A company that was founded in 1995 in a garage in Mumbai by a then 18-year-old entrepreneur Namit Malhotra, at the cost of Rs10 lakh that he borrowed from a bank and his parents, has become one of the biggest visual effects and 3D conversion companies in the world with over 4,300 employees. Yoshita Sengupta talks to Merzin Tavaria, chief creative director and co-founder of Prime Focus that recently converted the blockbuster Gravity from 2D to 3D, and has in the past worked on VFX and 3D conversion for big Hollywood films like The Great Gatsby, Total Recall, Clash of the Titans, World War Z and the much awaited upcoming film Sin City 2 – A Dame to Kill For.
Since when has 2D to 3D conversion been happening?
Conversion has been around for a while. But it was always limited to five to eight minute scenes. Th conversion from 2D to 3D for five minutes would take around two months.
In 2009, Avatar released and this opened a whole new world of 3D. The next big action film was Clash of the Titans and Warner Brothers (WB), who were making the film, wanted to ride the 3D wave. They wanted to convert the film (it was shot in 2D). We had done VFX (visual effects) and also 40 shots of conversion for Avatar. When WB wanted to convert Clash of the Titans, they asked us if we could work on the entire film. Their film was to be released in 10 weeks and need the conversion in eight weeks. They asked us if we can pull it off and we agreed.
How did you manage that?
We hired 300 guys in India and about 50-100 guys in Los Angeles and converted the film in eight weeks. The director and producers of the film also liked the work. But, there were some people who hated it. Some big names in Hollywood didn’t like it.
But, what it proved was that the concept works. With more planning and more resources, films could be converted from 2D to 3D. And that’s how conversion for entire feature length films started.
Did you have to develop the technology yourself?
We were not ready with the technology when we were approached by WB. For Clash of the Titans we had to convert about 1,600 shots. We set up the equipment, hired people and converted it in eight weeks.
What was the experience like?
Conversion is an exercise of skill and management. When a shot goes through so many processes and several stages, it needs to be tracked at every stage and this needs to be done with each of the 1,600 shots.
We learnt that a conversion at that scale needs a lot of project management skills so we worked on a project management software to track which shot is at what stage, who was working on the shot and how much time has been spent on it. Since then, we have converted about 35,000 to 40,000 shots across 30 to 40 projects.
In terms of technology, the software that we created for Avatar had to be revamped.
How did you land Avatar?
We have been doing visual effects for a very long time. We had worked on visual effects of a few films before Avatar came along. We have also worked on visual effects for films like A-Team, Total Recall, Sucker Punch and we just finished White House Down.
Three or four years ago, India did not have enough trained, skilled man power to convert films from 2D to 3D. How did you manage to hire so many people on such short notice?
For our first challenge Clash of the Titans we recruited 300 people and each one of our senior guys sat with groups of 10 and taught them how to use the software. Since then, we have had our teams from LA and London come to Mumbai and train people. We hire only freshers and train them from scratch.
Where do you recruit freshers from?
From animation and VFX institutes.
When Warner Bothers approached you and asked if you could convert the film in just eight weeks, why did you take up the project? How were you so sure that you would deliver on time?
That’s the challenge. There is always a doubt but it’s on us to make sure we do well. It hasn’t been an easy ride with any of the big projects that we have undertaken.
Why do filmmakers opt for 2D to 3D conversion over shooting the film in 3D?
It’s completely different. When you shoot a film in 3D, after every shot the director, the cinematographer and the stereographer have to go to a special room, see the shot and decide if it is good or not. That process takes the edge out of filmmaking. It also takes time to set up cameras. When the acting is fine, the scene needs to be shot again because it’s not technically perfect. When you are happy with the technical elements, the performance is not fine. It’s tricky. In India, actors don’t have the patience or the time to shoot a film in 3D.
While converting from 2D to 3D, you can see the entire film in a sequence and change them if you don’t like the final product.
When we worked on Clash of the Titans, the director had said ‘I am very close to my films and I am not comfortable packing it up and sending it somewhere in India’. A year later, he was on the phone saying ‘Thank you for the great job you did, especially the guys in India.’
Gravity has received rave reviews. Critics say it’s a technical masterpiece.
Gravity was an interesting project because it really comes alive in 3D. You have your regular films, and once in a while you get a chance to really show off. This is one of those films. When I first saw the trailer in 2D with free floating in space, I could feel it in my stomach. When you watch it in 3D it really works. It was one of the most difficult and the trickiest projects we’ve handled till date.
How long did the conversion take?
The planning started in 2010. But we started working on the conversion in 2011.
Indians are still not too big on producing 3D films. What’s the reason?
It’s the same situation with using visual effects. We do not have many superhero films. The biggest box office successes in Hollywood are films with visual effects but our biggest box office films are police action films. That’s what is working here. Once VFX starts picking up in India, 3D automatically will. We just need a few big mainstream Indian 3D films.
Is it because there aren’t enough cinemas for a mass distribution of 3D films?
Yes, in a way. But it’s growing rapidly. There may not be enough cinemas supporting 3D films but Hollywood 3D films that come to India are running to packed houses.
We recruited 300 people and each of our senior guys sat with groups of 10 and taught them the software. We hire only freshers.