Netflix’s Vijay Venkataramanan on Betaal and the invisible work of post-production
In this interview, Netflix India’s post-production director Vijay Venkataramanan talks in detail about his ‘invisible job’and the use of Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos in horror shows such as Betaal
Netflix’s original horror zombie series, Betaal, is armed with 4K (UHD), Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos technologies—specs that are known to enhance the viewing experience, especially when it comes to thrillers and horror films. Post-production director Vijay Venkataramanan of Netflix India, who has managed several titles including Sacred Games, Delhi Crime, Bard of Blood, Guilty and the latest Betaal, talks about a little-known, little-spoken topic when it comes to streaming content.
Vijay’s team handles the executive aspect of post-production. He explains, “Our role involves working with production partners and helping find the right post-production crew for each project. Partners do the day-to-day work while we help manage the talent resources, relationships, and facilities with vendors.” The new release, Betaal, is from the makers of Get Out, Insidious, Bard of Blood and Ghoul, and is one of the first zombie shows to be made in India. “It doesn’t get cooler than zombies,” Vijay says with a laugh.
With this film, the task was to execute the creative vision of directors Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan. “Mithun D’Souza, the post-production supervisor, worked with visual effects and sound facilities in great detail. We looked to elevate the horror genre.”
He understands that his is an invisible job. “We should not distract the viewers with our work. Be it as an editor, colorist, sound or visual effects designer, we strive to make an impact on the subconscious level. We have failed if viewers say, ‘Oh, that was really nice’ or ‘That sound’s really cool’.”
The intent of horror films is, of course, to inspire fright. “Viewers want that thrill. This is where the tech really comes into play. Using technologies such as Dolby Vision HDR and finishing with Dolby Atmos, enhances the storytelling in these films in a way it doesn’t in others.”
On top of the ultra-high definition (UHD) quality available on Netflix, Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (HDR) helps to contrast the dark and bright parts in any given frame. “A lot happens in darkness in Betaal, but we try to make sure every single detail is seen on screen, while being loyal to the mood.”
As for the sound, Dolby Atmos with an immersive sound mix helps provide a 3D audio effect, akin to the surround-sound system in theaters. “Ideally, we would want people to sit in the dark and watch horror. On OTT though, you have no control over how the viewer is consuming content. We try to make sure that our content is conducive for all types of environment.”
Are all these features not far from being mainstream though, in India? Vijay replies, “A lot of people say such technology is the future, and to them I say, it is not. It is already out there. It is true that our users consume content in a wide range of devices, from high-end devices to small mobile phones. With our work, we try to provide the best user experience possible and also to try and future-proof. Two years from now, this could become the standard. Phones already have Dolby Atmos with some supporting HDR. Even for those who do not, when we fold down from such high specs, films display a lot more detail.”
Consistently maintaining UHD quality is a challenge. Vijay explains: “We have some of the best brains in the world, who work on our encoding pipeline. Keeping bandwidth demands in mind, we try to reduce Netflix’s traffic on networks, by cutting down almost 25% of our bitrate. In simple language, it means there’s lesser volume of data flowing for content. Again, this is why the specs become so important because even when we cut down on bitrate, the content can still be consumed in 4K.” The lockdown hasn’t really brought his job to a halt, he says. “We have found new creative ways to work from home using collaborative tools such as integrated edit sessions.”
Post-production is sometimes spoken about as a method to fix mistakes made during production. “We have been trying hard to change this way of looking at the process. Post-production begins these days even before scripting does. The term refers to everything that happens after production, but now we are in the digital era where these traditional notions need to be relooked.”
On Betaal, he shares that a lot of high-quality extensive prosthetics work was done and captured on camera. “Here, the reliance on visual effects was to enhance what they could not do on camera.” All this, of course, isn’t to suggest that the other aspects of filmmaking, like writing, aren’t as important. “They absolutely are. Filmmaking is a complex machine with multiple parts functioning together. If one part fails, everything fails.”
Starring Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra and Suchitra Pillai, Betaal is now streaming on Netflix.