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The Execution of Gravity Illusion

My Dear Kuttichathan 3D,1984.

This is in continuation of Gravity Illusion. keynote presentation.

Please read gravity illusion (link) before reading this.

A memoir (12,000 words) by Jijo. Since its about a rotating set, one should expect tumbling to occur once into this non-linear narrative.

There exists no other external view or working stills of the film's rotating rig than the one given above. To prevent disclosure of how 'magic' was achieved in the said film, photographs explaining enchanted rickshaw, haunted school bell/ skeleton, etc., were never taken. This applied to gravity illusion also.

FEBRUARY - MARCH 1984.

The rotating set sequence was picturized in the month of may 1984 almost towards the end of a total 90 days shooting schedule that took to complete the film 'My Dear Kuttichathan' at the newly constructed Navodaya Studios, Kakkanad, Kochi.

By the end of february Raghunath Paleri had completed the scriptwriting. After that, a team of executers - assistant directors & production personnel, had taken up their assigned areas of work to start shooting the film in the march of 1984. The rotating rig's fabrication and erection was being done by SILK personnel in an area demarcated for it adjacent to the shooting floor. That was happening outside when we shot other sequences within the indoor sets at the floor.

Raghu had written one brilliant opening scene in the children's room … the room that was to be constructed within the rotating set. That scene saw the 3 kids getting acquainted with kuttichathan - the poltergeist … and then the children have their first fall-out too. Finally there was a closing scene in the set … in which the drunk father suddenly walks in and sees footprints on the ceiling!! Both the opening & closing scenes had been written down to the last detail. But what about the song in between these two scenes? Well; in the script it was then noted merely as 'a song sequence - kuttichatan takes lakshmi, vijay & vinod to walk up the wall & ceiling'. Much had to take place before visuals could be conceived. To start with, first we needed a music composition and then the lyrics written to that. We had the song by march 1984. But a conceptualization would depend also on how the rotating of the set would actually happen … and, the dynamics (dance movements) within it when it rotates. These, nobody could even foresee before an actual demonstration/ trial took place. There was a big 'if?' looming ….. and along with the fact this was in S3D - the first stereoscopic 3dimensional film in the subcontinent, it was definitely a very large 'IF?'

Before the creative blackholes, let me fill the technical potholes ….

APRIL 1984.

In the early days of april 1984, during lighting breaks at the main shooting floor, we used to drop into the construction site of the rotating rig now taking full shape. That was when some of the logistics of shooting inside it dawned on us ….. While the children would be performing and the camera rolling, everybody had to be OUT of the set …. we would have to supervise the action from outside. The lighting, scrims, cutters, bouncers, switchboards, other animation rigs and the camera have to be firmly fixed to the room for the given shot …. everything bolted down onto their respective bases. No operator of any of the systems - camera, lighting or audio, could be inside. No remote operation was possible - the only option was to power up or down (on/off) of individual components from the outside. Well, …. How do you take the powerlines in? Also ….. yes, we do kept saying 'set rotation'. But, How do you physically rotate it?

The second problem above, myself & Sheker had considered to address with some kind of a motor drive, electrical. But by the time I had the song and understood the melody & beat variations maestro Ilayarajah had painstakingly put in, I realized that the set cannot be given a fixed r.p.m. of our convenience. The giant rig would have to undergo the same variations - walk, stop, turn around, walk - which I knew the choreographer as per the song beat would make the children do. The rig would have to undergo those movements exactly as the children moved within it! During the time of conceptualization, the best we could do was to envisage a slow rotation … graceful movements ….. which maestro Ilayarajah as per my briefing to him of the song situation had done (in a tempo of 6/8, 94 beats per minute). Yet, this was not as slow as we would have liked. Sheker had wanted it as slow as Strauss' tempo (3/4 60bpm) for Blue Danube Waltz - which Kubrick himself had used during Spaceship docking - since this tempo for more than a century had proven itself ideal for rotating bodies. I knew that the effective tempo could always be halved by making the movements (in this case, footsteps) occur at alternate beats. It was of great help that Rajeev Kumar, though doing his first film, had a very good rhythm sense. I expected to rely on chenda vidwaan drummer Mathew Paul. But he was already entangled in the rigging strings (more of that later).

"You would have to get a variable-drive gear system between the motor and the structure's axis …. if you want to vary rotation speeds …. or reverse direction of rotation, so that the kids can walk back". That was Sheker.
He, the only person around for me to consult, was aiming for the skies. With what was materializing in front of us, he would have been envisioning an all-purpose-fully programmable-rotative-set of the future.

Myself - "….. Or, … a giant variable D.C. motor … directly coupled on to the axis shaft". I too was firing arrows in the dark (अंधेरे में तीर छोडना).

"Vallathum nadakkuvo? … Decide on something, before papa decides to box every one of our ears" - That retort was from Amaan, the senior Art Executive listening to our conversation.

Sheker - "Seriously, whats wrong with a gearbox?"

Myself - "No time for custom building my dear sir. To achieve such an r.p.m reduction, any engineer would tell you a worm drive is needed…… and, I don't have to be an engineer to tell you that with 25 tonnes rotating, the torque of that thing would tear up any gear …. if it is reversed the way we want it to happen".

Sheker - "(deep sigh) …. O.K. then, friction …. belt drive, I suppose".

Myself - "If we are willing to whittle down our ambitions so easily, lets do it the old-fashioned way …. muscle power!"

Sheker - "Really? …. how many people? Are you sure?"

Myself - "It would seem untidy, prone to human failure when fatigue sets in. But for achieving the purpose, since it is only for a few (!) shots, it would definitely suffice. … and no other options available to us in this limited time".

I was talking from my experience of turning a 250 tonne Tuticorin vessel over water while the camera was running. It would need sufficient hands, but it can be done. So it was decided to turn the rig with a dozen men - six each positioned on both sides.

And then came the instance when all of us were addressing the problem of taking the power cables into the rotating structure.

Sheker - "Could be through the centre shaft ….. it is a pipe ….. there is a hole through which cables can be taken inside ….. ".

Babu, the Key Grip - "Ente ammo, .. enthonna ee parenney? …. The cables would get twisted and …….. shredded"

Myself - " … can't risk 440 volts on a metal structure with children inside".

Sheker - "Can it be coiled …….. like in the car carburetor?"

Babu - "Who is going to keep track of those many … many rotations?"

Myself - "…. It calls for current collectors … graphite brushes rolling over copper rings … can somebody locate a mothballed genset?"

"Jijokutta, remember the big wooden cylindrical frame we had in Alappuzha Udaya Studios Film Laboratory? ….The one we used to wind developed film reels for drying … after the film had come out of the chemical bath?"

That was Chief Electrician Balan's voice from behind us.

Myself - "Of course I do Balansar, though I was only 6 years old then. ….. But how is it now relevant here?"

Balan - "Before I say that, ……. What is the maximum cycles any single shot in this set going to be? …… I mean the maximum number of rotations you would need for a shot in any one direction ….. clockwise or counter clockwise?"

Myself - "I don't envisage a situation where in a single shot the kids have to go round more than one full round - south wall, ceiling, north wall, ground - back to ground …. that is 360 degrees …. one rotation either clockwise or counter clockwise …. Oh, I get what you mean! …. to trail the cable ….. but, suppose I need 12 takes of the same, one immediately after the other?"

Balan - "I can give you twice that much! …. 24 takes, one after the other …. It works like this … Before the shot, you would know in which direction the rotation is …… we would have to have cable wound around the set before the shot in the opposite direction, 12 times. I have sufficient (3 phase + neutral X 720 gauge copper) cable length for that. On a single go, maximum of 12 times it can unwind, then another 12 times it could wind back. We may need to assign two persons on both sides to take the slack".

So it was decided. One more low-tech solution. Yet dependable, during the duration of a few days(!) of shoot.

FIRST WEEK MAY 1984.

On the very day the rig erection was completed, dozens of carpentry teams started work on the set. The frame itself was found to be easily rotatable by two persons. With the bush-bearings greased, and a few sand sacks of counterweight positioned here and there, it ensured a smooth rotation. While work on the rig went on, or when it was kept steady, there was a support system from the ground to keep the rig from moving and prevent its centre from sagging. It was just below the trapdoor entry into the set from below.

Within a week the timber work was done. And while the set decorators & painters did the finishing work, during the shooting breaks I spent more time here at the rotating set. Sheker by then was improvising gravity cues - to enhance the illusion …..

1. Solid masonry wall of exposed brick construction - except that the bricks were of styrofoam (thermocole).

2. Drapes & fabric chandeliers hung down - they were stiffened solid not-to-move when the room rotates.

3. Huge portraits of the girl & her mother (as painted by the artist father) - to give a definite visual reference of UP/ DOWN.

4. Some kinetic sculptures (mobiles) - again stiffened, not-to-move.

5. Styrofoam replicas of every item in the room (fridge, chair, bookshelf & books, etc.) - to be substituted for the real ones while shooting the rotating shots. (Sheker kept suggesting that if possible the objects' real life working should be casually shown - like taking a water bottle out of the fridge to show it is real)

I saw some lightweight cane furniture there. Among that was a cane seat swing. As he saw me looking at it sharply,

Sheker said "Amaan in his enthusiasm had bought that. I still haven't decided what to do with it. Don't worry, we'll arrest its movement, if used".

Myself - "Don't ! .. I was wondering how it would behave if left to swing on its own when the set rotates. It would be possible to have interesting interactions ….. between a seated person ….. and those standing on the walls. Lets have it suspended on ball bearings …. so that it can go full circle".

That was when somebody from the production dept. brought a helium filled balloon meant for the next day's outdoor shoot. It was for test/ approval and while our conversation was going on, they had tied it on a chair to prevent it from escaping. Observing that, all of us agreed that a balloon apparently floating upwards could be another gravity cue.

And during this time it was decided to have ramps (mocked up as roof supports) placed at the corners where ceiling meet the walls. This was to make the dance steps smoother for children to traverse the 90 degree angle. Sheker had designed the room 'terraced' - with different floor levels so as to enhance the 3D depth.

Since on the outside the room's base was more than one man-height above ground level, it was decided to built a 6 feet high wooden observation platform that would hold a 20 strong shooting crew who during 'action' would move out from the rotating room and observe a 'take' from the outside.

One of the nightmares for film directors in the '80s was their audience deciding to take toilet beaks during song sequences and walk out in droves from the cinema hall. It showed that those songs which couldn't hold audience's attention were ill-timed, ill-conceived and poorly picturised. The only people happy with such songs were the canteen contractors in the theaters. (We are talking of those times when inside the auditorium popcorn was not delivered, …. one couldn't text messages on their phones or surf sites on their iPads).

By the '90s, filmmakers had found methods to solve this issue by resorting to

(1) Quick visual changes & drastic cuts from varied angles for the song visuals - a trick adopted from music videos.

(2) Series of shots those were visually contrasting and dazzling.

(3) Overpowering rhythm beats.

So much that, in the ensuing decades it was imperative for Indian films that 'item numbers' had to have hordes of dancers suddenly materializing …. and/or, with the barest excuse the principal characters roam the entire globe during the duration of a song. I am not finding fault, for I too have resorted to such excuses to hold the attention of a demanding audience. A song situation is always a challenge … and it cannot be approached with a care-two-hoots mindset. Starting with film 'Manjil Virinja Pookkal' (1980) when I was new to this industry, I have made sure a lot of efforts were invested in song conceptualization, music melody, lyric, choreography and shot divisions. It required a lot of homework from the director. I was not good enough in some of the areas - selection of the melody, weighing of poetic imagery in native language lyric, etc. In such situations, I had urged colleagues who were talented in those areas to come up with their best inputs. I was always both fascinated and afraid about song picturisations.

In this case, since everybody in the unit had started humming Ilayarajah's melodies for the 2 songs, I realized that the first battle for a successful song has been won.

There is an anecdote of irony by an art director of the 1970s. To comply with his director's desire for a song sequence within the kitchen of the poor hero's mud hut, he ended up making the kitchen set much much larger than the rich heroine's mansion! Yes, be it a hut or a mansion, if you have to take a camera crane into it, imagine the size of that kitchen.

Now, imagine my plight ….. I have to picturize an entire song within a space rigidly confined to 30ft X 14ft X 9ft !!

Not just that ….. this 4 minutes song happens to come in the midst of a preceding scene and a succeeding scene in the same room ….. That is, for 9 minutes * my camera is confined within this 6 bounding planes. Is there a better recipe for visual monotony?

* except, for a couple of shots that were intercut to show the Black Magician at his Occult GPS trying to pin down Kuttichathan's coordinates.

Hence, to say it frankly, I was scared. The only way to escape visual drudgery was to assure the best performances by the kids, humorous lines that would evoke laughter, good dialogue delivery …. and gags that would keep audience glued to their seats. Yes, I was always seeking gags for picturizing the song's aantras or charanams,… asking for my colleagues' suggestions …. as we proceeded with trials and rehearsals for the gravity illusion song.

It would be simple to say that the ultimate gag is in having the kids walk the walls. Sure. But what happens once this bolt is shot?

1. The first (obvious) suggestion was to have them get on the ceiling fan. [During rehearsals I remember telling Babu to additionally strengthen the specially made fan's blades - so as to take the children's weight. That was when I noticed there were only 3 blades …. and asked them to redo the fan with 4 - since there were 4 children. Rajiv Kumar immediately solved it by standing on the fan's centre hub and doing a kuttichathan impersonation - hands on his hips, eyes rolling and swaying to the melody. Wonderful! That image remains etched in my mind].

Some additional gags ….

2. Children running around the (vertical) wall mirror.

3. They jump into the room through the window and the door - at surprising angles.

4. With Raghunath Paleri helping with idea-bouncing, on improvised steps it was conceived that the youngest boy was timid and hence always reluctant to get into an adventure. This very character trait of the youngest gave me an excuse to make him sit tight on the cane swing, while the other 3 proceeded up the wall …… and then, incorporating a later enchantment of the swing itself to draw the reluctant boy into the adventure. These stages of progression were segmented into song lines (music interlude) on the shot-division-sheets.

[An example for this. In the second music phrase there is a one bar (2 beats) flute flutter. A visual equivalent for this was given with a red&green overcoat falling off the swing. see video above. I vividly recollect deputing assistant director Paulson - since every other hand was occupied during this shot, to string up and yank the red&green overcoat from under boy Mukesh on that flute frullato. Such visual variations for music phrases I had learned by observing Director Vincent. Though an acclaimed director, the vetaran always came down specially to picturise songs in the films produced by Udaya Studios Alleppey. Our editor Sekher Sar also belonged to Vincent Master's school.]

SECOND WEEK MAY 1984.

A mishap almost took place on the first day of the trial. After the set work completion, it was found that the structure was very unevenly loaded. The carpenters as per their usual practice had strengthened the 'room bottom' with maximum support of wooden reapers under the 'floor'. (You may notice this in the photograph here).

It just wouldn't enter into their comprehension that there was no actual 'bottom' for a rotating room. Since now it became 'bottom heavy', it took all the people in the campus to lift the set around for its first rotation. But to everybody's horror, the obvious but unanticipated outcome was as follows … The octagonal structure - whole 25 tons of it, having gathered a great gravity potential, started rotating furiously when it tipped over the first half-circle (180 degrees) !! It went around 10 to15 times! People either ran away or stood rooted at this ferocious spectacle. Then it started rotating back creaking, thumping and groaning 7 to 8 times ….. so on it went … occilating back and forth, till after about 3 endless minutes it subsided. To think of it now, I go red-faced that a natural law was overlooked. I felt like kicking myself for not anticipating the obvious to take place …. once the imbalanced rig was tipped over to roll.

The rotations stopped. Thank God, the bearings held. After a long silence when everybody was wondering how to react, there was a command

"Good! The thing has proven itself … it can take even such a ferocious beating ….. So let us move to the next"

That was my papa calmly pushing everybody to their business.

As papa - the senior most person there, turned to the young erection engineer from SILK who by the time the rig took to scare the rest of us with about 26 rotations had already calculated the distribution of load, the man said to papa with equal calmness "About 2 dozen sandbags sir …. it may take a day to judiciously distribute the load opposite the heavier side".

Yes, I said a mishap that almost took place. It would have happened … if as per tradition set by great architects, Artdirector Sheker had ventured inside the set during its first 'launch'. His chivalrous request to 'stand-in' for the children during the first trial, so as to prove it safe for them, was denied. "After a dry run", I had said.

And a strange thing happened sometime during the completion of the rotating set. Rotating set was the last set work the carpentry department was engaged to do. By the time it was over, the chief carpenter disappeared! It is not known whether it was before or after the above trial. But the fact that the chief settled his accounts and quietly left before any of his crew members were dispersed, shows that he would have been under severe strain (and doubtful of the outcome) in executing this unconventional set. He had been with us for at least 6 films in the past 6 years. Yet he never came back ever … even to accept the accolades once the 3D film became a hit.

After the set proved itself to be 'safe' for rotation, during rehearsals the performing kids had a roaring time doing 'ceiling walks' and 'walking up the walls'. In fact, it got addictive … and we had difficulty in discipling them … and getting them out of the set. Why blame the kids!? … Every time there was a rotating trial or rehearsal, I got a long request list from aspirants among the shooting crew eager to take a ride inside the set. The only problem was that it was labour-intensive … given the fact that 12 persons were needed to 'operate' the rig, and 2 instructing the operation.

THE SHOOTING COMMENCETH

I remember that it was an early morning saturday we moved into the 'rotating set' to shoot. Having completed an outdoor callsheet quite early the previous day evening, at 7am I was the first person at the set (of course, after papa) to push the unit & crew towards an enthusiastic start at a new venue. Already the film was behind schedule - having taken inordinately long time in executing F.P. (forced perspective) or off-the-screen shots. From experience, it was always seen that a new shooting location or a new studio-set shall take a longer time to break-in. The props & decor would be just coming in, even as the floor-lighting would be going on. Art dept. would be battling for space with the lighting crew.To bring some organization to this chaos, there is this thing known as a 'lighting call sheet'. This is a time-allocation whence only lighting takes place after the art dept. moves out having their work completed …. yet, before the performers come for the shooting. But we used to follow a system papa had perfected. Fix the first camera angle and call everybody - yes, everybody .….. Once they see where the camera points to, work shall be done! Seems nonsensical …. but, thats how human beings are.

With Production Exec Mr. Anand on fire from papa, and our Line Producer Mr. Tom having missed the visa deadline of the foreign crew members, both were behind me at around 10 o'clock to see that at least one shot - the first shot, was taken before the noon break that saturday. Well, it did set a record when no shot was taken even by the evening coffee break. Lighting, cabling, bolting down switch boxes, etc. was taking so much time. Even a full-floor set (like the ones you see in mammoth dance numbers), 20 times the size of this rotating room, wouldn't have taken half this time. Late into night 10 pm, we called it a day without any shot being taken.

DAY ONE

Next day - Sunday, morning. I was there again by 7 am after the morning Holy Mass. And Anand & Tom again behind me by 10 am. The first shot which we were attempting - for which the prep was going on, was the song opening - the opening shehnoy melody 8 bars. Three kids walk up from floor to the ceiling on that shehnoy melody. For this, the set has to rotate 180 degrees on cue on this 8 music bars. The idea behind in attempting this shot as the very first, was because of its medium complexity and also to see how the result comes out on the screen. (Alternatively, we could have attempted static shots first). After noon break we let the kids in and started rehearsing. Loose light cutters, scrims and cables started swaying during rotations and hence had to be fastened before starting all over again. I always had an intuition as to when the combined performance peaks …. that is to say, … when maximum efficiency can be anticipated. For a complex shot, given the variables - background action, artiste acting, rigging, lighting conditions, camera operations, etc., you can see a combined peak in execution when it is just about reached. If your takes happen beyond the peak, then due to the monotony of repetitions you risk losing the best execution. You also lose your sense of judgement. What I judged as peak performance was coming just before evening coffee break. I discussed with every anxious soul - Sheker, Ashokji, Rajeev, Raghu, Amaan, …. Camera operator Soman, Audiographer Kurup, Still cameraman David, ….. Choreographer Madhuri, The Kids and their parents, Stereographer David Schmier, …. and particularly with Balansar & Babu of the unit crew, and finally the SILK engineers …….. and then, I called for a take. Camera chief Ayyapan loaded the film magazine onto the camera that had been fixed there for the past 36 hours. We were ready.

That was when to my surprise Production Exec Anand called in an objection. He pulled me aside to request delaying the take after coffee break. The reason? Well, every other day in a week he could somehow see that the morning shoot doesn't commence on 'raahu kaalam'. But today, he never saw this coming!! Sunday is the only day when 'raahu kaalam' falls in the evening! To start the very first shot of a most important sequence at an inauspicious hour! Though I don't believe in auspicious timings, normally I would have complied to Anand's sensitivity. This I couldn't afford to. Over the P.A. system I called everybody to a shot prayer, had the pooja done, camphor lamp lit & coconut burst, and we took the shot. It went to 6 or 7 takes, I think.

Everything went just about fine. Nothing spectacular, since the illusion has now been seen only by the camera ….. and till developed, it remained on film. I remember instructing child Sonia (who was on the camera foreground) to keep an expression of sheer amazement (despite the fact that wall-climbing by then had become a routine for the kids) and also to keep looking at the vertical plane ahead of her as if it were 'UP' …. and while moving forward to keep surveying overhead an entire new world … though it was only her room ceiling.

Exec. Anand personally took the exposed film of the very first take of the first shot by the night 6.30 train to Prasad Film Laboratories Madras. While we took one more shot that day - a lengthy shot in almost the same lighting setup as the first shot. It was the first aantra / charanam. It had only a 90 degree set rotation - kids climbing onto window from ground. But, in this shot I had also incorporated the first cane basket swinging upward - to test how this illusion works.

It was almost midnight that day when we packed up. I can say nobody was tired that day - not even the kids.

DAY TWO

The second day was largely spent on shots where the rig need remain static. It required just the positioning of the rig at an orientation the action was staged, and then positioning the camera - either (1) upside down or (2) 90 degree clockwise or (3) 90 degrees anti-clock or (4) right side up - as of how the illusion was to be perceived. For these shots, crew could remain inside the set. I could do trolleying too.

We were not venturing much that day …. just waiting for the lab results … fingers kept cross.

THE PROJECTION

The first news came from Madras Lab when we got a phone call at Kakkanad Studios (there were only landlines those days). The last time Anand from the Lab made such an emergency call was to Malampuzha shooting location during Padayottam (1982) when the film negative of one of my shots got fogged in the Lab's developing machine. It had a hundred dancers in it. But this time the call was not to inform any disaster …. but to inform that it had created quite a sensation among the lab technicians when they had test projected the first gravity illusion shot (in 2D) after development and printing. It seems everyone was enquiring Anand how this feat of wall-climbing was achieved?

The print reached Kakkanad early morning on the third day. There was excitement in the air as everybody thronged into the projection hall. This hall within the studio had a temporary 35mm film projector set up with Stereovision 3D projection lens. The sole purpose of this was to analyze F.P. (forced perspective or off-the-screen) shots which were repeatedly being taken till it was made sure the object/s came out into theatre space. This was the first 3D projection arrangement in India, and the only one for us then to view the picture in 3D. All F.P. (forced perspective or off-the-screen) shots would be developed on priority at the Lab, and sent overnight to us for assessment. The first gravity illusion shot was also now been sent on such a priority.

There was nervous silence in the hall as everybody donned 3D spectacles and waited. I noticed that Sheker was not speaking much. Audiographer Kurup - a projectionist himself, took over from the junior projectionist to make sure no mis-framing occurred at the initial projector roll. It was of course, a silent print. The first image came up on the screen - a steady shot of the room where 3 kids stood on the floor near the wall. Then …… they slowly walked up the wall ….. and got onto the ceiling! An exultant roar went up from the audience ….. I think I am the one who shouted first, to reverse Sheker's anxious face expression.

[Now, shouting was a regular feature in this hall …. when objects jumped from screen and went past your head. In fact, we used to rate the F.P. (forced perspective or off-the-screen) takes with the intensity of the shout it evoked. I heard the same said at 3D filmmaker Murry Lenner 's screening suite at Manhattan - children shouting there also is a regular affair].

(On one fine morning, while listening to the trumpet melody in the 2nd song, it was Rajeev Kumar's sudden brainwave to shoot that melody with 'elephants'. It is to my papa's credit that he appreciated a brazen idea coming from a novice, and arranged to shoot the very next day itself at Kodanadu forests - 50km east of Kochi. It so happened that there was this pachyderm calf "Giri" as everybody's pet there at Kodanadu. I think the baby elephant also had great fun. 2 decades later Rajeev repeated this feat in his film "Raja Ko Rani se ..")

As we piled out of the screening hall to continue the work with enhanced enthusiasm, I saw everybody beaming. Everybody except Choreographer Madhuri and her assistant Viji !

Myself - "Why Akka, ….. is everything O.K.?"

Madhuri with an unsure smile - "Umm …. yes jijosar, …. O.K."

Myself - "Then how come you are not looking thrilled as the rest of us? …… Did the kids miss any dance steps? … Amma Viji, what's wrong?"

Viji - "Sir, madam feels that it was more exciting shooting ….. she was expecting something fantastic on the screen!"

Myself - "What could be more fantastic than the magic of 3 kids walking up the wall? …. thats exactly what we had envisioned !! "

Madhuri - "Not that sir", started Madhuri hesitantly "…. didn't you notice the grandeur when we shot this 2 days ago? …. isn't it missing now?"

Nowhere seen on the screen now, what she was recalling, was the great efforts that had gone in …..

There was that huge octagonal steel structure - looking like a ISRO rocket laid on its side. By nightfall, the set rotating with 120KVA illumination burning inside, would have looked like an alien space ship just landed on earth doing its taxi run. Inside it, there were three/ four infant earthlings trying to keep themselves safe at the lowest point by desperately running back and forth as the huge horizontal kitchen mixie machine rattled them with its erratic blending.

Then there was song blaring loud, keeping the entire neighborhood awake.

Adding to the melee from the 'launch platform' was Madhuri shouting numbers at the poor trapped human kids as 2 dozen other humans stood besides her sadistically watching on.

More furore below …. On the ground, Rajeev was shouting out through his megaphone the rotation cues.

"ONE - TWO - THREE .. now clockwise TURN … side THREE to bottom"

"ONE - TWO - slow, slow .. now HOLD … side ONE for 2 bars"

Rajeev's instructions for the operators was same as Madhuri's instruction for the kids. There was one difference. The designer, instructor and operators had jointly worked out a system by which their rotation referred to the numbered facet of the room.

ILLUSTRATION 15

Displayed on the sides of the rig with huge lettering #1 was top, #2 was south wall, #3 was bottom, #4 was north wall.

That was because for the 12 operators while standing on the ground there was no way of knowing the orientation of the room at any given moment. I found their devising ingenious.

Choreographing the rig movement was not as difficult as it may sound. Because, for many years we had been used to teams of operators who handled camera cranes & trolleys. They would make their jibs move to the music playback. For a music piece in fact it is easier to train the operators than the performing artistes.

With all this tumult going on, there was a huge crowd from the studio neighborhood - mostly relatives of the crew, who had come to watch the spectacle.

Madhuri - "Two days ago, .. so many people had witnessed the grand spectacle being staged …… but now, … what we see on screen …." The Choreographer's disappointment trailed down to …. buts and ifs.

Yes, with all that effort gone in, still we see only a static room … and 3 kids merely walking up!!

Madhuri Akka had a point there. But I told her it was one of the ironies of filmmaking. It had nothing to do with our gravity illusion.

I mentioned to her the rose flower analogy (*refer notes)

Madhuri Akka was just about mollified.

I didn't anticipate camera operations within the rotating set. Mr. Soman is a camera technician who had designed and built a 70mm camera on his own. It is he whom everybody calls when it requires camera fixed onto moving vehicles with a vacuum grip. He takes those car races, chases and stunt shots. We had assigned Soman the charge of all mechanical riggings of film Kuttichathan. He was executing mainly the haunted rickshaw, the barroom levitation and the fire flute.

It was he who pointed out that in shooting the gravity illusion, camera can't be left without being operated - even if it does cover the area you require. The frame needs constant recomposing when the subject within it moves. Otherwise, it would look lopsided or mis-framed. He brought this to cinematographer Ashokji's notice and this was brought to my knowledge. I had never considered this aspect. So it was Soman harnessed to the rotating set, who operated the camera. He took up this additional responsibility of filming some of the crucial shots. One may note that in recent years such camera operations are done through gimbal mounted remote camera jibs.

WEEK TWO INTO THE ROTATING ROOM SHOOT

In shooting the scene/s scheduled for a given day, for this 3D film I had almost completely resorted to taking shots setup-wise. This was just an elaboration of what I was sometimes forced to do during Thacholi Ambu (1978) and Padayottam (1982). Once a given camera angle is setup, you finish all the shots of the scene from that angle - this saves time on lighting and background arrangements. Since you are skipping those in-between shots in the order of continuity (for a later setup), it calls for precise planning.

I have seen hilarious guffaws in continuity jumps made by assistant director Raghu while shooting Kadathanaattu Maakkam (1978) and learned how to avoid that from Stanley Jos when doing Thacholi Ambu (1978).

With children performing, this task of shooting setup-wise becomes a bit tricky … yet if you do a proper rehearsal of the entire scene before the actual shooting starts, it can be pulled off. With the rotating set, I had to be thorough in this setup completions. Each setup would take hours to be organized. In fact in a 15 hour daily schedule (2 call sheets), we could never achieve more than one or two setups a day. At about 3 shots per setup, it was an abysmal 4 number of shots we could achieve at best!

By about 10 days of shooting within the rotating set, fatigue had started to set in. Everybody's nerve was on edge. Sheker and Tom had an altercation in public. The argument was as to who was responsible for the prep delays. They later patched up over 2 mugs of beer and a conclusion that it is the director who should be held accountable. The actual fact was that everybody had become disoriented - literally & figuratively.

A funny moment that would explain this disorientation I would narrate here. In the 3 films we had worked together - Manjil Virinja Pookkal, Mamattikkuttiyamma & Kuttichathan 3D, Cinematographer Ashok Kumar I have always found a calm and cool personality ….. speaking in husky bass like a hindi film hero - when things go right. When things get out of hands he would be the epitome of a hindi film comedian pleading in a shrill voice for every unit hand's help to get his lighting right. Before going in for a take after the rehearsals of one of those rotating setups, with in his assistants Vijayalakshmi & Nagarajan, Ashokji walked his hindi film hero steps into the set from the observation platform for some lighting correction.

Ashok Kumar - (In husky low) "Suno Bete, … I notice a dark spot there which puts child Sonia in shadows when she crosses the ceiling fan …. listen, turn that junior light we have here on the ground …. (shrill voice) …. Arey Bhagvan!! my junior light …. where did it go …. we had fixed it right here …. on the ground, below here on the left corner … Balancheattan! Babu?? Who took away my junior light yaaar?!!" The transformation to hindi film comedian was complete.

That was when Vijayalakshmi tapped Ashokji's shoulder to point diametrically opposite to the place they were searching for the disappeared light "Ashokji …. the junior light we had placed down on ground left …… is now up there at ceiling right!!"

After a double take, further bouts of lamentation was heard from an already vexed cinematographer. For 3D's sake, the lighting was to be done for an intensity of illumination T5.4 minimum - that is to get a good depth of field. In this rotating set, Ashokji found he could hardly boost beyond T4. (Sheker had helped him in this by providing bright yellow sidewalls - the tradeoff being that yellow surface would look 'detail less' in 3D). So, while this inadequate intensity of illumination was being addressed, an additional migration of lights around the set was too much for the cinematographer to bear.

Since shots of the song sequence were now being completed in checker board fashion, by the 10th day of song picturisation it was only myself who knew the general pattern in which the visuals were progressing. Everybody else had their faith reposed on me. Even the assistant directors were not able to grasp the continuity of shots … partly due to the fact that I had difficulty conveying a visual narrative and then transposing it into how that visual was being realized in the rotative setups. Every time inside my head I was working out the rotative setups needed for a visual …. and then conveying just the execution methods. Everybody followed my instructions and focused only on the immediate shot ahead of them. It would have been very simple if we had computer tools and digital image grabs those days. With a rudimentary storyboard or even a previz application, things could have been made known to everybody around. So by the second week I had painted myself into a corner where even Sheker couldn't help me. I had two parallel tracks running in my mind. One was the song shot-to-shot visuals, the other the operative steps to realize those visuals. It became my responsibility to keep track of the action continuity as well - all the shots being taken at random. I am sure Ashokji had given up on a losing battle to maintain his lighting continuity.

During my reduced sleeping hours those nights, the dreams were full of disoriented landscapes I tried to turn right with my unit crew. But daytimes were fine. Even with so much responsibility weighing on my conscience (I usually delegate away tasks as much as possible) I enjoyed a surprisingly blissful confidence those two weeks. One reason to that being the outcome of the shots looked promising … both while execution and when later screening rush-prints. The other reason was because I had Holy Eucharist everyday during those days. This is something most of us humans do - during hours of crisis in relying on the Almighty. I held an internal calmness those days. (Though, I do remember once yelling at poor Ashokji for doing in haste a camera pan just before the youngest boy Mukesh perched in a precarious situation rendered his reaction. That reaction was lost. That was a take which as we all knew could not be repeated). And the improvised gags kept coming and coming ….. till the checker board of shots were completed ….. almost.

THE 'MISSING' SHOT

From the time I first heard the song track of the 'gravity illusion song', I was irritated by a 4 music bars phrase of Korg Synthesiser notes in the song.

It came just before the opening voice lines (pallavi). First of all, it was too short and abrupt for any visual representation. Secondly, it was comical and jarring - compared with the rest of the poignancy in the song. If I had been present at Prasad 70mm recording division at Madras during the recording, I would have requested Maestro Ilayarajah to cut it off. But, having personally come to know that the Maestro was one person who (according to nobody other than Mani Rathnam himself) sometimes saw things clearer than even the conceivers themselves (!) I thought it better to attend more pressing issues at Kakkanad and depute Raghunath Paleri for the recording session at Madras. And, our guru editor T.R. Sekher Sar was also there during the recording session. My irritation grew over time. Since I couldn't call up and complain to the great Maestro, I vent my frustration on poor Raghu …. and also at Sekher Sar when from Madras he came down to Kakkanad to oversee some of the shoot.

Myself "Sekher Sar, how am I supposed to visualize a 4 bars comical phrase? Didn't you notice … it stands out from the rest of the music?" (The entire song was with acoustic instruments - flutes, violins, nadaswaram. This piece alone was synthesizer keyboard).

Sekher Sar "Jijokutta, …. Ilayarajah is a tamilian like me …. you know about our tamil sensibilities …. even I had thought you could show a Kuttichathan's funny face expression on those 4 bars!"

That was Sekher Sar bending backwards!

"But since you yourself had said …. everything else about the 2 songs is just great ….. consider this as a just minor issue …. has to be taken in its stride"

In those days of my unbridled zest to have everything done as I intended it, Sekher Sar had sometimes made me aware how God intends certain things differently …. certain things pertaining to filmmaking discipline.

Though not discussed then, both the editor and this director knew that there was another way around. We had many a times in the past did 'music edits' on the song tracks without even the music director realizing it. It was a technique that needed subtle rhythm sense and proper selection of the edit points. Even before computers entered music tracking, I had surprised my colleagues by doing such edits which most of them were even unaware that it could be done (*refer notes). But there is a sensitive issue of etiquette. It is not fair to do a hatchet job on another person's creativity. Yet, I knew I could remove those 4 bars without even Ilayarajah realizing.

(In fact, out of necessity I really did one such for film Poove Poochooda Va 1985. But confessed to the Maestro later. He said he never noticed … but was wondering about a landing chord in D minor - a transition in that song of scale major, that went missing due to my edit! That taught me the lesson that there was more to music editing than in/out points).

At the back of my mind I knew that in an absolute sense there is no such thing as a 'wrong music phrase'. It would be like saying 'a bad color'. There is none. The propriety (or impropriety) of a single music piece is in its placement …. like that of any color when selecting a color pantome. It would be my responsibility now to find a visual to make the 4 bars of Korg look proper. It was a challenge. Challenge? Fine! But there was no answer coming in the last two months. And now we were onto the last day of shoot. On the checker board of shot divisions, I had already picturised the introduction music before the 4 Korg bars …. and also the pallavi lines after that. If this gap ought to be filled, now there was no much leave way. I had resigned myself to the eventuality of chopping away those 4 bars.

On the day which was supposed to be the very last day of the song shoot (there were many such days expected to be the last), during a lighting break we were standing beneath the rotating set at the trapdoor entrance. Raghu along with art & direction assistants and myself. That was when a flamboyant Mathew Paul (Chenda Mathen) walked in from the nearby floor where his 'fire arrow' riggings after many many disastrous failures had finally been done right.

His department had been at the receiving end of many jokes for their initial failures.(*refer notes). With most of the riggings now successfully completed, Mathen found time to drop in and return the compliments he had once received from the rest of the departments.

Mathen (In a very loud voice) "Hello sirs, I hear that you aim to set a new record in inefficiency …. Mr. Paleri, what would be papa saying of this? (doing a papa impersonation) 'Aaooo, enthayee? .. Remember! … we have a film to complete ….. this has to get released someday' … And, you guys are standing idle under here for 3 weeks?"

Actually, Mathen had earlier come to execute two riggings within the rotating set - 'the animation of toys' and 'the rum bottle floating'. Now he was there only to rub salt into the wounds.

Mathen "I see, …. this set rotates eh?… wonderful !! But it seems like everybody here is tumbling ….. whose crazy idea is this?"

That was when Sheker was coming down the trapdoor steps listening to this one sided conversation.

And for the second time in three months I see Raghu without hesitation attributing the credit where it was due.

"He, this man here … calls himself an art director …. he is the one who sold us this idea". Raghu says this pointing to Sheker.

Sheker "What do you mean?"

Raghu "I was telling this inquisitor that it was the art director who mooted an absurd idea of rotating a stationary set"

Sheker "I would consider the writer equally guilty"

Raghu "No, no, I was misled …. I was told that the magic can be .. as simple as this … (snaps his fingers). It was the art director's absurdity"

Sheker "It is the writer's concept that is absurd. Everything in the book of art direction about this magic stands up to the scrutiny of logic "

Raghu "Oh, yeah? Cite one instance where my writing doesn't meet your stringent standards of logic"

Sheker "Oh, that is easy! …. All components in the room above us follows the law of gravity. Now tell me dear writer, why doesn't the children's dress fall down when they go upside down? If that too is magic, where in your narrative did you cover that logic?"

So far I was only half listening to this trash talk. At this point I looked at Sheker sharply.

Myself "What did you say?"

Sheker "What you heard just now …. this writer hasn't explained what makes the garments defy gravity. At the least, I would have expected Kuttichathan straighten up the dresses of …."

"THAT IS THE SHOT …. I got it … I got it" That was a shout from me. "I got the missing shot … " Everybody was startled.

Before I could call everyone to execute this, word had got around in hoarse whispers " … there is a shot missing!" …and members started gathering around me "Sir, we hear there is one missing shot to be taken ….. are there more such missing?"

Myself "No, no, hee he he ..don't worry … no more, no more … only one … in fact it is quite simple .. most simple …. just bring down the rig's side #1 to the bottom, arrest the rig for a static shot, camera position upside down - locked. Call the children, ask Das to string child Sonia's cap and skirt with threads …. on 4 bars Korg music the skirt has to be pulled up ….. flowing upwards to cover her face … quick, quick".

Thus the 'missing' shot was taken …. and with a couple more shots, the song was completed that day.

Today, I would consider this as the best shot of my film career. Not only the way the visual had come in to fill a crucial gap, but also there is a tongue-in-cheek humor about the magic here.

A GIRL IN STALLS FRONT ROW, VADODARA.

Early in the spring of 1985 one day we were releasing Chotta Chetan in Rajsree Cinema at Vadodara. I was then in charge of the team that covered Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Bhavnagar & Junagadh in Gujarat - six centers in one week. After completing the 3D Theatre Conversion (*refer notes) overnight, observing the audience reaction for the very first show was always our routine before we proceeded to the next center. At Rajsree Cinema, Vadodara, I noticed this girl of about 8 years sitting with her family on the front row of seats in the stalls. (I haven't figured out why they called the first class section as 'stalls' in north India. Maybe because it was right behind canteen stalls?) The girl holding with both hands to her 3D spectacles, was not reacting to the film gags. Very unusual. She didn't seem perturbed like others when off-the-screen objects came hurling!! Is she immune to stereoscopy? (some one-in-a-million persons are … their brain cannot be fooled into thinking that the two images seen through the 3D glasses are representing a real life vision). It was not just 3D, that girl seemed immune to the film's humor. Not even a smile came when on screen Master Suresh tripped over. Quite a tough nut. Maybe, …. Gujarati kids are different from those in southern Indian states …. I was hoping this immunity to humor is limited to 8 years old Gujju girls of Vadodara alone. That was when child Sonia's skirt dropped down .. whoosh! I saw that girl jump out of her seat shrieking and erupt with fits of uncontrollable laughter. Thank You God! So it worked for every 8-year-old-girl-child in Vadodara too.

THE LENGTHY SHOTS.

A few of the lengthiest shots in Kuttichathan was those in the rotating set. This was to sustain the visual …. so that the audience got the orientation (or disorientation?) right. It gets more difficult to sustain audience interest (in our case, the performers' interest too) as the duration of a shot increases. A full 360 degrees walk by the kids in the first pallavi is one such lengthy shot within the rotating set. And, just before the song starts - i.e; the very last dialogue shot, is also one of the lengthiest. I purposefully kept the yakketty-yaks and humor punches going in this steady shot without a cut. This was to prolong the anticipation and also to contrast with the visual dynamics when the song started. Surely, my performing children were at their best here.

CONCLUDED


NOTES

1.Unit hand, Johny 2. Sound Recordist, Appukkuttan 3. Makeup Chief, Velappan 4. Accountant, Warrier 5. Unit hand, Benny 6. Unit driver, Bakker 7. Unit hand, Pradeep 8. Production assistant, Ramesh 9. Distribution Head, Francis 10. Camera Head, Ayyappan 11. Key Gaffer, Ponnan 12. Camera Assistant, Sidhan 13. Assistant Director, Siby Yogyaveedu 14. Assistant Director, Paulson 15. Production Manager, Ponnappan 16. Mess Chief, Kanakappan 17. Jissmol, my sister with her infant - (refer article on Safety - link).

18. Director Fazil (also in inset above, seen with Jerry). Fazil, a key member of Kavalam Narayana Panicker's stage in its founding years, during his college days along with actor Venu had made mimicry an artform in Keralam. Fazil also was a collegemate to my cousin Boban Kunchacko. He had coached my sisters from their young days in mono-act performances for school/ university competitions. Film "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammaku" was Fazil's second directotial venture with us - "Manjil Virinja Pookkal" 1980 being the first. Fazil started his career with our film "Theekadal" 1980 as its scriptwriter. I understand that film "Manichitrathazhu" 1993 remade into many languages - Tamil and Telugu "Chandramukhi" and Hindi "Bhool Bhulaiyaa" - is considered as Fazil's most celebrated work.

19. Isaac Peter, Industrialist. Isaac chettan is my sister Jissmol's father in law. He had come with his family to congratulate the makers of the film "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammaku". The film was celebrating its golden jubilee run at his theatre "Isaac's Saritha 7omm" in Ernakulam.

20. Jomon, Jissmol's brother-in-law. Isaac Peter's youngest son. 21. Appachan, my papa & Baby Punnoose, my mother. 22. Head of Finance, Gopinath.

A. Background Score Composer & Flautist, Gunasingh. Gunasingh was the Music Director of my film Padayottam.

B. Music Director, Jerry Amaldev. C. Recordist, Visvanathan.

D. Associate Director, Siby Malayil. Siby - a neighbor at Alappuzha, one year senior to me in school at Leo XIII th, with a past full of Film Society activities came to learn filmmaking with us during our film "Mamaankom" 1979. In the next two decades, with 50 films Siby would become the director who made the most commercially successful and the most award winning films in malayalam cinema.


TOTAL 28 SHOTS

With the rotating rig operating, I had taken exactly 29 shots - all different. 26 for the song and 3 for chathan doing his ceiling-walk prelude. Of these, 28 are in the film. Only one shot was discarded - when the shot with room tumbling around the youngest boy Mukesh was extended by editor Sekher Sar's decision. Of course, I fought tooth and nail to save a 'precious' shot of mine.

Sekher Sar "This one shot looks fine for the entire nadaswaram 6 bars … why we should cut to a different 'not as good a shot' for the last 2 bars? ….. I am removing it"

Myself "Ayyoo Sekher Sar! ….. You know, how much trouble we took …… how much time it took for that shot?"

Sekher Sar "Jijokuttaa …. that is no reason to pass the trouble to your audience!"

What he meant was not to be a 'perfectionist'. By one definition, perfectionist is a person who takes a lot of trouble …. and gives it to others.


TO BREAK THE ILLUSION OR NOT?

One of the ongoing debates between Sheker and myself was whether in any of the shots the point of view of the children could be shown or not. Now, that would mean breaking the illusion - by showing to the audience the reality. Sheker was dead against that. But I had a problem … actually, two problems. After reaching the ceiling when the children go upside-down, if for illusion's sake you keep maintaining the upside-down view, their face expressions and thereby the emotions would be lost. The other factor was that, even this magic of an upside-down world shall get visually monotonous beyond a point. This issue was resolved a few days into the shoot when I showed editor Sekher Sar one shot taken rightside-up. It was then decided that in the second half of the song (second charanam) we shall show things as it is …. though it may look silly ... for example, to see a ceiling fan set on the ground pointing upward.


THE LOST GRANDEUR OF A SHOOT

Choreographer Madhuri had been with us from the times of Thacholi Ambu (1978) which had a sequence of 200 dancers ….. and it was she who choreographed the heroine's dual personality song in Manjil Virinja Pookal (1980). What in lay parlance known as 'double-act', it was Madhuri's assistant Viji who had danced as the heroine's body double. Director Fazil had conceived two personalities for the woman Prabha - one sophisticated, one folkish. Since it was the director's first time, it was up to me to keep track of the visual transitions - body doubles, camera masking, etc.

Madhuri Akka had a point there when she felt that our grand efforts for staging the gravity illusion were not seen on the screen. And I told her it was one of the ironies of filmmaking. It had nothing to do with our gravity illusion. I told her the rose flower analogy.

Consider a simple romantic shot being picturised - A hero is offering a rose flower to the heroine.

Since the mood intended is of dusk, …. a dozen strong lighting crew would be shouted at by the cinematographer to keep the ratio of illumination constant, as the ambient light keeps falling.

The smoke riggers would be battling with breeze as they keep the mist on the backdrop meadows flow gently.

An acrimonious florist expert would be replacing fresh roses as rehearsals progress.

One group of art assistants would be carefully positioning the nozzle that at the crucial moment drops from above a water droplet on the rose…. while another group would be adjusting the fan that makes the flower sway gently.

Assistant directors would be busy quelling the arguments between the riggers, the florist and the 2 art crews when their operations interfere with each others.

The touchup girl would be running into frame for removing the water spray that falls on the heroine's face - lest it seem that she is perspiring ……. so would be the wardrobe boy - jumping in to brush off the drops on the hero's vest ….. and both of them colliding in mid frame. The director would be shouting for calm. A watching crowd would be thrilled to be present at this battle ground.

After picturisation, on the screen you see just that poignant action alone …… a rose being given.

"You won't miss the rest of the exercises … would you?" As I had said, Madhuri Akka was just about mollified.

ILLUSTRATION 21

RIGGINGS IN 3D

Mathen here looking sweet in a photograph. Actually he is making fun of the still photographer. That is what evokes a smirk from Sheker.

I don't quite remember how Mathen landed up in charge of this task. For this first film of his (though, he had some previous experience in helping with sound effects of my Padayottam 6T stereo) he was put in charge of all stringed riggings. It included "the speaking skull, haunted skeleton, beer tray floating, spring doors moving, levitating objects" …… and the most toughest of all "'fire arrows from the haunted cross bows'". To help him, Mathen had Amaan from the art dept. and also Tailor Das - a man with magical fingers on anything to do with thread & needle.

Since many of these riggings had to be achieved in 3D 'off-the-screen' effect (i.e; F.P. - forced perspective), the riggings were separately setup. And whenever their riggings got ready, we would break the scene picturisation we would be engaged in, to go and shoot Mathen & Co's handiwork. Because this turned out to be a very taxing exercise, Mathen could rarely be free to attend any of the other areas (such as music) where his proficiency lay. It became a common cause for everyone to lampoon the rigging failures. Many a times we would be suddenly called to setup and shoot one of Mathen & Co's riggings …. and mostly we would come back disappointed to resume the interrupted scene. Either their rigging mechanism would have failed, the threads would have got entangled or Stereographer David Schmier would not be satisfied with the trajectory Mathen had set. With everything going against him, Mathen had a unique defense mechanism if somebody openly commented on a failed attempt.

"Please sir, come, come …. you are welcome to take over and demonstrate how well this can be done …. come, catch hold of this string … Alleal venda, ... hey Babu, hand the genius that pyro trigger …. quick, quick".

Since the invited person would find himself unable to climb up to the precipice on which Mathen was perched, that would ensure shutting of a complaining mouth … for the time being. By about two months into the shoot Mathen & Team had got all of it, just right. The most spectacular was the 'haunted school skelton'. Rajan P Dev - the stage actor from our hometown in one of his first film appearances as the school master in Kuttichathan, was in a hurry to leave for an evening drama performance that day. Even with a battle against deadline, the skeleton rigging was pulled off perfectly at the very first in all takes … that too, away from the ideal shooting floor environment …. at an actual school location!!


FRAUGHT WITH RISKS

Throughout the Kuttichathan (1984) shoot which saw very dangerous riggings - pyrotechnics, fire breaths, flaming arrows, stunt driving - all with young children involved, I knew there were chances of accidents happening. In fact, this children's film was much more dangerous to execute than my previous war film ! Padayottam (1982). So I was always on the edge - "ഊരും വാരി പിടിച്ചു" (to use a malayalam expression by my mother, when she mentions anxiety for her children). We followed strict safety norms during our filming …. body harnesses & support cables, large protective plexi glass shields, and a convention that specified at least one unmanned full-identical-trial & observation before the actual take. Still, there were near misses … like when Ashokji just escaped flying shrapnel …. the children's rickshaw negotiating a turn at top speed barely averted a ravine*…. and I was just pulled out of harm's way by Amaan when the pyro-technician after a correct first round erred in priming the second. Luckily …. actually I should say by providence, no mishap ever took place while filming Kuttichatan. Now, if I am given a second chance to do it all over again, a few of the things I definitely wouldn't dare repeating them today. Anyway, no need for most of that today, when manipulation of images can be done with software tools.

*It happened while re-taking some jittery shots. Most of the shots of the 'haunted rickshaw' were taken with the sturdy Mitchell Camera mounted inside the open boot of an Ambassador car adequately loaded to crouch low down to road level. A very unconventional practice indeed. For, this Mitchell mounted on an archaic dolly was used on the studio floors - except for rare dual camera setups in the exterior. Taking this Mitchell camera out for a 'chase sequence' was insisted by me to follow Stereovision founder Chris Condon's advice of ensuring maximum image stability.

Yet, our chase photographer Soman insisted on a few shots with Arri IIC mounted on vacuum grip. In this area of his expertise he was a decade old veteran. But, those shots turned out bad, real bad on screen. Soman looked embarrassed. On a later analysis it was David Schmier & mine conclusion that the heavy jitter that made the image go bad didn't occur on the camera mounting …. but within the optical elements of the Stereovision 3D lens. If there was any chance of usability of those shots, I would have gone with them. But, on short notice we had to quickly call yet a separate shooting to re-take those jittery shots. Mitchell camera was used for the retakes. There was no assistance in my department on that day of re-shoot. Rajeev, Sheker, Mathen & Raghu …. all had gone home. With great apprehension I started that day. Because the performing kids were so boisterous, they would not confine themselves to the safe areas they were instructed not to violate. Realize, this was no camera trick! …. Made specially for the film, that creaking-groaning cycle rickshaw could reach some incredible speeds …. as much as perceived on the screen. Master Suresh would stand up on the speeding rickshaw and start jumping up and down. I was screaming at the boy and was threatening to put a body-brace on him. That was when the daredevil stunt driver Thajuddin navigating the rickshaw made a small error. [Thajuddin from Alappuzha was a professional at marana kinar - well of death]. We saw the rickshaw veering towards one of those quarried laterite ravines on Kakkanad roadside. All children yelling together made the stunt driver correct his course in the very last moment. I sighed in huge relief when without any mishap occurring the shooting was completed that day too. Ironically, the stunt driver Thajuddin got into an accident fracturing his leg when he reached his home Alapphuzha after our shoot. I would say, with Kuttichathan I was lucky. 10 years later I was not that lucky with Kishkinta White Water Ride. (Another Story. Narrated in the topic of Safety. Also cited there is a minor injury occurred to Tailor Das in the rotating set. As they say in malayalam - കണ്ണേൽ കൊള്ളാനുള്ളതു പുരികത്തേൽ കൊൺടു പൊയി).


ON SAFETY See Separate Memoir (link)


COMMENTS ABOUT TWO INDIAN MASTERS

Our Stereographer David from Burbank, Hollywood ... we all found him to be a very humorous character. First time in Asia, he found the filmmaking in our country very fascinating. Being a thorough professional, he had very critical comments about the way we Indians went about with preparation & planning. But he was surprised at the way we improvised solutions for problems when they cropped up. Most of his comments were due to culture shock ... which he got over after 2 months here. Oh yes! He was shocked to see cows on our roads ...... "Jose, won't they bite?" He was fascinated to see huge jackfruits on trees .... "Tom, the thorns on that, ... do they sting?" Papa once asked him what he thought about our camera­work when compared to Hollywood.

He answered, "Sir, I know you are asking how good your cinematographer is. .... I tell you, American cinematographers of late ... they are decades behind. Thats why in Hollywood we get newer and newer promising ones from Europe. You saw me working 3D film Metal Storm (1983). Actually I was there assistant to its cinematographer Mr. Mac Ahlberg. And it is due to my 3D experience, Chris Condon has deputed me now as the Stereographer here. Mac Ahlberg ­ who has recently come from europe, is Swedish ... not American. An American cinematographer's style most probably won't be as good as his. Yet, I find what Ashok Kumar doing here would surpass what Mac Ahlberg is doing there".

Chris Condon of Stereovision came down to India in 1985 to see the 3D release work we had done here. I was sure he would be spell­bound to see a 45 feet 3D image at Mumbai (then, Bombay) Ambar Cinema at Andheri (now the complex is no more). We had put up special high power Strong Arc lamps and Isco lenses to achieve this. Chris Condon had refused to believe that for a techniscope image such a magnification was possible. So after the show I was proudly waiting for his technical assessment on this. His comment was not on technicalities "Wow, what music .... such exquisite background score!" My appreciation of Ilaiyarajah went up further.


SOUND EDITING

A few things early in my career I had noticed while editing music.

If there is an error of one perforation in a 35mm optical or magnetic film - the minimum error you could make those days on film, it wont be noticed . One perforation means 1/100th of a second, measured in today's audio apps. it is about 440 samples. Even the best of ears won't notice an error of this duration. But, try a margin of two perforations …. almost everybody would notice an error. Which means, human sensitivity to sound is somewhere between 1/50th to 1/100th of a second.

When you cut visuals to rhythm, you generally do it on-the-beat … or sometimes off-beat. Going strictly by the strokes, you expect the 'cut' to happen exactly where the beat falls. Now, I had noticed that a simultaneous change in beat and visual isn't quite impressive. Sekher Sar had told me that over many decades it had been found by the Kodambakkom film editors that it is best to have the visual cut 2 frames before the stroke falls. Many other editors would have arrived at the same conclusion on other parts of the globe. What I understand from this is that it takes slightly more time for our human senses to register a visual change (in this case 1/10th of a second) than an audio change. Hence in about 1/10th of a second when you have registered a visual in your brain, the music stroke should fall.

These observations are not hard and fast. Continued changes in visual language by filmmakers, variation in span of audience's attention in a digital age, etc; can bring changes to these.


A CASE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT (rather, of gender misdemeanor). See Separate Memoir (link)


THEATRE 3D CONVERSIONS See Separate Article (link)

Having done in the previous 6 months a marathon 3D screening installation run in all the four south Indian states - Kerala (in Malayalam), Tamilnadu (in Tamil language), Andhra (in Telugu) and Karnataka (in Tamil & Telugu), my team was with the Hindi version in Bombay circuit - parts of Maharashtra, Madhya pradesh & Gujarat when the Vadodara girlchild incident narrated above occured. In every one of the hundreds of cinema halls equipped to run this 3D film, a six member team of ours would have worked overnight to setup projector, silver screen & polarizer glasses supply. Our parent company Navodaya's Outdoor Unit members and Film Distribution personnel were divided into half a dozen teams that would handle simultaneous 3D theatre conversions at many parts of India. This was an enterprise that would see us to places like KAL, Birmingham, Dubai, Toronto … during those years. Everyday after having exhausted ourselves with a full night 3D Theatre conversion, the real reward we reaped was in seeing the Audience reaction for a very first show there. There was always something spectacular in seeing a first time 3D audience going into screaming raptures. For example, I told Editor Sheker Sar of this phenomenon we had observed elsewhere, before starting the first show in Tamilnadu (Satyam Cinema, Chennai) on the Deevali day of 1984. He had never sat with an audience to see his 3D film. "Yes, yes, I can understand … I too was so excited to see the film in 3D … even though as the editor I sat alone during previews" said he. But the understanding of this seasoned film industry veteran fell a bit short. After the very first reel I see him rush out from the cinema hall to meet me in the projection cabin ….. with tears streaming from his eyes he says "I have never in my life even considered an audience would freakout like this …. a film which I had handled all these months!!" Of course, Sekher Sar is a veteran, but very emotional a person too.


അനന്തരം ....

On a story written by my brother Jose, Rajeev Kumar's first directorial venture was our film "Chanakyan" 1989 with Kamal Hasan & Urmila Matongar. Sab John - Jose's schoolmate, wrote the script.

Raghunath Paleri directed his own literary work "Akaasathekku oru Jalakam" as film "Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare" 1986 for us.

Mathew Paul had won an award for his 16mm documentary film "Rivers of Kerala" 1983. That was along with "Ente Mamattikkuttiyammakku", and he was felicitated together with Fazil at the shooting site .... hence that garland he holds in his hand. Mathen won the President's gold medal for his documentary "Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair" 1984 - a film about his own Drummer Guru. That was when "My Dear Kuttichathan" also won the President's gold medal for the best Children's feature.

The four kids won national awards for their performance .... and because of them, the director of the film "Kuttichathan" also got awarded a medal.


FLASH BACKS

In 1980 during the last days of shooting "Manjil Virinja Pookkal", it was actor Mohanlal who had brought in his friend Priyadarsan to our company Navodaya. In 1981 while working on film "Padayottam" 70mm, it was Priyadarsan who had brought in his friend and next door neighbor - Sheker.

Early 1983 at hometown Alappuzha while discussing the storyline of "Ente Mamattkkuttiyammakku", Siby Malayil and Fazil simultaneously brought up the name of Raghunath Paleri. One of Raghu's latest short stories happened to be then 'trending' (to use a modern term). Recalling the name, it was either my brother Jose or myself who from our office files picked up a past letter requesting introduction to filmmaking written by this very same person. We immedietly sent a reply calling Raghu to Alappuzha. Raghu & Siby did spent months working on a script - which unfortunately didnt meet our approval, and led to a lot of heartburns.

Late 1982, much before even Raghu had come into the picture, to get a proper understanding of how an Indian children's fanatasy film should be, myself and Mathew Paul had undertaken 'study tours' to meet prominent people and get their opinions on this. Yes, we were very humble about it .... and they were all gracious with us. One was the pioneer of India's children comics - Anant Pai. Meeting us at the Amar-Chitra-Katha basement offices in Haji-Ali and learing that we two kids had come all the way from Keralam to meet him, Anant Pai invited us to his home at Worli, Bombay the next day (a sunday!) and gave his views during an hour long discussion. Continuing this efforts we also met writer Zackaria, writer Punathil Kunjabdulla, cartoonist Toms, children's author Madhavan Nair (Maali), literature critic Krishnan Nair, director Padmarajan, children's magazine editor Mohan, etc. One brilliant mind who cut short his life rather early - Victor Leans, was also another well-wisher.

Late 1983, noticing Rajeev & his friends' talents at University Youth Festival, it was Mathew Paul who had invited T. K. Rajeev kumar for Kuttichathan discussions.


END CREDIT

Written by Jijo. Since today we live in a world of multiple choices .... please fell free to take your pick from below ...

For more about the author, see Jijo profile

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