Meet our very own Aussie Indian Avatar

Rahul Deshprabhu, Visual Effects Technical Director of ‘Avatar’ movie

By Neeru Saluja


The year 2009 revolutionized the visual effects industry with Oscar winning Avatar. Who could ever believe that they would be able to visualise and experience a fictional planet? It was like a dream world that came alive ”“ where love, hatred and life existed, all visually created in a production company tucked away in Wellington.

And behind the scenes helping the mastermind James Cameron was an Indian technical director Rahul Deshprabhu who with his team worked day and night to make that virtual world close to reality. Working six days a week currently on Happy Feet 2, Rahul took out a few hours on Sunday on a sunny afternoon to talk with the Indian Down Under.

“Don’t make it sound as I work too much by six days! This is a walk in the park. I have also worked seven days a week. It’s just the way the industry works. We get a lot more work done this way. Right now I’m working on Happy Feet 2. I worked on Happy Feet in 2004, so the guys said you know the drill so come back.”

When Rahul got his first credit for his film ‘The Day after tomorrow’, he knew there was no looking back.

“I have been working in this industry since 1998. I’ve been in Sydney with Dr D Studios since Feb 2010 and before that was with Weta Digital in Wellington for a year where I worked on Avatar. In Sydney I have also worked with Animal Logic (Happy Feet) in 2005 and Rising Sun Pictures in 2006 where we made ‘Superman Returns’. I have also spent 6-7 years in United States where I did my equivalent to masters in ULCA and worked with my dream company ‘Digital Domain’ (the company behind Titanic) in 2003-04. After working in US at a stretch for years, I wanted to head back to India to work for a few months and ended up working for six months in Mumbai Prana Studios in 2004. You would be surprised to know most of the visual effects and animation for Hollywood films are done in India. The company that does Shrek is based in Bangalore called Dreamworks DDU India owned by Technicolor” acclaims Rahul.

So, did he always dream of making it big in this cutting edge industry?

Rahul grins: “A twist in fate actually made me realize my dreams. I was born and brought up in Mumbai, and like any Indian family my parents wanted me to become a doctor or engineer. After completing a diploma in electronics engineering in 1996, I got admission in computer engineering. After my second year, I was diagnosed with kidney stones and was bedridden for a while. One day my aunt came with an article about EDIT, and it took my fancy right away. It was about animation and without thinking twice I enrolled for the 18 month course. When I finished the course, they asked me to teach at the same institution. I did that for 6-7 months. My parents went through the roof, when I told them this is what I want to do! I lined up an interview with Mumbai company Rajtharu and I got a job. Ghulam-E-Mustafa (Nana Patekar), Saat Rang Ke Sapne (ABCL), Duplicate (Shahrukh), Major Saab (Ajay Devgan) were some of the films that I had made the title animations for back in the days when I used to work for Rajtaru Videosonic in Bandra,” says Rahul.

Continuing on his journey, Rahul says, “When my parents started seeing these animations for the movies, they started seeing the reality. They realised that their son was not going back to the engineering. But this was only a stepping stone, I wanted to achieve more. I met a person who was going to do the course in ULCA ”“ New media and digital image creation, specializing in film. Going to States was the turning point in my career. I wanted some knowledge before I further progressed in this field. But my ultimate dream was to work with a company like Digital Domain in LA – the company that did Titanic.”

Titanic was known to be the epitome in visual effects industry. As a visual effects specialist, how did you react when you watched the film?

“When I saw Titanic, I wanted to achieve those kind of results. It was made in a world that didn’t exist. Water gushing down, when the boat cracks and it goes vertical you see a lot of people sliding on the floor and crashing on the sea, those were all visual effects. If someone gets the feel that someone is crashing, then that is the achievement for a visual supervisor. For no reason did it won an Academy Award for best visual effects!”

Titanic left an everlasting impression on Rahul and his next achievement was to work the guru James Cameron.

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“Working with James Cameron was a dream come true. The day I met him in Wellington, I told him that working in Avatar was a masterclass in film making. It was revolutionary, had advanced film techniques, he made a 3D camera just so he can shoot this movie. It took four and half years to make the film. I interacted with a few friends from Digital Domain, and I came to know that this script was in his mind since 10 years but he did not have the technology. Avatar was always a stepping stone to make another technology film. If he could start with Avatar, then he can think of this mega production. 95% of the film was made in Wellington,” says Rahul.

You work such a long hours, how do you balance personal and professional life?

“When my projects are close to completion, my day starts at 5.30 am and ends up quite late. But I always come home for lunch and dinner. I make a point to live from work at half an hour distance. I take my cycle which takes 7-8 minutes, so that’s my exercise for the day. I have also worked seven days a week because there is a certain kind of level you want to achieve. If you make Avatar you don’t get a break.”

What’s the biggest challenge for a technical director?

“For me mostly it’s a challenge to make it as real as possible to begin with. That’s the creative side of it. To show the finished product, and specially to see the ‘jaw dropped’ reaction. I don’t want to see the screen, I want to see the reaction on the face. This is what I keep in mind. If you want to see a waterfall in reality, I want to show you the same experience. For example, for my current film I’ve been given the task of simulation of the fish where there are massive fish rivers flowing. I’ve never seen fish river. After seeing my creation, my supervisor commented, “If fish rivers were flow, this is what it’s going to be.” So I aim for reality.”

Besides technical skills, what kind of assets does one need to excel in visual effects?

“If you want to be in visual effects, the biggest asset is observation skills. Not just objects, I sometimes even stare at people. They might find it rude, but I’m observing their facial expressions!”

Rahul loves motor cycling and photography. “I have a set of 8-10 pics on National Geographic. Overall, anything associated with adventure excites me,” says Rahul.

And where does he see himself after ten years?

“My first achievement was working at Digital Domain and my second achievement was working with James Cameron. Now I want to open a restaurant ”“ I’m not only a foodie but love cooking! My signature dish is butter chicken (smiles). “

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