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Indian VFX: On the Verge of Breaking Out

Anil Wanvari and Anand Gurnani explore the blossoming visual effects industry in India, where 70% of the movies utilize digital magic to wow viewers.

Vfx played a big role in Indias blockbuster Koi Mil Gaya. © Filmkraft Prods. (India) Pvt. Ltd. 2003.

Vfx played a big role in Indias blockbuster Koi Mil Gaya. © Filmkraft Prods. (India) Pvt. Ltd. 2003.

Around two years ago, Indian movie audiences were streaming into multiplexes and single screen theaters, eager to watch the Bollywood blockbuster, Koi Mil Gaya, which had become the talk of the town. The film starred teenage hearthrob Hrithik Roshan and his adventures with an extraterrestrial called Jadoo, in a tale reminiscent of the Steven Spielberg classic, E.T. The film, replete with vfx and Jadoo, a product of animatronics, caught the imagination of the box office, the critics and pocketed scores of awards. It had a visual effects budget of Rs. 40 million out of a total film cost of Rs. 250 million.

Around the same time, a sci-fi series, Josh, aired on Star Plus, Indias leading television network. It was packed with action sequences and reminded viewers of the visual effects that they had seen in the Hollywood mega blockbuster, The Matrix. The series did not do well, but the fancy effects drew lots of oohs and aahs. Star Plus invested close to Rs. 4 million per episode, figures that were unheard of for a TV event before. The coo of the network, Sameer Nair, said that the initiative was worth it, as television needed to lift the barrier in creativity.

Clearly, the role of vfx in Indian cinema and television is increasingly being felt today as craftspeople try every trick in the book to stand out from the rest of the pack and earn more from the box office. India continues to produce the largest number of movies (around 870 last year). A good 70% of these use vfx work these days as compared to a fraction hardly half a decade ago, points out Maya Ent. ceo Rajesh Turakhia. Ten percent of Bollywood movies then had budgets for fx; today the figure has risen by 60% for digital, which includes post, DI and fx.

The increasing exposure to Hollywood via television and multiplexes has forced filmmakers to lift the quality of their product as the Indian filmgoer has become extremely choosy. Audiences are gradually acquiring a taste for CG, slick editing and vfx. The newer breed of fil makers is much more technically sound and is beginning to involve vfx visualizers and producers early in pre-production.

The Indian market for vfx is estimated at around $30 million annually and is estimated to grow to $50 million by December 2005. Eighty-five percent of the turnover comes from the local market, while the rest comes from international work. There are pockets within cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, which are quietly working on international projects. Given Indias IT track record and the Indian animation industry beginning to deliver quality long-format work, the market for international vfx work in India is poised to blossom.

Tata Elxsi Visual Computing Labs is one of the larger vfx houses in India.

Tata Elxsi Visual Computing Labs is one of the larger vfx houses in India.

Currently, there are around 60 to 70 vfx facilities in India, a majority of which are actually post houses that also do vfx work. Some of the large studios that have more than 50 employees include Tata Elxsi Visual Computing Labs, Ketan Mehta promoted Maya Ent., Primefocus, EFX, FX Factory, Rajtaru Videosonic, Famous Cine FX, Padmalaya, Land Marvel and Ramoji Rao.

Some other acclaimed yet relatively smaller vfx houses include Artery, Blue Dew and Frame Flow. These companies, headed by some of the best talent in the country, are growing and hold a lot of promise. Additionally, there are 300 odd Ad film production houses, which are equipped with high end equipment such as flame and smoke.

Realizing the importance of photorealism and high quality vfx, a growing number of technically sound producers and directors are signing on individual vfx producers, who then collect the best of freelance talent for projects.

There are 1,500 to 2,000 technicians and artists involved in the Indian vfx industry. Of these, there are only a handful of producers who can actually turnaround projects. There are 500 to 600 high-end equipment operators and around 800 animators and compositors who are evolving and improving everyday.


Jai Natrajan (left), formerly of ILM, thinks studios will save money over the long term by doing their vfx work in India. Maya Ent. ceo Rajesh Turakhia (right) notes that 60% of Bollywoods movies have a digital budget, up from 10% five years ago.

The equipment and software being used in India is on par with international standards. Realtime software such as flame, flint, smoke and inferno is very popular here. There are a few studios, however, that give high quality output using combustion, After Effects and Digital Fusion. One of the studios that is very aggressive on the equipment front is Prime Focus. They recently imported Milo, a motion control camera, and boasts other equipment such as Spirit Data Cine and an Arri Laser Film recorder.

With Indian audiences and studios waking up to the possibilities of CGI and other digital vfx, is India ready to take on international projects? Jai Natrajan, whose experience includes a long stint at ILM, is optimisitic. However, he favors the captive studio model, something like the one Rhythm & Hues has in India.

He says, Twenty people working even on low-end vfx can save a U.S. studio a million dollars a year after the first couple of years of effort and investment. The equipment costs are the same, but the payroll difference is $50,000 per person per year and that, he contends, is a conservative estimate. The international client or partner needs to have a long term view. It is difficult to start off aggressively and make commitments, he adds.

Ramesh Meer, who has been a pioneer of vfx in India, is even more enthusiastic. He says, Anything that can be done by Digital Domain or ILM can be done here. We use the same hardware and software, the only difference is in the color of the skin; nowadays many of the big studios abroad have a lot of Indians working for them. A practical example of how well Indians can deliver is the Rhythm & Hues India facility theres 40- odd Indians working on international projects and they are delivering.

While most of the equipment in India is of international standards, I still prefer to do my film scanning in L.A., counters Yunus Bukhari, who is arguably Indias best vfx producer.

It is not the machine but the men behind the machine that the final output depends on, suggests Meer. We have the best of equipment, we just need to be involved in the movie right from the initial stages, giving us ample time to conceive effects and try new stuff. The reason Indian studios have so much expensive realtime software is that there is no planning, and the execution has to be immediate. The quality of the effect can be as good, even without realtime software.


Talking about the emerging trend of using sophisticated vfx techniques in Bollywood, Turakhia says, A decade ago, stunt directors, fight masters and action directors were very resistant to vfx. Today, vfx is part of nearly every A or B grade movie. The same resistance is now seen towards the usage of miniatures and more sophisticated techniques because these require a lot of know how, time and budgets. The acceptance of these techniques is happening gradually.

Bollywood budgets for vfx could vary from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 4 crores. While the market for vfx is certainly heating up, a big dampener is the way in which the Indian film industry operates. The industry is probably the only one in the world that, in spite of a flop rate of 90%, continues churning out formulaic films, which have no logical rationale, save for the fact that they are the kind of films that the powerful mandarins of Bollywood believe will work. There is a lot of egotism rampant; producers pay through their nose to sign big names but haggle for petty amounts when it comes to vfx.

Rakesh Roshan, director of Koi Mil Gaya, is admired because he thinks ahead in planning vfx work.

Rakesh Roshan, director of Koi Mil Gaya, is admired because he thinks ahead in planning vfx work.

Most producers out here are totally unbothered about fx work; they dont even come to see the composites, offers Bukhari. First of all, they dont realize that fx should be planned [in pre-production]. Just because most vfx today are digital, they assume it is part of post. The ignorant producers announce release dates without even consulting us. I really admire people like Rakesh Roshan, who really plans his work very well. I am doing a small film for which there is very little fx work, yet the director makes it a point to call in heads of all departments, including me, for all meetings. Thats the way the entire industry should operate.

Salaries in India for vfx, though quite low when compared to international standards, are lucrative enough to motivate talented youngsters to seek a career in this industry. Current pay packets begin at Rs. 10,000 for junior level artists working on combustion and Digital Fusion to Rs. 30,000 - 50,000 for senior technicians working on high-end equipment. Vfx producers and visualizers get up to anywhere between Rs. 50,000 to a lac and there are a few reputed producers who charge on a daily basis anywhere between Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 50,000.

Realtime software, though much more expensive, is a big demand in India. Part of the reason for this could be that a lot of work here comes in only a few days before release and execution has to be realtime. That also is a reason why Indian vfx have less originality in them. It is not that Indian artists cannot conceive great vfx impressive enough to have the international audiences awestruck; they havent yet been given many opportunities.

Education and training in vfx is one thing that India truly needs. All the vfx training in India is on the job. While on one the hand, that demonstrates the capability of Indians to grasp and learn quickly, it also means that when it comes to sophisticated techniques requiring domain knowledge, India is visibly lacking.

Yunus Bukhari, considered Indias best vfx producer, thinks the vfx skill level in his country needs improving.

Yunus Bukhari, considered Indias best vfx producer, thinks the vfx skill level in his country needs improving.

Addressing the need for specialization and in-depth courses for visual effects, acclaimed vfx producer Biju D says, Engineering and IT are established career options with innumerable educational institutions imparting know how. The curriculum is well defined. The best of the students get into that field and after four-and-a-half years of intensive study and pass out as seasoned professionals with the booming IT industry ready to absorb them. Which is why India is competing with the world and at times leading in IT. The same needs to be done with sfx and animation; a career in these fields is as lucrative and that has to be promoted and established. Besides, we need institutions that impart thorough knowledge on these subjects.

While an increasing number of international studios are considering India as a possible destination for outsourcing vfx work, a great and unrealized opportunity exists in the form of vfx and animation training. India has a huge population and a considerable chunk is its youth, as demonstrated in IT. Indians can do wonders in vfx and animation provided there are institutions and universities dedicated to digital art. International studios could begin with sending in low-end work and simultaneously initiate the manpower into sophisticated techniques and processes. The benefits to be reaped are immense.

Anil Wanvari is ceo of Indian and Anand Gurnani is senior content executive for Animation `xpress, one of Indian Televison.coms newsletters.