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NVIDIA Spices up Bollywood VFX Creation

Renowned for a rich culture dating back thousands of years, India is building a new cultural legacy-the movie business. Popularly known as Bollywood, the Indian film industry annually releases 1,000 films, approximately 10 times what Hollywood produces each year.

Despite this prolific output, the film business in this movie-obsessed society of more than a billion people is just getting geared up. For years, moviegoers have flocked to Bollywood's traditional song-and-dance fare, which was once described by NPR reporter Holly Kernan as "three to four hours long, chock full of songs, and never sticking to just one genre."

While no one foresees those kinds of films going away, the business is certainly expanding creatively as well as financially. Indian filmmakers are increasingly using digital filmmaking technologies for visual effects, animation and post-production. The rise of multiplexes is allowing a wider variety of films to be distributed. Meanwhile, Bollywood is investing in Hollywood -- and vice versa.

"What's happened is, the Bollywood folks are starting to take notice of what's going on worldwide, and they're saying 'We want to get involved in this,'" said Laura Dohrmann, NVIDIA's Digital Film Group Marketing Director, who heads up the company's Digital Bollywood Initiative. Based in Mumbai, Dohrmann's role is to help local studios develop the digital filmmaking community with training, expertise and educational initiatives. She also evangelizes technologies such as NVIDIA's Quadro GPU accelerator cards, which have a huge following in Bollywood. Because of her regular interaction with most of India's major production houses, Dohrmann has a unique perspective on the evolution of Bollywood filmmaking.

Among the milestones she cites is last year's release of KRRISH, the first major superhero movie to be produced in Bollywood, complete with splashy visual effects. Two other recent films, OM SHANTI OM and CHAK DE INDIA, featured visual effects by Red Chilies, a production company founded by prominent actor Shahrukh Khan. At the same time, the growing business is attracting international players. Sony, DreamWorks and Disney have forged relationships with Indian production houses, and mainstays from the Hollywood production company such as Rhythm & Hues are opening dedicated facilities in India.

"Rhythm & Hues is here in both Mumbai and Hyderabad," Dohrmann said. "They won the Oscar this year for Visual FX on THE GOLDEN COMPASS. So now, everybody wants to work with Rhythm & Hues, because they know they do good work."

"The way Rhythm & Hues chose to address the Indian market is unique, because it's not an outsourcing or offshore model," said Prashant Buyyala, managing director of Rhythm & Hues India. "Essentially, the artists and support staff are like employees of the Los Angeles office in another building."

"We kind of moved the building halfway around the world," Buyyala added. "We don't have any separate Indian projects, or Asian projects, or separate tasks that are done in India. It's all one common pool of resources. We have the same network, the same software, the same projects, the same tasks and everything."

Most of Rhythm & Hues' projects are for Hollywood feature films or television commercials. When a project comes in, if a producer needs 30 animators, they are drawn from a geographically agnostic pool. "It could happen to be that 10 of the animators are in India, and 20 happen to be in L.A.," Buyyala said. "The same shot actually can go back and forth between all the facilities. For a single shot, the animation might be done in L.A., the lighting might be done in Mumbai, and the final effects might be done in Hyderabad. So, it's completely transparent, even in a single shot."

Other Hollywood production companies and studios are using modified offshore models that illustrate the truly global nature of the film industry. DreamWorks, for instance, has struck a strategic partnership for Indian production that might best be described with a flow chart. The DreamWorks Animation Unit in Bangalore is a dedicated unit of Paprikaas, which is majority-owned by Thomson. Thomson invested in Paprikaas to build up its Technicolor Content Services division. Altogether, Technicolor has four divisions operating out of Paprikaas, which in addition to the DreamWorks Animation Unit, include Paprikaas Animation, Paprikaas Interactive-Video Games and Paprikaas Visual Effects for Moving Picture Company, London.

Paprikaas Animation, as a separate Technicolor division, maintains its own offices in Los Angeles and Bangalore, in a more "traditional" offshore production model. VP of Business Development Sanjee Gupta represents Paprikaas Animation in Los Angeles, meeting with clients to discuss using the Paprikaas Animation production staff in Bangalore.

The same way that most Hollywood deals are done, most of Gupta's business comes via relationships and word of mouth. "Given the nature of production, it relies heavily on freelance artists and producers." Gupta said. "They tend to move from project to project as the production schedules ebb and flow. Quite a few of those people have now dispersed onto other projects and our name has just proliferated through the marketplace."

The increasing influence of Bollywood is evident in another trend, a kind of reverse offshore production model. One high-profile example is the purchase of Post Logic Studios, a prominent post house with offices in New York and Los Angeles, by Prime Focus Group, an Indian post production powerhouse. Another sign of the times is that the first Indian production at Hollywood's Universal Studios is being shot, KAMBAKKHT ISHQ (INCREDIBLE LOVE) -- with Sylvester Stallone in a starring role.

Although India has many talented digital artists, the rapid expansion of the industry demands ever-increasing numbers to keep up with demand. Consequently, one of the most important ongoing initiatives is training and supporting artists. "There's a lack of training, and such a tremendous desire for it," said NVIDIA's Dohrmann. "The challenge is the animation and effects industry in India is fairly young. Many artists and animators working in Los Angeles have 20 or more years experience. We don't have people who have been in the industry with that much experience, unless they are transplants to India."

There's a shared commitment to training and educating among all the key companies in the Indian film industry, including competitive companies. Dohrmann works with companies such as Big Animation (India's second-largest studio), Rhythm & Hues, DreamWorks, Autodesk, and local companies to advance the cause. "We're really all trying to be involved in it together," she added.

Dohrmann spends a lot of time arranging for product training sessions, such as a recent mental ray event that was filled to bursting. "There is such a demand for this, I've been I've been juggling balls all week trying to placate people," she said. "I've got people begging to get into the class."

Other events are more oriented towards community building, such as Women in Animation, which NVIDIA has supported through its Women in Technology group. "We've done two really great events," Dohrmann said. "We had probably 2,000 people show up for the two events combined. They were great and really well received. We also do CG Meet-Ups, which are monthly meetings where people come together to talk about modeling, texturing or rendering, or production challenges."

There's also a concerted effort to establish educational curriculum standards. "We want to help establish core competencies in digital production, including what the exit competencies need to be from a training program, what the entrance competencies need to be, and how much emphasis needs to be placed on art," continued Dohrmann. "Anyone can learn software, but being an artist isn't something you can learn. You either have the inherent skills, or you don't. There is no gray area."

To put the flurry of activity and investment surrounding Bollywood in perspective, a report issued by the consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers last year projected that annual revenues for the Indian film business would reach $4.5 billion by 2010 -- up from about $2 billion in 2006.

The view from ground level in Mumbai bears that out. "If you look at London, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, over the next three years, I don't expect to see more than five studios opening in any of those cities any time soon," Dohrmann added. "But over the next three years, I expect to see a minimum of five studios opening in India. There's just so much interest in the possibilities India holds, along with people who want to get involved in this up and coming market sector."

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