Namit Malhotra: Translating dream language to reality, one Oscar at a time

Daydreaming, thoughts transcend into an alternate reality — a verdant green foliage where mitochondria air feelings, birds caw anger and str...

Daydreaming, thoughts transcend into an alternate reality — a verdant green foliage where mitochondria air feelings, birds caw anger and streams form thought clouds about the impending disaster on earthlings — and yes, the soil weeps. Climate change in one’s imagination. Now, enter DNEG CEO and head honcho Namit Malhotra and his creative team’s mind, and that seemingly lame vision transforms into a stark, otherworldly vision, perfectly in tune with a mind-boggling vista that Malhotra and DNEG live and breathe – VFX. It enters our lives with a visual great Gatsby-ish mind-altering gravity-defying vision that is seven Oscars worthy! Winning the seventh for Dune's visual special effects (2022), the other six Oscars were for Inception, Interstellar, Bladerunner, Ex Machina, Tenet and First Man — DNEG’s tally now seven Oscars in eight years. Credible, right? Bafta awards, Emmy’s and VES Awards too, this feat for an Indian company and its founder-CEO Namit Malhotra is proof of their state-of-the-art VFX-ology.

DNEG CEO Namit Malhotra

An expansive wave heightens Interstellar as a city bends in Inception — what Malhotra and DNEG have created breaks the glass ceiling, with a real-life resonance which Namit calls “seamless storytelling.”

Oscar number 7, Namit laughs, “has gotten most validation. The joke is that it has taken me six Oscars to gain visibility finally,” he laughs. DNEG, a visual effects, animation and stereo conversion leader is avant garde.

Namit distinguishes the world of visual effects into a “before, and after Dune.” A stellar paradigm. “Traditionally, visual effects are about a sequence or scene, with a ‘wow, how did they do that?’— Jurassic Park or Matrix have pretty first-off VFX. That versus Dune, the integration is seamless — you are not looking at a wow sequence. Instead, you are taken in by the storytelling — that is why Dune is the beginning of another era — of not making wow moments in films but creating seamless storytelling,” where the movie itself is a “wow moment.”

Still from the 2021 movie Dune. Facebook/dune

For the rebellious 18-year-old, it’s been a giant leap, admittedly, years in the making — a course in computer graphics saw Namit start an editing studio, Video Workshop. The ordinary home garage has transformed into DNEG, and today it stands shoulder to shoulder with the best. While it’s not something Namit dwells on, the legacy paved by his father, Naresh Malhotra, a producer, and grandfather MN Malhotra, a cinematographer (who worked on India’s first colour film in 1953), sowed the seeds for his prodigious bent.

Image courtesy: Facebook/ dnegvfx

Making scenes swirl into a whirlpool of incisive graphics Namit first forayed into media with TV shows, till he merged with his father’s Video Works – to start Prime Focus (now Prime Focus World). A move to LA during recession saw him battle hard, till he moved to London, started Double Negative in 1998, and rebranded it as DNEG in 2014 after merging with Prime Focus.

Today, collaborating with greats like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, DNEG has put India’s name on the world map – they began with stereo conversions for Clash of the Titans (2009), Harry Potter, etc to matching a director’s idea with instinctive depth.

Entering the echelons of top notch VFX, the 8,000-strong DNEG family in 16 cities, four continents is currently busy ideating on 100 projects. Dune was its second collab with Denis (Blade Runner earlier). “There was a history working with his style and mindset. His direction across all departments is stellar (he won 10 Oscars, including best picture for Dune). He induces excitement and consistency of vision — it fits together like a hand in glove — not many film-makers can pull that out of a hat,” Namit avers.

This image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows director Denis Villeneuve, left, and actor Javier Bardem on the set of Dune. AP

Still absorbing the zenith that Dune has reached, he says, “I never thought that we would create such a pinnacle. I am awed by the outcome.”

Making Dune was complex, “Dealing with sand, filming a sandstorm — it was impossible to shoot and create those environments. It is a masterful outcome that Dune upped to a high standard,” adds Malhotra.

Collabs are Malhotra’s swan song — Gratified about working with Nolan and Dennis, Namit feels, “They are masters. With Nolan, who we have been working with since Batman Begins — it is one of the most exciting collaborations. Nolan helped the company create some of the greatest visual storytelling experiences. We, as a company, look up to him. He is also my favourite director. I’ve met him a few times — and expressed my fan boy stance. His ability to put different worlds, visuals and sounds together is absolutely masterful – unique talent.”

On the tryst with Denis, “Deni is an artist, a master with an artistic vision that is second to none.” The dynamics of two film-makers who are constantly pushing boundaries excites Namit, “We are all aligned on the core fabric to do something not done before. Fortunately, the results show on screen, and that builds confidence,” says Namit.

When COVID-19 struck, James Bond, Dune, Tenet, Fast and Furious were in the works. The upstart and doyen of VFX, has grown to a cult status as he has embellished his craft, creating superb VFX-ology. “India is the best, we just have to prove ourselves,” he stresses disparaging the need to be at par. From VFX, his craft has turned towards producing now, with Bhramastra, “My creative perspective is more relevant here. In producing, we have a bigger role to play,” adds Namit, of the yet-to-be released film. With it, Namit wants to bring in world-class high-quality visual effects to India with a look and feel arising from its own ethos, mythology and culture with Hollywood definition. Garfield with Alcon Entertainment is on the anvil. Ramayana too.

An incomparable work ethic, he is bullish with a single-minded focus that is second nature. Travelling across the world, at the crux of creative highs, the self-confessed workaholic’s ability to not take no for an answer sees his teams bearing the brunt of the “not possible” which Namit challenges vigorously. Ideas bombard his mind, even on holidays, and if in the midst, an Oscar lands in his lap, well, that’s sweet.

Has success changed him? The fervour and zeal remains. “One of my favourite lines is from a Pearl Jam song, I CHANGE BY NOT CHANGING AT ALL,” he mulls.

“My grandfather and my father were huge influences, they created a foundation. What they had more than money and acclaim was that they were highly respected with a lot of goodwill — The responsibility is to carry forward their legacy,” explains the highly competitive VFX whiz whose “childlike enthusiasm about the new and different drives makes him easily bored, “All the Oscars we have won, India has played a role in it. I want to ensure that India’s brand never vanishes — that is my passport.”

“It’s not about being clever — it’s straight forward, evolutionary and aspirational. When we were doing well in India, and built Prime Focus, it was successful, it was akin to winning the Ranji trophy, so now it’s vying for the world cup. Today, we’ve got this capability, and technology and all these Oscars, now let’s do something for ourselves — the ideas are driving the next logical step — I joke that I could have made 30 movies. Yet, I was conscious that I want to create an opportunity that allowed us to be game changers,” he adds. Say, “it can’t be done,” and it invigorates Namit to go against the tide of predictability — this is his ”secret sauce.”

While art imitates life, DNEG VFX’ created life too — the first off rendition of a worm hole. “It is art — we use research to drive formulation, a lot of physics is involved working with scientific experts running simulations to bring futuristic ideas to life. If it is too over the top, which visual effects can often be blamed for, then it takes you out of the story as you cannot connect. That is a major component of what we do. The Oscars prove how DNEG can adapt to the core ask of the film-maker,” he explains.

The London-based VFX maverick is wiser and a “better version of himself “now. He and his wife Ami were childhood sweethearts. “We were friends since third grade, so it is a high school romance,” he chuckles warmly.

Ami, an eye surgeon and his three sons — Ayrton Malhotra, 15 (named in memory of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna), and twins Raghav and Raghveer complete the VFX whiz’ universe.

As a father, he’d like them to enjoy before professional responsibilities crash in. “People barely get one Oscar in their lives, each win and victory is a huge positive celebration, so there is immense gratitude and contentment as there are so many people and so much hard work by the teams, experts, and everyone. The validation is an appreciation of all the years of toil and effort,” as Namit “keeps swimming against the tide.”

Racing and sports cars are his other love — a Porche and a Ferrari which now sit idle, he drives a Tesla now and cycles to work. “As I have gotten older, I’m revisiting my childhood — tennis and riding a bicycle. I want to show my sons that just because you are older, and have made money that does not mean you become unhealthy,” says the VFX whiz.

A fitter Namit was a tubby teen “There is method to my madness. When friends were into fitness, I was working like a lunatic to build my company, and becoming fatter. I was young and didn’t think being thin or fat was going to make a big difference. Now, I feel more responsible to lead by example,” says the guy who has fallen, been bruised, gotten right back up — a quality he calls, “obstinate optimism,” Nothing dissuades him. “The excitement of future challenges — I’ve never fired a person for a mistake, as I make mistakes — I have made certain bad decisions and saw how it damaged my life. I had to fight to get out of it. That only happens when you accept your actions and faults and fix it, as long as you do that how can you not win?” Those gilded Oscars are testament to his spirit… but Namit is already bounding ahead, with a profusion of ideas … just in case the Oscar-winning VFX’ don’t leave you in awe.

In a box

Namit Malhotra on the seven Oscar

Inception 2011

Based on the concept of a dream within a dream — Namit says, “For us to be able to translate the vision of the film-maker into something real makes it unique – it’s very authentic. I still think it’s some of the best work we’ve ever done - absolutely beautiful.”

Still from Inception (2010). Image courtesy: Warner Bros

Interstellar 2015

Working with Christopher Nolan again, they explored the worm hole and the black hole, “with no real reference.” Astro physicist Kip Thorne stepped in - the team took his formulae and turned them into imaging data - created this rendition of a worm hole which was published in scientific papers for the first time – art was showing science the way. It was a great icing on the cake,” says Namit.

Still from Interstellar (2014). Image courtesy: Facebook/InterstellarMovie

Ex Machina 2016

Big block busters are Namit and DNEG’s daily bread. Ex Machina, au contraire was made on the smallest budget. “It was the perfect example of the underdog. With august ideas and quality of execution that speak of the DNEG’s DNA, we were able to leverage the film-maker’s vision and translate it into specific outcomes.”

Alicia Vikander as Ava in “Ex Machina,” directed by Alex Garland. Imdb

Making a human robot human was tricky and he feels it was “one of the best examples of a human and a robot. It was just so bespoke. It made a significant difference to me.”

Blade Runner 2049 2018

With Denis Villeneuve again, telling a story of the first Ridley Scott successful franchise, the balance — the element of fantasy and imagination was apt.

Still from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Image courtesy: warnerbros.com

First Man 2019

Firstman – about the first man on the moon saw the team explore gravity, physics and the surface of the moon. To integrate that into story telling was critical, “the execution was done exceedingly well.”

Still from Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018) . Image courtesy: Universal Studios/ Daniel McFadden

Tenet 2021

Time travel and Nolan are fast friends. “He geniusely illustrates this interplay on physical reality - he loves real sequences, which visual effects accentuate. Infact, he did get a full 747 and crashed it into a building – The authenticity of his vision makes it critical to communicate a believable concept. We create unseen, unheard scenes and they are remarkable.”

Still from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020). warnerbros.com

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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