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The Digital Eye: The VES India Tour

In this month's edition of "The Digital Eye," Tim McGovern recounts his participation in the VES' recent five-city tour of India as the first step in creating a VES section there.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

India's first VES member, N. Madhu Sudanan, had a dream of finding some way to bring the Visual Effects Society to India to enhance cooperation between the visual effects artists of India and the U.S. and to someday create a VES section there. Since we've been friends for years and I was the person who sponsored him as a VES member, we talked about possible ways to do that. The first step seemed to be to get a high level VES delegation to come there first, and meet the artists and significant companies so that a future move could be contemplated.

In India, Madhu teamed with Anand Gurnani of AnimationXpress.com to find local sponsors, which allowed them to create The VES India Tour, which encompassed five cities from Oct. 24 thru Nov. 2. These Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai. Madhu and Anand invited Eric Roth, exec director of the VES, Jeff Okun, the VES chair, myself the VES vice-chair and a "player to be named."

Tim McGovern.

We unfortunately lost Jeff Okun due to a scheduling conflict but were lucky to find Peter Chiang available and enthusiastic about accompanying us on this trip to India. Peter is a VES member, board member of the VES UK Section, a visual effects supervisor and chairman of London-based Double Negative.

We started our tour at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. This is India's National art and design school and is known nationally and internationally for the high quality of artists it produces.

India is such a warm and friendly country and we were always met by enthusiastic, passionate, talented and hard-working English speaking artists. With a combination like that, anything is possible!

Shekar Mukarji, head of the animation department, NID was our host and we had a terrific group of students and faculty that came out for our presentation. They proved a fantastic first audience for us. Eric Roth led off with a wonderful intro and outline of the VES and why it has come to India: "India is clearly going to be big in the future of visual effects and animation and we wanted to come and get to know you, learn from you and begin to see how we can work together." He then closed his portion of the presentation by showing a montage cut by Van Ling from The VES 50 Most Influential Films of All Time, which were chosen by the VES' 1,600 strong worldwide membership.

I started my presentation segment with congratulations to the audience for having chosen art as a career in a country where parents so heavily urge their children to study engineering, IT, medicine and law. For them to be there at all meant that they had realized their passion, followed it and found a way to make it all right for themselves and their families.

I also acknowledged that there are probably a lot of artistic Indians who have done as their parents expected of them, who now have the opportunity with their BSs, MBAs and PhDs to go back to school for art or software training so they can migrate directly into the fields of vfx and animation. Reflecting on my own background, I spoke of my choice to study photography and graphic design and how it led -- in a most unexpected way -- to a wonderful career in the emerging industry of digital visual effects and animation.

India's first VES member, N. Madhu Sudanan (right), welcomes (from left) Peter Chiang of Double Negative, and VES' Eric Roth and Tim McGovern to The VES India Tour, which stopped in five cities last fall.

I also spoke about the industry's 25-year history in the U.S. and how it spread to the U.K., Canada, Australia and then New Zealand because each country offered the industry some advantage. This set-up the point that India and other emerging economies were a natural progression in that story and that it won't take 25 years for India to reach where the others are now.

I ended my presentation with a short piece of video I edited from past VES Awards Shows. I pulled inspirational quotes from the acceptance speeches of our Lifetime Achievement Award winners -- George Lucas (introduced by Jim Cameron, Robert Zemeckis (introduced by Tom Hanks) and our Georges' Melies Pioneering Award winner John Lasseter (introduced by Bonnie Hunt).

Peter Chiang spoke about the job of a vfx supervisor and the process of working with a director to design and produce the visual effects for a film. He then gave three film case studies from his work on Flyboys, United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum. His emphasis was always on getting the director what he wanted and how technology and artistic ability allowed his visual effects crews to fulfill his directors' visions.

Peter showed his work in Flyboys for which he created stunning World War I bi-plane air battles. In United 93 Peter faithfully recreated the flight of the United Airlines 757 that started from Newark Airport on Sept. 11, without the ability to shoot using an actual United 757 airplane or the ability to shoot at the actual airport. He also showed how he created the final heroic grounding of the plane as seen as a point of view out of the cockpit window.

Peter Chiang is anointed in Bangalore.

In The Bourne Ultimatum, Peter showed the audience all of the invisible work that helped make the film exciting, visceral and explosive. From the effects reveal of the work done on the exciting stunt of a roof top jump to and through a window a full story below with a stunt cameraman following with a steady-cam, to the amazing and beautiful R&D work done to create a flashback scene of Matt Damon 10 years back and 10 years younger looking, which was extremely successful but ultimately not used in the film. Peter finished up with a statement of encouragement to future vfx artists to learn their craft and enjoy the wonderful career of a vfx artist and supervisor.

Next Madhu talked about his dream to bring the VES to India and thoughts about his career and how it brought him to this moment. He spoke of how he started out on the outside of this industry in his earliest years looking in, saying to himself, "If only I could be in this industry and work on the visual effects in an Indian film." Within a very short time Madhu had done it not only once but, eventually, 63 times.

Madhu's next dream, he said, was to work on a Hollywood film at least once in his lifetime. When the opportunity arose for Madhu and his team of Indian vfx artists to have their chance at working on some vfx shots for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Madhu grabbed the challenge and did a series of shots that are now in that film. He also told of how he went on to do visual effects on several other Hollywood films, including Click, Stormbreaker and Spider-Man 3.

Madhu finished his presentation by giving encouragement to Indian visual effects artists, for them to dare to dream and then watch their dreams come true.

A Q&A followed with the audience. There were questions about art school, the industry and how young Indian artists can participate in this field. And also questions about how the VES might be able to assist in further professional education of vfx artists in India as it does with its membership abroad, how to become a member of the VES and what is required. I found that the students of NID were particularly clued into art, cinema, Bollywood and Hollywood, and were reasonably knowledgeable about at least the most famous international directors.

Tim McGovern congratulated the audience for having chosen art as a career in a country where parents so heavily urge their children to study engineering, IT, medicine and law.

This format continued on our tour to Hyderabad and other Indian destinations. After a night flight in the rain, on the ground and just outside of the terminal, despite the downpour, a throng of students from the Image College of Art, Animation and Technology greeted us with flower garlands and great warmth and enthusiasm.

The next morning we were brought to the Shilpkala Vedika Auditorium where the International Animation Day conference was already underway. We were to be part of a segment of this larger event, which was sponsored by ASIFA of India and organized by Vani Saraswathi, president of ASIFA of India and director of operations of Rhythm & Hues India. This represented the single largest audience of the entire tour: 2,300 people.

Our show went on as before. However, we noticed a significant difference. This was an audience made up more of students than professionals and their knowledge of things outside of India was much more limited. So, we made adjustments on the fly and adjusted our presentations accordingly.

The questions during the Q&A were more about how and why the film and vfx industry works the way it does, why some movies are made with little or no vfx and others are shot on greenscreen and all of the backgrounds done via visual effects. These concepts needed clarification for the students who were trying to understand the difference between cost saving methods and artistic choices. When the presentations were over we talked to the students one-on-one for sometime.

Next, we flew into Chennai where we were again greeted with flower garlands and smiling animation students. Chennai is a city with a large number of visual effects and animation companies, including Sony Imageworks of India, as well as a large number of vfx and animation schools. So, we had just about an even mix of students and professionals in this audience. The other thing that differed in Chennai was that our organizers, Madhu and Anand Gurnani were able to get the three top companies in Chennai to make presentations about the work they were doing. This enabled the VES entourage to get an idea of the type and quality of the work being done in this part of India.

N. Madhu Sudanan's dream to work in the vfx industry eventually led him to a successful career in Indian film and to bring VES to India.

There, at the Chinmaya Heritage Center with 600 students and artists, the day started with presentations from Chennai's own Kavita Prasad of Prasad EFX, Alagarsamy of Nipuna and VSM Mohan of Indian Artists. They showed us a series of demo reels and explanations of the work they are doing. The work was largely work done on Indian films, support work to U.S. vfx companies on international films and then TV commercials. Most notable was Indian Artists re-skinning of South Indian mega-star Rajinikant, an actor with a very dark complexion, to look blond and extremely fair skinned with a pink blush in his cheeks. This was a feat beyond physical make-up. Digital artists warped the skin of a lightly complected female model to replace the actor's real skin while preserving his original performance. Prasad EFX showed their impressive work on the movie hit Krrish.

Chennai proved itself to be a nearly an equal mix of students and visual effects/animation professionals. It was clear from the work presented and those in attendance that this was a bright and enthusiastic group. They asked great questions, many revolving around particular techniques used in visual effects films and how to increase the number of VES members in India, of which at this point in time there are only two not counting the U.S. and European ex-pats, who are now in the industry there.

When the presentations were over, we talked to the students one-on-one for sometime before the modern Indian practice of asking for autographs began. We were each mobbed by smiling Indian artists armed with pen, paper and phone cameras. When we had been sufficiently flashed and all had writer's cramp, we left the auditorium.

We reached Bangalore the next morning and went to a beautiful auditorium at the Institute of Science. The presenters representing the Bangalore visual effects and animation community were Yugandhar Tamareddy of Pixeloid, Veerendra Patil of Paprikaas (a Technicolor/Thomson company) and Nagesh H of Firefly.

There were wonderful presentations showing some very advanced work. Pixeloid showed vfx for five Indian films, among them a semi-truck hitting a moving car with a totally CG car which gets damaged by the crash, flipped, and then exploded. Paprikaas showed largely animation for TV and an animated extinct elephant for a Discovery Channel sort of show. The plates were real and the elephant CG. The animation was very good. Firefly's worked on vfx for Indian films -- their most notable visual effect was the creation of a CG herd of water buffaloes that surround a live human character and then killed him for a film called Anniyan.

Anand Gurnani of AnimationXpress.com welcomes Eric Roth.

The biggest hub for visual effects and animation in Asia is Mumbai. Pixion's David Crawford, Prana VFX's Samir Hoon and Prashant Buyyala from Rhythm & Hues India all showed very impressive presentations.

David Crawford, a Hollywood vfx veteran, recently joined Pixion and is growing the company and its expertise. Samir Hoon, an ex ILM-er, brings additional expertise to the already well established and successful animation company, Prana. And Prashant Buyyala gave a comprehensive overview of the six years of vfx work and progress that R&H of India has accomplished, including showing a case study for a vfx TV commercial with an animated alligator and he then showed a trailer for the upcoming film The Golden Compass, in which R&H India contributed animation lighting and composting on about a third of the shots.

The Q&A reflected the greater mix of vfx professionals that were in the crowd. The questions were very informed and reflected the enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter. There was great interaction between the speakers and the audience and everyone enjoyed it greatly.

Our last day of the tour was at a conference in Mumbai called NASSCOM. NASSCOM is an organization much like ACM; it represents and sets the tone for public policy for the Indian software industry. There, Tom Whitaker, CEO of Motion Analysis, joined the four of us on a panel where we were interviewed by Anand Gurnani of AnimationXpress.com. He asked us several questions about the Indian vfx and animation industry, including:

How does Indian vfx and animation education compare to the U.S. and U.K.? Peter Chiang, Madhu and I responded by saying that art and design is already an integral part of the curriculums of schools and universities in the U.S. In India, there has been much parental pressure for students to study the aforementioned fields rather than art. Other than NID, there are few university level art and design schools. India has mainly training schools for vfx and animation -- Image is one of the few schools that combines both art and vfx/animation training. India needs to expand its art training opportunities. Also, bringing vfx experts to India to speak and show "behind the scenes" case studies, will help to bring those already in the industry to a higher level.

What does India have to offer this industry? Lots of well-trained, passionate, hard-working vfx and animation talent at a reasonable price. The local industry must beware of pricing itself out of the market.

Where does India stand in the international market? India is an emerging economy. It still has some way to go before the work -- both creatively and technically -- compares with the West. India, along with China and the Philippines, are providers of outsourcing. India's advantage is it low cost, large number of English speaking trained artists, inherent pride, enthusiasm, passion, and hard-working nature.

What does India have to do now? Incorporate art and design into high school and university curriculums. Encourage artistically creative careers. Get more trained artists. The trained artists need more experience with Hollywood films and the international level of work to: Produce shots that include all of the facets of the most complex work;

Hire R&D teams to enable complex/ground-breaking work;

Have a longer history of on-time and on-budget great work;

Get better at production management of larger crews;

Get lead team members experienced enough to be part of the pre-production and on location teams on international films;

Get more VES members from India (there are now only two);

Have the VES help make presentations to Indian directors so they can learn better how to use visual effects and visual effects teams more effectively in their own films.In conclusion, we found ourselves very welcome, had great interaction with Indian artists, learned from each other and had a great chance to show how the VES can help bring more education, information sharing and cooperation to the Indian vfx and animation professionals.

The VES India Tour was generously sponsored by Image, Autodesk, Pixion and Sahara One. It also enjoyed the full support of ABAI, ASIFA India, NASSCOM, FICCI & NID.

Tim McGovern is a visual effects professional who has been working in digital vfx since 1981. His first credit was for his work on Tron. McGovern received an Academy Award for vfx for Total Recall. He founded Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1992, served as a board of director of VES 2000-2007 as well as its vice chair in 2007. McGovern is now a writer/director.

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