled or stereographer David Schmier would not be satisfied with the trajectory Mathen had sent the arrows on. With everything going against him, Mathen had a unique defense mechanism if somebody openly commented on a failed attempt.
"Please sir, come, come …. you are welcome to take over and demonstrate how well this can be done …. come, catch hold of this string … Alle venda, ... hey Babu, hand the genius that pyro trigger …. quick, quick".
Since the invited person would find himself unable to climb up to the precipice on which Mathen was perched, it would ensure the shutting of a jibing mouth … for the time being.
About two months into the shoot Mathen & Co got all of it just right, at last. The most spectacular was the 'haunted school skelton'. Rajan P Dev - the stage actor from our hometown, in one of his first film appearances as the school master in Kuttichathan, was in a hurry to leave for an evening drama performance that day. Even with a battle against this deadline, the skeleton rigging was pulled off perfectly at the very first in all takes … that too, away from the ideal shooting floor environment …. at an actual school location!!
FRAUGHT WITH RISKS
Throughout the Kuttichathan shoot which saw very dangerous riggings - pyrotechnics, flame throwers, flaming arrows, stunt driving - all with young children involved, I knew there were chances of accidents happening. In fact, this children's film was much more dangerous to execute than my previous war film Padayottam ! So I was always on the edge - "ഊരും വാരി പിടിച്ചു" (to use a malayalam expression of my mother's, when she mentions anxiety for her children).
We followed strict safety norms during our filming …. body harnesses & support cables, large protective plexi glass shields, and a convention that specified at least one unmanned full-identical-trial and observation before the actual take. Still, there were near misses … like when Ashokji just escaped flying shrapnel …. the children's rickshaw negotiating a turn at top speed barely avoided a ravine*…. and I was just pulled out of harm's way by Amaan when the pyro-technician, after a correct first round, erred in priming the second. Luckily, actually I should say, by providence, no mishap ever took place while filming Kuttichatan. Now, if I am given a second chance to do it all over again, a few of the things I definitely wouldn't dare attempt. Anywaythere's no need for most of that today, when manipulation of images can be done with software tools.
* It happened while re-taking some jittery shots. Most of the shots of the 'haunted rickshaw' were taken with the sturdy Mitchell Camera mounted inside the open boot of an Ambassador car adequately loaded to lower it down to road level. A very unconventional practice indeed, since this Mitchell, mounted on an archaic dolly was used exclusively on the studio floors - except for rare dual camera setups in the exterior.
I insisted on taking this Mitchell camera out for the 'haunted rickshaw chase' sequence. I was following Stereovision founder Chris Condon's advice of ensuring maximum image stability. Yet, our chase photographer Soman insisted on a few shots with Arri IIC mounted on vacuum grip. In this area of his expertise, he was a decade-old veteran. But, those shots turned out bad, real bad on screen. Soman looked embarrassed. On a later analysis it was David Schmier and I conclusion that the heavy jitter that made the image go bad was not the result of Soman's camera mounting …. but it was the vibration within the optical elements of the Stereovision 3D lens.
If there was any chance of using those shots, I would have gone with them. But, on short notice we had to quickly call re-shoot to do those jittery shots. The Mitchell camera was used for the retakes. There was no assistance in my department on that day of re-shoot. Also Rajeev, Sheker, Mathen and Raghu …. had all gone home. With great apprehension I started that day. The performing kids were so boisterous that they would not confine themselves to the safe areas they were instructed not to cross. This was no camera trick! …. Made specially for the film, that creaking-groaning cycle rickshaw could reach some incredible speeds …. as much as perceived on screen. Master Suresh would stand up on the speeding rickshaw and start jumping up and down. I was screaming at the boy and was threatening to put a body-brace on him.
Same location above - Kakkanad Municipality office bend, 3 decade hence (below)
That was when the daredevil stunt driver Thajuddin navigating the rickshaw made a small error. [Thajuddin from Alappuzha was a professional at marana kinar - the well of death]. We saw the rickshaw veering towards one of those quarried laterite ravines on Kakkanad roadside. All the children yelling together made the stunt driver correct his course in the very last moment. I sighed in huge relief when the shooting was completed that day without any mishap. Ironically, the stunt driver Thajuddin got into an accident and fractured his leg when he reached his home that day. I would say, with Kuttichathan I was lucky. [10 years later I was not that lucky with Kishkinta White Water Ride]. (Another Story. Narrated in the topic of Safety).
As they say in malayalam - കണ്ണേൽ കൊള്ളാനുള്ളതു പുരികത്തേൽ കൊൺടു പൊയി
ON SAFETY See Separate Memoir (link)
COMMENTS ABOUT TWO INDIAN MASTERS
Our Stereographer David was from Burbank, Hollywood. A very light-hearted character. Coming to the East for the first time, he found our filmmaking methods very fascinating. Being a thorough professional, he had very critical comments about the way we Indians went about with preparation and planning. But he was surprised at the way we improvised solutions for problems when they cropped up. Most of his comments were the result of culture shock, which he got over after two months here. Oh yes! He was shocked to see the iconic sight of cows on Indian roads ......
"Jose, won't they bite?"
He was fascinated to see huge jackfruits on trees ....
"Tom, the thorns on that, ... do they sting?"
Papa once asked him what he thought about our camerawork (sic) when compared to Hollywood.
"Sir, I know you are asking how good your cinematographer is. .... I tell you, American cinematographers of late ... they are decades behind. Thats why in Hollywood we get newer and newer promising ones from Europe. You saw me working on the 3D film Metal Storm (1983). Actually I was there as assistant to its cinematographer Mr. Mac Ahlberg. And it is due to my 3D experience that Chris Condon has deputed me now as the stereographer here. Mac Ahlberg who has recently come from Europe, is Swedish ... not American. An American cinematographer's style most probably won't be as good as his. Yet, I find what Ashok Kumar is doing here would surpass what Mac Ahlberg is doing there".
An year later Chris Condon of Stereovision came down to India to see the 3D release work we had done here. I was sure he would be spellbound to see a 45 feet 3D image at Mumbai (then, Bombay) Ambar Cinema at Andheri (now the complex is no more there). We had put up special high power Strong Arc lamps and Isco lenses to achieve this. That, for a techniscope image such a magnification was possible, Chris Condon had refused to believe. So after the show I was proudly waiting for his technical assessment on this. His comment was not on the technicalities ...
"Wow, what music .... such exquisite background score!"
My estimation of Ilaiyarajah went up further.
Early in my career I had noticed a few things while editing music.
If there is an error of one perforation in a 35mm optical or magnetic film - the minimum error you could make those days on film, it wont be noticed. One perforation means 1/100th of a second, measured in today's audio applications, it is about 440 samples. Even the best of ears won't notice an error of this duration. But, try a margin of two perforations …. almost everybody would sit up. Which means, human sensitivity to sound is somewhere between 1/50th to 1/100th of a second.
When you cut visuals to rhythm, you generally do it on-the-beat … or sometimes off-beat. Going strictly by the strokes, you expect the 'cut' to happen exactly where the beat falls. Now, I had noticed that a simultaneous change in beat and visual isn't quite impressive. Sekher Sar had told me that over many decades it had been found by the Kodambakkom film editors that it is best to have the visual cut two frames before the stroke falls. Many other editors would have arrived at the same conclusion on other parts of the globe. What I understand from this is that it takes slightly more time for our human senses to register a visual change (in this case 1/10th of a second) than an audio change. Hence in about 1/10th of a second when you have registered a visual in your brain, the music stroke should fall.
These observations are not hard and fast though. Changes in visual language by filmmakers, variation in audience's attention span in a digital age, etc; can bring about changes to these parameters.
A CASE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT (rather, of gender misdemeanor). Kindly see Separate Memoir (link)
THEATRE 3D CONVERSIONS. also, kindly see separate article (link)
Having done a marathon 3D screening installation in all the four south Indian states during the previous six months, [Kerala (in Malayalam), Tamil Nadu (in Tamil language), Andhra (in Telugu) and Karnataka (in Tamil and Telugu)], my team arrived with the Hindi version for the Bombay circuit - parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat where the Vadodara girl incident narrated above occurred. In every one of the hundreds of cinema halls equipped to run this 3D film, a six member team of ours would have worked overnight to set up projector, silver screen and the supply and retrieval of polarizer glasses. Our parent company Navodaya's outdoor unit members and film distribution personnel were divided into half a dozen teams that would handle simultaneous 3D theatre conversions at many parts of India. This was an enterprise that would see us to places like KAL, Birmingham, Dubai, Toronto … during those years. Everyday after having exhausted ourselves with a full night 3D Theatre conversion, the real reward we reaped was in seeing the audience reaction for a very first show at that theater. There was always something spectacular in seeing 'a first time 3D audience' going into screaming raptures. For example, I told editor Sheker Sar of this phenomenon we had observed during the releases in Keralam, before starting the first show in Tamilnadu (Satyam Cinema, Madras) on the Deevali day of 1984. He had never sat with an audience to see his 3D film.
"Yes, yes, I can understand … I too was so excited to see the film in 3D … even though as the editor I had sat alone during previews"
But the understanding of this seasoned film industry veteran fell a bit short. After the very first reel I see him rush out from the cinema hall to meet me in the projection cabin. With tears streaming from his eyes he says
"I have never in my life even considered an audience would freak out like this …. a film which I had handled all these months!!"
Of course, Sekher Sar is a veteran, but a very emotional a person too.
On a story written by my brother Jose, Rajeev Kumar's debuted with his first directorial venture, our film "Chanakyan", 1989 starring Kamal Hasan and Urmila Matongar. Sab John - Jose's schoolmate, wrote the script.
Raghunath Paleri directed his own literary work "Akaasathekku oru Jalakam" as film "Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare", 1986 for Navodaya.
Directing a song sequence (male lullaby) for Onnumuthal Poojyam Vare, Jijo is giving the 'looking point' to performers.
Raghunath Paleri and Rajeev Kumar (sitting) behind him.
Extreme right stands Makeup Artist Pattanam Rasheed.
Mathew Paul had earlier won an award for his 16mm documentary film "Rivers of Kerala", 1983. That was along with "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammakku", and he was felicitated together with Fazil at the shooting site .... hence the garland he holds in his hand. Mathen, again, won the President's gold medal for his documentary "Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair", 1984 - a biography on his own drummer Guru. That was when "My Dear Kuttichathan" also won the President's gold medal for the best Children's feature.
The four kids won national awards for their performance .... and because of them, the director of the film "Kuttichathan" also got awarded a medal.
In 1980, during the last days of shooting "Manjil Virinja Pookkal", it was actor Mohanlal who had brought in his friend Priyadarsan to Navodaya. In 1981 while working on film "Padayottam" 70mm, Priyadarsan brought in his friend and college mate, Sheker.
In 1983, at our hometown Alappuzha, while discussing the storyline of "Ente Mamattkkuttiyammakku", Siby Malayil and Fazil simultaneously brought up the name of Raghunath Paleri. One of Raghu's latest short stories happened to be then 'trending' (to use a modern term). Recalling the name, it was either my brother Jose or I who picked up, from our office files, an earlier letter requesting an entry into filmmaking written by this very same person. We immedietly sent a reply calling Raghu to Alappuzha. Later Raghu and Siby spent months working on a script - which unfortunately didnt meet our approval, and led to a lot of heartburn.
In 1982, much before Raghu came into the picture, Mathew Paul and I had undertaken 'study tours' to meet prominent people and get their opinion. Yes, we wanted to get a proper understanding of how an Indian children's fantasy film should be. We were very humble about it .... and they all very graciously obliged us. One was the pioneer of India's children's comics - Anant Pai. Meeting us at the Amar Chitra Katha basement offices in Haji Ali in Bombay and learning that we two 'kids' had come all the way from Keralam to meet him, Anant Pai invited us to his home at Worli the next day (a Sunday!) and gave his views during an hour long discussion. Continuing with the effort, we also met writer Zacharia, writer Punathil Kunjabdulla, cartoonist Toms, children's author Madhavan Nair (Maali), literary critic Krishnan Nair, director Padmarajan, children's magazine editor Mohan, etc. One brilliant mind who's life ended rather early, Victor Leans, was also another well-wisher.
Late 1983, noticing Rajeev & his friends' talents at University Youth Festival, it was Mathew Paul who had invited T. K. Rajeev kumar for Kuttichathan discussions.
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