My Week In India As A Master of Animation

David Fine tries to convince us that being a 'master of animation' for a week in tropical India isn't all fun and games. We remain unconvinced. Includes a photo gallery of people, elephants and more!

David Fine enjoys the lush coastal landscape of Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala, the state which hosts

David Fine enjoys the lush coastal landscape of Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala, the state which hosts "Week With The Masters." Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

Animation festivals can be so predictable. The endless procession of incomprehensible short films, the lavish parties I'm not invited to and the illicit trade in meal tickets. So when Harvey Deneroff and Bill Dennis of Toonz Animation India invited me and Alison to attend their forum auspiciously titled, "Masters of Animation Week in India," I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed -- despite my fear of getting malaria, the long flight, 'Delhi Belly' and the possibility of stumbling upon spiritual enlightenment and inadvertently giving up my life in the West. Or worst still, becoming a candidate for the Natural Law Party, like George Harrison.

Still, Bill was coming through London and invited us to a swanky Park Lane dinner to explain the whole thing. So far, so good. Bill's an ex-Disney bigwig who has now moved to setting up and running Toonz in India. Toonz provides animation services for Western companies, but Bill is also looking to establish the company as a quality provider of original animation for India and Asia.

A traditional

A traditional "Kathakali" dancer during a performance for the Masters. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

At the same time, he also wants to raise the profile of animation in India and the Week with the Masters is a big part of this. Bill also has a genuine excitement about what he is doing, which is nice. He really appears to be thrilled to be hosting the event and to be inviting renowned animators to take part.

Splendid Place, Splendid People

Soooo... I decided to accept this fantastic, all expense paid, first class opportunity to go to a place which, despite numerous chicken tikka masalas, I have never been. Alison decided to stay at home since we have this lovely three-year-old who already seems to catch every bug there is without going to a place where mosquito bites can kill you.

So off I flew to the land of the Raj, that great former commonwealth state. I arrived to a lavish welcome festooned with flowers and gifts. The hotel was a resort near Trivandrum in the state of Kerala in the south of the sub-continent. The setting was no less than paradise; lush palms, the beach, the sea and the pool with its charming tiled mosaic of swastikas. Of course, this is an ancient Indian symbol, which has more to do with luck than a master Aryan race. I also had a personal assistant to attend to my needs and make sure I showed up on time. His name was Shoubhik and he is a layout artist at Toonz. He was very helpful because this was one busy schedule. Most days started at 9 am and ended at 11 pm. Okay, it wasn't all work, work, work, but it was busy.

Anyway, besides the splendour of the location, there was the delight of being amongst such a great group of animation people. Some friends I hadn't seen in a while and some famous names I had longed to meet. In addition to me, we had party animal Bill Plympton and two members of the famous Portland animation mafia -- the lovely and delightful Joanna Priestley and Mr. Claymation himself, Will Vinton. There was also the renowned illustrator R.O. Blechman famed for his wiggly broken line known throughout the industry as 'That Blechman look.' Also one of the world's greatest sound and music artists, Normand Roger was there with the collection of mega-films he has enhanced with his sound work. India was represented by the exciting young animator Arab Chaudhuri.

Delegates and Masters flank a baby elephant, not an uncommon sight. From left to right: Nicholas Blechman, Bill Dennis, Harvey Deneroff with his daughter Allegra, R.O. Blechman, David Fine, Bill Plympton, Joanna Priestley, Will Vinton and Arnab Cha

Delegates and Masters flank a baby elephant, not an uncommon sight. From left to right: Nicholas Blechman, Bill Dennis, Harvey Deneroff with his daughter Allegra, R.O. Blechman, David Fine, Bill Plympton, Joanna Priestley, Will Vinton and Arnab Cha

Stage Fright

I was there with two episodes of Bob and Margaret and the short the series was based on, Bob's Birthday. Each of the 'Masters' had to do a ninety-minute presentation. I kind of forgot about that when I cheerfully accepted the invitation. It was a case of suddenly realising that I had to think of what to say a few days before leaving. I decided that I would concentrate on the process of turning a personal short film into a series made with a big company and a few hundred people.

Still, I'm never all that comfortable standing on a stage and talking about myself. I feel kind of embarrassed about it. Fortunately, Will Vinton did a session before me which was an inspiration. He's so relaxed and confident and has lots of funny clips to show of dancing raisins and such things. He also has a fabulous moustache and a nice, shiny bald head which I think works well for public speaking. I decided that I could never compete, but that I would try a different angle. More of an, 'I don't really know what I am doing here' kind of thing. So lots of nervous coughing and charming, self-deprecating little jokes. I don't actually have to work hard at this technique because it's really all I know how to do.

Bill Plympton is another thing all together. Here's a guy who makes his own feature films. Literally almost everything is done himself and he likes it that way. It's also part of the charm of his work. But he also produces his own books and videos himself so he comes on stage with a sack of the stuff to sell. It's brilliant because you have an adoring audience and he delivers the goods. Who wouldn't want to go home with a signed copy of Mutant Aliens for only 500 rupees? I wonder if I could have sold some copies of Bob and Margaret if I had had some.

Masters Will Winton and Bill Plympton. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

Masters Will Winton and Bill Plympton. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

A Master Is Taken Seriously

Despite the importance of this gathering in India, I found that Indians have a very basic, even old-fashioned view of animation. They are really only familiar with Disney type cartoons and produce hardly any animation for themselves. We had press conferences that attracted a large assembly of the Indian press. The questions mostly were along the lines of, 'What do you think of Indian animation?' Like I have any clue. I wanted to throw the question back and ask what they think of my animation, since I was here with my work, but alas, none of the assembled press had seen any of it. Perhaps it's just as well because the short and the two episodes coincidentally contained lots of full frontal nudity and I'm not sure if that's okay in India. Having said that, it might have elicited more interesting questions. They probably didn't see Plympton's work either. I wonder what they would have thought of it.

The press conferences seemed more about reporting on the fact that some famous people from the West were here in the Indian state of Korela. It didn't seem to matter too much what we did, except that it was good that we were there and our status was, if anything, elevated by the press in order to make the story bigger. Joanna Priestley was referred to in an article as a 'household name in America.' Of course she didn't stop getting ribbed about that one. I kept thinking, 'Lemon Pledge, Rice-a-Roni and Joanna Priestley.'

An example of the elaborate costumes worn for the traditional temple folk dance

An example of the elaborate costumes worn for the traditional temple folk dance "Theyyam" of North Kerala. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

>Bill Dennis rightly sees India as an opportunity waiting to happen. I mean here you have a billion people who adore films and watch Indian made live-action all the time. They are culturally very rich and have so many stories to tell about their lives and their struggles and their history. Not to mention the wealth of folk tales, although I must say, I do get a bit disheartened when I hear about making animated folk tales. I so much prefer original, contemporary human stories told from a personal, subjective point of view. I also like funny films, of course, but with a human truth to them. There are just so many stories in India without having to bother regurgitating old folk stories in a new medium.

Amongst our 'tasks' during the week was to judge a festival of mostly student shorts from India and South East Asia. There was a wide range of styles and qualities, but lots of talent and artistry was in evidence, if perhaps in its early stages of development. Some quite sophisticated stuff and some stuff which appeared as though the filmmaker got bored and so finished it quickly without bothering to do some re-shooting or attending to a proper sound track. Come to think of it, I guess it wasn't really all that different from most festivals.

Parties, Picnics and Princesses

We also attended numerous parties and fun events. The organisers seemed to get a package deal on an Indian pop group who did covers of Seventies and Eighties hits. Dire Straights, Stones, Pink Floyd, Dylan... It was all there and they were actually pretty good at what they did, but we did hear the same set on three different occasions. I would have so much preferred 'The Bootleg Ravi Shankar's' despite the fact that they were probably there to please our Western musical palette. The Indian people liked them and danced a lot, but not with the opposite sex. The boys could only dance with each other, and, come to think of it, the woman didn't dance. Odd how people can be working on computers in the Technopark, but still be encumbered with the practice of not being able to dance with the opposite sex. Still, I didn't dance either, but not for religious reasons. I had to stay true to my wife, Alison. Mind you I rarely dance with her either.

Riding atop an elephant, David Fine gets a better look at India's scenery. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

Riding atop an elephant, David Fine gets a better look at India's scenery. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

We also had a fabulous picnic with elephants. Not elephants sitting with us around a blanket hogging the potato salad, but provided for us to have rides on. This is a place where elephants are not uncommon as household pets. They are very useful for carrying heavy stuff around. On the other hand, you want to make sure they are house trained. I've never seen such a huge dump come out of anything. We all couldn't help but stare, which I hope wasn't uncomfortable for the elephants. Still, they didn't seem too concerned about privacy. It's just such a different culture!

I did go for my ride, although I was reluctant. I was a bit queasy that day and so my sense of adventure was tempered by the fear of throwing up on the back of this great beast. I was helped on and it seemed to be okay until the elephant got up. I didn't throw up, but the sensation of being lifted in the air by this huge animal was unbelievable. They appear such heavy, docile things, but their power is so impressive. I had heard of an elephant who had killed its trainer and then trampled him flat as a pancake. Literally flat. I just couldn't get that thought out of my head so I was keen to get it over with and retreat to safety.

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We also went on a tour of the city of Trivandrum. This included a visit to what was a palace at one time, but which was now a very dusty and hot former palace full of dusty artefacts. The best part of the tour was that we bumped into a woman who was actually a princess connected to this palace. She found out that we did animation and she asked us why so many cartoons were so violent. She referred to, as she put it, "Tom and that other one. What's its name? Jimmy? Jerry?" We explained that we didn't do that kind of work. I said that my films usually contain penises and some swearing. Well, I didn't say it, but I thought it. I wondered what she would make of Plympton's films. Mutant Aliens has sex and violence, but I've never seen the two together in the way Bill does it. In one scene a man's eye is poked out by the protruding nipple of a large breasted woman. Everyone's afraid of that. That's why I wear impact resistant glasses.

Between all this, I got to laze around the pool and eat pineapples and drink fresh coconut juice. The food was fabulous, if you like Indian food, which I adore, and the people are amongst the kindest and friendliest people I have ever met. Surprising that, considering the unbelievable security at the airports. I guess there's a few bad apples out there.

In the end, this was no less than an unforgettable life experience and I was honoured and thrilled to be a part of it. The whole event was wonderfully organised and I started to get used to being called a "Master." When you're toiling away at your films you never imagine that it might result in getting invited to some swanky do in some exotic part of the world like India and yet, there I was. Lucky me!

Visit the all new David Fine and Alison Snowden Website for information and images from Bob and Margaret and more of this imaginative couple's work.

David Fine is the co-creator and co-writer of the TV series, Bob and Margaret. He and his wife Alison Snowden, also created the Oscar winning short film Bob's Birthday from which the series is based. They both work out of London where they are presently consulting on 26 new episodes of Bob and Margaret while developing new ideas and playing with their three year old daughter, Lily.

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