Baltimore Post-Examiner story opens the door in Bollywood

When Bollywood producer A.M. Rathman and director Arjun Varma Alluri saw “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” they marveled at the film’s spectacular action scenes.

The two were determined to hire the scenes’ creator to do the action choreography  on two epic movies they planned.

There were so many action-scene credits in “Abraham Lincoln,” however, that they couldn’t figure out who had been in charge.  So they Googled the movie.

Up popped a story in the Baltimore Post-Examiner that I’d done last summer about Igor Tsai, Timur Bekmambetov’s action-scene mastermind.  I’d originally written the story for Tengrinews. The Post-Examiner used it under a content-sharing agreement with Tengri.

After learning who had orchestrated the “Abraham Lincoln” action scenes, Rathman and Alluri asked Igor if he’d do the same on their blockbusters.  The Almaty resident agreed.

Igor Tsai and Hal Foster. The good looking guy is on the left. The better looking guy is on the right.
Igor Tsai and Hal Foster. The good looking guy is on the left. The better looking guy is on the right. (Damir Doszhan)

Igor recounted this story to Nazarbayev University students recently.

Although I had invited him to speak to the students two weeks earlier, I was unaware of the Bollywood news until the morning he arrived.  I was of course delighted.

At 24, Igor has already had a great career. Bollywood will make it even better.

I blushed a bit as he told the students: “I owe this to Hal. If he hadn’t written the story, Bollywood wouldn’t have opened to me.”

He was being modest. Bollywood would have embraced his talent sooner or later.

One of the Bollywood films Igor will be working on, “Satyapati,” will be about the Hindu god Krishna. The other, “Saraswati,” will be a modern twist on an old Indian legend about revenge.

He has already started work on “Saraswati.”

Igor gave the Nazarbayev University students two fascinating presentations about film making in general and action scenes in particular. He showed swashbuckling videos and told stories about the world’s hottest film director – his friend and mentor Timur Bekmambetov.

Students listening to the action-mastermind.
Nazarbayev University students listen to the action-mastermind. (Damir Doszhan)

And he offered the students two slices of news besides his recent connection with Bollywood:

— First, he’s come up with a new way for producers and directors to determine the exact choreography of an action scene without having to make time-consuming and costly adjustments on the set.

— Second, his debut as an executive producer will come in an American movie he plans to film in Kazakhstan – a first for this country.  Bekmambetov will be a guiding force in the project.

The method Igor uses to help film maestros determine the content of an action scene is giving them a video of how he thinks the scene should go. The brass use the video to decide what will work in a scene and what won’t, which means adjustments are made before filming begins.

Igor impressed producer Tim Burton and others on the production team of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” with a video of a vampire-bashing fight scene.

Before shooting the video, he had asked Bekmambetov, who directed “Abraham Lincoln,” what kind of fight scene he envisioned. “We talked for three or four hours,” Igor said.

Igor in action.
Igor in action. (Courtesy photo)

When the video was ready, Bekmambetov told Burton, “Tim, I’ve got something to show you” – and Igor’s team  ended up with the movie’s fight-scene work.

“So this video is the work that opened Hollywood to us,” Igor said.

“All the action scenes in Abraham Lincoln were created in our studio in Almaty,” however, he said.

To novices, shooting a pre-production video may sound like a technical tweak and not an action-scene-production breakthrough. But it’s actually huge. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood adopts it wholesale.

Igor gave the students a Hollywood example of the new approach to make his point.

Let’s say it’s time to film an action scene in a movie starring Angelina Jolie.

A typical Hollywood script will say something vague, like: “The heroine kills three bad guys in a dramatic fight scene.”

The scene will be made with a stunt double, with Angelina coming in for a close-up at the end.

The longtime approach to filming such a scene is to use trial and error to work out the choreography on the spot, with the director making adjustments until he’s got what he wants.

This approach presents both a time and money problem. Every hour of shooting a Hollywood film involves costly labor time. A couple of hours on an action scene burns through tens of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, you’re paying Angelina a lot more money to just sit and wait for her close-up.

With her compensation included, the scene is costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Because Igor’s video approach allows a director to show his film crew what he wants before shooting the scene, the actual filming can be done in minutes, saving scads of money.

Igor’s team films their videos in his Kun-Do action studio in Almaty, the city where he plans to do a lot of the work on his American-movie project.

Students pose for a photo with the action-mastermind.
Students pose for a photo with the action-mastermind. (Damir Doszhan)

The film, tentatively titled “The Warriors of Oz,” will be an adult-thriller version of the old children’s classic “The Wizard of Oz.”

A key reason that Bekmambetov wants to do the movie is to dispel the notion that Kazakhstan is a film backwater, Igor said.

What better way to do that than make an American picture here.

Although the actors will be American, the film crew, from makeup artists to camera people, will be Kazakh. Igor’s Dun-Do action studio stunt team will have key roles in the movie, of course.

Igor’s team produced a teaser of the film to attract investors which Bekmambetov showed at the recent Berlin Film Festival. It helped add Americans and Europeans to the Kazakh investors that had already lined up.

Igor hopes the American production techniques that will be used in the movie will put the staid Kazakhstan film-making industry on a path toward transformation.

If that happens, the young film maker may leave a lasting imprint on not just Hollywood’s action-choreography scene but also on Kazakhstan’s arts and culture scene.

Here’s a provocative short film that Igor co-directed about the threat that social media pose to relationships:

Igor Tsai quotes at Nazarbayev University:

About Timur Bekmambetov: “I consider him a teacher, friend and partner, although he’s a ‘big guy.’ I’ve grown up under his wing. He’s given me lots of opportunities and experience. If we’re in production, I talk with him every day, of course. If we’re not in production, I speak to him every three days.”

About going to Bollywood: “The phone call from Bollywood because of Hal Foster’s post in the Baltimore Post-Examiner (a partner of Tengrinews) is something I could never have predicted. Of course I wanted to go to this film market because it’s huge. Bollywood is Number One in film making in terms of quantity of films produced. When I got the phone call, I thought, ‘Oh, God, this can’t be happening.’”

About Hollywood: “Hollywood is open to people around the world – if you’re talented.”

About Kazakhstan film making: “Young film makers are working to make it open to new talent and new ideas.” 

About the plant-filled atrium of the Nazarbayev University campus, where Igor shot part of a television commercial promoting Kazakhstan abroad: “One of my friends in CNN asked, ‘Is this a university or a five-star hotel?”

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One thought on “Baltimore Post-Examiner story opens the door in Bollywood

  • April 7, 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Greaaat article!!!
    It’s so good of you to validate this young man, to help catapult his career!
    devotion to the Kazakh people and their culture, and your talent for
    spotting those who are making a mark but who have yet to become known
    outside Kazakhstan, is why you have been able to help talented people like Igor Tsai.
    humility, and his gratitude for what you did for him, are proof of why
    you are in Kazakhstan and what you have been doing both as a professor
    and journalist.

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