FutureWorks helped to recreate Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema disaster for the recent Netflix drama Trial by Fire, delivering all previs images for the devastating fire scenes. The seven-part miniseries is a dramatization of the tragic events of June 13, 1997, where a fire caused by ill-maintained equipment during an afternoon screening of the war epic Border resulted in the deaths of 59 people, with a further 103 injured in the resulting stampede. Due to multiple safety violations, many cinema-goers were trapped inside, eventually succumbing to smoke inhalation.
Directed by Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha, and Avani Deshpande, Trial by Fire tells the story of a couple – Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol), who lost their two children in the disaster. The show is based on the couple’s memoir, detailing their emotional struggle in the aftermath of the fire, and their groundbreaking quest for justice.
Taking the form of an emotional courtroom drama based on the landmark compensation case that followed the avoidable tragedy, Trial by Fire features a snippet of the fire in the opening minutes of the show. The heartbreaking scene is then revisited at length in the finale, comprising the majority of the last episode.
As part of its long-standing partnership with Netflix India, Mumbai-based FutureWorks was brought on board to create the previs for the fire sequences, based on a demo the team put together recreating a devastating earthquake that took place in the 16th century.
Recreating real-life events is significantly different to producing fictional drama. For Trial by Fire, it was imperative to tell the story right, so authenticity was crucial. “To understand the full story, we looked beyond the storyboard, studying the script, and carrying out our own research to ensure that we were recreating what happened in an authentic and realistic way,” says Gouri Shankar, visual effects supervisor at FutureWorks.
FutureWorks created a first draft of the previs for 100 shots in Unreal Engine, based on the storyboards from the DP, Saumyananda Sahi. The team then began animating shots, gradually showing more clips to Sahi until the whole sequence was animated. Next was the editorial part of the process, where the DP liaised with the previs team to determine how long each shot needed to be.
The previs team engaged with the DP regularly – nearly every other day – to get the sequence right. Static camera blocking was completed by the second pass, but as soon as the cameras needed to be moved, the process became more complex. Shots involving slight movement needed a few more passes to perfect, while it took around eight iterations to nail down the more dynamic sequences, such as establishing shots. “The aim of previs here is to support how the director wants to tell the story,” says Shankar. “Their creative inputs help us to refine the previs.”
One of the biggest challenges in the previs process was creating the smoke, and how it moves and reacts. “Smoke is difficult to simulate realistically, and it was a big part of the fire scenes,” says Shankar. “The way smoke behaves when it fills a large room is very different to how it looks in the game engine. It was also challenging because of the lighting – at one point in the sequence, the building’s power is lost so that there is no light source, other than a single cinema usher’s torch beam.”
Trial by Fire gave FutureWorks the opportunity to work on previs for a real-life event, something the team hadn’t done before. “We created almost the entirety of the last episode, which is rare for us, but it gave us a great opportunity to learn more about how the director and DP work,” says Shankar. “We got the chance to engage with parts of filmmaking in ways we usually don’t get the chance to.”
FutureWorks’ CEO Gaurav Gupta says: “We’re honored to have worked closely with Netflix on telling such an important story. By creating the previs for some of the most emotional scenes in the show, we aimed to lay a foundation to ensure that the dramatization was as close to what really happened as possible.”