What’s a day in the life of a film technician like? We attempt to find out through this fortnightly column.
Even if one wouldn’t know art director Muthuraj by sight, his set designs would certainly strike a chord – from the massive magician’s workshop set for Mersal to the realistic recreation of the bustling Ranganathan Street for Angadi Theru, the palace sets for Vijay’s Puli and those of the slums in Velaikkaran, they are all his brainchildren. When I visit his art studio in Valasaravakkam, he’s busy chiseling something for a few upcoming films. The studio looks more like a shooting location. The statue he’d made for Puli stands at the entrance as lovely sketches are stacked behind the sofa. “It’s the flower valley sketch for I,” he says, spotting my gaze, “and that’s the classroom sketch for Nanban.”
A model of Rajini the robot has pride of place. “Please don’t click pictures of it,” requests Muthuraj; he has worked with director Shankar on three films. The set work will be huge, he says, but working with Shankar is very easy. “He’s clear about what he wants. All roads that you see in the 2.0 teaser were made here. We created a 2 km stretch. The movie was extensively shot on the sets. The entire pre-production work for 2.0 took more than six months.”
Muthuraj often puts in gruelling hours; he recalls a ‘critical situation’ that arose during Shankar’s Nanban. “For the ‘Asku Laska’ song, you would have noticed a fully-painted train in the background. The song was shot in Tirunelveli. As we got permission to work on the train only in the evening, we had to finish painting the entire train overnight. Over 250 folk-painting artists completed it in the given time. It was tremendous work.”
(the train sequence starts at 4.58)
About his typical day at work, Muthuraj says, “My work doesn’t follow a set pattern every day. Inception to execution of a project takes a minimum of six months. First, I discuss the concept of the film with 30 of my assistant art directors. Then I sketch the basic set, after which it will be converted it into a 3D format. We check everything about the set including the camera angles and different views of the set in the system. We do not have to create an entire set these days. We do half of the work, and the rest will be taken care by the CG department. After initial discussions, we co-ordinate with the CG team to design the extension of the set in graphics. Then, carpentry work starts in my workshop and the execution of our paperwork begins; it will go on until the shoot is wrapped up. If I have to shuttle between two big films, the execution will be taken care by my assistants.”
The advent of computer graphics, Muthuraj declares, is both a boon and a bane. “For a 100 feet set, we’d only have to do 25 feet and the rest would be taken care of by CG. But, it is also making people very laidback. Any flaw in set design can be corrected by the CG and DI, they say.”
Muthuraj attributes his artistic prowess to his grandfather. “I developed an interest in painting when I was in class six. Also, my grandfather, who used to conduct stage dramas, is my biggest inspiration. He would create many small sets of a temple, a home and a hospital for his stage shows. When I get back from school, he would let me paint all those.”
Work is easy for Muthuraj when there’s a physical something to derive inspiration from. “If a director wants me to sketch a slum in Saidapet, I would go there, click a few pictures and sketch based on the photo references. But if someone tells me to create an imaginary world, it would be a challenge. I created a devil’s world for ‘Ennodu Nee Irundhaal’ in Shankar’s I, based on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ concept. That song’s set sketch took three months, and the execution took another three months. The most challenging to work on was the Malayalam film Guru (1997). Back then, there was no technological advancement. I had to create an imaginary kingdom for visually-challenged people – it was a period-fantasy film. An immensely satisfying experience.”
His upcoming projects include the Sivakarthikeyan-starrer Velaikkaran.“The slum backdrop that you see in the film’s teaser is just a part of a massive set. It took many months for us to complete it. If the director wants to shoot a scene in a particular house, we would have to get it shoot-ready. We had to recreate many live locations like that in Velaikkaran.”
The Art Director Muthuraj interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.