Vamsi M. Ayyagari takes a look at what occurred in the 3D industry in Asia and India during 2003.
In Asia, they say change is the only constant. And change is manifesting itself rapidly in the Asian 3D animation industry.
The period when Asian entities were deemed unreliable partners in 3D production now seems an epoch away. Such issues as inconsistencies in delivery and quality and Asians speaking little English are no longer valid.
But in the modern era of networked communications, it is not just electronic circuitry, but passion that is silently driving the force. Pure, raw passion that may soon shape modelers into sculptors, animators into actors and compositors into creators. A trend that started with outsourcing 2D work has now matured into the 3D arena over the entire continent.
As artistry taps computers to generate vivid imagery, Asian entities are out to etch their place on the global 3D animation map. We will track the roadmap of an industry that is all set to evolve as a premiere force in 3D animation production.
India has traversed a long path from a time when 3D was limited to pack shots and animation bits in advertisements.
Last year, Crest Communications, an animation house based in Bollywood capital Mumbai, created history by becoming the first Indian animation studio to successfully deliver a high-end 3D animation series: Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks for its U.S. client, Mike Young Prods. Set in two different time periods, the show combines set design rich as oriental tapestry with spunky animation to discourse lifes values through entertaining tales of childhood high jinks. The success of the show is apparent by the fact that it was lapped up by different networks such as PBS Central in the U.S., ABC Australia, TVO Canada, TF1 France, RTE Ireland and SVT Sweden.
Other achievements that have done the studio proud include Kids Ten Commandments, a DTH production for the North American markets and Ollie that is set entirely underwater.
A.K. Madhavan, svp of Crest Communication, emphasized the challenge of creating underwater animation and lighting effects on the computer. But with every show, he believes Crest is raising the bar of 3D animation on television.
Down south in gods own country of Kerala, animators at Toonz Animation are busy creating an animated dimension of the Indian mythical character Hanuman.
According to president Bill Dennis, Combining 2D animation with 3D techniques has been a very interesting process. The 3D component, which comprises around a third of the series, is being used for spectacular effects, select backgrounds and crowd shots.
Last year, Toonz completed and released its first-ever animated television series, Tenali Raman. It was a tremendous breakthrough for the entire Indian animation industry, since for the first time, a show with Indian content shot on an Indian budget resonated well in India, Asia and Europe.
Asian Tigers Roaring
Farther east, decades of exposure to animation techniques have helped studios rise up the value chain. Taipei-based CGCG won the Best Visual Effects of the 2003 DVD Exclusive Award for their brilliant work on the DVD movie Bionicle: The Mask of Light. No mean task considering it was the first time the studio produced a CG feature right from model building to animation and special effects to compositing. The highlight of the project was that it was achieved in a record time of 13 months, including pre-production design.
According to Wendy Yu, sales manager at CGCG, Our clients, LEGO and Creative Capers, were so confident of the success of Bionicle, that CGCG was engaged immediately to produce the DVD sequel due for release in mid 2004.
For Xcalibur, a popular TV series for European markets, CGCG overcame yet another creative hurdle by seamlessly combining motion capture with keyframe animation. Other breakthroughs include seamless integration of CG characters with live-action backgrounds for Japans biggest TV station, Nippon Television Network, and CG characters for a prime time Disney TV show.
Ng Boon Khee (left), the president and ceo of Silicon Illusions. A Silicon Illusions artist works on Monster by Mistake. Photo courtesy of Silicon Illusions.
Farther west in Singapore, Ng Boon Khee, the president and ceo of Silicon Illusions, focused his companys efforts on building an efficient workflow and technology-driven pipeline. By adopting an intuitive digital asset management system, the company overcame geographical barriers to allow directors and producers to directly watch, control and execute their vision. Sounds normal except they were half way around the globe.
The company is presently producing the third season of the acclaimed Canadian TV series, Monster by Mistake, which has picked up the Alliance for Children & TV Award and Gold Camera Award at the Chicago Film Festival.
Quite ironically, the strength of the industry is also its weakness. While Asia remains a reservoir of natural talent, lack of trained manpower impedes growth plans.
Several executives suggest that the greatest challenge lies in emerging from a service to a content creation house. Skill sets need to be honed, especially in areas of character design, story development and storyboarding.
Skilled artists such as those for Silicon Illusions are needed to keep up with the demands of the growing industry. Photo courtesy of Silicon Illusions.
Todd Miller, managing director, AXN-ASIA, believes that while Asia is on the threshold of an animation production explosion, it is necessary to move up the value chain beyond execution to storytelling and character creation.
With increasing competition and clients looking at ways to mitigate production costs, the pressure may well be on overseas studios to provide more bang for the buck. It is here that many contend that the government can play a major role by facilitating access to easy finance.
Like any nascent venture, the Indian animation industry suffers from credibility issues. However, with a few Indian studios delivering on time, there has been some improvement in worldwide perceptions.
More and more Asian studios are likely to cash in on the rich repository of regional content and integrate the same with the inherent strengths of animation storytelling. This may help Asian studios not only rise up the value chain but also create and capture an entirely new market altogether.
The challenge lies in creating content that can cater not only to a market such as Greater China (Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.) with 367 million tiny tots in China alone, but also an entirely diverse Indian community with a membership of 250 million children.
Yu also believes the key to success lies in creating styles that best bring out the regional uniqueness. A case in point would be Japan, which has created its own animation style in total contrast to Hollywood. Surprisingly, big budgeted Korean productions modeled after the La Hollywood style elicited very little market interest.
Dennis believes the success of Tenali has proved Indian studios can develop and produce Indian content with a cross-over appeal. Perhaps the middle path lies in wedging Asian stories with western production techniques. The widening demographic profile of Asian animation viewing and expression of CG in live-action genres of entertainment may necessitate just the same.
So does that mean Asia will cease to be a low-cost service provider? Not necessarily.
The economics of animation production coupled with global business necessities may drive the need for remote production, except we may expect more standardization in outsourcing procedures.
Back to the Future
In 2004, Asia is certainly animated.
Silicon Illusions is working on its first full-length CG feature production, Sing to the Dawn. Their efforts at creating an efficient workflow have secured them a niche North American clientele.
Crest is all set to work on Pet Aliens, a series that incorporates extensive traditional animation techniques into the 3D realm. Back in garden city Banglore, another animation studio, Jadoo Works, is executing a 26-hour CG animation project, Higgley Town Heroes, for San Francisco-based Wild Brain Inc.
In addition to the Bionicle sequel, CGCG will be working on a direct-to- video CG project for a leading U.S. toy company and a 3D feature, whose title cannot be disclosed at the moment.
But the most important development is that the experience has given the company an opportunity to create its own content. Interesting that after Tenali, Toonz Animation found itself designing characters for other studios apart from gaining additional revenues from ancillary rights.
Ironically, widespread piracy of animated videos in China has in reality turned out to be a highly effective marketing channel for periphery products. Merchandise sales have actually shot up due to the popularity of pirated animated videos. A clue for others to follow?
Many companies are also expected to take advantage of co-productions to shore up revenues. India has signed co-production deals with large animation producers in Canada and Italy, and is expected to benefit immensely.
Already the benefit of outsourcing 3D animation is witnessing a rollover into the gaming industry. Last year, several gaming studios popped up all over India. Given the countries pre-eminent position as a SW power, we may soon see a merging trend between two large talent pools.
The highlight of 2003 is that Asian studios have consistently risen up the value chain. Interestingly, executives in India, Singapore and the Far East believe it will ultimately be higher production values and not just low cost labor that will differentiate them from competition.
Some, like India, are expected to benefit by its large English-speaking population and proficiency with technology. Others, like the Southeast Asian nations, will capitalize on their vast experience in animation.
The future may also see a battle of dimensions between 2D and 3D and the conflict of mediums between traditional and interactivity. Some may remain service providers, others may emerge as specialty studios and others may choose hybrid models.
In the meantime, artists will continuously try and weave magic on the computer canvas. A portrait, where a mouse substitutes a chisel, and a tablet replaces the brush.
Vamsi M. Ayyagari started his career at Riot Pictures, a Santa Monica-based visual effects house. As an exec producer at the overseas animation studio, he oversaw production for The Curly Tales of Piggley Winks and vfx for Koi Mil Gaya, Indias first sci-fi project. Presently, he is working as the Indian vfx producer for the Hollywood feature, A Sound of Thunder. He can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.