India’s Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage

India’s Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage


Requests for animation and VFX projects have increased significantly, as live-action production has been more severely hit by the lockdown

Primarily driven by outsourced work and kids-centric content, animation and VFX studios are also cashing in on the higher demand for content from OTT platforms

But the biggest hurdle for the industry is the high cost of production and star-led profitability models in mainstream cinema. Will the lockdown open up the market for animation?

This week, Netflix paid for a new hoarding in LA — “You Will Work Again In This Town”, it said, in contrast to the oft-repeated threat of banishment from Hollywood. The video streaming giant used those words in solidarity to show that it can feel the pain of out-of-work production crews and artists in the US. The Indian entertainment industry too has suffered from the lockdowns and pandemic measures.

But the show must go on, and content creators, production houses and filmmakers around the world are using this unprecedented moment to tell their stories in a different way. Animated content, VFX stories and mixed media are making a comeback in a big way in 2020 — Covid-19 might finally bring animation to more audiences and go beyond kids’ stories.

In India, the animation industry often flies under the radar, but much of the world’s biggest animated movies and action-packed blockbusters pass through India thanks to it being a major outsourcing hub. For over the last two decades, visual effects and animation studios dotted around Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Trivandrum, and Hyderabad have been putting the finishing touches on Hollywood mega projects. For instance, the India office of Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues, acquired by Prana Studios in 2013, delivered a majority of the visual effects in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning ‘Life of Pi’ released in 2012. Soho-headquartered Moving Picture Company outsourced the majority of the visual effects work for ‘Jungle Book’ released in 2016 to its Bengaluru office.

The dragons on the global phenomenon ‘Game Of Thrones’ (GoT) were created by around 800 animators in an Indian subsidiary of LA-based Prana Studios, in Mumbai’s Goregaon suburb. Prana is a 3D, visual effects and animation company backed by Indian investors including Reliance chairman Mukesh Ambani and Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra. It also created the set and crowd extensions through VFX and CGI work in the fifth season of GoT.

India's Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage

Around 60% of the animation work done in India constitutes backend work as well as finishing touches and colouring for global studios, according to the animators and studios that Inc42 spoke to. And while the work in India majorly revolves around kids’ animated content for OTT platforms and mainstream TV, storyboards for advertising, 2D and 3D animation for logos, portraits, banner ads, among others, the segment is growing in adoption even for mainstream non-kids’ content on digital media platforms.

The global animation industry is set to cross the INR 20K Bn ($270 Bn) in 2020. It is estimated that the worldwide 3D animation market size will be INR 2K Bn ($26.8 Bn) by the end of the year 2022. And, the Indian animation and VFX industry is catching up well too. It grew at a CAGR of 18.60% between FY17 and FY18 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 15.50% during 2018-2023. Growth in international animation films, especially 3D productions and the subsequent work for Indian production houses will help the growth in this segment, says IBEF 2019 report.

Lockdown Tales: Outsourcing And Kids Driving Demand

With over 2,000 estimated animation and graphic studios in India that are catering to the global demand, this is big business and attracts major revenue for the national exchequer thanks to the international nature of the transactions. Additionally, students with an animation degree have also been able to get placed in leading companies across the globe.

In fact, even as the production of new live-action shows and movies across the world comes to a standstill, Indian animators are continuing to work round the clock.

India's Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage

In the last decade, world’s major animation companies such as Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky studios expanded their presence globally and much of the jaw-dropping special effects in ‘Skyfall’, ‘Shrek’, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and the Avengers franchise and ‘The Shape of Water’ were outsourced from India. And, despite Covid-19, the show goes on for the animators working on global projects. In fact, if anything business has gone up.

“Requests for animation projects have definitely increased, as live-action production has been more severely hit by the lockdown. On the other hand, the medium of animation allows you to create the entire world out of your imagination,” Vaibhav Kumaresh, an animation filmmaker and founder, director at Vaibhav Studios, Mumbai told Inc42.

Vaibhav Studios was founded in 2003 and has worked on ad campaigns as well as properties for Channel [V] and Emmy-nominated shows for Cartoon Network. The studio is currently working on its maiden Hindi animated feature film titled ‘Return of the Jungle’.

India's Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage

During the lockdown, besides the outsourcing work, the demand for kids content from video OTT players also continues to be high. For instance, Zee5 India, which launched Zee5 Kids recently in April 2020, onboarded leading production houses like Lionsgate and Cosmos Maya for exclusive content looking at the surge. Disney+ Hotstar also recently commissioned 234 episodes of ‘Selfie With Bajrangi’ and ShemarooMe will be launching three cartoon shows this month, mostly created by animators from their homes during the lockdown.

Within the kids’ segment, there have been many theatrical releases in India as well. From the likes of Alibaba, directed by Usha Ganesarajah in 2002 to ‘Hanuman’ in 2004 to ‘Chhota Bheem’ and the ‘Curse Of Damyaan’, an average of three to seven movies every year for the past two decades have been in the animated genre. In addition, OTT platforms and television channels have lapped up kids animated content as well. The most popular ones include ChuChu TV (YouTube channel), ‘Motu Patlu’, ‘Chhota Bheem’, ‘Kisna’ among others. ‘Lamput’, which is the Cartoon Network show created by Vaibhav Studios, is also a great example of quality Indian animation targeted at children that have tastes similar to the global audience.

In May 2020, Netflix too launched three animated series – ‘Bal Ganesh’, ‘Akbar Birbal’ and ‘TreeHouse Tales’, created by Shemaroo Entertainment which are now streaming worldwide. The 13-episode series focusses on popular fictional characters, mythological tales and the tradition of fables that India is known for.

“We have been working with animators remotely. They have the machines and the software. Scripts are shared and discussed on a video call. The storyboard artists do their work and a good internet is all is needed to share it. Voiceovers also happen simultaneously, So, basically, animation remote work is a well-oiled machine. We have more things in the pipeline,” Smita Maroo, senior vice president, animation license & merchandise, Shemaroo Entertainment told Inc42.

The Cost Of Animation

Animated content is largely perceived as something for children, more so in India than other markets, where adults make a big audience for animated content, be it movies or small screens. For instance, ‘The Simpsons’, which has won countless awards over the decades, is a cultural touchstone in the US. ‘South Park’, ‘Rick & Morty’ and other shows have defined points in time in US history through their clever storytelling and animated fun.

“Indian urban adult audience is consuming international animation like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Rick & Morty’. In India, nobody is creating or trying content for adults. If you look at smaller towns, individual creators are delivering rudimentary 3D animations that are seeing a reasonable uptick. So, basically we realised a year ago that there is a demand for animation across all age groups,” said Pocket Aces founder Ashwin Suresh.

The Indian market does not have the same pedigree and even shows meant for adults end up being slightly grown-up versions of the same kids’ shows. Within theatrical releases, the few popular names would include ‘Kochadaiyaan’, ‘Ramayana: The Epic’ and ‘Lava Kusa: The Warrior Twins’ released in 2010 and ‘Chaar Sahibzaade’, a 2014 Punjabi historical drama.

“The lack of filmmakers interested in using animation as a medium of storytelling is causing a dearth of quality content in animation. A majority of Indian studios in animation do not focus on content creation. They work as a backend outsourcing partner for the foreign content creators. And the few who can make animated content cannot sustain themselves just doing animated content for the local market as the pricing is not at par with live-action content,” Suresh Eriyat, founder and creative director, Studio Eeksaurus told Inc42.

Eriyat has won the National Film Award for the best non-feature animation film for ‘Tuk-Tuk’ and ‘Tokri’.

In other countries, animated content costs almost twice as much to produce as live-action content due to the many layers involved in the production. But Indian producers are not ready to risk these big amounts for animation work and thus the market looks for cheap ways to get things done. This is most noticeable in the quality of animation work in India — the irony is that the world’s biggest movies use Indian VFX talent but Bollywood movies often try to pitch themselves as international with expensive productions and shoddily executed visual effects.

The same can be said for animated content as well. Indian producers are just not willing to pay for it unless there are big names attached such as Rajinikanth or Shah Rukh Khan, who drew large budgets for movies such as the ‘Robot’ franchise, ‘RA.One’ and ‘Kochadaiyaan’. Even then the success of these films is not due to the quality of visual effects but the star names attached to the film.

“Animation is largely perceived as something meant for kids. So, not many full-time OTT content creators for adults get into the space,” said Aparna Acharekar, programming head, Zee5 India.

The industry’s leading players acknowledge more is possible, but at the moment the sensible money is being invested in kids-oriented content. “We have always been an outsourcing hub. 15 years ago, at Shemaroo we thought we need to break out and bring out original content capabilities into animation also. However, we had to start with children as that is the only way to introduce animation. That is how we created ‘Bal Ganesh’, ‘Hanuman’ etc. It is a huge mindset issue,” added Shemaroo’s Maroo.

Animated content costs up to INR 2,000 – INR 10,000 per second. So a fully animated series or movie is considered a huge risk. Which is why VFX-driven works and merged animation is being used more frequently in India.

Will Baahubali Have A Say?

Baahubali is the closest thing to a global VFX success from India, and it’s widely acknowledged as a very expensive film due to the VFX-based storytelling. While it’s not exactly animated content, the franchise showed what India can achieve with the right mindset.

Baahubali’s VFX was done by Hyderabad-based Makuta Visual Effects studio. “The ‘Baahubali’ effect, as I like to call it, has opened up new doors for the VFX industry, making it more acceptable and adopted more often by the film industry,” said Riya Dhoundiyal, cofounder & COO, Art Attack Animation.

India's Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage
“Some recent movies like ‘Tanhaji’ also used a lot of VFX. The outlook seems promising as more and more productions help usher in a new wave of VFX adoption in Indian cinema. The Covid situation may provide the industry with an opportunity to prove its mettle as travel restrictions and other preventive safety measures like social distancing won’t go away that quick,” added Dhoundiyal.

Like Bollywood studios and producers, OTT platforms have also started experimenting with VFX and merged animation (bits of animation mixed with live-action) for adult-oriented content instead of going into fully animated shows. This also reduces the cost, while testing the waters for non-live-action work.

“You have to start step by step. Before jumping completely into animation, which will be too expensive, we can try it as a background or to fill in gaps,” Uday Sodhi, former business head of SonyLIV told Inc42.

The VFX has been seeing more takers, as seen in the feature film space. OTT is changing the perception of viewers towards newer styles of content. “Animation and visual effects did not work on TV as ROI was not high. But with the advent of OTT platforms, the scenario has changed a lot. More focus is now on the quality of content than ad revenues and cost of production like in the world of TV,” said Dhoundiyal.

India's Animation & VFX Players Come To The Fore As Pandemic Rules Take Centre-Stage


ALTBalaji claims that VFX has always been an important element in getting more content for the masses.

“We have learnt over time that its effects are best seen when used on the right script at the correct moment. One of the biggest examples was our horror show where taking innovation a notch higher, we also introduced an industry-first stereoscopic 3D 360-degree virtual reality (VR) narrative for ‘Ragini MMS Returns Season 2’,” Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji and group COO, Balaji Telefilms told us.

ALTBalaji also claims to have used VFX extensively for the production of ‘Mission Over Mars’, a show about planets and space travel, horror show ‘BOOO… Sabki Phategi’, crime drama ‘Verdict: State Vs Nanavati’, as well as ‘Galti se Mis-tech’ and ‘Cybersquad’.

The OTT Boost For Animation

According to Utkarsh Sinha, managing director of Bexley Advisors, this is a good time for animators in India and a unique opportunity. “I have been talking to Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video and almost all major players and all of them are hungry for new content. Animation can definitely step in to fill the gaps in terms of content. The traditional media has not been an animation content driven market. And this brings a brief window of opportunity for Indian animators.”

Indeed, some of the leading OTT players in India including ZEE5, Shemaroo, ALT Balaji and Pocket Aces are more open to using VFX to fill in the gaps if need arises.

“With unpredictable times ahead, merging VFX would be an option. For instance, if you are going to make a war sequence, you will actually prefer visual effects over 100 people on sets,” said ZEE5’s Acharekar. She also added that ZEE5 has started looking at scripts closely and in a different way to accommodate new ways of shoots.

With VFX, the process itself is a mixture of creativity and technology, software. Even though it is a complex production process and everything has to come together, each person can operate on their machines, work from home and then created parts can be transferred through hard disks or over the internet. This has allowed studios and creators to pivot to VFX and animation where production was not possible.

US crime drama ‘The Blacklist’ turned to special effects and introduced animation within live-action scenes in the season finale this month after the coronavirus lockdown stopped the crew from filming. “Those who have not added new episodes to existing shows, will be first to invest in VFX as new episodes will be the topmost priority now,” added Maroo.

Using the prowess of cutting edge VFX in the execution of projects, shows can be shot within the confines of a studio instead of going on to locations with a whole production army. If it is already shot on a green screen or even if not shot, VFX can help complete the show.

Though the video OTT industry has gained tremendously during the pandemic, the budgets are expected to get tighter and travelling from one country to another is not going to be as easy as it was six months ago. “The Covid-19 situation may provide the industry with an opportunity to prove its mettle as travel restrictions and other preventive safety measures like social distancing won’t go away that quick,” added Dhoundiyal.

Necessity is the mother of invention as Covid-19 has shown. OTT platforms will definitely turn to animated content to meet demand from local audiences. Digital entertainment company Pocket Aces recently forayed into animation with ‘Jambo’ – a desi-animation channel for young adults. The platform will have a library of snackable animated videos that resonates with young adult audiences in the Hindi-belt across Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand & Madhya Pradesh. The channel released a desi-animation comedy web-series, ‘Namooney’, on YouTube starting from 16th May 2020.

“If I was running an OTT platform, it is a no brainer for me. I would invest capital and can run it for many years. VFX offers amazing production value and it’s easy to scale. Once OTT players sit up and take notice of this new form, we will start selling content to them,” said Pocket Aces’ Suresh.

To make a large animation franchise is a big investment and not an easy thing to get in. The viability of creating something as good as Hollywood animated content is low. The big question for Indian animators and studios is achieving the same scale and quality at a reasonable cost.

According to Suresh, since one doesn’t need physical production, the budget for an animated film is fixed more or less, which is a huge advantage. “Production value can stay constant whether two people are talking from their living room or it’s an airplane sequence. Animation is amazing from a cost perspective. And you can exaggerate storytelling without stretching the budget and thus it makes sense to invest in this,” he said.

However, according to Studio Eeksaurus’ Eriyat and other animators, the lockdown and the potential of animation does not automatically mean growth in animated content. “Animation is time-consuming as well as expensive. However, I agree that the OTT medium is definitely a more liberating medium for storytellers as compared to TV or theatrical releases, as there’s less censorship. OTT is a promising medium for original storytellers and content creators,” said Vaibhav Studios’ Kumaresh.

Netflix’s shows such as The Crown and Stranger Things cost INR 75 Cr and INR 60 Cr per episode, respectively. For Indian OTT players, taking a leap of faith to put in so much money will take some time. Art Attack’s Dhoundiyal says the industry has to change its unit economics model to cash in on India’s massive presence in the animation industry. “I blame lack of good original content and the movie business dynamics which focuses only on how to churn out one blockbuster after another without taking any risks and sticking to the formula.”

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