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GRAVITY ILLUSION

My Dear Kuttichathan 3D,1984.

This was a proposed technical presentation prepared at the insistence of my friend Dr. Madan Karky for TEDxCEG themed "EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY" on saturday 28th of April, 2012 at Anna University.

I couldn't make it since that week my papa Navodaya Appachan (aged 87) expired.

- Jijo


pix 1 a brief history

The gravity defying phenomenon discussed here is not a 'photographic trick'. It is more like a stage magician's illusion. It has to actually happen in front of an audience or the camera lens.

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The first known depiction of this illusion was as fairground attractions in 19th century Europe (above). Within the mockup of an 'enchanted castle', patrons on a giant cradle were progressively swung and made to go upside down (!) Actually, with all its components bolted down, it is the castle room that rotates on the cradle's axis of suspension. No wonder, an usher standing on the castle floor would have to do a disappearing act while the patrons take the swing.

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The Haunted Swing, a Midway attraction of the 1898 Omaha Exposition, as described in the book Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions by Albert Hopkins, 1897 first edition

with thanks to Sheker who after seeing this article reminded me of the book above

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There is no known records on how the 'Royal Wedding' set was constructed and rotated. But somebody has recently made a reconstruction of this on the youtube.

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This gravity illusion in the film '2001:A Space Odyssey' has been well documented.

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Kubrick's masterpiece had two sequences that made use of 'Gravity Illusion'.

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The rotating structure encapsulating the film set of Inception (released year 2010) is cylindrical in section and friction-driven by rollers at its circumference. This is the same as in the gravity illusion ride operating from the year 2003 in Kishkinta Theme Park, Chennai. This requires entire circumference members to be machined and fabricated.

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Now, to the film My Dear Kuttichathan...

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Computers didn't exist then for film purposes. In fact, it was in the year Kuttichathan was made, 1984, that Apple Macintosh was introduced. Other home PCs of those days - Atari, Commodore, etc. had only games, word-processing & Electronic Display programs. Also, video-film-assists, remote camera operations and such facilities for a film shoot would be available only by mid 1990s with the arrival of surveillance cameras, affordable servo motors and e-proms.

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In year 1984, 35mm Arri cameras were used in Indian film productions. For convenience we had our Arri model IIC adapted to take Stereovision 3D lenses & ground glass plate (though Arri IIIs & Arri BLs were available then). Also kept on standby we had one sturdy 35mm Mitchell reflex camera with pin registration adapted for Stereovision. But it was understood that it would be the light Arri IIC with a 400ft film magazine (@1.5 feet per second, it could run about 4.5 minutes before reloading) firm-fixed/ unattended for taking any of the 'remote' shots.

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pix 2 devils swing Myself (Jijo), was the only person with some film experience in that creative team of plus/minus 25 year old members who made Kuttichathan in 1984. Obviously, we were all naive … but very adventurous indeed. Cinematographer Ashok Kumar (43) and Editor T.R. Sekher (45) were the only senior key creative members. But then, their knowledge on 3D was nil. It took the enthusiasm of us inexperienced kids to wade boldly into the unchartered technical waters….. blissfully ignorant of what was ahead.

(1) JIJO. My previous experience was in directing film Padayottam (1982) 70mm 6T stereo sound. And here I was with a new team for my second film. (2) K. SHEKER, a multifarious talent, was debuting as ArtDirector. His one previous film experience was in designing posters & costumes for Padayottam. (3) RAGHUNATH PALERI, a writer renowned in malayalam even during his teens, was doing a filmscript for the first time. (4) JOSE, my brother. He had been informally assisting in all our family projects. Now having completed his CA, in this project he was assisting our papa Mr. Appachan and coordinating with Thomas Easaw the line producer in Denver. Tom was a family friend and as a filmmaker had been trained in 3D stereography. (5) MATHEW PAUL. An accomplished chenda drummer, Mathew aspiring to become a documentary filmmaker with this first film project, was in charge of 'rigged-effects' (thread pulling & puppetry). (6) RAJEEV KUMAR, a dramatics prodigy in university competitions. In this first film for him, Rajeev took over the dramatics, thus relieving me to concentrate on technicalities.

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Padayottam 1982. Cinematography by Ramachandra Babu. Audiography by P. Devadas. Art Direction S. Konnanat.

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Our gravity illusion in 1984 started with these two individuals - Raghu & Sheker.

February 1984. Navodaya Studios. Kakkanad. Kochi.

The studio with its shooting floors, offices, residences, etc., was just being completed to start shooting its first film. Raghu had been writing the script for one month now. The story was about a magical spirit which 3 kids befriend. It (the poltergeist kuttichathan) comes to them in the form of a boy.

When given to Raghu for scripting, the story thread already had one or two concepts for the kids' fantasy - their rickshaw gets haunted, so again does their school bell. Now while completing a shooting script, Raghu had to come up with other 'items - numbers' to complete the children's fantasy.

Already behind schedule, I was tormenting him … and Sheker was his consoler. They were sharing the same room for stay.

Apparently this was a conversation that was going on that morning ….

"In their first scene together, can kuttichathan have the kids walk up a wall?" that is what Raghu had suddenly asked Sheker "…. I have once written a story where an aged ghost comes down the wall to befriend a boy".

"Oh sure, why not" Sheker had said "It can be done … by positioning the room sideways … anyway, this room is going to be constructed as a set ….. but, if I have to take that much trouble for making them climb walls, you may as well justify it with a major sequence …."

"Maybe, a song …. oh yes, a first song! … we don't have any yet"

When I walk into their room at about 9am in the morning Raghu says "I have a song sequence for you ….. with kids running and dancing all over the walls"

Myself "Great! But can you also tell me how to shoot that? …. unless you have got a kuttichathan accomplished in film opticals for 3D cinematography".

"There he is …. " Raghu pointed to Sheker.

Myself "You know Sheker …. as of today, no opticals, no masking, no photographic tricks can be done on 3D. You cannot manipulate both the left/right eye images …. so why lead this poor writer up the garden path?"

"Hey, hey, … who is talking photography tricks here?" protested Sheker "I meant a repositioned set …. even a rotating set ….. like in Kubrik's film 2001 A Space Odyssey …. if it can be done in 2D, it could be done in 3D also ….. don't you think so?"

My knowledge on that has not been polished for sometime. Obviously Sheker had studied it well at Karyavattom Library during his journalism course. So, before I opened my mouth next, I retreated to the bookshelves recently arranged in the studio to pull out one book I knew that was there in the collection ….

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It was the book by Jerome Agel "The Making of Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey". Kubrik's film was an iconic science fiction film made in the year 1968.

I had read it years ago. But I had not concentrated well on the 'Gravity Trick'. Now here it was explained graphically in two color plates inside the book.

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Kubrick had used two such sequences - Poole Jogging & Stewardess Walk. From the photographs in the book the set construction could be deduced. The illusion works on the principle that if the camera is held stationary with respect to the rotating set, it would seem that people & objects confined to the plumbline have defied gravity.

In 15 minutes I was back saying "You are right Sheker …. it can work …. even in 3D". I showed them the book.

Raghu, relieved his writings didn't go waste, hugged Sheker and then started ecstatically telling me those kids' pranks on the walls I had missed by doubting Sheker.

Yes, I was also getting excited about the possibilities.

But, how to move forward from here? How do you build such a rotating set?

Here Raghu left it to expertise beyond his and resumed his writing.

"Obviously you need to give me a giant steel squirrel cage like that shown in Jerome Agel's book, before I can have the set constructed in timber within it" said Sheker.

I had an experienced blacksmith who had made camera cranes, powered trolleys, etc. - for realizing customized shots for Padayottam. But this was something else.

I said "Would need some inputs about the set Sheker, before we can decide whether this is practicable ……. Let us start from basics …… what is the size of the room you are envisaging?"

Sheker "You cannot have a real size room as yardstick for a shooting set, you know. The perceived dimensions on camera can get compressed by a factor of 30% to 40%. We also have to allow for working area behind-camera and lighting space above-head".

Myself "Forget all that … maybe we would light up through windows …. or have real lighting fixtures in the scenes ….. Just tell me What should be the section of your room? The minimum please!….. Keep in mind that your 3D frame is landscape, not portrait as in 35mm academy".

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Sheker hawwed …. hummed … and came up with some figures

…. finally we agreed on a room that is 9 feet high & 14 feet wide.

"With kids only occupying, this room size would be adequate. But mind you, if an adult walks in, this would look small" cautioned Sheker.

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The aspect ratio for a 35mm Stereovision 3D frame is that of Techniscope - half of the full 35mm frame - 1: 2.35 This is the same for Cinemascope Anamorphic (expanded).

Which means, for a frame that is 9 feet in height, it covers more than 20 feet in width. The room width 14 feet is amply taken care, if a 9 feet height can be composed.

In other words, at 14 feet width for the room, the limiting factor now was it's height - 9 feet.

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Now, the kids have to be seen going around 360 degrees - floor, left wall, ceiling, right wall and back to the ground.

For that, at the widest view of the room seen along its axis, all the 4 bounding planes above have to be covered by a lens.

The widest of the two Stereovision 3D lens available was 20mm (slightly wider than the 40mm lens for Cinemascope).

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Back to the bookshelves once again and I picked up an American Cinematographer Manual that was there.

I went to the lens charts and referred the tabulations of field covered by lenses.

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To cover a height of 9 feet with the 20mm lens, it has to be about 30 feet from the backdrop. Which means, the room had to be 30 feet long - if it were to adequately cover the kids' movements all round the four bounding framelines.

With the room dimensions 30 X 14 X 9, I went to locate Sheker at the studio floors.

He was supervising the Haunted House interior set construction. Being his first time job, Sheker was being chaperoned by several seasoned studio staff.

There was Mr. Amaan - ArtExec with a decade of experience to his right, Mr. Rajagopal - Chief carpenter from the times my papa made fortresses & castles for folklore films to his left, Mr. Balan - Head Electrician for the past 2 decades behind him, Mr. Babu the Key Grip in front.

I gave Sheker the dimensions for the rotating room, concurred his views and asked him the load factor. He turned to Amaan & Rajagopal and they sat huddled for quarter of an hour to calculate the timber & plywood load. Then we sat with Balan & Babu to calculate the maximum weight for lighting hardware that has to be mounted on the set. Adding the weight of 4 children, the maximum load was below 6 metric tonnes.

I now had the data for moving forward - 30 X 14 X 9 size room, 6 metric tones load.

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The time was past noon. I got into the car and asked chauffeur Baby to drive south towards our home town Alappuzha. Midway was town Cherthala at about 25km from Kochi where there was an Industrial Steel Smelting, Forging & Fabrication plant of SILK (Steel Industrial Kerala) who had done the roofing trusses of our new shooting floor. The chief person there was Engineer Mr. Rajendran whom my papa held in high esteem. For, Rajendran's team of young engineers had recently designed, constructed and erected the flying trusses of a suspended roof for the world class Rajiv Gandhi Indoor stadium at Kochi. If anybody around could do this rotating set for us, it had to be them.

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Informed by phone from the studio, Mr. Rajendran was expecting me. During those days when even fax machines were in the future, my explaining the matter personally was the only mode to convey information. And my request was simple - we need 30X14X9 size timber structure weighing 5 to 6 metric tonnes to be rotated as seen in the film 2001 Space Odyssey making book I had with me. We need something like that steel cylindrical structure shown in the book.

Mr. Rajendran called in a dozen design engineers to whom with the aid of the book I explained the shooting process once again. Now, it has always been a wonder for me to see lay people drop their daily priorities when a film activity occurs around them. In this case the professionals were more than enthusiastic to keep their routine ship breaking & rail overpass construction aside and help in a nobler task where 4 kids dance on a room ceiling.

Within an hour they did come up with some solid ideas. They said that for our purpose a regular octagonal prism structure (instead of Kubrick's cylindrical) would suffice ….. the members can be of fabricated truss work …. the load bearing distributed over the sides … no machining was needed …. it would be most economical in our land where labor (those days) was cheaper than material ….

It would look something like this ……

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My Question - How is it going to be suspended?

Their Answer - Both sides. Centers of the octagonal prism. At the axis …. as in Kubrick's cylinder.

My Question - Huge Ball bearings needed? If so, the housings need be machined … right?

Their Question back - What is your speed of rotation?

My Answer back - Children walking speed …. at the circumference.

Their Answer - Then, bush/sleeve shall suffice. The shafts & bushes alone need machining.

My Question - How much time would it take …. fabrication plus erection? We need to construct the set after that.

Their Answer - About a month.

My Question - Thats OK by our schedule. Now what would it cost? Roughly.

Their Answer - Give us ten minutes. Once we calculate the quantum of steel, a rough costing can be given.

This was a most crucial factor for me. The Cost. Unless it was justifiable, I could not even present the idea to my brother or to papa. What would it cost? As much as the studio floor itself? Then there was no chance of even thinking about it.

Their Answer - The total steel tubes required comes to about 20 metric tonnes. With our fabrication cost that would be about 1.2 lakhs (12 hundred thousand) Indian Rupees. Allow a margin of 10%.

That was when I knew that it was feasible. For, this film sans major stars, at half the length but double the budget of our standard features, had a cost estimated at 40 lakhs (400 thousand) Indian Rupees (in 1984). 4% of its budget for a major sequence can be justified. [But eventually it would come out different. The final screen time 9 minutes of this sequence (which included 4.5 minutes of song) would come to 10% of the film's running time. Rotating set song alone took 14 days of shoot … when the film's entire shoot took 90 days].

I told Mr. Rajendran that I shall present it to papa and papa shall confirm. He told me that on a preliminary confirmation they shall prepare and give a final quote along with the engineering drawings. I got back to studio by 5pm. With papa's approval the confirmation for fabrication was conveyed. From inception to green flag, it took just nine hours for the gravity illusion that Feb day in 1984.

CONCLUDED

For more details, see Illusion Memoir

For more about the author, see Jijo profile


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My papa Navodaya Appachan with David Schmier the stereographer.

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Kuttichathan - Gravity Illusion Song. Ilaiyarajah song, remix by Sharreth. Lyrics by Madan Karki.

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