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Animation India: Building on age-old storytelling skills
When children in the US tune in to the popular cartoon programme “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks” on PBS, few know that the adorable pig and his friends have been created in India. Mumbai-based Crest Communications, the creator of Piggley Winks, has tieups with television networks in the US to produce animated content. So does Chennai-based Pentamedia Graphics, which has produced the most number of 3D animated movies in the world — six — and has a few more under production. One of the company's movies, the US$ 6-million “Buddha”, was released last year.

India's software success story is graduating to the creative space. It is now blending its IT skills with its legendary prowess in story telling to cook up an immensely entertaining broth. Cashing in on its English-educated manpower, which is conversant with English humour, and cost effectiveness, India is now on the fast lane to becoming a key player in the animation world. While animation is just one niche of the entertainment industry, it is still big business — the worldwide market for digital animation is estimated to reach US$ 70 billion in 2005. Of this, India is said to have earned revenues ranging between US$ 200 and US$ 300 million in 2004 — a growth of over 20 per cent during the year.

Endorsing India's potential in the animation space, a report by Anderson Consulting estimates that the market will grow at 30 per cent annually in the next three years resulting in a US$ 15 billion industry by 2008 from its present US$ 500-600 million. The study also reports that India will receive more than US$ 2 billion worth of animation business in the next three years. While India's share in the world animation market is fairly small, the potential is huge, as the needs of the film and television industry are growing worldwide. The appetite for animation is on a surge.

And it is not only because of the commercial success of completely animated films and television programmes such as Princess Mononoke, Final Fantasy, Toy Story, Star Wars; or the popularity of special effects in feature films, ad films and the like. It is also because the world has begun to acknowledge the contribution of technology beyond the film theatre. Be it mobile phones, games, PDAs, the demand for audio-visual content can only grow in one direction – skywards. Producers have realised that computer animation can fill in gaps that could be caused by external factors such as uncertain weather conditions, unavailability of conducive locations etc.

Possibilities of 3D Animation

  • Enormous sets that would take millions to create can be handdrawn in a studio and fed into a computer. In fact, many animation companies have large banks of BGs (backgrounds), which a producer may just choose from.
  • Danger to life and property can be minimised, or, indeed eliminated, proving to be a big help in saving insurance premia.
  • The costs of taking normal shots can be drastically minimised. For example, if a producer wants to take an aerial shot of, say, a temple tower in such a way that a view of the tower slowly turns around, the only traditional way is to hire a helicopter. But now, you simply take a picture of the tower and turn it around in the computer.
  • Actors need never die. Even today, it is possible to produce movies of yesteryear heroes like Sivaji Ganesan or a Raj Kapoor by just using a picture of the actor and animating it as required.
  • It is possible to ‘set' actors and actresses against exotic backgrounds without having to take them there.

Another factor that is working in India’s favour is the global need to cut production costs. According to a CNN report, the margins in animation work have tightened in the last three or four years, with more money being spent on branding and marketing. Now, large U.S. and European studios are looking for partners who are willing to share risks, budgets and future developments — an advantage that can be easily leveraged by Indian companies. The co-production model also allows the Indian animation companies to work with film-makers from Japan, North America, Europe and other parts of Asia thus enriching the experience.

Maya Entertainment, based in Mumbai and promoted by the director and actress duo Ketan and Deepa Mehta, had contributed to the special effects of Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, The Mummy and Stuart Little. And Kerala-based Toonz Animation, which was set up with an investment of US$ 7 million in 1999, now caters to clients from across the globe — from the US, France and Belgium to South Korea. Best known for its popular television series "The Adventures of Tenali Raman", Toonz has also produced many acclaimed television programmes such as "Katya and Nutcracker", "Prezzy", "Tommy and Oscar", "Turtle Island" and "The Land of Gnoo" for global clients.

The Tenali Raman series, which is based on age-old stories about a clever court jester of King Krishnadeva Raya of the Vijayanagar Empire, has been a massive hit on Cartoon Network and is also being telecast on ETV. Cartoon Network is planning to launch a series of programmes from adaptations of Indian fables and mythology. Rising to the occasion, many companies such as Toonz, Maya and Pentamedia have got into the production of animated versions of Indian fables and folk tales. There is definitely no dearth of stories — Tata Elxsi recently released “Krishna Leela”, Maya completed a 54-part science fiction series titled “Captain Vyom-The Sky Warrior”, while Toonz is working on its “Hanuman” series.

No laughing matter

The 3D animation skills of Indian studios have earned high praise from their international clients for the quality of their animation output. One of the first among Indian companies to bag an international contract was Crest Communications. The firm's first 3D animation contract with Mike Young Productions in 2002, for 26 episodes of a TV serial, "Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggly Winks", broke the initial ground for Indian companies. This was televised on 17 channels across the US, Canada and Europe. Its nomination alongside top-rung global producers (Warner Bros, DNA Productions and Nickelodeon), gave Crest the exposure it had been craving for. But more importantly, it half opened the door for others.

More recently, Maya Entertainment's "Jack Frost", a Christmas Special for BBC, was put at number one slot by the channel during its Christmas Week programmes in December 2004. Crest's recent co-production, "Pet Alien", with Mike Young Productions and a French company, has also received rave reviews from the czars of the US animation industry.

After seeing it, Pixar's John Lasseter is known to have remarked, “The colours are rich, the designs are appealing, the characters are funny and the animation approximates feature quality (as in the Incredibles) on a television budget and schedule.” Though Crest is at the forefront, there are others as well who have made a mark with prestigious assignments. Tata Elxsi's Visual Computing Lab, for example, designed the "Liquid Gold" credits at last year's Oscars. A Bangalore-based gaming company, Dhruva Interactive, won global deals with Microsoft Games Studios to work on its latest releases, and with mobile handset vendor Nokia to develop Javabased games.

Maya did "Golden Eye", a 15- minute game, for Game Cinematics of the US, modelling, props and background for the 26 episodes of Monster by Mistake made by a Canadian- Israeli company, DPSI. Similarly, Color Chips completed a 13-episode animation series for Benz Production of France and it is now working on a 26-episode TV series for a German production, BKN International AG. Though Indian companies have a modest share of the world market, most of the top rung companies are growing at more than 100 per cent a year.

Crest, after its acquisition of Rich Animation Studio in 2001, in the US, has positioned itself across the computer animation value chain spanning pre-production, production and post-production segments of 3D animation. While there is no shortage of creative talent, the biggest hurdle to growth of animation firms is the acute shortage of trained animators. The industry needs 10,000 animators but only 3,000 are available. It took several years for Crest to build its animator strength to 270. And when Maya was raising its animator strength from five to 50, it set up its own academy, Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics. It now has 35 centres with 3,500 seats in India.


Apart from leveraging relationships with foreign partners, Indian companies have a huge cost advantage to their benefit. The cost of animation production services in India can range from 10 per cent to 40 per cent of what it would cost in the US. A 22 to 24 minute episode that would cost between US$ 200,000 and US$ 250,000 in the US and Canada, and between US$ 250,000 and US$ 300,000 in Europe, can work out to be about US$ 60,000 in India. However, the story of Indian animation is not only about cost effectiveness. It is about quality, along with a cost advantage.

The Indian animation industry owes its propensity for quality to the domestic advertising sector, which has been a key growth driver in the industry long before the technique was used to create television serials or for special effects in films. The success of ad characters such as the Amul Girl, Gattoo (the Asian Paints mascot), the Handiplast Boy, the Bata Bubble Gumme, or of 30- second 'animercials' for brands like Hutch, Amaron, Orange, All-Out Mosquito Repellent, 7-Up, Kellogg's, ICICI, Mortein, Good-Night and Vicks is a case in point. A commendable quality standard is what has stood the animation industry in good stead in domestic cinema too. For instance, the extremely realistic clouds that suddenly appear on the horizon in the beginning of the Hindi film “Lagaan” were computer generated.

The Indian film industry is purportedly the largest in the world in terms of the number of movies produced annually. And if the trend in Hollywood is anything to go by, special effects is bound to play an important role in forthcoming movies. In India, this transition is already apparent as more and more Indian studios are opting for special effects to draw the crowds in.