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VFX in India: Rapidly Maturing

Known mostly for its CG entertainment work, Indias emerging animation industry is increasingly adding vfx projects to its portfolio. Karen Raugust reports. Includes QuickTime clips of vfx showreels from Prasad EFX, Paprikaas Animation Studios and Rayudu Vision Media Ltd.!

After conquering 3D animation, India is diving into the vfx world by starting with CG work on domestic, live-action feature films. Courtesy of iStockphoto.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view clips from some of Indias top vfx houses, Prasad EFX, Paprikaas Animation Studios and Rayudu Vision Media Limited by simply clicking the images.

The vfx/CG industry in India is driven by fully 3D-animated entertainment productions, mainly outsourced from U.S. or European companies. But there is a growing trend toward the creation of vfx, with an initial focus on domestic, live-action feature films.

Bollywood movies traditionally have been low budget and not reliant on vfx. Film producers are starting to consider integrating vfx in certain cases, however, although their use is often limited to a few scenes. The sophistication is growing as well, with some films featuring CG work such as set extensions or missile explosions, according to Tarun Agarwal, joint managing director of Mumbai-based Rajtaru Studios. Rajtaru is a high-end production facility offering vfx, CG animation, HD post-production, digital interface and other services.

Digital intermediate also has been well received, according to Agarwal. Most films in India now go through the DI process and once the film is scanned, its easier to add vfx. Directors are then willing to go the extra step to enhance their sequence, if its something simple like adding clouds to increase the impact or beauty of a shot.

Agarwal adds, The biggest challenge for the Indian vfx industry, in my opinion, is to have the vfx well-defined at the scripting stage, where the shots form a part of the story and are not just a value-add because a facility is available.

The sophistication of Indian vfx is growing, reports Tarun Agarwal of Rajtaru Studios. But the biggest challenge is to have the vfx well defined at the screenplay stage and not just be a value-add because a facility is available.

Some films have started to increase their vfx budgets and have brought the vfx producers and supervisors in early, even opting for 3D previs. One recent vfx-heavy movie that was produced and released in India was Krrish. Indian vfx studio Prasad EFX did 1,400 shots (almost 90 minutes) for the movie, according to Mohan Krishnan, head of corporate communications at the Prasad Group.

A relatively new trend is the outsourcing of feature vfx work from Hollywood, sometimes through straight work-for-hire agreements and other times through co-productions or joint ventures. In large part, the initial focus has been on labor-intensive tasks such as wire removal or rotoscoping, due to the lack of experience the industry has in high-end effects.

The kind of business that [typically] comes to India is wire removals and matte paintings, as these are the back end of the production pipe and are time-consuming, suggests Agarwal. However, Indian talent is now being more evaluated, and requirements or expectation levels are moving from wire removals or matte paintings to completion of entire shots, like bluescreen composites, or compositing CG with live action.

The market leader in high-end vfx for global films is Rhythm & Hues India, a five-year-old, 130-employee, Mumbai-based subsidiary of the major U.S. vfx house. It has worked on more than 20 Hollywood films, from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Superman Returns. Recent projects have included Garfield 2 and The Fast and the Furious 3; it is currently at work on The Golden Compass, The Kingdom, A Night at the Museum, Charlottes Web and Evan Almighty.

The volume of vfx in Indian movies will grow to a large extent, predicts Krishnan, who also believes Indian studios will move up the value chain and be a major player in the outsourced project segment.

The next level is definitely better planning for vfx within Indian films, with a well planned-out workflow and a sensible deadline attached to the project, as this is crucial for delivering a high-standard product, Agarwal adds.

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Prasad EFX created 1,400 vfx shots for Krrish that was produced and released in India. © Prasad EFX.

The CG Animation Sector

Most of the work in the fully CG animation segment is centered on television or direct-to-DVD productions, although some studios have worked on features as well. For example, Prana Studios, an L.A.-based vfx studio with a production facility in Mumbai, produced 100% of the lighting and complete shot finaling, along with 350 vfx shots, on the 2005 CG-animated feature Hoodwinked. It currently is producing all the animation in an entirely CG film to be released by one of the Hollywood studios.

Most studios in India today focus on TV animated series or direct-to-DVD animated projects, which tend to be less demanding than theatrical feature film animation/vfx work, says Saraswathi Balgam, director of Rhythm & Hues India. There are very few success stories at the high end of the market in India today.

Nandish Domlur, ceo of Paprikaas Animation Studios, a CG and vfx studio in Bangalore, believes India will become a hub for the production of full-length animated feature films within the next decade. This will be due not just to the reasonable cost of animation in India, he says, but also because of an art and technology talent pool that will have been built and nurtured through the countrys service experience. Paprikaass recent projects include the 3D-animated series FARMkids, vfx for Lexmark Printer and Nissan Motors commercials and the documentary Elephus Maximus, and in-game cinematics and videos for interactive games.

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Paprikaas Animation Studios, a CG and vfx studio in Bangalore, recently completed work for the documentary Elephus Maximus. © Paprikaas Animation Studios.

Many observers believe the CG animation market will move more toward original, domestic content and away from purely service work. The recent success in India of a homegrown 2D-animated film, Hanuman, has given the industry hope for future animation properties. But growth in this sector is likely to be slow. In the local domestic industry, the buzz is all about creation of original content, adds Domlur. But I must say that we as an industry are still a few years from producing original content for the global market.

Most domestic features currently are produced on a fast timetable and a low budget, which is likely to be a barrier to global acceptance. Due to budgets, animated films in India that are based on local concepts and material are not very viable, adds Agarwal. If they are produced, its with a limited budget and hence not well-received by Indian audiences, as they are exposed to high-end animated films like Shrek.

One area of interest for the future is the creation of art and assets for interactive games. Most of the game publishers and developers are already under tremendous pressure both on costs and also time to market vis-à-vis the competitors, suggests Domlur. So it is logical to look at India as a key development hub and also for ancillary services like testing.

Growth Factors

One element that has attracted global producers to the Indian service market is its low cost. While cost comparisons are difficult, being dependent on a range of factors such as quality, in-kind value contributed through co-productions, and subsidies offered in other countries, a rule of thumb is that CG and vfx work in India can be done for about 30% to 35% of the cost in Europe or North America.

But this estimate comes with caveats. The overall cost of production is a function of the quality of the output of animation and other production overheads, says Balgam. Today most studios in India do not output the same quality of work as the North American counterparts, so the production costs can appear to be much cheaper. However, when trying to compare apples to apples in terms of production quality, the difference in cost is not nearly as dramatic.

At R&H India, she continues, we strive very hard to achieve the same quality levels as our Los Angeles colleagues and thus we have to not only put more resources into the projects, but we also have to support the relatively inexperienced Indian artists with lots of American supervision and overhead. Thus the overall cost savings from the salaries are not that dramatic at this point.

Many observers point out that as the Indian vfx/CG industry moves up the value chain, it will be able to rely not just on cost to attract business, but on high quality as well. It is pretty much emulating the IT industry, where the overseas client came here for low cost but stayed for the high quality, Domlur says.

Unlike in other animation centers, from South Korea and China to Canada, France and the U.K., Indias governments offer no support to the industry in the form of tax breaks or subsidies, with the exception of a few state governments.

Indian animation industry consultant Jai Natarajan predicts that over the next several years a unified industry body will come together to push for government support.

Jai Natarajan, a consultant to the Indian animation industry, predicts that throughout the next several years, a unified industry body will come together to push for government support. In the meantime, he believes that global co-productions involving Indian studios will continue to grow as producers look for tax rebates in other countries.

Another key issue facing the industry is the lack of training, with few higher-education institutions offering relevant programs. Therefore, the potentially large talent pool lacks a well-rounded education on both the art and technology side of animation, includes few people capable of filling higher-level positions (e.g., senior animation producers or CG supervisors), and is unfamiliar with Western entertainment and culture. This means studios need to bring in supervisors, technical directors and other critical personnel from other countries.

The dearth of trained and production-ready artists is one of the bugbears of this industry, which has limited the growth, Domlur asserts. There is immense raw talent available here, which has to be groomed for CG production.

Balgam thinks the next five to 10 years will bring a trend similar to what has happened in North America in the past. The artist pool in India will start shifting from a purely studio staff basis to a mix of staff and freelance artists that move from project to project at various studios, she says. This should change the dynamics of our industry quite dramatically, and hopefully there will be more exchange of information and knowledge to help form a true community of artists.

Anand Gurnani of Animation Xpress believes that if studios invest in the education and training of Indias raw talent, then the sky is the limit.

Studios with a global plan need to have India figuring in their strategy, says Anand Gurnani, editor and business development head at Animation Xpress, an Indian trade publication. If they invest in educating and training the multitudes of Indias raw talent, then the sky is the limit.

Hyderabad-based Rayudu Vision Media Limited (RVML) is one studio that has launched its own training institute. Harsha Pasupuleti, who is in charge of production at RVML Animation, says that by having RACE Animation College at it facility, the studio can increase its capacity quickly to suit production requirements. It has been boosting its workforce, adding 200 new people as of September 2006. The College offers training in vfx, 3D animation, 2D animation and advanced editing. RVMLs current projects include Lava-Kusa (The Warrior Twins) for Kanipakam Creations, the in-house TV production Jataka Tales and vfx for the film Veerabhadra for Ambika Prods.

There are many studios in India specializing in vfx and/or CG animation, and often a lot of hype surrounding them, making it difficult in some cases to identify the leaders in the market. There are fewer studios involved in vfx; they include Prime Focus, Frameflow, Pixion, and Prasad/EFX, in addition to R&H India. Meanwhile, in CG animation, Crest Animation, Prana Studios, DQ Ent., Toonz Animation India and DataQuest are among those working on local and global projects. Some studios, such as Visual Computing Labs (VCL/Tata), Paprikaas, Rajtaru and Maya Ent., among others, do both vfx and CG work.

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Hyderabad-based Rayudu Vision Media Ltd. (RVML) has launched its own training institute, RACE Animation College. It offers training in vfx, 3D animation, 2D animation and advanced editing. © RVML Ltd.

Still A Nascent Industry

All in all, the Indian vfx and CG animation industry, in spite of its increasingly global profile, is still in its emerging stages. But several occurrences in the last year or so have foreshadowed the growth that many in the industry believe will happen over the next decade.

Natarajan points to the increased excitement in the domestic market because of the success of Hanuman, both at the box office and in merchandising, as well as a major bump in vfx budgets for top Bollywood action movies Krrish and Dhoom 2. He also notes that several domestic CG features have been announced, which should spur the industry forward.

In addition, several Indian studios have announced strategic partnerships with global studios and distributors, a trend that is expected to continue. For example, DQ Ent. and French studio Onyx formed a joint venture to produce three high-end CG features with releases starting in 2008; DQ also set up a division to make games exclusively for EA U.K.

Hyderabad-based Nipuna signed a deal with Germanys 4K Animation to co-create animation and vfx for films, TV productions and commercials, while Prana Studios joined with Jim Henson, Flame Ventures and the Weinstein Co. for a new direct-to-video imprint, Unstable Fables, encompassing CG-animated films. Crest, through its U.S. subsidiary RichCrest, partnered with Lionsgate to co-finance and co-produce three feature films, and Ittina Animation of Bangalore teamed with Uli Meyer Animation of the U.K. for a CG movie. Natarajan expects more Indian companies to invest in co-productions, and also to buy foreign studios, as time goes on.

Still, growth may not occur as fast as some projections suggest. There is a lot of hype about the animation industry in the local press, and with this hype there is a lot of money being thrown into this industry, says Balgam. Several companies are growing very fast in terms of head count of artists to capitalize on this hype.

It is the beginning of a speculative bubble, she continues. However, without the appropriate new talent pool coming into the industry (due to the lack of proper animation education), it will be difficult to sustain the bubble in the short term.

But Balgam and other practitioners are bullish on the ability of the vfx/CG industry to ultimately become a true global player. The long term is quite promising for those who have the patience to focus on developing talent and to emphasize the quality aspect of our art, Balgam concludes. I believe the industry will mature and the hype will die down a little bit, so that the focus can go back onto the artists who are in this industry for the passion of what they love doing, rather than being driven from a business perspective. When that happens, the quality of work coming out of India will be phenomenal and truly unique.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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