India may lead medium's next creative wave

HONG KONG — The Indian animation boom may have started with cheap labor, as Western companies outsourced projects there, but it was only a matter of time before the explosion of Indian animation talent and firms inspired a wave of locally made toons.

And though no single Indian-made film has yet captured the world’s imagination, the Annecy fest programmers are convinced the country is poised to lead the medium’s next creative revolution, orchestrating a “Colors of India” program to highlight emerging artists at this year’s fest.

“There is something going on in India today that may be the same as what was happening in Japan 30 years ago with Studio Ghibli,” says Annecy artistic director Serge Bromberg. “There are more and more studios, there are schools, so they’re producing talents, and major companies are making connections with the local partners.”

Already, a string of modest locally made animated features are connecting with Indian auds — a trend that began with the success of “Hanuman” and was followed by “My Friend Ganesha.” Last month saw the theatrical release of “Ghatothkach,” a 2-D story produced by Mumbai’s Shemaroo Entertainment and Hyderabad’s Sun Animatics about a 5-year-old boy who with the help of a baby elephant sets out to save the forest from danger.

“The projects clearly reflect the Indian identity: Indian characters, Indian superheroes or divinities and Indian traditions,” says Bromberg, who visited several Indian facilities to find material worth showcasing at Annecy. “I’ve seen many projects that will happen in 2010. The creativity, style and ambition of those directors is just amazing,” he explains.

Win, lose or draw

Critics suggest Indian animators may have a hard time adjusting to original movie productions as they require greater skills, time and capital than subcontract companies focused on TV and advertising work are used to.

“There is no lack of creativity in this country. Every nook and corner has stories and art. There is, however, a lack of imagination, and that comes from not having confidence and being overly dependent on technology alone,” says Shailendra Singh, joint managing director of Percept, the company behind “Hanuman.”

That said, India already has some corporate champions in the sector. Kerala-based Toonz was founded in 1999 as a destination for outsourcing, but after three years it decided to move into original production. Now the company has backing from a Swiss private-sector conglom and partnerships with Hallmark, Paramount Pictures, Hyde Park Entertainment, the BBC and Marvel.

“We licensed ‘Wolverine’ from Marvel,” Toonz CEO Prabhakaran Jayakumar explains. “On ‘Dragonlance,’ we went to Hasbro and approached Paramount.”

Similarly, London stock market-listed DQ Entertainment is polishing its credentials through corporate acquisitions and a slate of original movies.

Success is attracting the attention of other Indian congloms and Hollywood investors. Local film giant UTV is ramping up its own full-scale animation pipeline and has announced three movies with budgets exceeding $30 million. Iconic Bollywood stable Yash Raj Films also has its eye on the toon sector, partnering with Disney for a slate headed by “Roadside Romeo.” Reliance ADAG and the Tata Group have toon houses in Big Animation and Tata Elxsi respectively.

DreamWorks and France’s Thomson are partnered in an investment in animation and f/x house Paprikaas, Lionsgate has a slate in productions with Crest Animation, and Time Warner’s Turner unit announced plans to expand from live-action local production for its Pogo channel into feature animation.

“India produces hundreds of movies, but only about five a year are animation. We believe we can change the game,” a Turner company spokesman said in April. “This is about production in India, by Indians, for India.”

Squash and stretch

The figures seem set to rise very rapidly. Percept’s Singh says there are 92 animated films currently in production, while other estimates point to the industry’s revenues growing more than 30% a year.

No wonder some fear a severe skills shortage. “At the close of next year, the industry will require at least 25,000 more trained hands to fill the gap, and by the year 2012, the industry will have room to accommodate 300,000 professionals, if not more,” Atul Vohra, of the Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics, says.

To answer that call, French animation school Supinfocom will open a branch in Pune this fall with room for 700 students.

Ironically, if the skills shortage leads to significant wage inflation, that could lead to an erosion of India’s price advantage in the subcontracting market, shifting even more attention to the country’s original productions.

TIP SHEET
What: Intl. Animated Film Festival and Market
When: June 9-14 (fest), June 11-13 (market)
Where: Annecy, France
Web: Annecy.org

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