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Behind the scenes of ‘Qala’: A look at the subtle yet impactful VFX work by philmCGI on the Netflix film

It’s fascinating to see how VFX has made the process relatively easier for producers, writers and creators to bring the past to life in their films. Qala, a Netflix original movie directed by Anvita Dutt, is a great example of this trend. The film is set in the Kashmir, Bombay, and Calcutta of the 1940s, and the VFX team at philmCGI was tasked with recreating this era on screen.

The synopsis of Qala reads: Haunted by her past, a talented singer (Qala played by Tripti Dimri) with a rising career with the pressure of success, a mother’s disdain and the voices of doubt within her.

Despite the lack of explosions, creatures, or elaborate fight sequences, the VFX work in Qala is far from negligible. In fact, it’s an essential part of creating this psychological drama film’s overall atmosphere and mood. 

Arpan Gaglani

In conversation with philmCGI’s MD & VFX supervisor for Qala Arpan Gaglani, we learnt that the studio’s involvement in the project came with its own set of challenges, as they were approached by Netflix only after the shoot was completed. Nonetheless, the team of 75-100 artists delivered around 600 shots for the film, showcasing their talent and dedication to the craft.

According to Gaglani, there were three main types of VFX work involved in the film: background work, set extensions, and clean-up work.

The background seen outside the window was created using flat 2D matte painting.  Talking about the scenes that show Kashmir, Gaglani said, “We had to make up a plate for the different angles which have been composed outside.” So, even the shots outside the house were like a studio setup which the VFX team converted with the help of matte painting to look like they have been shot in Kashmir. “Other exterior shots were captured in a season where there were a lot of people around. We got footages which had shots that were partly covered in snow and partly had landmass. We had to clean those up to make it look like the scenes were fully covered in snow.” To make the exterior scene look eerie in a day sequence, the team had even cleaned up a small blinking light of a vehicle somewhere far in the forest.

Calcutta’s Howrah bridge was also built by the visual effects team. The movie sequence with the bridge was shot on chroma and the bridge was entirely created in 3D. A sequence in which some characters go on a boat ride in a river, was shot in the studio. The artists created a chilling and dark background for this shot. Gaglani said, “We had to create a whole background, get the depth of the river and create a haze around it. A lot of simulations were used to create haze and mist for the scene.”

Most of the snow and snowflakes – both indoors and outdoors – were created using effect simulations. Two scenes – the one where the mercury separates after Qala (Tripti Dimri) taps her finger on it and the one with the swirling moth – both have been created through effect simulation.

Another standout effect was the use of Rorschach ink to portray Qala’s mental breakdown. The team used complete 2D animation with ink and paint to create translucent Rorschach that spreads out from the back of Qala’s body. Notably, psychologists have earlier used Rorschach ink to determine people’s state of mind.

Gaglani said that he had an “outstanding” experience working with Qala director Anvita Dutt. “She is very particular about the VFX shots and knows what she wants. We worked seamlessly. The Rorschach shots, moth shots and Howrah shots were touted to be the most difficult ones, but Anvita and I worked it out.” He said that both of them were exchanging ideas throughout the process and picked only those that best suited the movie.

philmCGI has provided VFX for the recently released Amazon Prime Video series Jubilee created by Vikram Aditya Motwane. Currently, Gaglani is working on Zoya Akhtar’s Archies, Netflix series Kaala Paani, Raja Menon’s upcoming project, a South film Inspector Rishi, Vikram Motwane’s next sci-fi project based in futuristic Mumbai, and Atul Sabharwal’s Berlin. On the animation front, he is directing one 13-episode animated series.