Shakti Soundar Rajan: All the VFX work for Teddy was done not in LA or Mumbai, but in Saligramam
Director Shakti Soundar Rajan talks about his upcoming film, working with Arya, the challenges behind working on a film like Teddy, his response to criticism and more.
Following a zombie film in Miruthan, and a space film in Tik Tik Tik, director Shakti Soundar Rajan returns with one of the country's first live-action animated films. His Teddy is also the first Tamil film to use an Indian animation company to design a special animated character and only the second Tamil film, after Rajinikanth's Kochadaiiyaan, to use motion-capture technology. We caught up with Shakti over a video call to discuss his latest outing, and the challenges and criticism that have come his way.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How did you come up with a story around a character like Teddy?
Teddy came together quite organically. Very few films target the younger audience like Teddy has. I have two sons: one in kindergarten and the other in first grade. Rarely do they get films that they enjoy; that's why I chose to make this film. That said, we were also careful not to dumb down any elements. I think if a film cannot be watched by parents and youngsters, the kids are not going to be able to watch it.
Considering children are your primary audience, are you glad that Teddy got released on an OTT platform?
Every film is special. Everything about Teddy, including its post-production, was done keeping a theatre release in mind. I think theatres are the purest places for cinema consumption. That said, we are happy with the release of Teddy on Disney+ Hotstar because I want kids to see this film, and this platform seems to have the highest subscription among OTT platforms in India. The film is able to reach a pan-Indian audience on such a large scale. Our weekend audience was a lot more than we could have aspired for with a theatre release.
Can you explain the challenges that went into the making of Teddy?
A total of four departments worked on creating the animated character. One was a toy company in Thailand that designed the costume and the mask. The second is a theatre artist named Gokul, who wore the costume and executed the character's body language and dialogues on the spot. The most important department is, of course, CGI. Through performance capture, they captured the emotions and eye movements. Every pixel of these expressions is then computer-generated. The last department added the voice to the character. All these four elements together created Teddy.
Your protagonists usually have solid backstories that lend themselves to their character arc. How did you go about creating Arya's character in Teddy?
Rarely do you see such a well-defined character in a commercial film. In Teddy, Arya plays a character with OCD issues. His character is well-etched, and he has given life to it perfectly. The film is better because of him.
Arya was a dream to work with. I have heard a lot of directors speak about the comfort level they share with Arya, but to experience it is entirely different altogether. He makes sure that everyone feels at home on the sets. Rapport and trust are of prime importance to me. A film will never be successful if there is no mutual trust between the actor and the director. I trusted Arya, and he me, from day one.
People have made the invariable comparisons with the Hollywood film, Ted.
Those comparisons reduced with time. When the title was announced, there were comparisons, but we can't blame them. But after seeing the trailer and now the film, they are realising the difference between an idea and a full-fledged film. You should not confuse a genre with a story. Zombie movie is a genre and there can be a hundred films in the genre with a hundred different stories. To take another example, Will Smith's I, Robot and 2.0 are all robot films, but the only common thread between them is that they are about a robot. What the characters are up to in a film, what their dialogues are, what their emotions are... these are all important points and if these are original, that's what counts. Teddy is nothing like the Hollywood film.
There's a thin line between inspiration and copying. Comparisons have been made of Teddy to the Hollywood film Ted. How do you view this?
Those comparisons reduced as the months progressed. When the title was announced, there were immediate comparisons and we can't blame them for it either. But after seeing the trailer and now the film, they are realising the difference between an idea and a full-fledged film. A genre doesn't become a story. Zombie movie is a genre and there can be a hundred films from the same genre with a hundred different stories. To take another example, Will Smith's I, Robot and 2.0 are both robot films, but the only common thread between them is that they revolve around a robot. What are the characters up to in a film, what lines are they mouthing, what emotions are they conveying... these are the important points and if all of this is original, then that's what counts. When seen as a film, Teddy will in no way be like the Hollywood film.
Hollywood makes these films with a much higher budget, better CGI, and with elaborate schedules. How difficult is to make such a film here?
I think it's all about the mindset. I used up pretty much the same budget that I would, in making an action film or a romcom. Just because I'm making a special film, the budget does not go up. I have to work within the present market. For CGI, films are usually sent to America or Mumbai. However, the whole of Teddy was done in Saligramam, Chennai.
All your films have been mounted on unique ideas.
I don't intend to make unusual films. Whatever excites me at the moment decides my next film. I generally don't work on multiple projects simultaneously. I only have enough space in my mind for one film at a time, and once that's loaded, only that will be running (smiles).
Is it true that you are teaming up once again with Arya?
As I have done two films with Sibi and Jayam Ravi each, I will be happy about repeating this with Arya as well. It shows that actors want to work with me again and that’s the biggest compliment for a director.