VFX Is animation, in India or anywhere else in the world, primarily driven by technology or by human talent? -

Is animation, in India or anywhere else in the world, primarily driven by technology or by human talent?

CgA World 2004 : Full text of the keynote address delivered by veteran animator and TASI India president Ram Mohan.

Just a few weeks ago, on the 29th of April, to be precise- the Economic Times carried an article on the current status of the Indian Animation Industry. It was a short, incisive piece that enumerated quite a few reasons why the animation industry in India has not performed as well it was initially expected to do.

“This industry segment is beset with problems” says the author, “size & scale, lack of global presence and marketing muscle, low margins, cut- throat competition, time and quality issues, low supply of quality trained animators/ artists and engineers, low entry barriers etc.” These were some of the reasons mentioned in the report for the animation industry not sealing up and making its presence felt globally.

To quote the author again:
“The Indian animation sector seems to be a laggard, while its better off cousins IT services and BPO firms- continue to consolidate their scale reach and focus, and continue to create ripples in the global market”. He concludes “Animation is one IT- based sector that India hasn’t been able to make a dent in”.

The presumption in this article is that animation (like BPO’s, call centers and such) is an IT Based industry. Is this a valid assumption? Is animation IT based? Is animation, in India or anywhere else in the world, primarily driven by technology or by human talent? It may seem quite inappropriate, even blasphemous, for me to say this is the contest of an event like CgA World which virtually celebrates technology.

I have always looked upon Animation primarily as an Art form that is People driven.
More than 4 decades ago, when I first received my training in the animation, the techniques and tools we used were pretty much basic – we had paper, and pencil, and a wooden light box on which we drew by hand, hour after hour, day after day with a great deal of care and diligence, hundreds of drawings which finally added up to a few seconds of screen time.

“What kept me and my fellow animators going through this arduous painstaking exercise was not technology, but our passionate commitment to this magical medium.

For an animator, there is no greater thrill than to have a character that he has himself created, drawn by hand, sculpted out of clay or pixels, or put together with paper cutouts, – come alive and perform on the screen. Technology is secondary. The only technological interface we needed to capture the images or film was the rostrum camera, a cine camera triggered by a stepper motor capable of photographing the artwork one frame at a time.

Everything else was manual. The drawings were hand made, traced on celluloid sheets and painted by hand, placed against hand painted backgrounds on the rostrum and exposed. Even the camera operations such as pans and zooms were done in calibrated moves controlled by hand-cranks.

Come to think of it, it was perhaps just as well that we were by and large, not technology dependent during those three decades of deprivation – the nineteen sixties, seventies and the eighties – those were the years of shortages, export controls, import restrictions – The license permit raj was at its heights. Imports of essentials like acetate celluloid sheets and cartoon colors were banned. I remember filling innumerable forms in triplicate and quadruplicate for even a small 400ft piece of color negative, and then waiting for weeks and finally buying left-over pieces of negatives from fellow producers at black market prices.

Innovation helped us survive – in place of acetate cells we used polyester sheets. We mixed Fevicol with poster colors to make them adhere to the plastic surface. Even our cameras were locally fabricated contraptions, held together, literally, with paper clips and rubber bands.

Yes – innovation helped us survive – but that’s just about all we did – SURVIVE, on the verge of possible extinction. Fortunately the winds of economic liberalization began to blow in the early nineties. Import restrictions began to be lifted, tax barriers went down, and then – the great tidal wave of digital technology washed over us all. Animation became once again a viable option – not only just for individual animators but to an entire nascent industry.

I was at that time, running my own little studio, Ram Mohan Biographics, which had somehow survived the hard times, and was one of the earliest to switch to digital ink and paint – investing in a license for a digital ink and paint software – Animo. It was a GOD SEND. No more messy painting of hundreds of cells by hand, a pallet of millions of colors to choose from. No limits to the number of layers at the composition stage.

The only constraint was that the output was for video – (recording on film was of course possible, but the process was expensive and cumbersome.) however, since most of the work we did was for TV commercials, output on videos was exactly what we needed. Soon other clients like UNICEF, who normally preferred 35 or 16 meter film for delivering their social communication programs, also switched to video – and digital ink and paint became the widely accepted norm for animation production.

It wasn’t long before large studios equipped with digital ink, paint and compositing software, readied themselves to take on long format, large volume, episodic work outsourced from North America and Europe.

Easy access to digital software, ready availability of computer literates, hastily trained operators to operate them, uniformly give rise to a faulty perception: that all u needed to set up an animation studio was computer technology. This led to the categorization of animation as an IT based Industry. The importance of the other components needed in animation production, human creativity and hand skills was often overlooked or undervalued. There were some who even claimed that advanced technology would soon eliminate the need for trained artists, and anyone could become an animator.

When I joined hands with UTV in 1997 to set up UTV Toons, the first thing we did was to set up a training program for animation artists. We selected candidates who had an art school education, and put them through a rigorous six month full time course in the fundamentals of animation. We absorbed the best of them into the production process.

On an average it took a talented youngster two to three years to reach a level of competence expected of a professional animator internationally. It is frightening therefore to see some of the so called animation institutes luring young boys, girls into quickie courses of 3 to 4 months at exorbitant fees, putting them through the standard software manual tutorials and then issuing a certificate declaring them trained animators. With the ever increasing number of young people wishing to take up animation as a career, it is high time animation training is taken seriously by both the industry and educators.

At the risk of repeating myself, ‘ad nauseum’. I must once again appeal for fully dedicated animation academies, supported by the government and by interest groups within the industry. The West Bengal government in collaboration with Toonz Animation of Trivandrum has already set up such an institute ‘Toonz Webel Academy’ in Kolkatta.
(Animation Express Input – The institute opens formally on 5 June)

A laudable step in the right direction which I hope other states and other studios would emulate in major cities right across the country. We need a number of these centers of excellence where talents both in terms of artistic creativity and technologies innovation are identified, numbered and synergized to bring forth animation professionals of the highest quality.

Animation happens to be are of these rare fields of human activity where Art and Science work together in harmonious symbiosis. The first wave of digital technology, applied to animation, liberated it from the tedium of hand traced, hand painted cells and the cumbersome operations of the rostrum camera.

The second wave of technology brought to animation a new from of creative expression, computer generated imaging, that eliminated such slow laborious processes as clean up and in betweening. With each innovative step forward digital technology is bringing the animation film maker closer to his ideal state in which, freed from the slow, laborious conventional production processes, the artist can focus on concepts, designs, storytelling, histrionics and choreography.

Animation, to me is still an art form driven by human creativity. But today it is technology that sustains it, helps it survive and grow, it is technology that empowers its value worldwide.

Welcome ladies & gentlemen to that world of technology at CgA World.