Chatting with the Artisans Behind RRR

Going behind the scenes of the action masterpiece with Cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar, Editor A. Sreekar Prasad, Composer M.M. Keeravaani, and VFX Supervisor Pete Draper

For some S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) seemingly came out of nowhere. The film quickly became a “Film Twitter” mainstay earlier this year after spreading like wildfire on “Action Twitter” thanks to its unrelenting action spectacle coupled with its heart, which it wears plainly on its sleeve. The Tollywood film set in the 1920s tells a fictionalized tale of two real-life Indian revolutionaries , Alluri Sitarama Raju (Charan) and Komaram Bheem (Rama Rao), and their fictional friendship which culminates in their battle against the British Raj.

This is after a young girl is kidnapped from Bheem’s village and he is sent to return her. Both men are larger than life here and imbued with superhero strength and charm. It’s something that while exaggerating the story makes it infinitely more accessible to those that might normally pass on a more realistic historical fiction narrative to check out the latest Marvel film.

It takes a small army to make a film like RRR, which led me to jumping on a Zoom with some of the artisans behind this action masterpiece including: Cinematographer — KK Senthil Kumar, Editor — A. Sreekar Prasad, Composer — M.M. Keeravaani and VFX Supervisor — Pete Draper. It was surreal to be able to pick the brains of some of the folks who helped make one of my favorite films of the year and it illuminates how even what feels like a very singular vision is a collaboration by many like minds.

Some portions of these interviews have been slightly edited for clarity.

Senthil, RRR is a very visual film, what kind of direction did S.S. Rajamouli give on the scope and the scale of the film?

Cinematographer — KK Senthil Kumar: It is the director’s vision, which we are all coming together to fulfill. So the director had a vision of, okay, how this film wants to be like. When I was doing Baahubali, the director told me this is going to be a visual film, but when it comes to RRR our director told me it’s going to be an intense drama between the two characters. So that was pretty challenging when the director told me that.

I’ve been working with the director for the last 20 years, almost. So now the discussion is not about how we are going to shoot. It is more about, okay, how we want to show this film. With every film, he provides lots of challenges. He’s not like, okay, we did one film in a certain way, so the next film is nothing close to it. So he expects something more from everyone, from the team. So he pushes us. Like we use the latest technology in providing whatever we want to tell in the visuals.

Mr. Prasad, you’ve cut almost 20 projects in 2021. What’s your workflow like when you get a project and how much time do you have to work with the director on his vision and shot listing?

Editor — A. Sreekar Prasad: How we do it is that as the rushes keep coming to me, I’m actually working at a slightly different place from where the director is, in another state. So I keep editing, and then once the schedule is completed, then I go and meet the director, and then we sort of brainstorm and get the scenes done and when a particular big sequence is completed, because there’s a lot of VFX required it has to go immediately to VFX. So the main concern at that point was to get that particular scene right, and then also to get the length right of that sequence so that it holds onto the screen. So these were something that was also helped greatly by the director’s way of preparing for this.

He had pre-vis, then he had mock shoots. All these were also edited before the actual shoot was done. So we had a clear sense of how it was going to be. It’s just that to get it to the length, sometimes after the shoot is over, you realize that it just goes a little way over the length of what you would want into the film. So then maybe it’s trying to get it into that shape so then give it to the VFX. So that is where the initial part of the work is done, like sequence wise as the shoot goes on. But midway of the shoot, we put it together and the next level of editing happens, which is like to see how the story flows, and are we missing anything we need; do we need to plug in?

So things at that point, and also the characters are behaving consistently. We sometimes end up with some problems where we are thinking that they are, but they may not be. So we need to plug in something like, a few closeups here and there, things like that, and get it into shape. And also obviously get it into a very realistic length, which engages the audience. So this is how the whole process happened with S.S. Rajamouli.

Mr. Keeravaani, “Naatu Naatu” has become like an international hit, and while you’ve received dozens of awards for your work, you’re now being shortlisted for best song for the Oscars. What’s it been like to watch the global explosion of the music for RRR?

Composer — M.M. Keeravaani — Like everyone, I have been pushed to the higher limit every time I work with the director. And this time, there was a challenging song sequence, which we briefly called “Naatu”. The intimating character says, ‘do you know Naatu?’ Then the song begins, and, I did not expect that single “Naatu” to grow and grow and grow to a global level and becomes “Naatu, Naatu, Naatu, Naatu”. So these many Naatus, I never expected. So I’m very happy that this kind of acclaim and recognition has come back and I’m expecting more and more. I’m very hopeful and I’m optimistic here.

But when you ask me to explain about the kind of work we did for “Naatu”, the song belongs to a genre called ‘Teenmar’, we call ‘Teenmar’ in Hyderabad.

The song is in 6/8. Normally, 6/8 songs are very rare from the West. This is a very African or Indian form of percussion. So, we selected that genre, and we are doing some rhythm patterns with the minimalistic melodic instruments used in the song. And, of course, we are doing the choreography and the proceeding scene and the emotions in the scene, so the song was highlighted, and it came into animation in a much bigger way than we expected.

Mr. Kumar, I loved Raju’s introduction in the film. What were some of the biggest challenges that arose in shooting that particular sequence, because it looked insane?

Cinematographer — KK Senthil Kumar: I was waiting for someone to ask the question because like, that is one of my favorite sequences in this film. That one sequence was something which really stands out for me as a cinematographer because like it was actually, designed in such a way that the camera actually wanted to make the audience feel as if they are in the action, like a claustrophobic feel. Like how would a single person get into the crowd and reach his target? So we had three guys doing the stunt for us, then we edited, and based on that, we executed the sequence.

We tried to do as much in camera as possible in terms of the crowd, the VFX was used only in the background layers. The main challenge for me was to get the rustic feel, if you take Bheem’s introduction, it was in a lush green forest, and this happens in a very dry state. So I wanted the audience to feel that dryness, that claustrophobic feel and everything. That was the major challenge, uh, to get it on screen. And I think we pulled it off, quite well actually. I’m happy that we could, we shot it before COVID came to India, because after COVID it was impossible to shoot that kind of a sequence.

VFX Supervisor — Pete Draper: I’d just like to add one additional thing, which was lots of people actually thought that the eye shot was actually visual effects. Even the guys on VFX Artists React, they even thought that the entire thing was a digital shot. There were some digital elements in it, but it was actually the crowd added into the reflection of his eyeball and also the little mound was painted back into the reflection. 99.9% of that shot was Senthil and when I saw the shot being set up, I was like ‘oh, great, we’ve got a massive, massive, massive CG shot’, and he just did it in one take. It was like one, I couldn’t believe it actually got that in the can in one go. It was phenomenal.

Cinematographer — KK Senthil Kumar: We used a macro lens to get it. So the challenge for that shot was trying to not see the camera in the eyeball, because generally the eyeball gets the reflection everywhere.

Mr. Prasad, There’s a rhythm to RRR, that slowly builds from a crackle to a full out forest fire as an editor, what goes into building that intensity and maintaining that throughout the film?

Editor — A. Sreekar Prasad: Yeah, so it is a film which has a lot of energy. We were very classical in our approach and not trying to push it too much into having too many cuts at the beginning of the film itself, you know; Although it had a lot of action and things like that, it was more to do with the belief it was an emotional film, and it was about friendship, the breakup of friendship, and then an emotional bonding between the friends. This was the main idea of the concept of the film.

So we had to maintain it at a certain rhythm, but most of the emotional scenes are let to breathe and get the best impact out of it. So that’s how we balanced it between the emotional aspect and the action, you have a balance so that it finally boils down to being a very emotional film, rather than only an action film.

There’s an increasing number of films looking at the problems with the English empire and the abuses involved, but they’re not usually as entertaining as this one. So I wondered how you strike a balance between making a film that was as big and as exciting as this, and still addressing those serious issues?

Cinematographer — KK Senthil Kumar: This is a film with two legendary characters, but it’s a fictional world. At this point of time S. S. Rajamouli is known to make big screen entertainers. So this finally falls into that genre of commercial film made for the audience. So my thing was like, okay, like we were all looking forward to giving that big screen experience to the audience. We did not want to give it a documentary kind of a feel. We wanted to give it a very cinematic feel, which people would love to come and see on the big screen. It is meant to be a big ticket film for the big screen. So right from the type of camera that was chosen, to the lighting scheme, to like whatever the big setups the story had. The story in itself was written in a very entertaining way of telling this serious matter.

So it was our job after the story to help our director fulfill his vision.

(Special thanks to Chandra reddy @chandrareddy420 who helped with some clarification on a quote)

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