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Behind the Curtains of Indian Animation

When the students of the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark had the opportunity to study animation in India with Ram Mohan...how could they say no?

When, as animation students, we think about animation around the world, we immediately think of the big studios in the USA and Japan...or the individual artists in Great Britain, Canada and Central Europe. But, what about India? In our total ignorance, we didn't even know that there could be animation in that part of the world. Had any of us ever heard about the Unilazer Group? RM-USL or Ram Mohan? Not really... So, when we were given the chance of an apprenticeship at RM-USL Animation in Mumbai, it was a real opportunity. In our minds, the classic image of India, with its temples, elephants and traditions, was in total contrast to the animation industry, in which we had begun one year ago. Discovering all of this was too much of a temptation to be missed, and so the trip began. The only information we knew on our way there, were our references from AWN.

In front of the studio. All photos © Yaprak Morali and Simon Sonnichsen.

In front of the studio. All photos © Yaprak Morali and Simon Sonnichsen.

Our Opportunity

The director of our school, Morten Thorning, met RM-USL's studio manager, Alice Manuel, during the 1999 Annecy Festival in France. Here the idea started that some of the students from The Animation Workshop in Denmark, could go to the Mumbai studio for an apprenticeship. The aim was to open the Indian studio to international cultures, and we were a good way to present Western animation. We spent time with animators, clean-up and layout artists discussing and comparing our styles and working methods.

On our first day at the studio, they took us out to a restaurant. Clockwise, from front left: Jonathan Rollins (student); Alice Manuel (studio manager); Snjiv, partially hidden behind Rollins, (head of animaton); Simon Sonnichsen (student);

On our first day at the studio, they took us out to a restaurant. Clockwise, from front left: Jonathan Rollins (student); Alice Manuel (studio manager); Snjiv, partially hidden behind Rollins, (head of animaton); Simon Sonnichsen (student);

The Unilazer Group is situated in the most Westernized town in India, Mumbai, the center of the Indian movie industry. With their Chairman, Ronnie Screwvala, United Television, or UTV, is involved with TV series, advertisements, in-flight programming, movie distribution, post-production and dubbing facilities, where movies like The Phantom Menace and Disney's Tarzan were dubbed into Hindi. On the ground and second floor of the Unilazer building stands RM-USL Animation, established in 1997. Its President, Ram Mohan, is a great figure in Indian and Asian animation. He has worked with many foreign companies, including creating the character design for the Japanese animated feature Ramayana, produced by Yugo Sako. In the past two years, the studio has already produced series for UNICEF, Saban/Fox and Ciné-Groupe. About 150-200 people work there. Most of the artists are art school graduates with excellent drawing skills.

While we were there, the studio was working on the second season of Bad Dog, a co-production project between Saban/Fox and Ciné-Groupe, for worldwide release. At the same time, they started concept development on their original series, Me and Meetoo, an adventure series about a 10 year-old boy and his sidekick, a vegetarian vampire.

A Great Time of Learning All of this was very profitable for both sides. In fact, we had never seen how a pre-produced animation was made before. This means of mass-production is a far cry from the "Disney feature style" that we had been learning about at school. On the other hand, this type of animation is spread all over the world, and it is the way most companies finance their own feature films. This was an excellent way for us to see this process, before reaching the working market. Plus, as most of the artists in the studio were great Disney fans, they were very interested in our knowledge.

At the studio.

At the studio.

We also saw how a big company deals with new projects. Since they were starting on Mee and Meetoo, an unusual move for a two year old company, we witnessed the evolution of script writing, character design, storyboard and layout. We attended meetings and discussions as well, so we witnessed the step by step progression, of the process of building up and creating a new story. Now that we have come back to Denmark, we are very much looking forward to hearing about the progress of their present and future projects. They have started production on a series, Dr. Disaster, which is a co-production between their studio and a New York-based international distribution company. They are also currently in discussions with several other animation companies based in Los Angeles, Canada and Europe. Moreover, they are collaborating with a Malaysian company to do a Ramayana series, based on the great Indian myth of Rama.

Ram Mohan working on conceptual drawingsfor Me & Meeto.

Ram Mohan working on conceptual drawingsfor Me & Meeto.

As they have already being doing, RM-USL is continuing to plan, with great care and devotion, the further training of their artists. Many international artists and teachers have come, and will come, to teach their work and techniques so that the studio will be prepared for both Western and native animation projects. In other words, this has been a "once in a lifetime" experience for us. We saw the beauties of this wonderful country and its traditions, and we got acquainted with animation in India and met great people. We would like to thank Ram Mohan and Ronnie Screwvala for giving us the chance to visit, and Alice Manuel (manager), Sanjiv Waeerkar (head of animation), Nilesh Gore (head of layout) and Rajiv Chavan (head of clean-up) for their help and friendship. Working in close collaboration with the National Film School of Denmark, The Animation Workshop is one of Scandinavia's leading centers for developing and teaching animation.

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