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Educational Alliances in India: Fueling Future Growth

Karen Raugust looks at how Indian animation programs are teaming up with studios and software providers to expand the countrys workforce as its 3D industry grows.

New education initiatives could be the key to unlocking the true potential of the Indian animation industry. Courtesy of

Indias animation industry is entering a transition phase as it tries to move from being perceived primarily as a destination for low-cost outsourcing to becoming a profitable business in which growth is driven both by competitive work-for-hire bidding and proprietary projects. Indian schools that teach animation are hoping to fuel future growth by providing an increasing number of well-trained artists to local studios. To do so, they are beginning to forge alliances with both software providers and studios to elevate their students educational prospects.

According to the National Assn. of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), a government body overseeing the Indian entertainment and animation industries, the domestic animation business will be valued at $1.5 billion, or 3% of the $51.7 billion global animation business, by the end of 2005. Based on several statistical reports, including Arthur Andersens Study on the Entertainment and Media Sector, NASSCOM believes the animation industry is poised for significant growth, thanks in part to Indias huge domestic entertainment business, its skilled workforce and its sophisticated software/information technology industry.

Currently, animation training in India is dominated by private academies and their franchises. These include Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics (MAAC), Pentamedia Graphics and Arena Multimedia, among others. Since most mainstream colleges traditionally have not offered animation courses the National Institute of Design is among the few that do many students attend these private academies for advanced certification, while others enroll in lieu of college.

Challenges Ahead

Indian studios are receiving more work-for-hire animation production assignments from around the world, focusing primarily on 3D animation for television, videogames and even potentially mid-budget feature films. As a result, schools are being challenged to produce qualified graduates to meet the demand for animators. (There are an estimated 70 animation studios in India, with about a dozen of those producing work for the international market, according to NASSCOM and other sources.)

Jai Natarajan, a Mumbai-based consultant to Indian animation and gaming start-ups and a former technical director at Industrial Light & Magic, points out that some of the challenges the nascent industry faces include lack of experience on high-quality long-form projects, lack of a domestic 3D animated filmmaking culture, a shortage of experienced production staff and training vehicles for them and a shortage of institutional history in young studios, meaning a lack of expertise in planning, scheduling, budgeting, tracking and pipelining projects efficiently.

These are challenges that only time and imported supervising and production talent can resolve, Natarajan says. He points out that Crest Communications, which has worked with foreign supervisors on a number of shows for U.S.-based Mike Young Prods., including Jakers: The Adventures of Piggley Winks!, now has strong in-house creative and production leadership.

Natarajan also notes that schools in India lack quality CG engineering courses, which results in a shortage of engineering and R&D software staff that can build custom tools. On the other hand, he stresses that the industry is full of energy and raw talent and will take a quantum leap once government support and good alliances are in place. In fact, we are improving in double-quick time, he says, citing animators creativity, work ethic, tireless ability to take inputs and correct their work, and knowledge of English and Western storytelling styles as positive attributes.

Srini R. Raghavan, co-founder and president of Paprikaas Animation Studios.

Still, the industry has a way to go before it can compete equitably on the international market. To reach global standards, [Indian animation studios] need to develop deep and wide talent, both technical and creative, by tying up with world-class universities and partnering with quality studios, adds Srini R. Raghavan, co-founder and president of Paprikaas Animation Studios, an animation, digital effects and interactive game studio with offices in Bangalore and the U.S.

The industry has evolved so far by relying primarily on a low-cost business model. While average costs are difficult to quantify, experts say entry-level Indian animators salaries are about 10% or less of their American counterparts, and senior executives about 15%; a novice Indian animator can earn as little as $3,500 per year. An Indian studio can animate a 22-minute TV episode for $50,000 to $100,000 or sometimes less vs. $250,000 to $500,000 in the U.S.

Most experts believe this low-cost strategy is not sustainable, however. Some studios are likely to go out of business; some have experienced financial difficulties or shut down already. After a period of consolidation, the remaining studios are likely to try to compete on the world market based on quality rather than just low prices. This change will drive even more demand for qualified animators, including recent graduates from universities and academies.

Once quality levels rise something that is already starting to occur Indian studios increasingly will be able to invest in more and better equipment, pay their animators more and, critically, develop their own properties. The country is inking co-production agreements with other nations, such as the U.K., Canada and Italy, which ultimately will help its studios retain rights to the properties on which they work.

As the level of creative and technical talent is refined and studios begin to develop and market their own properties, there will be a whole new financial model emerging, offers Elisabeth Laett, global industry manager for film, video and broadcast at Alias, which sells its Maya and MotionBuilder packages to many schools in India. Schools with which Alias has alliances include Toonz-Webel Animation Academy, the National Insitute of Technology, Animaster, Artlab Madras and MUV Institute of Digital Arts.

The outsourcing model is yet to be truly cracked by any Indian studio, reports Kireet Khurana, creative director at studio 2nz Animation Co., a division of Climb Media (India), whose series include The Adventures of Chhota Birbal, the first Indian TV series to generate a merchandising program; Vartmaan; and Lok-gatha, which Khurana says was Indias first animated TV series in 1992. Most studios catering to western clientsmay have creatively achieved satisfactory results, but are yet to turn the corner due to pricing issues. The revenue model for the outsourcing business still remains very suspect. Co-productions seem to be the way forward, but none of the players seem to have satisfactorily addressed this segment as well yet.

Elisabeth Laett, global industry manager for film, video and broadcast at Alias, is making many alliances with companies in India for training on Alias products.

A Growing Number of Alliances

To meet the needs of a growing industry, especially one that focuses on its own intellectual properties rather than relying solely on work-for-hire production, animators not only must be trained in sophisticated techniques, but their sheer numbers must grow significantly. (One Bangalore-based game development company, Dhruva Interactive, reportedly plans to set up a studio in China due to the Indian workforce shortage.)

One way schools are working to supply the growing demand for well-trained animators is to team with software providers, which can offer curriculum assistance, instructors and discounted software, and with studios, which can provide materials, guest speakers and teachers, as well as placement.

MAAC is affiliated with Maya Ent., a CG and vfx studio in Mumbai. It has 35 locations in India and more than 3,500 students enrolled. More than 1,500 have completed the course since the school launched in 2001. The academy teaches mainly 3D animation using 3ds Max and Maya, as well as Photoshop,Premier and After Effects, and Flame, Avid and Combustion as specialty courses. The schools alliance with Alias gives it a commitment for training from Alias specialists, courseware and seminars and workshops led by industry professionals, according to Rajesh Turakhia, ceo of Maya Ent. Ltd.

For us, India is a really important strategic and influential market, in that the students and instructors of today will become the users of tomorrow, suggests David Della-Rocca, Alias global industry manager for education. Its not just about selling the software. Its about giving them all they need, he explains, citing curriculum assistance, instructor certification and training, web resources and ongoing support as among the potential components of a relationship with a school.

The demand for trained animators is huge, Della-Rocca adds. Theres a definite gap between the number of animators needed and the number of qualified people to feed that demand.

Autodesk Media & Ent. and Aditya Infotech have teamed to form Maximus, the first Audodesk (formerly known as Discreet) training center in India. The Mumbai-based school offers diploma and fast-track courses in 3D animation and visual effects and has 50 students currently enrolled. We get all kinds of assistance from Discreet, including software and learning materials, says Jinoy Mathew, director of education. The school, which teaches only Autodesk-Discreet software packages, including 3ds Max and Combustion, emphasizes the importance of planning, working as a team and meeting deadlines. Maximus is also a reseller of Autodesks products in India.

While software providers want to work with educational institutions to help strengthen the Indian animation industry and its studios, they face several steep challenges. Two critical factors are price-sensitivity (even though student prices can be more than 90% off list) and lack of compliance. Many educational institutions train on the leading software packages, but a vast number do so without a license. In many cases, even officially licensed schools are using personal-use copies of software not certified for academic use, or employ heavily discounted or even free copies of educational packages. The software providers want to break that cycle, but when many animation students in India cant afford the basic needs of life, much less funds for tuition and software, its a difficult crossroads, says one software executive.

2nz Animations Kireet Khurana hopes that alliances with schools will help bring Indian animators up to industry standards.

Studio-School Alliances

Meanwhile, Indian animation schools are increasingly partnering with studios as well. 2nz Animation, which uses 3ds Max, After Effects and Archer Animation Production Systems software, has an alliance with the Kolkata-based Academy of Animation Arts & Technology (AAAT). It has designed and licensed an international-style classical animation curriculum, and its animators give regular lectures at the school. It also has assisted the school in upgrading processes to match industry requirements, providing placement for students and supplying materials for the school to use in its reel and for endorsement.

Almost all the players in India arent training as per industry requirements, says 2nzs Khurana. Being from the industry, we are able to design and implement an industry-driven curriculum. Also, we get the cream of the talent from AAAT. (2nz also has a division called Toon Club that teaches animation to children in Indian schools; several of their works have been entered into international film festivals.)

Paprikaas Animation Studios has a staff of more 135 people and offers production services to companies ranging from PBS to the Korean Broadcasting Corp., as well as maintaining ownership rights in several properties through co-productions. The studio uses Maya, 3ds Max and SOFTIMAGE|XSI, as well as proprietary tools for lighting, texturing and shading. It offers its animators an initial orientation program and ongoing training and skill-enhancement sessions.

While most Indian studios that are forging deals with animation programs are doing so with Indian schools and training centers, Paprikaas is offering specially designed in-house training courses developed in collaboration with U.S. universities and schools, including Carnegie Mellons Ent. Technology Center (ETC) in Pittsburgh and others to be announced. ETC faculty will train Paprikaass employees in the areas of entertainment technology, advanced animation design and modeling, game design and advanced computer graphics, according to Raghavan.

Vancouver-based Pixel Galaxy Studio, which has operations in India, runs the College of Interactive Animation (CIA) in Vancouver. CIA has an alliance with Jagran Institute of Management and Mass Communications (JIMMC), a print and broadcast media company, to offer animation courses in India. Pixel and CIA provide curriculum, credit transfers to Canada, help on student internships and placements and international faculty. Vikas Tomar, CIAs vp, points out that having international instructors is important when training animators to produce work for the world market. These are the people who understand the international market needs and requirements, and can train the students as per the latest in the overseas market, he says.

Other North American institutions with animation programs, such as the Vancouver Film School, are exploring academic collaborations, according to Indian animation experts, but no official programs have materialized to date.

One 2D studio, Toonz Ent. in Trivandrum, has started an animation training academy in collaboration with the government of West Bengal. It is one of the few industry-government collaborations supporting animation education or the animation industry, but many observers hope there will be more of these in the future.

Alliances that pair animation programs with studios, software companies and governments will go a long way toward improving the training and increasing the size of the workforce, two elements that will have to be in place to accommodate future growth, whether from proprietary properties or work-for-hire projects. The quality coming out of India is gaining respect every day, suggests Turakhia. Getting the manpower ready to take on the coming tsunami of outsourced work is the greatest challenge, and we are addressing it with our schools.

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).