Suresh Selvarajan never had a career path. He made it up as he went along to make his mark across the spectrum
Suresh has been championing the creativity since he has been studying school. He holds a fine arts degree in painting from the University of Pondicherry. He was recognised with a state award at the age of nineteen for painting. With 15 years of experience in the film industry as art director and production designer he has honed his eye to give life to the sets with his outright talent. Some of his notable projects as art director in ‘Krrish 3’, ‘Robot’; as special property designer in ‘Kick’, ‘Baby’, ‘Housefull 3’ ; as production designer in ‘Brothers’, ‘Iru Mugan’ &‘Bharath One Nenu’. He is presently working for ‘Petta’ film starring Rajinikanth in the lead role and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in ensemble cast.
What were your interests when you were growing up? How did you graduate to art directing and set decorating?
I was born and brought up in Chidambaram. While I was in school I had a passion for paintings and I used to draw and paint a lot. Everyone around would appreciate me for it. Chidambaram is a temple town and is nothing alike Chennai or Mumbai cities. I remember all my way from school to home I used to find numerous sign board shops and temples. I admired the painters job who used to draw and design the boards, walls and paint the ornate (monumental tower at the entrance of a Hindu temple). I would stand there watching them do their work and think that I too wanted the same job when I grew up. They were my first connection for what I am today. I wanted to be a painter. Back then I never had facilities like internet where I could use google to research or know what I can do with my talent to go to the next level. I was not aware if there is a college to teach subjects related to arts and cinema industry.
I didn’t have a path mapped out. That’s when I watched an interview of the Indian art director and production designer Thota Tharani on Tv and learnt if someoneis good at subjects like paintingand drawing then there is a career for them in the film industry. So I joined the University of Pondicherry and graduated to Bachelor of Fine Arts and got into assisting the renowned art director Sabu Cyril for films. To be honest I created my first email id and learnt about google and wikipedia only when I was studying in college (laughs).
Who do you consider as your mentors for your career growth?
I had different people as mentors in my life. My school teacher, Gurunathan was my first mentor. He recognised my talent, encouraged me to take part in competitions and guided me through out. When I joined college I had my professors guide me at a different level. My role model who I always admired was Thota Tharani sir. I would read and watch all his interviews. At college, I would go through all the cassettes of his teaching and making of art direction for study purpose. I wanted to be like him and work under him if given a chance after college but unfortunately I couldn’t get to join his team.
It was then I met Sabu Cyril sir and joined him. He is my biggest mentor of all as I got an opportunity to get into film industry through him and he also helped me get my debut film as an art director. He taught me how to live with the set. I would observe him and imitate him. I gradually cultivated his style of talking.
What were some of the early lessons you learned when you started off in art direction?
We have time restrictions in films as art directors or production designers, so adapting to change and learning quickly is necessary. I learned a tremendous amount about the craft and talent that went into production. As a beginner, I was very into the circus of it all. I have always wanted people to see, feel and walk through my paintings. An artist creates a relationship between a canvas (a cloth artist paint on) and a brush which is an outcome of an art. Art direction is something that I found where lies a canvas and doing the same artwork as an artist but involving more than 200 to 400 people to make the film sets, a life sized three-dimensional painting. It involves carpenters, painters, welders and moulders to make the sets look alive where people can walk through and it needs a lot of team effort.
Our efforts are validated and we get to see a great deal of work covered in the films, but there could be times where none of it makes in at all. So I have learned the first and foremost important thing in art direction is to keep the camera frames in mind. That way I know to convert my sets into the frame and when we have the luxury to work for more time on sets and embrace it they become much richer.
Do you always travel a lot for your work? How is it? And tell us your experience about it?
I am a globetrotter. Normally when I’m working in base locations like Chennai or Mumbai, things are easier to handle. Shooting abroad is never easy
mainly with problems flowing in from all angles, especially the weather conditions and that mostly concerns rains and winds. It feels like an adventure from the beginning till end as I get to experience different people, food, language and location. While I travel I have my eyes open to new and fascinating things and at the same time it is challenging when it comes to work.
Are there any common misconceptions that you think people have about what the art department does?
According to my experience and the people I have come across, I would like to categorise them into three groups based on their knowledge about art direction. he first category of the people is the majority ones who already have a knowledge about what exists in nature and easily able to figure the sets made when they are watching the film. They also uses sources like newspaper and online research to know more about the movies and how they function. The second category of people would watch the film and would take guesses maybe the scenes were shot in an actual market or a police station or a theatre. To these people when they are told it is all a set and not the actual place, it is easy make them understand. The third category of people will never know anything about the sets. They wouldn’t understand even if we tell them that it was not real. For example if there is a fight scene to be shot in a train, we have to make 10 different types of sets so that every detail like the seatings, passengers, windows, doors and walls of the train have to be captured in the camera in different angles. These people will understand only when they watch the making of the film.
The same way there are three types of films; realistic, futuristic and periodic films involving art direction for people to understand how much level of set making is required to make them. It is very difficult to figure out the sets in realistic film as they are made based on the scenes to be shot with respect to what the script demands. Futuristic films are fictional and 75% of people will know the sets were made for those films. In periodic films, everyone knows that the places and things existed once and they don’t exist now. And in order to make such films, the sets are built.
How does your typical day or a typical week look like when shoot starts? Do you get a moment to take a break in the middle of it?
I always have the first day fear but it has always helped me grow in life and it makes me confident. Once the shoot begins, I do get breaks in the first week until I hand over the set and sometimes it extends for 15 days or a month. In the first week, after opening sets we check in on build / install progress and check if things are into the frame and projected into the camera. While I get time to relax and think for the next in-line my team would be there to take care of each department.
How do you feel when it’s a wrap and you watch your sets being torn down? That’s a good question! Sometimes it could be heartbreaking as there is a lot of hard work put in it. We would be prepared when we are making the sets that we will be breaking it, being aware that all the hard work is captured on camera. When you are not prepared for certain situations like an accident where the car is completely damaged then you would feel the loss of it and it’s a true loss. We move on as we would be focussed on the next set.
Apart from the major recurring sets, you would have quite a few sets that only appear once or twice. What’s your approach to maintain the visual consistency throughout the whole production to those sets as far as the level of detail and the amount of time spent?
Every scene in the movie is important. We often collaborate on what shots are needed, and focus our time and resources on servicing those needs in a smarter way by keeping the script in mind. In a movie there would be grand scenes and small scenes. Sometime when there are scenes with small budget and requires to be completed within short time, I make sure the overall look and feel of the scene is the same by changing the colour palette as we cannot show the audiences if it had a small budget in the film. It is challenging to do the same kind of work for all the sets irrespective of it appearing once or twice or being small in the film.
What do you do between your productions?
Laughs… I try to relax and focus on my family and travel. I always carry a piece of paper in my pocket. My day doesn’t go without it. I write all my present work as checklist and I have one for my personal use too. I write planning on holidays and anything that I have missed to do with my family while I was at work. I do not skew work-life balance so they don’t miss me and I don’t miss them.
Do you have any final words for the readers of OPINION EXPRESS magazine?
I have a thought to share, there is a saying that god exists in everyone likewise I say that art exists in everyone and nobody can deny it. For example the vegetable vendor arranging vegetables which would look very attractive or an old lady with no knowledge of art would have arranged the fishes so beautiful in a fish market. We get to observe these outside on the streets, offices and at homes too. All these people follow a pattern to attract some kind of audience. you don’t have to know how to draw or paint like a professional to be an expert at art but it exists in everyonein some or the other way irrespective of their profession.