Thursday, 10 August 2017

An Outside Opinion About India's Animation Industry

What to do? What to do?
Hollywood's animation community has entered its post-Pixar era, creating fresh opportunities for everybody else, including the animation community in India. Pixaris no longer the scruffy, fun-loving studio it was a lifetime ago, back in 1995 when “Toy Story” was released. It has been a while since we read magazine articles that gushed about Pixar's customized animator cubicles, the Tiki room, Old West saloon and Olympic size swimming pool. Today, key members of the original Pixar family are either deceased or are doing other things, like live action movies (Brad Bird) for example, and even long-time insiders like Bob Peterson (“Finding Nemo”, “Up”) can be ripped off their projects if Mr. Lasseter gets nervous. Pixar is now wholly owned by the marketing behemoth, Walt Disney Company, which has not seriously been in the movie business since “The Lion King” and “Little Mermaid”. Walt's brother, Roy Disney, was forced off the Disney Board of Directors in 2003 and, since then, the business model at the studio has been 100 percent mega-budget “tent pole”, movie franchises that can support spin-offs, Broadway musicals, sequels and such. It's current hit is “Frozen” (over US$600 million to date), which is already in development for its Broadway musical debut a year or so from now, as well as there being a “Frozen 2” in the pipeline. Together, Disney and Pixar operate like a giant feature animation assembly line, turning out three formulaic movies per year like clockwork, feeding the revenue machine over and over, to the benefit of Disney executives (Bob Eiger, Disney Company CEO, earned US$35 million in 2013) and Wall Street investment companies. John Lasseter, best known for his boyish Hawaiian shirts, is rich now, reportedly worth US$100 million. Meanwhile, DreamWorks has changed its business model away from feature animation andhas signed a deal with Netflix, to produce 300 hours of original programming. Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' CEO, spends as much time in Shanghai nowadays as he does in his Hollywood offices, building a new DreamWorks theme park there and doing coproductions with China's deep purse strings government. The point is that the Walt Disney Hollywood most of us thought we knew is no longer there. It moved on while we were not looking, That is precisely why this is a time of opportunity for everybody else, including animators in India.


The animation industry in India is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma, mainly because there isn't one. There are x-number of smart individuals working in the animation field, but there is not an industry per se. Animation does not have deep roots in India. There never was an Indian Walt Disney with a dream and a Mouse. Therefore, there has not been an apprenticeship or mentoring system. There are no old-timers, an Indian equivalent of Disney's Nine Old Men, passing on accumulated wisdom to newbies. To fill this gap, a veritable truck load of Indian entrepreneurs opened animation schools, which proceeded to pump under-qualified entry level animators, mainly of the CG variety, into a talentstarved marketplace. The schools even now operate in an ethics-free zone in which the credit line on a student's Visa card counts for more than the excellence of her portfolio. A lot of money is being made by a handful of entrepreneurs, a lot of disappointed young people are being cycled through the system, and the community of Indian animators is spinning its collective wheels. If animators in India seriously want to be recognized internationally, they are going to have to do better work. I routinely screen show reels sent to me by young Indian entry-level animators, and it is rare that I see one that is even close to international standards. It would be immensely helpful if the government would provide meaningful oversight, licensing standards with teeth. As it stands today, the Indian government stands mute unless outright criminal fraud comes to light in a school. Nobody is keeping records of how many graduates are finding work in the animation industry. Studio executives I talk to in India-based companies tell me privately that every new hire must be trained from scratch, that the Indian training on the resume is virtually worthless. I ask why they do not demand higher standards and better results from the schools and am met with a shrug of resignation. The status quo is stuck in a ditch. It would be helpful if an industry summit meeting could be called, where animation studio CEO's can speak candidly with school CEO's about what needs to be done. If the existing schools cannot or will not do the job, then the animation studios need to develop new high-standards schools. It is urgent that India find, encourage and support the development of its young artists, especially in the modern art form of Computer Animation. We need dreamers and storytellers much more than we need more computer animation technicians.

"But that is for the long haul, the future. What about today? The Indian animation talent pool being what it is, what is to be done? How can India get in side those Hollywood open doors? For those who want to take action today, this is my best advice"

1) Take note of independent feature films like “Chico and Rita”, “Despicable Me 1 & 2” and “Ernest & Celestine”. Significantly, the five nominees for Best Animated Feature in the 2014 Academy Awards includes three independent features. Pixar, in yet another indication of its waning influence on the industry, is not represented at all. “Monsters University” did not make the cut, mainly because it was a tent pole product. In particular, study the production model for “Ernest & Celestine”, a French movie with three directors, one of whom only recently graduated from animation school. The production budget was less than US$12 million, veritable pocket change in Hollywood. Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney are locked into spending US$150+ million for each film, having ceded the playing field for lower budget films entirely to independent producers. “Ernest & Celestine” is based on a popular children's book by Gabrielle Vincent. The narrative could not be simpler or more universal, having to do with an unlikely friendship that forms between a mouse and a bear. It is a spin on Shakespeare's “Romeo & Juliet” except that the central relationship is one of friendship, not romance.

2) When deciding what kind of story to tell in a film, ask yourself who the intended audience is. Are you producing for an Indian audience? That is a viable production strategy, of course, but it is unlikely to land you on the list of Oscar nominees because western audiences simply do not buy stories that are rich with Indian culture. Bollywood movies may be popular and lucrative in India, but they do not travel well. Again, note that “Ernest & Celestine ” , despite being a French production, is culturally neutral, featuring furry animals rather than humans in a story with universal elements.

3) How old is your intended audience? Resist the marketable assertion that you are “making a movie for the entire family”. Walt Disney did not make movies for the entire family. He made movies for kids and then charmed adults into seeing them also, on the grounds that there is “a child in all of us”. Today, the Big Three studios advertise that they are making movies for the entire family, but it really is not true. You do not tell a story to children the same way you tell it to adults because children have different points of reference. Pixar's “Up” is really two movies in one, for instance. The first half which deals mainly with the relationship between Carl and Ellie, is for adults. After Ellie dies and Carl goes to Paradise Valley with Russell the Wilderness Scout, “Up” becomes a movie for children, complete with talking dogs and chocolate-addicted big birds. The best strategy for an aspiring Indian producer is to limit the intended audience to either adults or children and then keep the budget down.

      4) Don't be afraid of international coproductions. As noted above, there is a talent deficit in India because the Indian educational system is not training entry-level animators adequately. It may be necessary to augment an India-based movie production with a la carte enlisted international talent. That is an appealingly humorous idea, when you stop to think about it, a reversal of what has been done to India for so long, with so much outsourcing work. Indian producers to be the creative nerve center, producing their movies with ensemble international talent, as needed. When India's talent pool starts rising to the skill level it ought to be, then rely more on India-based talent. In order to get through those open doors in Hollywood, it is only necessary that a movie originate in India. You can produce it any way that makes sense.

Last year, the biggest-budget feature animated Indian film, “Mahabharat”, was nearly laughed off the screen, which is not helpful for India's fragile animation self-esteem. One reviewer, Subbash K Jha, writing for Yahoo India, summed up his withering review

( animation-arrested-181620176.html) with this: “As for animation, I suggest Indian cinema leave it alone.” My advice: Tell Subbash K Jha to stick his head where the sun doesn't shine, and then set about making world-class Indian movies.

Ed Hooks Credit Line: Ed Hooks is the author of “Acting for Animators” and an internationally respected acting teacher. He was an acting consultant on the Indian hit film “Eega”, directed by S SRajamouli and is based in Hollywood. His personal website is
- by Ed Hooks