Two filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of spook with India’s first VR horror short
We Are standing right below a rundown building on the outskirts of Virar’s Bhatte Wadi, surrounded by a tilled patch of land on one side and mango trees on the other, when director Ashley Rodrigues hands us his VR headset. “Watch the film,” he prods. As we rest the device on our forehead, and narrow our eyes to watch what’s playing in front of us, we unexpectedly find ourselves on shaky ground. One minute we are on a muddied plot in Virar and now, suddenly in the film, transported to a swimming pool in south India. On Rodrigues’ instruction, I step inside the pool, only to find myself surrounded by water on all sides. Moments later, in the film, someone calls out to me, asking if I’d like to try a lobster dish. Again, we swerve, and see a waiter place the seafood on a wooden table and leave.
When we are done watching this visual spectacle, Rodrigues says, “Now, imagine if this were a horror film, and there was a ghost calling out to you.” We try to visualise the experience — the eerie surrounding with the ‘bhoot bangla’ in the backdrop only inflating our fantastical imagination. The thought is overwhelming, we say.
Back in December, Rodrigues and his business partner Eddie Avil had chills running down their spines, with the sheer thought of making such a film. Now, with the shoot almost complete, the duo is just a few months shy of releasing India’s first VR horror short, Crackle. Once ready, the filmmakers plan to screen the movie at festivals and also make it accessible on several VR platforms.
Set in Virar, nearly 75 km from Mumbai, the eight-minute short film works on a very simple premise that harks back to the now, infamous thrills of Ram Gopal Varma. Five friends find an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere, and decide to perform a séance inside one of its dilapidated rooms late into the night. It’s only spook from here on and may be, a few ghosts.
But, this film isn’t about the plot, as much as it is about the experience, says 43-year-old Rodrigues. “Since it is the first film of its kind here, we wanted to make it experiential for our audience,” he says. Avil agrees. “In India, VR is still at a nascent stage. But, this is an insane technology. Imagine participating in the horror, where you, the viewer, has complete control over what you are seeing. Unlike 2D and 3D, the user is never alienated,” says Avil, adding, “It’s like a dream, only this one is real.”
To us, it sounds a tad bit complicated. Making the film wasn’t any easy. For, cinemat-ographer Shanti Bhushan Roy (40), who has previously shot Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate and has made several documentaries and ad films, working on this project, meant unlearning everything he knew about cinema. “My job was to give a globular perspective of the surrounding. And, that’s tough because until now, I always saw the world in a rectangular frame,” says Roy.
Both, Avil and Rodrigues, sound engineers by profession, approached several producers before going ahead on their own. Lack of funding brought along several technological limitations. But, the duo tried to overcome the issue, by creating their own prototype 360-degree camera with the help of Nilesh Yadav, a technician. The camera comprises 16 e-cameras — each capturing a particular depth of field — that have been placed on a circular grid to capture a spherical view of the environment. “For some scenes, they also used a remote-controlled dolly,” says Saju Jose, who co-directed the film.
However, the filmmakers experienced their toughest challenge during the shoot. Since the camera gives a ringside view of the environment, none of the crewmembers could be around when a scene was being shot, not even the cameraperson. “If you can see the camera, the camera has seen you,” Rodrigues explains. You can’t see how a scene has panned out, neither can you do re-takes, says Avil. To avoid that hassle, the actors had to go through month-long rehearsals. “We had to prepare them in such a way, that made it seem like they were performing for a theatre audience,” says Rodrigues. Trickier was the fact that each character in the eight-minute film had to be fleshed out thoroughly, because the reader decides what he wants to see. “As a storyteller, you don’t have control over what your audience sees. You might want to show them something happening with one character, but they might want to engage with another character,” says Rodrigues. “They may even miss the ghost,” he jokes. But, that’s what makes VR such a great medium, explains Avil. Every time you view the film, you will find something new to take home.