Breaking records with action thriller Leo
December 15th, 2023

Breaking box office records in India, action-thriller Leo has passed more than $75 million worldwide and is already among the most popular Tamil-language films of all time.

Directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj and starring Thalapathy Vijay, the film is a part of a growing franchise of action movies titled the ‘Lokesh Cinematic Universe’ which include Kaithi (2019) and Vikram (2022). It also draws on the same graphic novel source material by John Wagner and Vince Locke called A History of Violence, which was adapted by David Cronenberg into a 2005 film of the same name.

Leo, produced by Seven Screen Studio, tells the story of a mild-mannered café owner whose dark past eventually catches up with him.

“Lokesh told me about his inspiration from the graphic novel and explained that in the novel the protagonist reveals their identity early on,” notes cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa (Eeram; Bruce Lee - The Fighter). “But Lokesh wanted his protagonist to really believe that the character of his past as Leo was dead. Instead, our hero tries hard to prove to himself lead a new life and keep his identity hidden. That to me felt like a storytelling challenge that I wanted to take on and to help Lokesh explore.”

This is Paramahamsa’s first film with Kanagaraj but his third with Tamil star Vijay (following Nanban and Beast) who recommended the DP to the director.

“He knows me, and I think he was interested because this film had more VFX than any film he had shot before and, I guess, I have a reputation for being able to manage and shoot complex VFX and action sequences.”

With VFX supervisor Srinivas Mohan, Paramahamsa is the co-founder of the Chennai-based VFX studio Stage Unreal, which was deployed to previsualize key scenes, including an opening featuring a photoreal 3D hyena (created by lead VFX vendor MPC) and a climactic car and bike chase, within Unreal Engine.

“We designed the hyena sequence as an animated clip with scaled-up sets which we got from scanning the entire area via a drone that we later mapped into a 3D image.

“We left space for improv; the shot where Vijay jumps and catches the basketball hoop, for example, was one such decision we took on the spot,” adds Paramahamsa. “The homework we did makes Leo look as good as it looks. This makes planning easy, as we spent two and a half months preparing for the car chase scene but shot it in just one day.”

Paramahamsa deployed multiple V-RAPTORs in an extension of his use of RED which began with the release of MONSTRO. Since then, he has developed what he calls “a deep fascination” with the cameras.

“With the MONSTRO, RED became my primary camera on all my major films. I strongly believe that the camera’s sensor with its high dynamic range and detail in the blacks is the best digital cinema around. Plus, the form factor is so lightweight, it’s very manoeuvrable and flexible for any shoot.”

Paramahamsa buys and maintains his own RED camera bodies and accessories and designs and builds bespoke rigs for each project, including on Leo. This even included rigging a camera to a gun for a point of view shot.

“I understand the camera inside and out and how it performs, and what I can do with it so that enables me to spend time preparing thoroughly for each film and selecting appropriate lenses for each project,” he says.

For Leo, Kanagaraj wanted to shoot Cinemascope 2.39 which Paramahamsa was able to cover using anamorphic lenses in tune with a classic cinema look. He experimented with several sets before selecting Cooke Anamorphic/I FF lenses.

The majority of the film, except for action sequences, was shot in a mise-en-scène style, so that the actor’s performance would flow and not be interrupted by breaks for set-ups. Paramahamsa ran three V-RAPTORs for almost every scene, including the quieter more intimate scenes such as when one set in a cafe. Even here the cameras were mobile, allowing Paramahamsa to move with the actors and pick the best or most candid shots live while ensuring that the lighting worked from all angles.

Paramahamsa operated a V-RAPTOR XL on a long lens with another V-RAPTOR carried on an ARRI Trinity Steadicam. A third was gimbalized with Movi or Ronin rigs depending on requirements. Additional FPV shots, such as a POV eagle’s eye shots, were captured on RED KOMODO whose color science matches that of V-RAPTOR for fluent postproduction.

The film’s copious action sequences were typically shot at 120fps on the V-RAPTORS with one sequence also employing a Phantom.

“A great advantage of the V-RAPTOR is the ability to record 8K native without the need to crop for anamorphic and still shoot 120 frames,” says Paramahamsa.

The DP also rigged monitors to his own rig so that he could instantly view what the two other V-RAPTORs are capturing.

“Upgrading to the V-RAPTOR XL was a fantastic decision because it has so many outputs that enabled me to design an on-set workflow that keeps shots flowing and gives me immediate clarity about what we are capturing.”

Paramahamsa used one technical LUT for all dailies, VFX and viewing which he developed with his regular colourist Glen Castinho of Poland’s Alvernia Studios. Finishing for Netflix was in Dolby Vision and allowed the inclusion of more details in the highlights, especially within the snow and firelight-heavy scenes.

Paramahamsa’s extensive pre-production planning allowed photography to go on without hitch despite battling issues with weather and climate on location in Kashmir, Northern India and part of the Himalayas.

“We expected some snow in January but when we arrived to shoot there was none at all. It was proper green grass and very good sunlight. Then, the weather turned and it snowed heavily. The extent of it surprised even the locals. Then the question was do we go with the snow or attempt to remove it. We decided to keep it.”

Kanagaraj prefers shooting on location than on sets but in this case, Kashmir also helped connect audiences with the story, as it illustrates how far Leo has travelled from his past.

“We usually go to such terrains for song and dance shoots, but to shoot the majority of a film — with a lot of action sequences — was quite challenging.

“The light changes so fast in the mountains and reflects in different ways from the snow and the peaks that often the light would change before we’d captured all we needed for VFX. Because of the mist and poor lighting, we were only able to shoot from 11am to 4pm with a two-hour break in between. So, we would shoot some plates, note the time of day and the sun’s direction, and return to the spot at the same time the next day. I wanted to give the VFX team as precise reference points as we could to match the lighting.”