'Doing 2.0 is like working in eight films'
...says art director T Muthuraj, who is collaborating with director Shankar for the third time with 2.0
A massive wooden door and a spiral staircase lead to art director T Muthuraj's office, which is made up of containers converted into a workspace. After we exchange greetings, he says he hasn’t seen the final version of 2.0 yet, “but having seen the previous version, I can assure you it has come out very well.”
The art director has previously worked on exhaustive projects like Ponnar Shankar and Pazhassi Raja, but 2.0, he says, is a ‘different experience’. "Each film poses a different challenge based on its concept. For 2.0, there was a lot of research and development involved. We saw many sci-fi films and had to learn about humanoids and robotics," says Muthuraj, who commenced pre-production work in 2015, nine months before the film went on floors.
"After listening to the script, we created a rough concept for each separate segment. Then we brainstormed with the director and shared inputs with other departments. The scribbling stage helps us understand what we need and what we don't. The ones that pass get fine-tuned and made into miniature models. That's when we sit with VFX professionals and decide how much we want to extend with CG."
Muthuraj assures that every frame in 2.0 will indicate grandeur. "Each schedule demanded the attention of a stand-alone film. I'd say the work we have put in is equal to what we typically do in eight films. Two sets especially — of a 1.5 km long road and a robotic workshop — will be nothing less than a spectacle," says Muthuraj. "The properties we have created for the film are unlike anything we've done before. For example, Dr Vaseegaran's lab has robotic arms that help him around and such props had to be created with motors. We knew exactly what we wanted and the challenge was to figure out how to make it possible." Much of the team’s time was spent on creating an army that is used in the climax. "We had to create military tankers, strikers and mine protectors. The tank had to be built on top of a regular vehicle. For the Chitti workshop, we created hundreds of mannequins and extended it into thousands with VFX."
Given how special effects-intensive the film is, Muthuraj had to work very closely with the VFX team. Of the 2,500 shots in the film, 2,150 involve the use of effects. "We usually work with painters and carpenters, but for 2.0, I think we worked more closely with 3D model animators,” he says with a smile. “We give the VFX team the concept, and define the scale, texture, and material. We also have to work with the cinematographer for understanding of lighting, perspective, depth and colour palette. As for the costumes, we had to work on the body suits. For example, the 'C' on Chitti's suit has the symbol of a lightning. The make-up team had to be on their toes for touch-ups because of the simple reason that robots don't sweat."
2.0 is also the first Indian film to be shot in 3D and the art director had to keep that in mind as well. "3D demands more concentration on set design. The depth will be immense as the layers would be visible. In each layer, there has to be a different colour scheme to make it intensify the depth."
Muthuraj's mentor, Sabu Cyril, was the art director of 2.0's predecessor, Enthiran. "Considering it's a sequel and how a lot of characters reappear, we took references from the 2010 film. But to avoid monotony, we recreated everything, including Vaseegaran's lab," adds Muthuraj, who has worked with Shankar previously in Nanban and feels that it’s quite easy to work with the director. "Directors usually refer to the script when narrating the story, but Shankar has so much clarity that his narration makes you feel you have seen the film."
Muthuraj compares the creative process behind art direction to reading a novel. "While reading, you visualise, and similarly when directors narrate a story, we immediately get ideas. What I advise my directors is that we should shoot the grandest and most expensive set scene in the beginning, so that we can reuse the materials for subsequent scenes and bring down the budget. If we work everything around it, even a huge film can be shot inexpensively."
The art director feels that technicians are getting more exposure these days. But sometimes, the sets look so lifelike that nobody thinks of the art director — like in Angadi Theru, for instance. “I’m going around telling everyone that Ranganathan Street, as shown in the film, was a set. When people get astonished, that makes me happy. After all, if it looks like a set, it means we have failed."
I can’t help but ask Muthuraj about his next biggie, Shankar’s Indian 2. "We've started pre-production work and shooting should commence soon. It’s been 22 years, and we're still talking about Indian. So, we realise the importance of making the sequel count. I've also got Thalapathy 63, the Ravikumar-Sivakarthikeyan film, and Dhanush's second directorial which is a fantasy. It’s all good."