This was a proposed technical presentation prepared at the insistence of my friend Dr. Madan Karky for TEDxCEG themed "EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY" on Saturday 28th of April, 2012 at Anna University.
I couldn't make it that week since my Papa - Navodaya Appachan (aged 87), expired.
The gravity defying phenomenon discussed here is not a 'photographic trick'.
It is more like a stage magician's illusion.
It has to actually happen in front of an audience or the camera lens.
A Brief History:
1) The Devil's Swing
The first known depiction of this illusion appeared as fairground attractions in late 19th century Europe (above). Visitors were seated on a giant cradle erected inside the mock-up of an 'enchanted castle'. The contraption was then progressively swung ... to and fro ... till it went upside down (!) Actually, with all its components bolted down, it is the castle room that rotates on the cradle's axis of suspension. No wonder, an usher standing on the castle floor would have to do a disappearing act while the patrons take the swing.
2) The Haunted Swing (fairground attraction)
The Haunted Swing, a Midway attraction of the 1898 Omaha Exposition, as described in the book Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions by Albert Hopkins, 1897 (first edition).
with thanks to Sheker who after seeing this article reminded me of the book above.
3) Royal Wedding (movie, 1951)
No known records exist on how the 'Royal Wedding' set was constructed and rotated. But somebody has recently made a reconstruction of this on the YouTube.
4) Space Odyssey (movie, 1968)
This gravity illusion in the film '2001: A Space Odyssey' has been well documented.
In fact, Kubrick's masterpiece had two sequences that made use of Gravity Illusion
- a) Astronaut Poole Jogging, b) Space Stewardess Walk.
5) Inception (movie, 2010)
The rotating structure containing the film set of Inception is cylindrical in section and friction-driven by rollers at its circumference. This is the same as in the gravity illusion ride which opened in 2005 in Kishkinta Theme Park, Chennai. This calls for the entire circumference members to be machined and fabricated (below).
6) Kishkinta (amusement park)
Now that the narrative on the historicity of the gravity illusion has been completed,
over to the film My Dear Kuttichathan ...
Let's start the flashback with an understanding of the year 1984 A.D.
In 1984, the filmmaking technology was essentially chemistry, optics, mechanics and some electronics.
(No C.G. No apps.!)
There were no Home Computers those days. In fact as Kuttichathan was shooting in 1984 the Apple Macintosh was introduced to the world.
Other PCs of those days - Atari, Spectrum and Commodore, had only games, some word-processing and very basic programming.
It would be worth noting that video-film-assists, remote camera operations and such facilities for a film shoot would be available only by mid 1990s with the arrival of surveillance cameras, affordable servo motors and EPROMs.
In the year 1984, the 35mm Arri camera was the workhorse of the Indian film industry. For convenience, Navodaya had its own Arri model IIC adapted to take Stereovision 3D lenses and ground glass plate. Arri IIIs & Arri BLs were available on hire too. Also, on standby we had one sturdy 35mm Mitchell reflex camera with pin registration adapted for Stereovision. But we had decided to use the lightweight Arri IIC camera for taking any of our 'remote' shots. Remote shots are taken with the camera mounted (pan/ tilt locked) on a camera-car-rig or positioned amidst action too risky for a human operator. We intended that the gravity illusion sequence to be shot that way. With a 400ft film magazine and the film running @1.5 feet per second, the Arri IIC camera could run about 4.5 minutes before it needed reloading.
I (Jijo), was the only person with some film experience in that creative team of plus/minus 25 year old members who made Kuttichathan in 1984. Obviously, we were all naive but we were equally adventurous too!
Cinematographer Ashok Kumar (43) and Editor T.R. Sekher (45) were the only seniors in the core creative team. But then, their knowledge on 3D was nil.
It took the enthusiasm of us inexperienced kids to wade boldly into the uncharted technical waters, so blissfully ignorant of what was ahead.
(1) JIJO. My previous experience was in directing film Padayottam (1982) 70mm 6T stereo sound. And here I was with a new team for my second film.
(2) K. SHEKER, a multifarious talent, was debuting as Art Director. His one previous film experience was in designing posters & costumes for Padayottam.
(3) RAGHUNATH PALERI, a writer renowned in malayalam even during his teens, was doing a filmscript for the first time.
(4) JOSE, my brother. He had been informally assisting in all our family projects. Now having completed his Cost Accountancy, he was assisting our Papa Mr. Appachan and coordinating with Thomas Easaw the line producer in Denver. Tom was a family friend and as a filmmaker had been trained in 3D stereography.
(5) MATHEW PAUL. An accomplished chenda drummer, Mathew, aspiring to become a documentary filmmaker after this first film project, was in charge of 'rigged-effects' (thread pulling and puppetry).
(6) RAJEEV KUMAR, a dramatics prodigy in university competitions. In this first film for him, Rajeev took over the dramatics, leaving me to concentrate on technicalities.
(above) Padayottam 1982.
Cinematography by Ramachandra Babu. Audiography by P. Devadas. Music by Gunasingh.
Lyrics by Kavalam. Art Direction by S. Konnanat.
Our gravity illusion in 1984 started with these two individuals - Raghu & Sheker.
February 1984. Navodaya Studios. Kakkanad. Kochi.
The studio with its shooting floors, offices, residences, etc., was just getting completed to start shooting its first film. Raghu had been writing the script for one month now. The story was about a magical spirit who is befriended by three kids. He (the poltergeist kuttichathan) appears to them in the form of a boy.
When given to Raghu for scripting, the story thread already had one or two concepts for the kids' fantasy jaunt -- their rickshaw gets haunted; so does their school bell. Now while completing a shooting script, Raghu had to come up with other 'items numbers' to complete the children's fantasy voyage.
Already behind schedule, I was tormenting him … and Sheker was his consoler. They were sharing a room at the Navodaya quarters.
Apparently this was the conversation that was going on that morning ….
"In their first scene together, can kuttichathan have the kids walk up a wall?"
That was what Raghu had suddenly asked Sheker
"I have once written a story where an aged ghost comes down the wall to befriend a boy".
"Oh sure, why not? ... It can be done … by positioning the room sideways … anyway, this room is going to be constructed as a set ….. but, if I have to take that much trouble for making them climb walls, you may as well justify it with a major sequence …."
"Maybe, a song …. oh yes, a first song! … we don't have any yet"
When I walk into their room at about 9am in the morning Raghu says
"I have a song sequence for you ….. with kids running and dancing all over the walls"
"Great! But can you also please enlighten me on how to shoot that? …. unless you have got a kuttichathan accomplished in film opticals for 3D cinematography".
"There he is …. " Raghu pointed to Sheker.
"You know Sheker …. no opticals, no masking, no photographic tricks can be done on 3D. I can surely say that up till 8 am today morning, both the left/right eye images couldn't be simultaneously manipulated for a 2.5 inches spatial introcular. …. So, why lead this poor writer up the garden path?"
"Hey, hey, … who is talking photography tricks here?"
"I meant a repositioned set …. even a rotating set ….. like in Kubrik's film 2001 A Space Odyssey …. if it can be done in 2D, it could be done in 3D also ….. don't you think?"
My knowledge on that has not been refreshed for sometime. Obviously Sheker had studied it well at Karyavattom University Library during his journalism course. So, before I opened my mouth next, I retreated to the bookshelves recently arranged in the studio to pull out one book I knew that was there in the collection ….
It was the book by Jerome Agel "The Making of Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey". Kubrick's film was a landmark science fiction film made in the year 1968.
I had read it years ago. But I had not concentrated on the 'Gravity Trick'. Now here it was explained graphically in two large color plates.
Kubrick had two such sequences in his film - Poole Jogging and the Stewardess' Walk.
From the photographs in the book the set construction could be determined.
The illusion works on the principle that if a camera is held stationary with respect to a rotating set, people and objects, though conformed to the plumb and moving about naturally, would seem to defy gravity.
In 15 minutes I was back saying
"You are right Sheker …. it can work …. even in 3D".
I showed them the book.
Raghu, relieved that his writing didn't go waste, hugged Sheker. He started ecstatically describing the kids' pranks on the walls and across the ceiling - which I had earlier missed having underestimated Sheker's ideas for the realisation of the feat.
Yes, I was also getting excited about the possibilities.
But, how to move forward from here? How do you build such a rotating set?
Here Raghu left it to expertise beyond his and resumed his writing.
"Obviously you need to give me a giant steel squirrel cage - like the one in Jerome Agel's book. I can have the set constructed in timber within it" .
I remembered the experienced blacksmith Pappunni who had made camera cranes, powered trolleys, etc. - for realizing bespoke shots for Padayottam. But this was something else entirely.
"Would need some inputs about the set, Sheker, before we can decide whether this is practicable ……. Let us start from basics …… what is the size of the room you are envisaging?"
"You cannot have a real size room as yardstick for a shooting set, you know. The perceived dimensions on camera can get compressed by a factor of 30% to 40%. We also have to allow for working area behind-camera and lighting space above-head".
"Forget all that … maybe we would light up through windows …. or have real lighting fixtures in the scenes ….. Just tell me what should be the section of your room? The minimum please!….. Keep in mind that your 3D frame is landscape, not portraitish as in 35mm academy".
Sheker hemmed and hawed and came up with some figures.
Finally we agreed on a room that is 9 feet high and 14 feet wide.
"With only the kids inside, this room size would be adequate. But mind you, if an adult walks in, this would look small" cautioned Sheker.
The aspect ratio for a 35mm Stereovision 3D frame is that of Techniscope - half of the full 35mm frame - 1: 2.35 This is the same for Cinemascope Anamorphic (expanded).
Which means a frame that is 9 feet in height covers more than 20 feet in width. The room width 14 feet is amply taken care, if a 9 feet height can be composed.
In other words, at 14 feet width for the room, the limiting factor now was it's height - 9 feet.
Now, the kids have to be seen going around 360 degrees - floor, left wall, ceiling, right wall and back to the ground.
For that, at the widest view of the room seen along its axis, all the four bounding planes above have to be covered by the lens at the same time.
The widest of the two Stereovision 3D lens available was 20mm (slightly wider than the 40mm lens for Cinemascope).
Back to the bookshelves once again and I picked up an American Cinematographer Manual.
I went to the lens charts and referred the tabulations of field covered by lenses.
To cover a height of 9 feet with the 20mm lens, it has to be about 30 feet from the backdrop. Which means, the room had to be 30 feet long - if it were to adequately cover the kids' movements all round the four bounding framelines.
With the room dimensions 30 X 14 X 9, I went to locate Sheker at the studio floors.
He was supervising the Haunted House interior set construction. Being Sheker's first time, he was being chaperoned by several seasoned studio staff.
On his right side, there was Mr. Amaan - Art Exec with a decade of experience. To his left, there was Mr. Rajagopal - Chief carpenter from the times my papa made fortresses & castles for folklore films. Mr. Balan - Head Electrician for the past two decades, was behind him. Mr. Babu, the Key Grip, in front.
I gave Sheker the dimensions for the rotating room and asked him the load factor. He turned to Amaan & Rajagopal and they sat huddled for quarter of an hour to calculate the timber and plywood load. Then we sat with Balan and Babu to calculate the maximum weight for the lighting hardware that has to be mounted on the set. Adding the weight of four children, the maximum load was less than 6 metric tons.
I now had the data for moving forward - 30 X 14 X 9 size room, 6 metric tons load.
It was past noon when I got into the car and asked chauffeur Baby to drive south towards our home town Alappuzha. Midway was town Cherthala at about 25km from Kochi where there was an Industrial Steel Smelting, Forging & Fabrication plant of SILK (Steel Industrial Kerala) who had done the roofing trusses of our new shooting floor. The chief was Engineer Mr. Rajendran whom my Papa held in high esteem. Rajendran's team of young engineers had recently designed, constructed and erected the flying trusses of a suspended roof for the world class Rajiv Gandhi Indoor stadium at Kochi. If anybody around could do this rotating set for us, it had to be them.
Informed by phone from the studio, Mr. Rajendran was expecting me. During those days when even fax machines were in the future, explaining the matter across the table was the only way to convey information. And my request was simple - we need 30X14X9 sized timber structure weighing 5 to 6 metric tons to be rotated as seen in the film 2001 Space Odyssey. I showed them the book I had with me.
"We need something like that steel cylindrical structure shown in the book".
Mr. Rajendran called in a dozen design engineers to whom, with the aid of the book, I explained the shooting process once again. Now, it has always bewildered me that lay people immediately let go their daily priorities when some film-related activity occurs around them. In this case the professionals were more than enthusiastic to set aside their routine ship breaking and rail overpass construction and help in a far nobler task of getting four kids to dance on a ceiling.
Within an hour they came up with some solid ideas. They said that for our purpose a regular octagonal prism structure (instead of Kubrick's cylindrical) would suffice ….. the members can be of fabricated truss work …. the load bearing distributed over the sides … no machining was needed …. it would be most economical in our Indian conditions where labor (those days) was cheaper than material ….
It would look something like this ……
Jijo Question - How is it going to be suspended?
SILK Answer - Both sides. Centers of the octagonal prism. At the axis …. as in Kubrick's cylinder.
Jijo Q - Huge Ball bearings needed? If so, the housings need be machined … right?
SILK Q - What is your speed of rotation?
Jijo Ans. - Children walking speed …. at the circumference.
SILK Ans. - Then, bush/sleeve shall suffice. The shafts & bushes alone need machining.
My Q - How much time would it take …. fabrication plus erection? We need to construct the set after that.
SILK A - About a month.
Jijo Q - That's OK by our schedule. Now what would it cost? Roughly.
SILK A - Give us ten minutes. Once we calculate the quantum of steel, a rough costing can be given.
The cost most crucial factor for me. Unless it was justifiable, I could not even present the idea to my brother or to Papa. What would it cost? As much as the studio floor itself? Then there was no chance of even thinking about it.
They came back in ten minutes.
SILK Ans. - The total weight of the steel tubes required comes to about 20 metric tons. With our fabrication cost that would be about 1.2 lakhs (12 hundred thousand) Indian Rupees. Allow a margin of 10%.
That was when I knew that it was feasible. For, Kuttichathan sans major stars, at half the length but double the budget of our standard feature films, had a cost estimated at 40 lakhs (400 thousand) Indian Rupees (in 1984). Four percent of that budget for a major sequence can be justified. [But eventually it would turn out different. The final screen time of nine minutes for the rotating set sequences (which included 4.5 minutes of song) would come to ten percent of the film's running time. The rotating set song alone took 14 days of shoot … when the film's entire shoot took 90 days].
I told Mr. Rajendran that I shall present it to Papa and Papa will confirm. He told me that on a preliminary confirmation they shall prepare and give a final quote along with the engineering drawings. I got back to the studio by 5 pm. With Papa's approval the confirmation for fabrication was conveyed to SILK. From inception to green flag, it took just nine hours of that day in February for the gravity illusion to take shape.
For more details, see Illusion Memoir
For more about the author, see Jijo profile
(above) My Papa, Navodaya Appachan, with David Schmier the stereographer.
The Malayalam song 'Aalippazham' which even after 3 decades still enchants kids of all ages. And, gratifying for us mischief-makers who today have grandchildren of the age of these performing kids.