NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- Big budgets, energy blasts, and superheroes might be mainstays in the world of American cinema, but if "Ra.One" is any indication, Bollywood is ready to join the fight for moviegoers' blockbuster dollars - or rupees
"Ra.One," a film heralded as the "first genuine Hindi science fiction film" by the New York Times, makes its MASS MoCA debut in a grand homecoming of sorts when it screens tonight at 8 p.m. in Courtyard C, or the Hunter Center if it rains.
Although the movie was primarily filmed in India under the watch of Bollywood director Anubhav Sinha, it relies heavily on computer-generated effects, which were partially created by special effects supervisor Jeff Kleiser and his company Synthespian (sin-thess-pee-an) Studios. Synthespian Studios, which takes its name from the words synthetic and thespian to mean digital actor, has locations in Williamstown, Mass. and on the MASS MoCA campus.
Synthespian Studios, which was founded by Kleiser and his wife and partner Diana Walczak, was contacted by Sinha and his company after they saw the studio's work on the X-Men movies.
"The company wanted to create some signature effects on the film that were reminiscent of some of the work we did on the X-Men movies, specifically the Mystique transformation," Kleiser said. "They liked the look of that and wanted something similar to that and they sought me out."
Kleiser supervised over 800 artists from 18 different companies over the two-and-a-half production time of the movie.
"For Ra.One there are about 800 artists, working for 18 companies, mostly in India, but our company was at MASS MoCA It was a pretty international crowd of people," he said. "My responsibility (was) to become familiar with what the director is trying to get across visually through the visual effects in the movie. Once I understand what he's trying to do with the movie, then I design the effects, a strategic pathway to create the effects, hire the companies and individuals, specify their hardware and software, how they're going about doing it and supervise any testing that they do. And I'm on set with the director so when we shoot the live-action component I can take measurements and take photographs and advise him on how the camera can and can't move anything to do with technical or creative specifications on the visual effects."
The nearly two-and-a-half hour movie contained more than 3,000 special effects shots, much higher than most movies of that length.
"The main reason we had so many shots, we had a lot of visual effects in the movie to start out with, (and) there were a lot of shots that required processing," Kleiser said. "Because the star of the movie, Shah Rukh Kahn, after his character gets killed in the first third of the movie, in the rest of the movie he comes back as a robot version of himself that's come out of the video game in those shots he can't have any facial imperfections and that added to the shots.
But not all of the special effects came directly out of the script. Partially due to Sinha's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants directing style, post-production changes were added to the film, including the main characters' costumes.
"The other problem is that we bought these rubber suits, kind of like Batman suits for the good and the bad guys to wear while we're shooting them. We started shooting them and it started coming back and it was very disappointing it just looked like a couple of guys in suits," Kleiser said. "We made the decision that we would have to go back and replace all of the suits with computer generated suits that would look really cool. But that also meant that for every shot that the characters are in the movie, which is another 800 shots, we would have to match a computer generated version of them to the body position on each frame. It turns out that's a massive amount of labor."
Each of the special effects shots had a varying level of complexity and difficulty. One of Kleiser's favorite scenes, which was also one of the most complex, involves the villain and title character Ra.One getting blown up and pulling himself back together.
"There's a sequence that we did. We spent a lot of time working on, it's a pivotal sequence in the movie. (Ra.One) gets blown into his component cubic bits but the good guy, G.One fires an energy bolt and blows up a tank of explosives behind (Ra.One) and shatters him into his (bits) and the cubes all fall down onto a fresh tarmac that's being paved and the steam rollers presses all the cubes in to the hot tar," he said. "And you think, ‘that's pretty much the end of Ra.One. He's separated into cubes and he's buried in the asphalt. But later these guys come and install an electric sign by the road there and the cubes are able to suck the electricity out of the sign and heat up and pop out and roll out and reassemble themselves into Ra.One's body, and that was extremely challenging sequence, and we spent three months writing software to figure out how to do it."
The story follows the story of a video game designer, Shekhar Subramanium, played by Khan. Subramanium, in a desperate bid to create a successful game and impress his son, Prateek (Armaan Verma) creates a game with an indestructible villain.
The villain Ra.One (a shortened version of the techno-babble term Random Access Version 1.0) is a pun on the name Raavan, the 10-headed demon of the Ramayana. When Ra.One breaks out of the game to kill Prateek, it is up to the game's hero G.One (a pun on the Punjabi name Jeevan which translates as "Life") to save the day.
The film, which opened in 2011, was met was mixed reviews, but has garnered a strong cult following for its award-winning visuals. With a budget of $24 million, it is one of the most expensive Bollywood movies ever made. It won four awards at the International Indian Film Academy Awards, including best production design and best special effects.
"I think that here in the Berkshires, people haven't seen many Bollywood movies at all and if they have they're used to opulent sets and costuming and a lot of dancing. And this is the first time there's been any time there's been any science fiction in Bollywood. And (the audience) should come away from this film saying, ‘wow, Bollywood is going through a real transformation," Kleiser said.
MASS MoCA is screening, "Ra.One" tonight, Thursday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. in Courtyard C, or the Hunter Center if it rains. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for kids.
Andrew Roiter can be reached at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @Banner_arts.