India’s burgeoning animation and special effects industry
Renowned for its elaborate Bollywood productions, the country is now looking to expand its big-screen repertoire by becoming more involved in animation and visual film production. The Jungle Book is one such recent example, Rebecca Bundhun writes
MUMBAI // India is moving towards playing a bigger role in the visual effects and animation sector of the movie industry.
It recently emerged that BR Shetty, the founder of UAE Exchange and NMC Healthcare in Abu Dhabi, is funding a 10 billion rupee (Dh571.6 million) production of The Mahabharata, touted as India’s biggest motion picture. The film will heavily rely on using the latest technology to bring the mythological epic of ancient India to life. “I loved the concept,” said Mr Shetty. “The Mahabharata is an epic of all epics. This movie will be a true ‘Make in India’ made for the world.”
The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian story that revolves around the battle for the throne of Hastinapura.
He adds he is confident “that this will be a very successful and landmark film in the history of filmmaking”.
The growth of India’s special effects and animation industry has largely being driven by its rise as “the back office” for Hollywood productions. US film companies are outsourcing work to India because of the lower costs, particularly in terms of labour.
Outsourced film projects to India last year included The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad.
The visual effects and post-production sector in India is expected to expand by 19 per cent a year over the next five years, according to KPMG.
But India’s creative input into such films has thus far been limited, with firms in India carrying out tasks in animation and special effects production to meet the specification of foreign companies. Indians also have yet to develop a substantial appetite for special effects in their movies, with the traditional Bollywood formula of romance, song, and dance still prevalent in the big hits that keep winning Indian audiences over, experts say. This means there are relatively few Indian animation and special effects-driven films at the box office. With films such as Mahabharata, however, India has an opportunity to show off its creativity when it comes to special effects.
“It does have potential do well because it is a mythological film which lends itself well to visual effects,” says Frank D’Souza, a partner and media and entertainment industry expert at PwC India. “It’s a matter of how much production costs go in and it needs a good star cast to be able to get the kind of openings it would need. From an overall budget perspective, [special effects productions] are extremely high cost ventures. Cinema admission costs are relatively low compared to the US, and even China, so it can be difficult to recover costs in India.”
He explains that Indian film using visual effects and animation set in the modern day have largely failed to gain resonance with Indian cinema-goers. But when producers create content out of Indian mythologies, it tends to have far greater success.
Baahubali, for example, a two-part fantasy movie set in ancient India which cost 4.3bn rupees to make, has proved a huge box office hit. The second part, released on Friday, grossed a record 1bn rupees at the box office on its first day.
And successful Indian films last year such as MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, about the Indian cricketer, had special effects components.
“Storytelling is getting enhanced by visual effects and mythological, historical, and fantasy genres have been growing in India and all these genres require a lot of visual effects to enhance the viewing experience, so we have seen a growth in locally produced visual effects content,” says Abhimanyu Singh, the chief executive of Contiloe, an award winning production house headquartered in Mumbai. “Earlier, as an industry in India we had a lot of work which was VFX work for hire [for foreign companies], but over a period of time it has become a local intellectual property industry.”
Akash Shukla is the co-founder of Circle Creation, which has had animation work, including cartoon animation and clay animation, outsourced to it by American studios. “Many Hollywood productions are executing in India to cut their cost,” he says. “India is really growing in terms of animation. India is one of the largest markets in terms of entertainment.”
Industry insiders estimate that India is about 30 per cent cheaper than America when it comes to the cost of working on visual effects and animation for movies.
Mr D’Souza says that growth of the industry will still primarily be driven by India’s back office work for overseas productions over the coming years.
“India is producing a significant amount of skill – although I wouldn’t necessarily say talent – where if specs are provided, there are people in India now who can produce a final product which is up to international standards,” he says.
But he explains that when it comes to creativity in special effects and animation, such as Indian artists abilities to create characters, India is lagging.
The Jungle Book, the 2016 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures, was one of very few instances “where the creation of the character, the expression and nuances, so the original character creation in terms of how they look, feel, talk, were also worked on in India”. The Bangalore studio of London-based visual effects company Moving Picture Company (MPC) worked on The Jungle Book, with MPC in February winning the Oscar in the visual effects category for its work on the movie.
But Mr D’Souza explains that The Jungle Book “was in essence an Indian story, so the mannerisms, tone and delivery was something which was closer to the Indian landscape, so we could do that better.”
He adds: “But if India had to do something like Frozen, where characters are not from the Indian culture, I think Indian artists would still struggle to create an original character”.
The Chinese film industry is “far ahead” of India in the use of “special effects and animation in respect of both storytelling and the creative aspects too”, Mr D’Souza says.
Those within the industry are optimistic that work will keep flowing into India, and that there remains enormous scope for India to play a bigger role globally in visual effects and animation for films.
“If you look at it, India will continue to service the industry outside because we are a cheaper destination, so that will continue to flourish,” says Mr Singh. “And secondly, because you have so many stories in India that can be told through the tool of animation, you will have more and more people using that tool and creating original intellectual property content. I think that’s bound to happen.”
He says that in terms of India supplying more creative content for Hollywood, “it will take a little while for India to have the resources to produce that kind of intellectual property in cinema and travel across and be competitive in that landscape”. But he believes it will happen.
“I do see in the future that with digitalisation happening, obviously geographical boundaries are getting blurred and India will be creating for a global market.”
There are people in India now who can produce a final product which is up to international standards Frank D’Souza Partner and media and entertainment industry expert at PwC India
The Bangalore studio of London-based visual effects company Moving Picture Company worked on last year’s The Jungle Book.
MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, a successful film about the Indian cricketer made last year, had special effects components.