NORTH ADAMS -- The view from Mass MoCA’s café windows reveals a giant movie screen hung from a brick factory building. Tonight at 8, the sci-fi Bollywood blockbuster "Ra.One," starring Indian megastar Shah Rukh Khan, will fill the outdoor cinema with music, dancing -- and more than 3,000 visual effects masterminded by one man sitting in the dark in the building next door.
Laughter rang out when Synthespian Studios head Jeff Kleiser talked over his experiences as "Ra.One" visual effects supervisor with Williamstown Film Festival executive director Steve Lawson and Mass MoCA’s Sue Killam, who are cosponsoring the screening.
In "Ra.One," battling video game characters come to life and imperil a family. Released in 2011 with a $21 million budget, it was the most expensive film in Indian moviemaking history.
"About 120 of the most complicated visual effects were done at Mass MoCA," Kleiser explained.
The producers asked him to supervise effects for the entire project.
With six months spent in India, the two-year assignment was unlike anything Kleiser had done before, "just in the sheer volume of shots," he said, "and also the fact that I was supervising about 800 people at 15 different companies all around the world."
"We set up a screening room in [Mass MoCA’s] Building Two so I could sit there all day long with a very fast connection and see the tests people were doing in Germany, India, Vancouver, L.A. and talk with them by Skype."
"It’s probably indicative of how production will be done in the future," he observed. "Rather than assembling a whole team of people in one spot, it’s much more efficient to work with people remotely."
Sci-fi movie fans will notice echoes of favorite films.
"They really haven’t done very much visual effects in Indian movies at all," Kleiser said. Having seen many American blockbusters, his Indian colleagues sampled them delightedly, "like kids in a candy shop."
"I like to say that they’re paying homage to American visual effects," Kleiser said.
In one scene, the antagonist re-assembles his body from tiny moving cubes, recalling an effect where the Terminator reforms himself from liquid metal, he said.
With big dance numbers and elaborate costumes, the Bollywood formula has been very successful in India, Kleiser said, but it has not translated well elsewhere.
Actor and producer Khan wanted to bring in more of a global appeal, he said, and they hired a veteran Italian cinematographer, an English first assistant director, even blonde Russian dancers.
Khan is one of Bollywood’s biggest film idols.
"He’s close to a deity there," Kleiser explained. "He’s a very engaging actor with a great screen presence."
In Mumbai, the crew had to sneak Khan out of town to shoot a train sequence without his hordes of fans.
Some shooting took place in London. To Bollywood audiences, Indian actors doing a stunt sequence in downtown London was just mindblowing, Kleiser said.
Like others before him, Kleiser came to the Berkshires from L.A. because of local Oscar-winning visual effects pioneer Doug Trumbull, who produced an elaborate Las Vegas hotel film installation in Lenox in 1992.
"He hired us because we were willing to move here," Kleiser said.
He and his wife and business partner, Diana Walczak, originally planned to stay just a year.
"We looked around and said, this is like Nirvana, this is where the kids are going to grow up," he recalled.
Twenty years ago, he became the first tenant at Mass MoCA, before the museum had even opened. The available space allows his company to expand and contract as projects require.
"When Jeff started talking about [Ra.One]," Lawson recalled, "I thought, this is obviously something we should get for the film festival. We’ve really never done a film like this."
WFF has co-presented 26 films with Mass MoCA since 2000, he said.
"Ra.One" has English subtitles, with characters speaking "Hinglish," a hybrid form of Hindi; "you can understand about 30 percent of everything they say," Kleiser explained.
The evening will include a Bollywood DJ beforehand and Indian food.
"One of the things Mass MoCA excels at is we can create a whole ambiance," Killam said.
"We love to have artists working on their projects here and then showing them," she added. "We don’t always get to do that with Jeff."
If You Go...
What: Mass MoCA and Williamstown Film Festival present "Ra.One" starring Shah Rukh Khan
Where: Mass MoCA Courtyard, 87 Marshall St., North Adams. Rain location: Hunter Center, 1040 Mass Moca Way, North Adams.
When: Tonight at 8 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults, $8 kids
Information: massmoca.org (413) 662-2111
Bollywood DJ beforehand, and Indian food on sale.