India inks new H’wood deals, stakes claim in 3-D field

In recent months, demand has soared for country's animators

Karthikeyan was chiseling away, creating art from stone near the southern Indian city of Chennai when Ashish Kulkarni of Anirights hired him to work in his animation house. Hiring a sculptor to work in animation might sound like an unusual choice, but it’s hard to find workers with 3-D imaging experience in India. With a little bit of coaching on the proper software, Karthikeyan’s carving experience makes him a valuable asset to an industry that can’t find staff quickly enough.

In recent months, demand has soared for animators in India as major Hollywood outfits redirect work to the country. Among the big-ticket films currently being animated in India are “Garfield 2” (which will be partly animated at Rhythm and Hues’ Mumbai facility, where a portion of the f/x for Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was handled) and Lionsgate Entertainment’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” first project in the indie’s three-picture outsourcing deal with RichCrest, a subsidiary of India-based Crest Animation.

“While price continues to be the decisive factor in outsourcing work to India, our advantage lies in the quality that we provide at that price,” says Toonz Animation topper P Jayakumar, who is co-producing “X-Men” spinoff series “Wolverine” for Marvel Prods.

Some Indian companies cite superior English communication skills as an added advantage over their competition in Korea and China.

“While Korea has the advantage as far as traditional animation is concerned, the shift to CG animation coupled with our knowledge of English helps us to stay ahead of Korea,” Kulkarni explains.

With China’s animation ambitions surging across the border, some studios are working to fight the perception of being seen exclusively as an outsourcing destination. Companies are hoping to pitch themselves on a “cost plus quality” platform, moving to co-productions, trading in man-hours to further reduce costs.

With Indian animators improving their skills, they are now eager to generate their own independent productions. The box office success of homegrown “Hanuman” has buoyed interest in animating India’s mythological heritage. Released by Percept Pictures, 2-D toon featured adventures of the Hindu Monkey God from his little-known childhood to familiar episodes from his adulthood.

Pics in the pipeline include a sequel to “Hanuman,” Color Chips’ “Krishna” and “Luv-Kush,” a 3-D feature from Rayudu Vision Media budgeted at $5 million.

Toonz’s more modestly budgeted “Geet Mahabharata” (a musical TV version of the Hindu epic “Mahabharata,” costing between $190,000 and $270,000) will have easy passage with both Time Warner’s Cartoon Network and Walt Disney Intl. India looking to localize content.

Though both channels have yet to commission or co-produce toons in India, Hindi-language Disney Channel picked up TV rights to Percept’s “Hanuman” with plans to serialize the pic over eight episodes, complete with previously unseen footage and songs.

Cartoon Network’s localization effort includes two 2-D offerings from Toonz: “The Little Buddha” and “Akbar and Birbal.”

With most stories dealing with religious myths, animators can take few, if any, liberties with the story or representation, Kulkarni explains. “But within those parameters, we need to improve our storytelling so as to make the property capable of moving across geographies,” he says. “That is where the real money lies.”

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