India has 2-year lead in CGI animation over Asian rivals: Mike Young

MUMBAI: Think cartoons in India and it is still the 2-D imageries of Bugs Bunny, The Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry and their ilk that really capture the imagination. Indian tales find hardly any space in this frame.

But that could all be about to change, and soon, asserts US-based independent animation producer Mike Young. The future is in computer-generated animation (CGI) and it is here that India can take on the world, says the Welsh grandfather. And Young should know. One of the most prolific independent animation studios working in the US today, his company Mike Young Productions (MYP), has had the big boys of animation like Dreamworks and Pixar sitting up and taking notice.


Young, who is in India brainstorming over ongoing co-production work with Crest Communications Ltd in Mumbai and the two-year-old mediaworks division of Tata Group's product design arm Tata Elxsi Limited, is all praise for the quality of CGI work that is coming out of India. Tata Elxsi is doing the production for Max and the Mechanicals, which MYP is doing for Sony Pictures.

It is about Crest that he is particularly gung-ho though. "Every other studio in India should kiss Crest's 'a**e' because they have really opened the eyes of the West to what Indian animation is capable of," he says.

Young cites the example of the popular PBS series, Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggley Winks, for which Crest did the production work. "Jakers! is probably the best quality CGI kids' programme ever made. It's now cleaning up the awards. It's just won a huge award last Friday (9 January), the Humanitas Award. It's been nominated for two Annies, which are the animation Oscars and we're up for the Emmys as well."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but no Indian studio has ever won these sort of awards or been nominated even. That's where we've got to in the space of two years," avers the veteran, who has over 12 years behind him in the business.

While Jakers! was a 'gun for hire'(fee-based) deal, Young says Crest is now doing the right thing by getting into co-productions. Crest and MYP are currently doing two $ 10 million co-productions - Dive, Olly, Dive and Pet Aliens.

Such is Young's belief in Crest's potential that MYP has just taken a stake in it. Says Young, "My interest in Crest is that they've started to own properties. We wouldn't have invested in Crest if it were just a 'gun for hire' operation."

"This is so different from the 'immature business' of a few year's ago. When they started producing Jakers! they had 100 members working on one episode. We sent an organisational methods person here and now they have six teams of 20 with each team working on one episode. They are now producing a film (one episode) every week," he states.

"The rehearsal is now for a higher quality feature quality film. If we can do something comparable to what Pixar has done with Finding Nemo (which was made for a budget of $ 100 million) within $ 20 million, isn't there a hell of a market?"

Pixar! Now aren't they getting ahead of themselves a bit? Young doesn't think so. "I think we can. We would do all the pre-production, all the design, write the scripts, do the storyboards, cast the stars."

"We begin pre-production in June, especially the work on the 3-D models and Crest will start production work in October. Crest will largely be doing animation on that film."

Young also sees a potential in taking Indian stories onto an international platform. "They (Crest) were showing me an Indian series (Tenali Raman) they were making for Singapore television. I told them in future show me the stuff before you start. Some little tweaks and nips and tucks and it can be an international film. It doesn't have to be just an Indian film. If they're going to make something, let's make something so you can sell all over the world. Sometimes, that little bit of outside expertise is all that's required."

The jocular animator, however, also offered a reality check on the kind of international business animation is generating out of India at present. Dismissing some of the numbers that are being thrown around as highly exaggerated, he says, "The reality is that total annual production out of India on animation is about $ 25 million. The plus side of this is that growth over for next few years conservatively is 40-50 per cent."

And its in 3D CGI from where that growth will come, he asserts. "Indians have stolen the market, they've won that ground. The traditional animation powers in Asia, Korea, China and Taiwan for instance were very slow in converting from 2D to 3D. As you know Dreamworks and Disney have closed their 2D productions. What it means is that the Koreans are scrambling like Hell to catch up. India has probably got a two-year lead."

Young also throws in a word of caution to all would be investors. "The problem is of course there is an element of na?veté among some of those who are investing in animation businesses that have no hope," he points out.

And what's the next big idea that he has up his sleeve? Taking a leaf out of Aamir Khan's Lagaan, the man whose whole immediate family seems to be involved in the animation business says he wants to put out a series around cricket. The characters in the serial would be the animals associated with the countries that play the game (elephant from India, kiwi from New Zealand, kangaroo from Australia, etc.)

And who would he pitch it to? How about the respective cricket boards to finance the series, he says, only half in jest.

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