Thursday, September 25, 2008

Indian animation - the hype and the hope.

For about ten years running, especially since the .com boom, we've been hearing and reading about the next big thing - the boom of the Indian animation industry. We've seen innumerous conferences, birth of new companies, announcements, and rosy projections. Advertisements for courses in animation scream at us even in small towns. So, what's the deal?

A little bit of study of the numbers, starting from India's "commendable" 2
nd place in the global entertainment marketplace, will tell you the real story - we don't even have 5% of the market share, while the first place holder, the USA, has 87%. Then go on into what percentage of our entertainment business is animation and you will have made a good start in understanding what the hype is really not about. We will let some sharp business magazine do the math and tell you what exactly the numbers indicate.

But, what is the hype really based on? It is usually about how much the Indian animation industry has "grown". Never will you hear mentioned that this growth rate from infancy is hardly sustainable, and that many players will inevitably be pushed to extinction, and you will hardly hear it mentioned in any seriousness that most Indian animation companies don't have a basic understanding of what it takes to be a commendable name in this very global business environment.

We have thousands of engineers coming out of our institutions every year. We have respect for "technical" education. Where have we made that kind of investment on artists? The simple answer is - we haven't! And in all probability, we won't. India doesn't take "art" as serious business. Our belief is that we should study something that can to secure a "job" and have the best options for a safe life. So, we push and shove our children towards engineering, and medicine, and to some extent towards law and other sciences, but you will hardly ever see anybody pushing their child towards being an "artist" of any kind, unless of course one of the parents happens to be an artist.

Through this powerful filter, some of us do survive, and the animation industry would be very lucky if it picks up some of this talent. The film industry on the other hand, thankfully, is its own animal, and has enough steam to constantly put out the numbers if not the quality. It too suffers from lack of true artists, but it is able to survive because of a consumer base that is still largely forgiving of lousy cinema in the face of lack of alternative entertainment.

Animation, on the other hand, has enormously longer shelf life compared to live action. Years after geniuses at MGM produced Tom and Jerry, later generations continue to enjoy the show. So, our animation companies are not only in competition with the best the rest of the world is producing, it is in competition with everything that has ever been produced! In other words, if we don't produce
path breaking animation content, we are not going to do very well.

In order to produce
path breaking content, we need true artists. When we look for true artists, we have engineers coming to our animation schools, with an "interest" in animation, because somewhere we have told them that it takes some kind of "technical" skill to work in computer animation. Some institutions go far enough to "train" this pool of technical talent to be artists! It takes years and years of intense training to understand some of the fundamentals of art in any form. And we have 1 year courses that claim to put our animators on par with the best in the world!!!??

The arrogance of such claims must be questioned at all levels, especially when some of them are blatant lies - for example, "Work in studios like
Pixar and Disney!" Hello? There aren't any such studios in India, and you sure won't get a job in any such studio just because you did a course! Indian Animation schools for most part, simply mislead people. They are all tool schools, not craft schools. The problem starts much earlier. Our children cannot even sketch half as well as American children can. It is true that our children are better at mathematics and spelling and science, but when it comes to drawing the simplest expressive character, the American child excels, while the Indian child is seriously crippled. This is how basic our problem is. The talent pool that comes out of American art schools is tremendous. They are not tool users like our engineers who have done their one year "Post Graduate" diplomas in computer animation! They are artists who can learn any tool to create their art.

Then, the marriage of cinema and animation - a very necessary marriage but heavily overlooked in India. Indian animation companies seem to have the blind arrogance to think they can make animated movies without any cinematic training being imparted to their artists. That is why you can see really tacky cinema sense in the Indian animation content, made by clueless tool users who are neither artists nor trained in the very basics of cinema. They just have no idea! (Not that their counterparts in the live action world are blessed with comprehensive knowledge)

Into this potent mix of ignorance, you can throw in lack of quality leadership. There is not even one Indian animation company that is headed by an artist of any repute. Standing in the way is our exaggerated reverence for formal education. Senior management in animation companies are wasting their time and their company's resources if they have no fundamental understanding of art. Art has several components that are not measurable using the same scales used to measure other mathematically representable talents. No matter what you believe as a leader and manager, you cannot manage what you do not have!

Most of the time you will hear this completely unnecessary comparison with the IT industry and somehow we are supposed to imagine that just because a few lines of code writing can be outsourced to India, so can art? Why does an organization like NASSCOM even allow the animation industry to be under its purview at all? This is animation, it is art, and artists use computer software to bring about imagery. How is this process that of a software industry player at all? This stupidity must end or the cinema industry must also be included under NASSCOM if software is software and the cinema industry also uses computers for various purposes! See how ridiculous this gets?

It is because of this fundamental mix up that we don't have our attitude set right about growing the animation industry. This is not a BPO, this is not the IT industry that can outsource donkey's work to others who have similar donkeys! How likely is an Indian temple to commission a Filipino sculptor because he is willing to work at a cheaper rate? The same level of mistrust is bound to find ground when it comes to great
IPs being trusted in the hands of Indian animation companies. Right now, the average Indian animation company just doesn't cut it anywhere above the tool user level.

American cinema dominates the world marketplace not because of its formidable marketing machinery as popularly believed, but because it is able to answer a global story consumption need. Even mindless action appeals at a human level. Sex, even more so. Get beyond these cliched exports of the US and you will see that great stories are always invaluable for their human appeal. There are any number of theories on story development for a universal audience, but the work begs to be done before telling a story in the medium of cinema. Animation is cinema. It is not IT.

This is all about
IP - Intellectual Property. If your IP is lousy, you will die. Indian animation companies are still stuck with mythology, and we treat our stories like the world is full of Indians who bow in reverence to lousy animation and abominable storytelling just because their parents worship the characters! We need to get out of our heads that we own all the patents on culture. We need to learn storytelling. If we don't do justice to this great art form, we will perish. There is no shortcut to knowledge, but stupidity is a definite shortcut to failure.

Have a conversation with someone in the Indian animation industry who is running on blind optimism and you are more than likely to hear the obtuse argument that we can train people and overcome hurdles. These hurdles will not be overcome by will power and the ability to stay in the race. They can only be tackled by understanding what it takes to create great art and investing in it substantially. Without this understanding, Indian animation will never be a knowledge based industry. And then we have to contend with other countries that have a much better investment in artistic talent, that are able to produce quality animation, even make unique contributions in style.

It has taken us 60 years since independence to get an individual Olympic gold medal. We just didn't even know
Abhinav Bindra was that good. In the Indian animation business, the question of spotting genius is out before it even starts, because it would take an artist to spot another. So, the ability to spot any real genius is highly unlikely to flow down from the top because the top has clueless non-artists! The geniuses we do produce and those that are lucky to escape the destructive forces of our socially imposed ban on life in the arts, would rather work for an American company because they would feel fulfilled.

If the universe is kind to us and we somehow work out a law of averages where just because we have a billion people, we might be able to put together a few lucky marriages of the right people with the right ideas, we may be able to come up with a handful of Indian Animation companies capable of surviving. We might even have a shot or two at producing great content, not imagined by us, but by some American genius with a great "universal" idea. We're trying hard to reap what we haven't sown.

India becoming a forerunner in the world of animated content anytime soon - forget it. It is just not going to happen in the next forty years - two full generations. That's usually the time for enormous paradigm shifts as well. Till then we will continue to be the "next big thing" - whatever that means! Till then we can argue the virtue of Indian culture - animatedly.


Manasa K said...

This article is very well thought out and explains the situation of the "animation industry" in India quite bluntly.
I wish I had read this when it was written, rather than now, 2 months after having completed a 3-year animation course in Bangalore (and regretting it)..sure I met some wonderful teachers and learnt a FEW things, but I feel like I wasted 3 years of my life, and had the art ripped out of me in the process.
I studied for 5 years in the States (the very beginning of my education) and art was always hard-wired into me from a young age, supported by my parents as well..But ever since I finished college, I've had a severe case of artist's block..I fell for the hype and I'm losing hope :(

Dipty Bisen said...

Sure Indian animation has become frog in the well but there are great fine artists coming in this industry , the typical mythology culture is still there stucked but now this pop culture wants to evolve further cause of some great short indian animated movies going places which are not associated with mythology...number is negligible like 1 in 100 ..but am sure it should digged further to value the artists in India which are here for mere exporting small frames or for architectural propose...its a sad part

Avishek said...

nicely explained. one can feel himself or herself relaxed after reading this one. you have written all the words one can explain about the hard feelings we are facing these days in this industry. and don't worry about last two comments. these people will stick to point out others mistakes rather than rectifying themselves.
and you kallol and bus no. 312B, i have left a small grammatical mistake for you two, can you find it out?

Sephin Alexander said...

I just finished a post grad in animation from a premier design institute in india. And in a few weeks we've our placement week. And i'm so not looking forward to it. Because I know whats coming in the name of animation jobs, motion graphics, e-learning, back-end vfx & 3d work.
People think I'm crazy when I voice an opinion like yours. I'm not saying we don't have brilliant artists here. So much so that I'm humbled to walk among them but sadly no one wants to take a chance and invest.

here, its a question of survival and somehow I'm made to feel that pursuing art is an absolute luxury.

Raj Kiran Singh said...

Sums up thing quite nicely, we need to change our attitude towards art.

Anonymous said...

Why cant you losers just do your own damn thing we dont want you in the west

BSK said...

We are doing our own damn thing! Who asked you to poke your nose here?