When one of my good friends Akshata Udiaver Bhowmick who is quite active in the Indian Animation industry by her various associations, she is part of the Managing Committee of The Animation Society Of India(TASI) told me about her newly launched site and blog, honestly I felt it will be just like one among so many useless sites/blogs who "claim" to cater and contribute to the Indian Animation Industry in a really positive and useful way.
But I was surprised. Not only does it claim the same as above but also does it in an effective way for a change. The choice of articles, the issues she is dealing with are extremely relevant with what is happening in the Indian Animation Industry as of now.
Her blog post on May 18 - "Getting Indian Animation Right. Why is it such an uphill task?" is a revelation of sorts for the entire Indian Animation Industry as it clearly outlines the problems/issues we are facing since last many years, facing it now and will continue to face it for times to come until we deal with it NOW.
Now what is intriguing to me is that the issues Akshata mentions, I have no doubt that we all (most of us) are aware of it and have accepted it without even having 2nd thoughts as to what can be done (of course exceptions in the size of a grain of salt are always there). Now I can’t help but comparing this entire issue(of skirting the problems instead of dealing it face to face) with the story of Harry Potter, where even the name of "Lord Voldemort" people are scared to speak and instead use the term "you-know-who". And it’s just the very unlikely candidate in the name of "Harry Potter" who rises to the occasion and decides to fight the evil. Sometimes(most) the person we think is extremely inefficient not fit for anything is the one who leads from the front and that too with extreme confidence and comes out triumphantly. But alas to the ever growing problems of India like water, power, shelter, electricity...one more thing should be added - "prejudice”!
Now I am no way saying Akshata is Harry Potter, but you got the point right!! (Sorry Akshata for the comparison :-) )
Now the reason I am saying all this is to make you aware of what I am going to present you in the following lines. Consider all of the above as a preface to the main chapters of a book. I am going to put forward my reply/views about Akshata's very thought-instigating post ""Getting Indian Animation Right. Why is it such an uphill task?". So I suggest you read her post here to understand what I am talking about.
A small disclaimer becomes inevitable.
DISCLAIMER - Whatever I am mentioning here is absolutely my view of the issue/subject as I see it. I am not getting paid by anyone to write this and I am not affiliated to any institution/organization. I am not claiming whatever I write is correct as my interpretations of the subject can be as different as many of you reading this. We all see things in our own perception and that perception may be right or wrong depending on who is reading it. Having said that you are more than welcome to comment on my post and let me know whether you agree or disagree and why. Or you can in general present your views on the subject. Views/comments/opinions are very subjective and relative and there is really no right or wrong.
P.S. - IT WILL BE A LONG POST.
Animation, apparently the new buzz word going around in India. Every so often thru various mediums we are told that the Indian Animation industry is scaling new heights, new studios, some with large corporate backing is opening a new production facility, the existing ones are scaling up and venturing into new cities for setting up production facilities, this studio signed a deal with that Hollywood studio, new co-production deals will be signed soon and so on. For someone outside the industry there is absolutely no reason not to believe that Animation is indeed the new economic revolution, similar to what BPO brought a couple of years. Since time memorial we are known to believe what goes around us, what we see and hear, not the way it truly exists but the way it has been projected to us. If hype was a commodity India would be the No.1 consumer of it in no time. Take for example the state of our Indian cricketers, who one day are nothing less than god and next day they are treated as if they are the biggest outlaw of the country. But we don't realize that they didn't ask to be treated like god. It is we who pushed them to an illusion of elevation of gravity defying magnitude. And when they are unable to live up to the expectation even in one match, we pulled them down with so much force( that would redefine the word "gravity") and make them eat dirt. This is the extent of the consequences of hype in our wonderful country. It seems to me that day by day people are losing their ability to think, to analyze, to decide what is good and what is bad, and to separate the right from the wrong, to apply their own indiscretion. We are getting so used to letting the media decide what is good for us that even the thought of what will happen to us when media fails to do so, scares me. This is exactly what is happening with Animation right now. We are being fed with hunky dory news regarding Animation from all directions all the time that it’s putting every other sector to shame. The way it is growing, one small mistake and everything will crumble like a pack of cards. As some said "With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately everyone wants power but nobody wants to take the responsibility and therein lays the dangerous aspect of it all. Now I am sure you must be wondering why I am so pessimistic about Indian Animation industry. Well to answer that I am not a pessimistic but an optimist and a realistic. If you are an optimist but not realistic its only matter a time before you lose, but if you are a pessimistic but realistic also, chances are you may find a solution to a particular problem. We need to see things the way they actually are and not the way it’s being shown to us.
Don't get me wrong, I am very much optimistic that we do have the required talent to catapult us to the likes of major Animation studios like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and so on, but I am realistic that it won’t happen in a month, not in a year may be not even in the next 5 yrs. All the knowledge of Animation in these big studios has been passed on from Disney's 9 old men. These 9 men have discovered, re-discovered, invented, and re-invented the art and technique of animation as we see it today. And they have achieved that with not years but many decades of hard work and study. And here we see news clipping about a new studio claiming to be as good as Pixar in a year’s time. Are you kidding me ? For god’s sake remove the blindfold from your dreams and wake up to reality. Animation is not a child's play. It is one of the most challenging vocation and it takes years of hard work to make it look good. There are no rules, no formulas in Animation. Animation is an art, it’s not a commodity which can be mass manufactured in some factory. Unfortunately very few people understand this. The people who are investing in new ventures, who are at the helm of affairs are thinking that producing animation is like digging a hole. I will give you 10 people, I need 50 feet deep hole in 2 days ! Alas, it doesn't work this way. Animation has two sides, one is the business side and one is the creative side. And both need to co-exist cordially in terms of the various department a studio has. If both can’t find a way to live together, they will eventually have to die alone. We need the right people to take the right business decisions but we also need the right people to handle the creative aspect of it. Anyone who may be a master in the business aspect, can not necessarily be a master of the creative aspect. You need creative people to take care of it. People are not going to care as to how much money you have put in the project, they are paying for the movie ticket to get entertained, to laugh, to cry, to share the characters joy and sorrows and experience the same with them. If you can’t connect with them emotionally, even if you make the most expensive film, with the best of people handing the business and management side, ultimately you have failed to achieve what you had intended to achieve.
Then comes the biggest punching bag when the issue of "lack of quality animation" is raised, TALENT. Now this is one area which is quite true to an extent. Everybody is shouting that there is no quality talent available. No one wants to find out what is the reason. Firstly we need talent to find talent. Confused ? Yes I am talking about the people who recruit - HR. If you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you get what you actually need. If we are not able to find, by no means does it imply that it doesn’t exist. One of India's biggest IT Company’s CFO was switching roles and was going to become the president of the HR department. When one journalist during an interview asked him why he was switching from such a prestigious and lucrative post of a CFO to a more mundane HR,his reply was that HR is one of the most crucial and challenging job for any organization in today’s time. And this interviewed happened not more than 2-3 years back. For any organization the most dreaded word is “Attrition” and this is where the part of HR comes in. Recruiting, Training, Retaining and Looking after the employees is the most important job of any HR executive. But unfortunately apart from Recruiting and Training(to a very small extent) very few HR are actually concerned about Retaining and Looking after the employees. To connect this problem, let me give you an example from everyday life. You went to shop to buy a TV. The salesman there will try every trick in his sleeve to make sure he sells you the TV, doesn’t matter if has to give inaccurate info, as long as the customer buys the product, he will get the commission and his work is done. Now if the customer faces any problem with the product, the same salesman will act as if he is suffering from amnesia. And then for the customer begins the journey of hell. Making numerous calls, running from here to there to get his product repaired when finally he gets fed up and decides to buy a new product. Now in HR’s term, buying a new product means attrition. They recognize that attrition has happened, but don’t want to find out what led to attrition. What happens next, the employee(s) leaves, the project delivery gets affected and what is the excuse, TALENT ! Recruiting people for Animation requires a certain different kind of skill set as far as the HR is concerned. It’s not the same as say if you hiring for a BPO or any other position. The HR needs to first understand what are the skill sets/accreditation/certification they are looking for while recruiting. If they are themselves not aware what differentiates a good animator from a bad one, of course they will not get the talent they are looking for. A couple of years back one of my friend who had 8 yrs of 2D animation experience and 2 yrs of 3D experience, was called for an interview with the HR head of a very renowned animation studio(which still exists). They wanted 3D animators for the upcoming projects. He said he has 2 yrs of 3D experience and 8 yrs of 2D experience. The HR replied, he will be paid keeping in mind just his 2yrs 3D experience. My friend was surprised and asked them why. Their reply was “for 3D animation, 2D experience is not relevant ! I am sure things are slightly better now but still we need a long long way to go(of course exceptions are always there in few studios) before we can even meet the basic requisites for a qualified headhunter for the field of Animation. An HR needs to be updated about the different courses/universities who are good in training animators and not just in India but thru out the world. This will help them to get what they need much faster and in a more effective way when they have say 20 resumes in front of them.
Another area, I would say one of the top most areas where we need some concrete re-structuring is EDUCATION/TRAINING. The state of Animation education is nothing less than shameful. There are numerous training institutes but less than 1% can actually teach Animation, the way it should be. Each of the training institutes are charging high amounts for teaching the software and not the art. Software can be learnt from reading the manual itself, but how do we learn the creative and artistic part of animation. One of my friend has a franchise of one of the biggest chain of Animation training institutes in India. One day I asked him why his curriculum is more focused towards the tools/software and not the art itself. He said he is restricted by the main management of the Institute and that they cannot change the curriculum else their franchise will be taken away. It clearly shows they themselves don’t know how/don’t want to teach and what exactly is the proper curriculum for Animation. Nowadays courses are for min 6 months duration to 1 yr. In this time frame they teach everything about Multimedia like Photoshop, Flash and so on and if you lucky they will also teach you animation. Like which tool to used, where to find the required tool in a particular software package and how to set a key frame. That’s it, now you are an animator. Now if the so called biggies in Animation Training are providing such kind of education, I don’t even want to talk about the smaller ones who are cropping up with ads like “become a master in 3D animation in 6 months time”. The deeper problem which exists is the attitude of these so called animation training providers who are nothing but businessmen with a fake and cheap color coating of educators splashed all over them. All they care about is earning money, whether what they are teaching will actually be useful for the student who is putting at stake his/her parents hard earned money to make a career out of whatever training he will be provided, is not at all a concern. Everyone wants money, but nobody has the patience, all they looking for is shortcuts. No one is bothered about long term. They plant a seed but as soon even a single fruit is grown, they cut it down in order to eat the fruit. They lack the common sense to understand that in the long term the same seed will not only provide him with lots of fruits (and that too on a regular basis) but also shade on a rainy or on a scorching summer day.
There is another way of training which is on the job training. To my knowledge so far very few studios are actually taking the effort to train their employees. The field of animation consists of various skills like Modeling, rigging, animation, lighting and so on, and only when all the skills come together it culminates into the final animation product. Now each of this skills require constant learning and updating. And since we are already behind by many many years it becomes that much more crucial to keep educating ourselves if we want to ever catch up. Animation is nothing but acting, in fact more difficult than even acting in front of the camera. Things like blinks, using eye-brows, breathing, etc comes naturally to live action actors. But for animators we need to plan when the character should blink, when he should use his eye-brows and so on depending on the scene. Ask any good actor worth his money, how many years it would take to learn acting and many would reply “lifetime”. And animating is nothing but a different form of acting. You got the picture ?
Now onto the area of fully CG Animated feature film from INDIA for the Indian audience and also the global audience to be shown on theatres.
To quote Akshata –
“Bollywood makes over 800 live-action films a year. The animation industry is miniscule in comparison. Though 70 plus films have been announced in the past one year, less than half of those will actually get made. We expect 8-10 of them to release this year. As they say, we have miles to go before we sleep!”
Now out of 800 live action films, let’s assume in a good year 40 are worth watching. That is just 5 % of the total films made. Now out of these 40, there will be further categories, like Blockbuster, Hit, and Average. Again to think from an optimistic point of view, let’s say 10 are blockbusters, 15 are hit and 15 are average. So that comes to 25 % (of 40) films are blockbusters, 37.5 % is Hit(of 40) and 37.5 %(of 40) are average. Now if you look at the overall picture 10 out of 800, that is 1.25 % are Blockbusters, 15 out of 800, that is 1.875% are hit and the same number for average. And these 5% of the films are controlling at any point of time more than 80% of the revenues. Now bring into the animation schedules, 70 films are announced, half of them would actually be made, how much time they make it in, your guess is as good as mine. Lets for now assume that 10 would be released(which I very much doubt) how many would actually hit the chord with the audience? I can be optimistic once again and say than all 10 can be hit. But ask this question to yourself and you will know the answer.
Now comes the question why there are just 10 releases instead of the 800 as in live action. The reason as I see it is, that producers want their return of investments(ROI) in less than one year. Now animation film itself takes 2-3 years to be made(finding nemo was made in 4 yrs and after seeing the end result, I am sure you will agree it was worth it and why it took so much time) so that leaves almost half the producers out of the game since they can’t wait for so long. The other producers who do take the courage to invest so much for a longer time frame, lose their confidence in the middle, the production is told to work faster, which results in lowering of quality, may be even cutting corners in the overall story and the final output. The final result looks ugly and gravely unfinished, the audience fails to connect, and what happens, the Animation medium as a whole looses out.
Money is not the sole ingredient to make Animation films work for us. We need people who have a genuine passion and enthusiasm for this wonderful medium and art. I am not saying take all the time you want, but at least chalk out a realistic timeframe, instead of this totally unrealistic, back breaking, time crunching deadlines which doesn’t do any good to anyone and instead just harms in the long run. Employees don’t have a work life balance, they get sick both physically and mentally, their productivity decreases and who suffers in the end, the project on the whole. When the project suffers, the client looses confidences and may be withdraws the project. The company lacks work, but has a whole team of employees to pay salary to. The dreaded action comes into force, either lay off people, or declare bankruptcy and shut down completely. Another prospective studio with dreams of competing with Pixar digs his own grave and gets buried under it.
So far all the animation films released in the last year is based on mythological stories, like Hanuman, Krishna, Hanuman Returns and now Ghatochkach. Come on give me a break, there is only so much that the audience can take in terms of mythological movies and add to the fact that none of them are truly wonderful and looks rushed, the audience knows that even the next animated feature won’t be something totally different or out of the box. Audiences have become very mature and they are very selective in what they will see and what kind of entertainment they really need. Unlike the past, if one formula works, dozen more films using same formula (and actually doing well) things have changed now. We can fool the audience once but not always. Instead of rushing and making mythological films, take one film, if it’s mythological also, that’s fine as long as you give the time it needs to make it look good. It’s very important to gain the confidence of our audience first and then globally, that even we can make good appealing Animation Feature films, have characters with whom we shall have empathy, which we will connect on an emotional level. Instead of rushing in and showing something unfinished, why not take more time but do it right. The rewards and satisfaction will be much more in the long term.
To conclude, it is extremely important for all of us (the govt, producers, distributors, exhibitors, various studios and their top brass both management and creative, the HR department, directors, animation supervisors, artists whether experience or fresher, teachers, students, parents) to understand at various levels that making good quality animation is like cooking a delicious dish. The right ingredients and the correct proportion of each is what makes a dish good or bad. I am confident we have the right ingredient in terms of talent(or we are getting there in finding, sourcing and cultivating it), now all we need is to make all the ingredients work together to create a delicious dish called Ratatouille ! (Pun very much intended)
P.S. - Based on the comments received i have continued this post here.