NORTH ADAMS -- Visual effects master Jeff Kleiser has taken his work to Bollywood recently, but now he has his vision focused directly at home.
Kleiser will host a screening of the Indian film "Ra.One," which his company, Synthespian Studios, did the visual effects for, at Mass MoCA on Thursday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m.
Kleiser's company was recommended to Indian filmmaker and actor Shah Rukh Khan, whose vision of a Bollywood science fiction film was a huge one.
"It's the biggest movie ever done in Bollywood and the first real science fiction movie produced in Bollywood," Kleiser said. "They had some plans for doing some effects that they really didn't feel comfortable doing in India. They didn't think they could actually figure out how to do them."
What they specifically wanted were transformation scenes -- certain characters in the film would transform their appearances -- and based on Synthespian's work on the X-Men films crafting the Mystique transformations, Khan's company was eager to work with Kleiser.
"I hadn't been to India before, and it seemed like they were really reaching out and breaking new ground, and that sort of thing is always attractive to me," he said. "I said, yes, I can come and supervise visual effects for the movie and my company can do these transformations that they needed."
The most difficult effects were produced on the Mass MoCA campus by Synthespian, while the rest were done in India.
"Synthespian Studios did about 120 shots for the show and then I went to India to supervise their team in Mumbai, as well as about 15 other companies in India," Kleiser said. "A total of about 800 artists worked on this film. There are about 3,000 visual effects shops, so it was an enormous project by any standards."
Kleiser spent six months in India and then another three months in London, while also bringing in companies from South Africa, Germany and Canada.
When he returned to work on the Mass MoCA campus, technology made the international collaboration seamless. The company has a big screening room in Mass MoCA, with a digital projector and a high-speed Internet connection that allows them to download high-resolution files from other countries and go over footage here in North Adams via Skype and other software innovations.
"We use a product called CineSync," said Kleiser. "It's a way that I can have a scene, a shot that we're working on, in my screening room, and at the same time, being projected in India or Germany or wherever. I can stop something and draw, make this area brighter or make this motion blur more blurry, I can make notes on my screen and they can see it at the remote location. It's really like we are just sitting in the same room, talking."
This is almost exactly the opposite of the work dynamic that brought Kleiser and his wife, Diana Walczak, to the Berkshires in 1992. Prior to that, they lived and worked in Los Angeles.
"Diana and I were partners in our company and we were in Hollywood, living in our house and studio right under the Hollywood sign," said Kleiser. "Then Doug Trumbull came into our lives and met us in Hollywood, and he said he was going to do a project in the Berkshires, wherever that was, and needed to do a lot of computer animation."
Trumbull was visiting different computer animation companies in Los Angeles, looking for a company to work with him on three-part attraction at the Luxor Hotel, which included a simulator ride.
"We said that the only way to do this project is if we come to Massachusetts and bring 20 to 30 of our computer animation associates," Kleiser said. "We'll come out with you and your motion control people there, programming computers that control cameras that are shooting live action or models, and do the whole thing in the same space.
"He agreed and hired us, and so we went to Massachusetts for one year to do the Luxor project. But of course, once we got there, we fell in love with Massachusetts and the Berkshires. We were starting to have kids at that time, and we thought that this was a much better place to bring up kids than Hollywood. We stayed in Williamstown and kept our Hollywood house as our connection to the film industry."
These days Kleiser heads out to Los Angeles for one week out of each month, but the actual work has been produced in Massachusetts ever since. The company's history has been dominated by work for Hollywood, but Kleiser's recent experience has given him a perspective on the filmmaking routines of India. The major difference is in cost, which translates into the call for preparedness. Hollywood typically spends anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 a day on sets, while in India, the cost is about a 10th of that.
"The Indian advantage is that they can make creative decisions on the shoot day that the film could benefit from," Kleiser said. "In the U.S., we spend a huge amount of time and effort in preproduction planning the visual effects and sequences, so that when we get on the set, we know exactly what we're doing and exactly what the order of shots is. It's extremely well-planned. Traditionally, in India, they don't do special effects, so their way of doing business is more like they bring the actors and director and cameras and lights onto a stage and say let's do this, let's do that."
For "Ra.One," producer and star Khan was reaching beyond the confines of the Bollywood audience, shooting for a blockbuster of global interest, and bringing in an international team to help him achieve that.
"Shah Rukh wanted it to be a different film from the typical Bollywood fare," Kleiser said, "and not just have it be a lot of romance and dance numbers, but to really do some science fiction, which they hadn't really done too much, so it was really all new ground for that and in that respect it was pretty exciting."
The problem, Klesier found, was a tendency for the Indian visual effects workers to draw too much inspiration from the western films that they loved and thought would help give "Ra.One" wider appeal.
"They'd say 'Let's make it like this' and I'd say, 'That's just like "Iron Man,"';That's just like "Terminator",' so they understood the glossary of visual effects from western cinema and used that as the starting point," said Kleiser. "I thought part of my job was to always step up and do something that wasn't like something from a Western movie, but to try and do something original, do something new, try to create something original."
Kleiser is working to bring his passion for originality back to the states as a producer creating his own films. This helps not only the American visual effects industry, but also guarantees that his own company has innovative work in the future.
"There's such a strong tendency for Hollywood studios to send visual effects work either to Canada or overseas to take advantage of lower labor rates," he said. "Operating a visual effects company in Massachusetts, the only way that I can see that I can do it is producing my own projects."
"And so I have three feature film projects in pre-production and we're hoping to close funding for in the next several months, so we can say we're going to do this and we're going to do it in Massachusetts and we're going to do the visual effects here. I don't have to be bidding against the Chinese or the Indians or the Canadians."
The in-development film projects include a science-fiction film with his brother, Randal Kleiser, directing, and a biopic of legendary inventor Nikolai Tesla.
"That's what we're trying to do -- own the content," said Kleiser. "Create the content, produce it here, regardless of whether it's the cheapest way to do it. We're just trying to find the investors that will trust us to do a great job and make a great film and do it here in Massachusetts."
Kleiser can be found online at www.synthespianstudios.net.