Can You Spot the Fake Horses? ‘RRR’ Visual Effects Team Breaks Down How Hundreds of Animals Were Created

“You can challenge anyone to pick out the live horses from the digital horses,” VFX supervisor Pete Draper tells TheWrap

RRR Horses VFX

A three-hour epic action film about Indian revolutionaries in the 1920s, S. S. Rajamouli’s “RRR” is one of the year’s most enormous hits. The raucously entertaining and musical film is perched near the top of highest-grossing movies in India and has raked in millions in the U.S. as well. And after a snub by India’s film board for the Best International Feature category at the Oscars, “RRR” is making a serious run at major Oscar categories, including picture and director. (Rajamouli recently won the New York Film Critics Circle’s best director prize.)

And also it’s being touted for the category of achievement in visual effects, perhaps the most impressive and overwhelming of the movie’s many technical efforts. More than 70 percent of the film includes some type of effects component, amounting to a staggering 2,800 shots. These include background and foregrounds, large and small scale miniatures, and an astonishing number of animals that were created in the computer, everything from innocent birds in the sky to a wild tiger in the jungle.

Before the film even begins, there is a disclaimer in the opening credits, which explains that, “No animals or birds were harmed during the making of the film. Horses, oxen, birds, tigers, wolves, bears, leopards, deer, fish, and snakes shown in the film all all computer generated.”

TheWrap spoke to visual effects head V. Srinivas Mohan and visual effects supervisors Pete Draper and Daniel French about the incredible challenge of creating so much realistic wildlife for the film.

“There were 18 different visual effects studios from around the world that worked on the film,” Mohan said. “The animals had to be believable, so we looked at other films where the animal looks realistic while sitting still, but there is some small small uncomfortableness in their movement. When you look at a real animal’s real movement, it looks like it has been made without any guidance. (Rajamouli) told us that he wanted all the animals’ animation and placement in the scene to be completed before filming, so that it would give the team guidance like in terms of how the actors would perform. The cinematographer could see the computer-generated animal in his monitor.”

Draper pointed out that there is at least one shot where a two real horses appear onscreen, but good luck trying to distingue them from the computer-generated horses in the same scene.

“It’s in the big animal havoc scene,” he said of an astonishing action sequence where zoo animals are unleashed into a crowd. “Two real horses were pulling the carriage on fire, but two more were added, one on each side, so that it looks like four horses are pulling it. And you’d never spot the fact that two are digital horses. If you freeze frame it, you can challenge anyone to pick out the live horses from the digital horses.”

Source: V. Srinivas Mohan (YouTube)

Draper continued,  “It is a testament to (Rajamouli) understanding all the crafts. He puts his mind into every aspect of it. As far as visual effects are concerned, it’s another tool in his arsenal. It’s not a case of ‘OK, I need to do this with visual effects?’ There are a lot of effects, including with the animals, that were achieved in camera through miniatures or physical props.”

One such example, according to French, was a wild fight scene set on a bridge, in which a fake horse on rails was used during the production. “There was a real horse there and these actors do their own stunts,” Draper said. “But in one case there was a moment where the real horse could potentially come into harm’s way, because it was required to stop right before the edge of the bridge. So we made a CG horse. But the amount of prep work was incredible – there was this dummy horse on rails, the same height as the real horse, and we painted that out and replaced it with a CG horse.”

He added, “It would look way more fake if it hadn’t been for all the preparation. Most VFX supervisors would say, ‘Let’s just do the actors and the animals as CG replacement because that’s easier.’ So you don’t have to make all these rigs and stuff. But (Rajamouli) knows about the limitations of CG and tries to add all these elements that bring as much reality as possible.”

That philosophy was never more true than in the phenomenal tiger attack that occurs early in the story.

Source: V. Srinivas Mohan (YouTube)

“Before the shoot even started, we went to the zoo and filmed a tiger there,” Mohan said. “And then we took the videos and added a CG tiger next to it. Just like (copying) a painting. We did it and then passed it to the director and asked which was real and which was CG. It became extremely difficult, and eventually impossible, to tell.” 

Draper added, “You can get into the ‘Uncanny valley’ while designing real animals. So you always have to study references, no matter what it is. Because there are so many subtle elements: Determining how light falls off something and changes over distances, for example. If you try and imagine how something looks, you’ll get it wrong. Because you have overlooked some strange, unnatural nuance. It’s all that randomization and variables that occur in life, which add an extra realism to everything.”

Even something as basic as a tiger’s mouth needs to be carefully designed to ensure verisimilitde. “A big cat in real life will have little nuances in its appearance,” Draper said. “Like when it opens its mouth, when you look in slow motion, there’s a slight tearing when the lips open, very minor and very subtle, which you don’t get in computer animation unless you’re very aware of it. The nuances sell the effect.”