There’s no doubt in my mind that S.S. Rajamouli‘s RRR is one of the most visually exciting films of the year, and it’s so great to see that the movie (and Rajamouli) is getting an incredible international reception, with critics (and audiences) around the world loving it, and clamoring for more. When I saw the film when it was released in March, I never would’ve imagined it would’ve received such a crossover success and compete for Oscars consideration. It already scored major awards nominations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the incoming Critics Choice Awards may give it one final push for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars? A man can dream…
From the moment RRR starts with three introduction sequences: “The Story,” where we learn how the British Raj kidnaps Malli (Twinkle Sharma), “The Fire,” where Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) plows through a mob to arrest one individual, and “The Water,” where Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) chases a tiger, there are so many visually overwhelming moments that you can’t possibly believe that, somehow, the film would top itself after one emotionally investing setpiece after the other. But it does, and it does it so brilliantly, for three hours and five minutes.
I recently had the chance to participate in a virtual press conference featuring the main craft team behind RRR, and immediately had to ask to cinematographer K. K. Senthil Kumar what were the biggest challenges of shooting the aforementioned “The Fire” sequence with Ram Charan. This is what he and visual effects supervisors Srinivas Mohan and Pete Draper, who also chimed in, had to say:
“I was waiting for someone to ask that question because it’s one of my favorite sequences in this film. It’s one that stands out for me as a cinematographer because it was designed in such a way that the camera becomes a part of the action. We wanted to make the audience feel claustrophobic feel and make them wonder how a single person gets into the crowd and get reaches his target.
That scene was like a story in itself. I used lots of handheld movement, and we tried to do as much of the action in camera as possible in terms of the crowd. The VFX was used only in the background layers. For me, the main challenge was to get that rustic feel, which we were looking at because if you look at Bheem’s introduction, it was in a lush green forest, and this happens in a dry place. So I wanted the audience to feel that dryness and be claustrophobic inside that environment. I think we pulled it off quite well, and I’m happy that we shot it before Corona came to India because after Corona, it was impossible to shoot that kind of sequence with so many people in it.”
Draper added that the “eye” shot where the camera goes through a fire to zoom in on Raju’s eye was not done through VFX:
“Lots of people thought that the eyeshot was visual effects. And even some visual artists thought the entire thing was a digital shot. There were some digital elements in it, but it was actually the crowd added into the reflection of his eyeball, and the little mound was painted back into the reflection 99.9% of that shot was practical. When I saw the shot being set up, it was just great. We’ve got a massive CG shot, and he just did it in one take. And I couldn’t believe it; it was phenomenal.”
You can check out the full response below:
And after two-and-a-half hours of mind-blowing, brain-melting action set pieces, its climactic fight scene where Raju and Bheem fight together to take down Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and the British Raj is an absolute thrill to watch on the big screen. Its visual effects are staggering and carry most of the aesthetic sensibilities of the scene. In the process of designing those visual effects, Draper talked about how complex it was in terms of logistics:
“The complexity that we had really in the forest fire was that we needed to have it within a controlled environment. We wanted to be able to shoot throughout the day, even though the scene takes place at night. So most of that sequence was shot on a large studio floor, and the only shot outside, for safety and logistical reasons, was when the motorcyclists were coming through and large explosions were going off. It’s a bit dangerous to do that on a studio floor with that amount of explosions. I think we might have blown the building up, to be honest.
But the primary thing was that the environment also needed to show a journey and a transition. We’re starting off in this remarkably lush space. Some people brought in all the lovely plastic plants we had on the spot. Authentic, nice-looking stuff. We also built three-and-a-half-height set pieces of tree trunks that were molded, taken, and sculpted, which we then digitally extended. That also needed to showcase the geography of what was coming next. So we’re going from this lush green to this dry grass area that catches fire, which then goes into a more open space area for the bikes to come through, and so on. In every shot, the geography is there; it’s laid out.
That is always in our minds. We should be able to know where we are at every single angle. Even if you’ve only watched the film once, you should know which direction we are in. Otherwise, the audience will get confused about what direction we’re traveling. That was one of the key complex portions. There’s also the obvious thing of layering in a metric ton of smoke, fire, embers, and arrows. But we’ve perfected the arrow shots during the first Bahubali substantially, and we were pretty confident that we would also nail it for RRR.”
You can view his full response below:
RRR is now available to stream on Netflix in Hindi and on Zee5 in Telugu. The film is also still playing in select theatres.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]