My Week In India As A Master of Animation

by David Fine

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.

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.

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

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 Chaudhuri. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

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.

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.'


1 | 2