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Issue of April 2006 

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Riding the animation wave

A K Madhavan, CEO, Crest Animation Studios, on how his company is meeting international standards

A K Madhavan

The 3D CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) animation industry has come of age in the last 11 years. It all started in 1995 when Pixar released its first CGI animation movie, Toy Story. Currently, 3D CGI is used extensively in special effect movies including The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution.

Crest Animation is the first Indian animation studio in this space to compete with international studios. Its US-based subsidiary RichCrest Animation (RCA) is co-producing and co-financing, along with Lions Gate Entertainment, to create three state-of-the-art animated feature films for Hollywood including Sylvester and the Magic Pebble based on a story written by the creator of Shrek.

Sunrise Segment

Animation is a new industry in India. The country possesses the necessary skill-sets and expertise to provide quality 3D CGI animation and can compete with international studios and digital animation production houses in the US. Animations made by Crest are shown on international TV networks such as PBS, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon on a regular basis. Crest has won a Bafta award and received an Annie nomination for the best animation TV production for children. The Indian animation industry is coming of age not only in India but even in the international arena.

IT In Animation

Two things are of utmost importance for an animation production house. The first is creative competence and the second is IT competence. The entire business model needs IT.

We are a digital production facility. Creative skills are applied on a digital medium. Nothing can be done without a proper IT set-up in place.

In order to compete with the best global digital animation houses, it is necessary to deploy state-of-the-art hardware and software. If they use Apple Power Mac G5, 10 gigabit switches and 64-bit Nocona architecture for compositing, we too have to use a similar configuration.

Right IT Infrastructure

There are a many factors which go into deciding the IT infrastructure. Though state-of-the-art hardware, software and networking solutions are critical, they are evaluated depending on what is most suitable for the quality of output required by the client. The animation studio utilises these solutions and equipment to create the desired outputs. The end-users are children who watch the final product on Cartoon Network or other TV channels, on a DVD or at the theatre.

Human Input

A major challenge faced while setting up and running an international-standard animation studio in India is the human skillset. There are no schools or universities, or even training programmes exclusively for animation. There are some good art schools which give degrees in the fine arts, but they are not tuned to animation. Thus, skillsets are a major entry barrier.

Another challenge is huge and constant capital requirements. Technology keeps changing, so there is a need to constantly update the hardware and software. At Crest, we get trainers from the US and Canada to train our staff and help them understand the current trends in animation in the world market. This ensures that the output is on par with the acceptable levels for international standards, especially Hollywood.

Yet another challenge is how to optimise the CPU power of the servers and IT infrastructure. Plug-ins, proprietary software available with vendors, or in-house software help in resolving this issue. Processes such as rendering use a lot of CPU power. At times even 250 blades or CPUs are not enough—especially for hair or cloth dynamics. A program can be written to splice a particular frame. When the CPU is free, that particular frame can be rendered.

Software professionals are engaged to write programs, scripts, routines to address and resolve issues. Such solutions are a combination of the right mix of hardware and software, and it is based on research done by the in-house IT team. There are around 15 people doing research on network, rendering or compositing-based solutions.

Role Of IT

The CIO and the IT team have to do research and know about the latest technology available in the animation industry space.

IT is also critical from the production process perspective. The client in the US provides the storyboards or paper scribbles. The idea is first converted into character models, set models, backgrounds, and textures. The models are then pictured, clothed, animated and composited. This is followed by optimum lighting.

Information is required at every stage because each process in a project has a start and an end date. If there is a backlog then more resources in terms of manpower or machine power or software plugins have to be allocated to the project. Hence, status information of the production process at each stage is critical. The production pipeline cannot function without constant feedback from each vertical department. The IT department ensures that proprietary software providing status reports is constantly up and running.

Reporting Structure

Compared to other industries, the entertainment industry is flexible and informal. However, the project works in a structured manner. The studio provides services for three different formats. The first is the TV series, the second is direct-to-home/ videos/DVDs, and the last is feature films.

Once the sensibility or complexity of a particular show is known, a project structure can be worked out. The core team includes a project head, creative director, technical director, animation supervisor, background lead supervisor, animation lead and composing lead on the show. Each one of them is responsible for their verticals including the modelling head or background head or composting head. They report to the project head. You also have an executive or line producer for each show. This is the typical hierarchy for a particular project, but it keeps changing depending on the complexity of the show or the project. The heads of the departments report to the CEO. For any hardware or software issues they interact with the technology head. The IT team and resources are common to all projects.

Capital Intensive

The organisation is dependent on the CIO for critical information. The CIO and the IT team constantly update themselves in terms of products, programs and technology available globally. For each vertical, a 3D animation can be made using software like Maya, XSI or 3D studio Max.

IT provides valuable insights into which software is best for lighting or rendering a particular scene, or what hardware and software combination we should use for projects heavy on special effects. The CIO i s involved in deliberating whether the organisation should buy the required solution or outsource the work. For instance, compositing can be online or offline. Some of the products for online compositing cost from Rs 35 lakh to few crore for each standalone workstation. Hence a CIO not only has to know the best technology but also make it available to the organisation at a reasonable price.

Justifying Investments

Budgeting is an elaborate exercise based on many factors. There is constant interaction between the finance, marketing and IT departments. They keep questioning each other in terms of justification of investment and where else a particular product or software can be used.

If the investment is large, it has to be amortised over a period of time. It is not economically viable to buy a product for a single transaction—it must be utilised for many projects. Measurement of RoI boils down to man-hours used. However, the number of people deployed varies from project to project as no two projects are the same.

Addressing Security Issues

Since animation primarily deals with software, security concerns from the data perspective are possible. There is also growing concern due to people leaving the organisation and joining competitors, hence there is a need to protect copyrights and proprietary work. We have a home-grown practice to make sure that accessibility to our network is based on multi-firewall protection. We also provide daily backups and external backups.

There are multiple documentation processes involved in ensuring efficient knowledge management. Storyboards, director notes, retake notes, notes from different creative personnel (within the organisation) and the client are available. The animation process is not driven by individuals; it is a collective team deployment, so if a couple of people from a particular project leave they are not able to take creative data from the organisation.

Opportunity For India

Outsourcing animation to India will increase because it has the proven capability and credibility to deliver quality products at low cost. Recently, animation in India has become a family entertainer and is not confined to children. The success of Hanuman is a clear sign that Indian products are accepted by the entire family. India will mature as a market for DVDs, direct-to-home videos, gaming, merchandising dolls and toys in the next decade.

Animation is a global product with a long shelf life. Popeye, Mickey, Donald and Winnie the Pooh were created in 1920s and 30s. They do not face language barriers and are being shown in China, Russia and Japan.

If India can make Jataka tales or the Ramayana with the global market’s sensibilities in mind, then there will be great demand. It will be distributed by Universal, Fox, Paramount or Disney. The designs have to be good and accepted worldwide. The background, the look and feel must be of an acceptable standard. If we can do these things then our stories can make money. Making state-of-the-art animations only for the Indian market may become a reality few years down the line when there is more active participation from the distribution network and producers.

As told to Kumar Dawada

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