The former Rhythm & Hues and DreamWorks Animation senior exec switched gears and jumped headfirst into animated film and series development, creating her own shows while mentoring and collaborating with Epic Games and ASIFA India to start the Women Creators Program.
From a production assistant, VFX coordinator, and client manager on numerous Hindi blockbusters, to executive director and founder of Asia studios for Rhythm & Hues, head of creative management at DreamWorks, founder, creative producer, and director of her own development studio Dancing Atoms and, most recently, pioneer of Epic Game’s Unreal Engine Women Creators Program…
Saraswathi Buyyala Balgam, AKA "Vani,” has been around the block – and then some – of the entertainment world, and at each step, has always taken every opportunity to help empower others – especially women – to share their stories and realize their creative visions.
“My dad, who at the time could not pay for us to go to school, used to tell us, ‘You can learn from life, you just need to know how to tell great stories and tell them in a way that the world listens in and pays attention,’” says Vani, Head of the Women in Animation (WIA) India Collective and President of ASIFA India since 2004. “My dad believed education was all about connecting people. And that animation did the same thing. That euphoria still exists in my bones.”
Originally from Mumbai, Vani credits her father with kickstarting her passion for cinema and storytelling, even though he started out as far from the creative industry as one could get. “He was a banker,” she shares. “And he wanted to make animated films way back in the 1980s in India. He had no clue what he was dreaming about. But he sold some property and told my mom that he wanted to do this. My mom, even crazier than him said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Vani says her family came from “a menial background” and, for most of her father’s life, what he earned he had to spend taking care of not just his immediate family but his brothers, sisters, and extended family as well.
“So, this dream of making animation was him saying, ‘I need to do something big because it's time,’” she says. “So, he went to Annecy in 1984, for the first Annecy International Animation Film Market (MIFA), when there was nobody from India who would have gone there. He wrote some stuff, hired a bunch of artists, created a show, and he went to Annecy and had artwork presented over there. That's how my brother and I got into animation.”
Currently, Vani is working on a number of animated preschool shows at Dancing Atoms, her boutique development studio, where she and her team of 15-25 freelancers create original content as well as provide consulting services in visual effects, 2D Animation, 3D Animation, and Unreal Engine real-time productions, with a stated mission to bridge the gap between Asian and North American storytellers.
One of Dancing Atoms’ preschool series, Hanoo, is being created in partnership with the Canadian studio Epic Story Media. Other preschool series Vani has in production are Ana & Pana, ATOM Keepers, Gita, Mili n Kali, and Gannu.
Produced by Juck Somsaman from Thailand’s The Monk Studios, Gannu was selected by FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations) and Women in Animation (WIA) to participate in the Stories x Women program at the 2022 Annecy International Animation Film Festival. The series, a 3D animated show focused on kids aged 2-5, follows the adventures of a group of children and their imaginary elephant friend, Gannu – a goofy, easily distracted genie, whose bag of magical seeds allows the children to open doors to adventures in worlds powered by their imagination.
Gannu is inspired by Vani’s childhood and her mother, who would regularly make little plushies for her children. “Everything I write, I come back to my roots,” says Vani, who is also writing a short film called My Family based on, well, her family. All other details are under wraps.
While a large chunk of Vani’s earlier career was in Bollywood and live-action U.S. production, her deep dive into the world of animation over the last eight years was influenced by her desire to create original content all her own. It wasn’t long before Epic Games came on the scene, when in 2020, Vani took part in their Unreal Fellowship for Virtual Production.
“I was directing my live-action shorts stuff mostly, and then COVID hit,” she explains. “I was traveling a lot between Asia and the U.S. and doing non-profit community building with one of the ASIFA chapters. I have been an ASIFA India volunteer for the last 20 years and I had noticed the lack of women being included on film webinars, Zoom meetings, and panels in India. There were no women even moderating. They were not included at all.”
She continues, “Me and Shruti Verma at Epic Games in India were like, ‘What the hell? Why aren't the woman a part of this? We have to change something.’ And then she invited me, ‘Hey, why don't you join the fellowship at Epic?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never played video games and, to be honest, I have never heard about the Unreal Engine.’ I was really defensive about all of that and I was scared. But, in the end, Shruti convinced me.”
In the five-week fellowship, 100 people, including Vani, were not only trained to learn Unreal Engine, they also were tasked with making an animated short film.
“At first, I hated it,” she admits. “I cried. I had impostor syndrome because I wasn’t a modeler or a compositor or an animator. Everybody there was a visual effects supervisor or people who had been doing some modeling or animation for 15-20 years. And then, week three out of five, the light went on and I said to myself, ‘You don’t have to be a perfectionist at Unreal. Just do a short film.’ So, I designed a music video about a woman crying because she couldn’t do anything. I really put my own experience out there.”
The music video was Jeet, which means “victory” in English. It's an original RAP song – with English, Hindi and Sanskrit – where a young women, filled with stress and self-doubt, recalls the Sanskrit proverb "lead me from darkness to light" before deciding to let in positive energy to put her worries aside.
And, to Vani’s surprise, out of 100 films, hers was spotlighted by Epic, followed by a slightly daunting request. “The U.S. fellowship team said, ‘Why don't you come back and be a creative mentor? We need someone who's gone through this painful experience like you so that we can show everybody how easy it is,’” she recalls, laughing. “And, I had to admit, it was quite uplifting to go through that process.”
In addition to becoming a mentor on the fellowship in 2021, Vani became an executive producer on more than 80 Unreal fellowship films over the course of six Epic fellowships spanning the last year and a half. Each fellowship consisted of 100 people and Vani was given 15 to 20 artists to manage. Around this time, Vani coined the Women Creators Program (WCP), a partnership between Dancing Atoms, Epic Games, and ASIFA India dedicated to seeking out women creatives to help them learn the tools needed to tell their own stories with confidence.
The paid program is much like the Unreal Engine fellowship Vani was part of but with a sole focus on women, and with 21 participants rather than 100. And there is no theme and no limits to the type of films these women can create in the program.
“Let them tell their stories, the way that they choose to, whether it’s about a cat’s life or a ghostbuster. It can be whatever,” says Vani. “Give them the freedom to do what they want to do. When you give people that freedom, it's now their responsibility to deliver.”
The WCP’s first year, which kicked off in March 2021, focused solely on women in India.
“When I go back and look at the history of visual effects, it's a boys club,” says Vani. “And even now, the number of women visual effects supervisors is barely a handful. And then you look at the number of women creative directors in animation and women directors in live-action feature films, and it’s still tiny. I saw Unreal Engine as a way for women to push themselves up as creators, to promote their vision, to tell their stories, and get them to be visible.”
The Women Creators Program’s second year at Epic, kicking off in June of 2022, expanded to women in all Southeast Asia, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
“My goal was to aggressively seek out those talented women around those areas, but I changed the program quite a lot because I realized many of the women in these areas had never directed anything before,” notes Vani. “They were either 2D or 3D artists, or they were illustrators. But there were no filmmakers in that group. So, we brought in storyboarding, music, and editing. And Epic did a fantastic job bringing in talent for training and education. And the women who had been part of WCP’s first year, or ‘Batch 1’, I wanted them to lead ‘Batch 2.’”
All the Batch 1 and Batch 2 films from the WCP are available on Vimeo:
WCP Batch 2: https://vimeo.com/showcase/9736263
Vani also wanted the WCP to teach fellowship participants not just how to throw together models, props, locations, and stylized characters from the Marketplace to create beautiful visuals, but how to use them as tools to tell a moving and important narrative.
“It’s still a war, when I go in to teach or when I put on the hat on of being a mentor, and I tell them, ‘You can make the most beautiful lighting, and you'll get that speck of light just perfect on somebody's eye. But can you make me cry? Can you make me laugh? Can you make me think about your project a little bit longer?’” says Vani. “I spend a lot of time in my fellowship explaining those things. That it's not just beautiful visuals. What can you push in human connection? That was my dad’s goal too.”
And Vani herself continues to learn as the first Southeast Asian woman to take part in Epic’s IC (In Camera) VFX three-week training program, where she and her team made a live-action film. Approaching WCP’s third year, the program has once again expanded to include women from around the globe, with a much higher participant count than the previous years. This year, starting Monday, September 25, 100 creatives from across India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa will take part in WCP.
“I am a global citizen, and I am a woman of this world and I absolutely want to champion that,” she says. “And, if I do this right, that will make everybody want to do more of this for women. And I say this with the utmost humility as I’m here because my dad, my family, my best friends, they were my champions.”
The growth of Epic’s WCP has been fueled by Vani’s determination to help increase women’s exposure and empower them in ways she had no access to when she started out in the business as a teenager.
“I was 16 or 17 when I decided I wanted to be a director,” shares Vani. “But when I started approaching other directors in India, they basically said, ‘I'm sure you will be a great woman creator, but we can't guarantee your safety if you’re willing to risk being on set because there are all sorts of men here and we can’t keep an eye on an intern or an associate or an assistant,’” recalls Vani. “And my mom said, ‘Absolutely not. Your life is not worth risking.’ So, I decided visual effects was the way to go.”
Vani continued to work in Bollywood’s visual effects and “did a lot of cool stuff, learned a lot of great things, made a lot of good relationships.” But it wasn’t her dream.
“Every time I tried to stand and say, ‘I'm a creator, I want to tell my stories,’ the higher-ups would always find a way to redirect me to something else, and they would always figure out a way not to have me touch that thin line that I was always divided by,” she notes.
A new opportunity came to Vani in 2000, when Vani met John Hughes, Pauline Ts'o, and Keith Goldfarb, some of the founding members of Rhythm & Hues, an Academy Award-winning studio known for renowned movies like Babe and of course, The Life of Pi.
“It was 22 years ago, and they were looking to expand to Asia,” remembers Vani. “I got interviewed by them over a dial-up connection and John Hughes asked me, ‘How will you run the studio?’ I said, ‘I'll run it like it's my own. I'll find the right people, I'll run it from my apartment, and I'll keep the costs low, because I would rather give the money to the people than spend it on fancy buildings and infrastructure.’”
It was only later on that Vani discovered how John, Pauline, and Keith - along with Cliff Boule, Frank Wuts and Charles Gibson – had set up Rhythm & Hues from a dentist's garage, built on the philosophy of taking care of the company’s people first.
“And what started as a six-month contract between me and Rhythm became a 13-year affair,” says Vani, who went on to work as a senior executive for R&H on films like X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games, Life of Pi, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and others.
Vani ended up co-founding four different studios for R&H – Mumbai, Hyderabad, Malaysia and Taiwan – and worked on roughly 40 productions as a senior exec. When the company closed, Vani went on to work as Head of Creative Management and Training at DreamWorks in Shanghai in 2014. That is until she decided, in her words, that “I don't think I can work for anybody else,” and started Dancing Atoms the following year, creating her own opportunity to make the original content she desperately desired to make but had yet been given the opportunity to see to fruition.
The name “Dancing Atoms” is based on Vani’s favorite Hindi folklore, which features Lord Shiva dancing on Apasmara, a demon of ignorance. Rather fitting for a woman who seeks to pave the way for more women creators in an industry that has been overcrowded by men.
“I've given myself the chance to take birth again,” says Vani. “Because when you're a top-level senior exec, everybody thinks there's a path that you must go on. You become executive director and that’s a huge title. Then, you go on to the head of creative management, which is another huge title and then now you're like, ‘Okay, what's my next big title?’ But to walk away from all of that and say, ‘No, I have to tell my stories’ and give yourself permission to celebrate your life and your journey, is hard.”
She adds, “But you just have to make filmmaking your playground. You need to play. You don't have to get so serious about it. And that's where the magic happens.”
Vani continues to tell her stories with Dancing Atoms, writing and persistently pitching her array of TV shows, feature films, games, and even VR experiences that derive from the trials, victories, lessons learned, and mountains climbed that have brought Vani to where she is today.
“It’s been a wild journey but I’m coming that full circle, still focused on how I get my own creative stories to be highlighted and spotlighted,” she notes. “That’s been my whole goal for the last eight years. Building the community is also a big deal for me.”
While she waits for her projects to take flight, Vani works closely with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of India to promote India as a creative storytelling hub.
Vani would also like to thank Quentin Staes Polet “for supporting me to craft the WCP program,” as well as Brain Pohl at the Epic Games Fellowship, “as he saw the potential in me and trusted my judgment.”
The application process has started for the third annual Women Creators Program. Epic is accepting applications through Monday, September 11. Those interested can learn more here: https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US/events/women-creators-program-2023