Indian animation talent is the toast of Hollywood. But is this really good news for local content creation or is it just symptomatic of the outsourcing boom? Arun Katiyar reports from India.

In late October 2008, Yash Raj Films released Roadside Romeo, a big-budget 3D animation film made in India. The movie, which is a Walt Disney Pictures co-production, was animated at a division of India-based Tata Elxsi. For anyone familiar with the names involved, the implications were clear: the movie was to be a launchpad for the Indian animation business. Success here could spell vast changes in an industry which is already touching revenues of $15bn, large chunks of which are contributed by production houses in Hollywood, many of which are already outsourcing their animation and SFX work to India. But while this may seem to point to India’s next big outsourcing boom, from an industry maturity point of view it could, paradoxically, prove to be disastrous.

‘We need to stop being the animation and SFX back office for Hollywood and focus more on creatingour own IP’, says C Chetan, secretary of the Association of the Bangalore Animation Industry (ABAI) and managing director of ANTS, a school that trains a majority of the talent in the Indian animation industry.

In 2006, outsourced work accounted for almost 70% of the Indian animation industry’s revenues. Predictably some of the best international animated works for films, TV series and direct-to-DVDs in the past, such as The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Jack Frost, Jakers and Narnia, have been animated in India. Global production houses love the fact that India offers them the advantage of low-cost talent, excellent technicians, state-of-the-art equipment and software, a sense of humour and, critically, a workforce that is fluent in English. US-based animators cost, on average, $125 per hour; in India, that figure is more like $25.

Attracting the talent pool
But, these economic realities have led to a peculiar situation: Indian animation artists don’t want to work for Indian productions that have typically low budgets and comparatively mediocre production qualities. Instead, they would rather receive the fatter fee and kudos that comes with working for Hollywood films. Unless local productions offer better compensation, therefore, talent is not going to be available.

According to current estimates, India currently employs about 30,000 trained personnel across 300 animation companies but the demand is for 10 fold the numbers in order to be able to tap the full potential of the animation market. With such a dearth of talent, the cream quickly migrates towards the high-paying outsourced jobs.

‘While the Indian movie business is big, it hasn’t captured the world market’, says Rahul Bakshi, co-producer of a recent 2-D animation film called Dashavatar with a GB £875,000 budget. ‘As a consequence, no one is willing to bet large money on an Indian animation film. Indian talent is therefore stuck doing Hollywood productions’. It’s a vicious cycle: Indian production houses don’t have the experience in pre-production which is so critical to quality animation films and is therefore unable to create its own quality content. Bakshi’s film, Dashavatara, which is about the 10 avatars of Vishnu, a God from the vast Indian pantheon of divinity, is trying to create experience needed in pre-production. He hopes he now has the talent to handle more ambitious productions and is already working on a fantasy film.

Other Indian productions houses are also slated to launch local productions. Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC), India’s first corporate production house, has plans for a couple of full-length 3D animated films and has signed a $25-million deal with Florida-based animation company Motion Pixel Corp. PNC is innovating around animation and placing its bets on remixing local content, much like what is happening to Bollywood songs on MTV.

‘The first kind of animation film we are working on are films based on our own films, taken miles forward’, says Pritish Nandy, one of the country’s better known newspaper editors and poet turned film producer. ‘So you have the characters from the live action version and then you see them in an animation movie doing far more exciting things on a far bigger scale. So Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena (our film) becomes EKEH Version 2.0 with the same cast on a much bigger scale, in a different format, different context.’ As if that was not enough, PNC is animating classic Bollywood cinema. Says Nandy: ‘The second kind of film we are making are the classics, now in animation. We start with Sholay and Howrah Bridge, both iconic films. We are trying to give them a contemporary feel and take them way ahead for the new generation of viewers who have heard of these films but can barely relate to their idiom and grammar. Our efforts will not only contemporanise these films and give them a new lease of life but they will also offer the new generation of viewers an insight into the old classics and what made them tick. They cannot get this insight by watching the originals in slow black and white.’

A growing sector
Innovation around content is bound to get a boost. Besides cinema-going audiences, there are already six television channels and several direct-to-DVD makers hungry for local content. By 2010, the domestic market for fully animated movies is likely to match that of the offshore demand. According to a National Association for Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) study, the local animation industry is forecast to reach $869m by 2010, representing a CAGR of 25% over 2006-2010.

With such a bright future, the case for developing local human capital has grown stronger. India has several training institutes that cater to the demand of training animation professionals including the National Institute of Design, JJ School of Arts, Zee Institute of Creative Arts, Industrial Design Center, IIT Guwahati in addition to about 20 private training institutes. But problems persist. ‘Animation does not have an industry status’, laments Chetan. ‘This means students cannot raise bank loans for education fees even though they may wish to take to animation as a profession.’ But this could change as the Karnataka Government, a southern state of India, is taking steps to recognise the industry by the end of 2008.

For the moment, the investments have begun to come in. According to NASSCOM, IL&FS has invested approximately $6.7m in the animation business, ILabs has invested $350m in several companies including DQ Entertainment which has also received $3m from the International Finance Corporation. Kreeda Games and Games2Win are other examples of companies that have funding from IDG Ventures India, SoftBank China and Clearstone Venture Partners. According to Kenneth Desai, an actor in the Hindi film industry and a graduate of the National School of Drama who lends his voice to an animated television series called Krishna, the change is starting to show. ‘The balance between the dubbing work I did for Disney cartoons is shifting to local productions. But we are still a long way off from being an independent mature animation industry.’ Can Roadside Romeo change that?

Image: Inga Loyev: