Kerala born Neil Sebastian grew up in Chennai and is slowly, steadily making a place for himself in the Telugu film industry. The art director speaks all south languages and we shall be seeing his debut film Pushpaka Vimanam very soon. His father is a musician and had worked for many music composers like Ilayaraja, Keeravani and others. He plays violin. There were music discussions at home during Neil’s growing days but that was just out of interest and not with an inclination of making it as a career. Slowly he formed a music band but he left that soon. He says, “Five of us formed it and Hip Hop Tamizha was a part of it. Three of us came out and two are there in the band right now. In college, we achieved a huge success with the band but that was a stage of immaturity. I was actually fascinated by miniatures and in school I remember liking the arts and crafts class more than any other subjects. Parents were always supportive of whatever I did. My father too came to Chennai without any help and made a place for himself in the industry and I was inspired to follow his path – of being an independent person. I didn’t want to do music anymore after I left the band and was wondering what I should do next. I began working in Amazon, I had something to fall back on as I did mechanical engineering. I was a scholarship student but was never interested in academics. I was in Amazon because I needed pocket money and still haven’t figured out what I should be doing next.”
He reveals how he resolved to make art and craft as his career, “The good thing about Amazon was there was flexibility and I had enough time to think. By the time I figured out, two years flew away. I told my father my heart wasn’t in my work and one fine day I could sense I had a thing for art and craft. I would make miniatures in school and back then I didn’t know that years later I would make a profession out of it. No one at that time teaches you or tells you that this will be your bread and butter or could be your passion, so take it seriously. When I look back or revisit my memories, I am shocked I could do all that. Now I think I could have done a lot more had I discovered where my interest lied. In college, attendance was bad and I would see a lot of films. Because I was a scholarship student they would allow me to write my exams. The entire castle of Harry Potter was made in one room and they will shoot it in close range. We can’t make it on a huge scale and blast it. I researched a great deal and studied in India and realised miniature making is not valued here. Bahubali shoot was going on at that time. I told dad I wanted to work in the art direction. Sabu Cyril was the art director. Dad told me to meet Keeravani and he might put me in the art department as an apprentice. That day when I landed in Hyderabad, Sabu Cyril was out of station and I was asked to return after a week. Another friend took me to meet another art director. Instead of working in a huge team where I won’t be noticed, I thought I should begin by working on small projects.”
Neil Sebastian worked in Aithe 2, then also on another project in Kerala. He followed it up by being an assistant in 15 to 20 movies. In two years from now he is planning to go to Canada and specialize in miniatures and art direction. When he started all this, he didn’t know he had the talent. Seventy percent of the time, art directors give work and move to another film set. They delegate the work and trust the assistants and that is how Neil picked up work. He shares, “If you don’t have proper assistants it becomes a problem working in multiple projects. I would always think and wonder how I would have handled and had a team of my own and train them, as an art director. Now I have the best team with a great deal of experience. Initially art assistants would be outsourced from Chennai but from the past 20 years, people have begun working here. The new technicians are from the Telugu industry and they began functioning actively in the past 15 to 20 years. A new team will be seen from the next 5 years while the previous batch retires. You can see the change happening now. My team is a mix of seniors who form 80 percent. Their 20 years of experience is of great help to me. Everyone is a mix of everything. Seniors have seen a lot and when you tell them this is what I want, they come up with an immediate solution. That is what I usually expect and I get it. Sometimes there are ego issues and we have to handle them. Most of the time, I will be on the spot. I don’t like leaving work or delegating it. I like to be in control and know what I am doing and what is going on.”
Neil worked as an assistant in ten to fifteen projects before working on Pushpaka Vimanam. Here he talks about how cameraman Hestin Jose was roped in for Pushpaka Vimanam. “Director Srujan’s cameraman Vamsi Patchipulusu knew me well. One good thing is, there are so many directors, DoPs who are young but sadly, there are not many art directors. One fine day, I got a call from Srujan and I spoke to him. The shoot got delayed a bit as Vamsi had another project, Miss India. We began working with Hestin Jose. Srujan likes the way the Malayalam film industry operates and basically how a simple incident can be converted into a story. Jose is from Kottayam and I am from Ernakulam. My team is from Hyderabad. Art direction is not about sets, it is storytelling. Thanks to Bahubali, cinematographers and art directors are being noticed and acknowledged. Earlier it was the lead artistes, director and music director alone who got recognised. The director’s vision is one thing but other than artistes, creating his world is in the hands of the cinematographer and production designer. The director tells what is happening and about the environment needed and we build on it. If there is a guy alone in the house, each thing has to be designed according to the requirement of the character. Usually Telugu cinema needs cinematic ambience but not realistic. There are big films and big sets in Malayalam films too but you don’t feel it is a set. The care that is taken is more in Kerala. In this film’s case there is no compromise on Srujan’s part.” Neil signs off by saying that he doesn’t like to take stress. Even if there is something happening in the last minute, he doesn’t like to take stress. He is always well prepared.