Article is from Jammura blog
With a career spanning over 2 decades and over 113 films, some of which have stretched the limits of what is possible, it is unsurprising that veteran art director Sabu Cyril is regarded as one of India’s best.
Sabu Cyril has a diverse repertoire of films across genres that includes Gardish, Yuva, Guru, Asoka, Hey Ram,Enthiran/Robot and Kanchivaram among other films. These films have been appreciated and noted for their awe inducing production design. His latest project, director S.S Rajamouli’s opulent period film Baahubali is already garnering a lot of buzz for it’s larger-than-life look, a lot of which has to do with the world that Sabu Cyril has built for the movie.
We recently did an in-depth interview with the 4 time national award winning art director, who has worked across Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam & Kannada films. Mr. Cyril spoke on his early years, his approach to work, thechallenges of designing for a period film and his experience of working on the magnum opus Baahubali.
Published below are some exclusive excerpts from this interview.
On His Initial Days
I studied visual communication in College of Arts & Crafts in Madras. While studying, I was doing freelance projects for agencies like HTA and Lintas. I accidentally got into films. It was all thanks to a friend, who was also my junior in college. He referred my name to acclaimed director Bharathan, who was looking for a 7 feet long shark to be made for his film Amaram.
Mr. Bharathan was a veteran director, who has directed many acclaimed regional films including Thevar Magan. He liked my work and felt that I could do the art direction for other films as well. I was working on Iyer The Great, when the art director left the film midway and I had to complete the film. There were a lot of miniatures and other art work that had to be done. Thus, it ended up becoming my first film. I soon started enjoying my work. And after this film, there was no looking back.
On How He Selects & Approaches His Projects
If I can try out things which I haven’t done before, then it becomes exciting and challenging for me. It keeps me going. I have been lucky to let my hobby become my profession. We need to have a childlike enthusiasm. It helps us to keep going and try out new things.Sabu Cyril (Left) on the location of Baahubali
The director narrates the script and tells us on what scale he wants to do the film. The same film can be done on much smaller scale. To get the correct backdrop, we need to choose the perfect location. For Kanchivaram, I suggested we shoot the film at Melkote in Karnataka, since it gave the perfect background for the film.
On Recreating Kolkata In Chennai For Yuva
If you understand the essence of the place, then there it becomes much easier to recreate it. For Yuva, we went to Kolkata, and I took some photos and tried to recreate the same place. Since I do not belong to Kolkata, I was able to see some unique things about that place.
For Kannathil Mutthamittal, we went to study the locations in Sri Lanka (where a major portion of the film is set in). And I was convinced that we could recreate all of this in Kerala. I told Mani sir to give me a day’s time, for me to recreate all of this. So I went around taking snaps of the bus, autorickshaws, costumes of the people and the other things in Sri Lanka so i could build the a similar looking set in Kerala.
On The Evolution Of Art Direction Over The Years
From colour copiers to vinyl cutting machines, so many changes have taken place in this field over the years. Many of these things weren’t there during our time. Had it been present back then, it would have made our work much easier and saved us a lot of time. These technological changes have helped art directors give much better results and finished outputs. I really enjoy learning new things on the job. And this knowledge has helped me to do more exciting and new stuff.
Sabu Cyril on the sets of Robot
Computer graphics has helped us to make our work easier. It has also helped me to do a better job. It is necessary for an art director to have a sense of aesthetics. Understanding of technology helps you to understand filmmaking in a much better way.
On The Differences Between Various Indian Film Industries
The look and feel of films varies due to cultural differences. Once you know about these cultural differences and keep it in mind, you can work accordingly. It is very important for an art director to adapt himself and work in different conditions. The more versatile you are, the more justice you can do to your job.
I have observed that the better job you do, the more likely are the chances of your work not being noticed. I have lost out on a lot of awards due to this authenticity, because people are often unable to make out that there is a set that has been put up. This happened with the set of a temple which I had created for the Malayalam filmAdwaytham.
On What Has Been His Most Satisfying And Challenging Project
I put in my best efforts in every film I work upon. Only when I am convinced, that we have done justice to the film, I move on to the next project. Every film I take up, I feel it is a challenge for me. This has been the case with all my films including Baahubali and Hey Ram. When you face challenges in life, it is what keeps you going.
On Baahubali & The Challenge Of Period Films
When I met S.S Rajamouli, he told me it has to be on a different scale. During our first meeting, I saw the site of the waterfall (which has an important presence in the overall film). After seeing it, I understood the vision he had in mind and the scale on which he wanted to make the film.
Sketch Of Sets Of Baahubali
We started working on the film almost a year before we shot for it. This also is the first film I worked on which has so many mechanical animals. We made snakes, bisons, bulls and various other types of animals. These animals were used for the war sequences and other crucial scenes in the film. And it looks very real.
Doing the art design for films like Baahubali & Asoka is a challenge. Earlier, there weren’t much references to fall back upon, while doing the art direction for period films especially Asoka. Today there are a lot of references available on the internet for historical places and events. But back then, it was an absolute challenge. We also have to choose locations, where there are no telephone lines or other technological changes visible.
For Baahubali, it was a fictitious land and period. We referred the history and the ancient lifestyles of other countries and then we arrived on an idea to design the production and sets for Baahubali. For futuristic films, we can take a few liberties with depicting things. But it is very important, that it should be believable and convincing. This is what I achieved with Robot. If you know the technicalities and know more about the things in your field, it makes you a better art director.
Comparison With Hollywood
They started doing these things much earlier and have spent a lot of money on the production design. The budgets are higher and that’s why they could afford to do it on a larger scale. We have multiple industries and so many films are made in India. But most of the films earlier were smaller films, with the exception of Bollywood.
A lot of talented technicians don’t come into films, because they may not be paid well. We can’t have a research and development wing, or call an engineer to do research, unlike the west where they can afford it. Everything is based on the budget of the film and it enhances or restricts the vision and creativity of an art director. We basically need to do justice to our films and the ever changing tastes and preferences of the audiences.
I used to love watching James Bond and Steven Spielberg’s films when I was in college. I am not a big film buff. But I used to love the sets, the gadgets, mechanics, the style and the look that was used in the Bond films. Nature has been my inspiration and guru.A view of the majestic sets of Baahubali
While I was studying in college, I saw a Kamal Hassan film Raja Paarvai. The art direction for it was done by Mr.Thota Tharani. When I saw the film, I felt that aesthetically, the film stood out from many other films of those days.
Most of the art directors today are doing well. So there is a sense of healthy competition among them. It also feels good to know that many of my earlier assistants, today are doing a great job and are accomplished.
Advice To Budding Art Directors
Don’t get scared by the scale and the challenges you may face, while you are at work. Try and do justice to the best of your abilities. Art direction is a combination of many things, i would say, 30% aesthetic sense, 20-30% of hardwork and 30-40% of common sense. If you have a good common and aesthetic sense, it will take you to a much higher level. And it will help you become a better and skilled art director