'India should become the next animation hub for the world market': Ram Mohan-Utv Toon's UTV Toon's Ram Mohan and company COO Nandini Vaidyanathan

Ram Mohan has been drawing cartoons ever since he was in school. But it was a chance encounter with Clair H Weeks, veteran Disney animator, who was in Bombay in 1956 to help the government of India set up an animation studio, that led to a job in the cartoon film unit where he worked for the next 12 years and paved the way for his career in animation. There is arguably no one in the country today who compares in terms of wealth of experience in the field of animation.

Ram Mohan has made countless commercials, some children‘s films (including the White Elephant for Unesco), one animated feature, the Japanese production of The Legend of Ramayana (which he co-directed with Koichi Sasaki) and the Meena and Sara series for Unicef. He recently won the lifetime achievement award from the Advertising Club. This is the fourth such award he has won for his contribution to the field of animation.

Nandini Vaidyanathan joined UTV Toons as COO in December 2000 with the brief to grow the company‘s 2D business in the world market. She joined UTV from Group 4 Securitas where she was executive director - strategic development, responsible for Southeast Asia and the Middle East.‘s Thomas Abraham recently met Ram Mohan, the creative inspiration behind UTV Toons, and Nandini Vaidyanathan to get an understanding about the potential animation had for India and where India‘s leading 2D animation company was headed.

You are one of the pioneers of animation in India and an institution in this field. What do you see is the future for animation in India?

RM: The Future of animation as we see is tremendous. It is an industry that is yet to happen here. India should become the next animation hub for the world market. It is not so much cheap labour, because strictly this business does not operate on the principles of a traditional labour market. It is more a quality producer stamp at affordable prices that makes India attractive.

The markets that we envisage for this business are television, motion pictures, games, web and e-learning. The basket of services we would offer is 2D Animation, 3-D animation, SFX, live action, CGA (computer generated animation) and web-based training.

What are the advantages India holds compared to other established cartoon content providing countries in Asia?

RM: Price is of course a major issue. Twenty years ago when western studios discovered Korea, Taiwan and Philippines, it was largely on account of quality animation available at affordable prices. Affordable being relative to what western studios were forking out back home. Today, India offers similar advantages.

Could you put some figures on that?

NV: In India an average cartoon episode costs between $30,000 to $40,000. Besides, our output is as good as any in terms of quality. Similar episodic work in the Philippines would cost between $90,000 and $100,000 while in Korea and Taiwan it would cost between $110,000 and $120,000. There is Japan which is the most mature market in Asia as far as animation goes but there the costs are the same if not more than the US.

Any other advantages?

RM: We are the largest English speaking population in the world and American, Canadian and European studios would find it far easier to communicate with us than with the Chinese, Koreans, or the Filipinos.

But aren‘t we coming back to the sweatshop principle? How can you sustain quality in these conditions?

NV: We have had no problems attracting good people. We have our training school downstairs, which offers training in all streams of animation. The training‘s free, and we also have a system whereby we absorb the best performers ourselves. We make heavy investments in each of them. And Rs 10,000 on an average for a fresher is a decent salary.

How has the downturn in the market affected you? There has been talk that you‘ve downsized your workforce?

NV: That is not true. As part of the animation industry, we‘ve not been affected by the ICE meltdown. We have 452 people on board, who work in four shifts and we expect that number to go up to 650 by year-end. In fact, our calendar is booked till 2003 so there is certainly no dearth of work on our plate.

The competition is slowly heating up in India. There is Toonz Animation in Thiruvananthapuram, Pentamedia in Chennai and Crest in Mumbai that immediately come to mind. Where do you stand?

NV: At least in the 2D segment, there is no one who can touch us in India. And we don‘t see that changing for the next few years. If there is any area where we are not that strong it is in 3D animation though we do a lot of ad commercials. But no one is anywhere near acquiring a portfolio as big as ours or matching our range of services in media and entertainment. 

What are the major projects you have on hand?

NV: UTV Toons has signed up for a $68-million slate series with Funbag International Studios to produce three series every year for the next three years, starting July. Each series will have 26 episodes of 23-minute duration each.

We have also signed an agreement to produce an animated special for Street Kids International, one of the leading international NGOs. Then there is the long-standing relationship Mr Ram Mohan has developed with Unicef since 1992. We are handling the complete production of the Meena and Sara series for Unicef. Meena is the story of the travails of a girl child born in Asia and Sara is the story of a South African teenager addressing issues such as teenage pregnancy and Aids.

How big is the world animation market and what part of that business is coming to India? NV: It is difficult to make a clear estimate on that but the industry generates somewhere in the region of $ 10 billion a year in business. Of this barely 5 per cent is coming to India so it is a market, which is still to be properly tapped.

What sort of revenues is UTV Toons looking at?

NV: Last year we had revenues of Rs 15 million. This year the projected revenues are in the region of Rs 100 million. But actual value is much higher. About Rs 210 million because all the agreements we are signing are part cash and part rights so there are royalties also which have to be factored in.

What about work in India?

NV: Most of our work in India is in advertising. But the market is pretty dull overall so we are not doing as much work now as before. Last year the break-up of our business was 70 per cent in episodic work and 30 per cent in advertising. This year we expect the breakup to be 85:15. In fact, the amount of work coming through advertising has been steadily reducing since June 1997 when Ram Mohan Graphics merged into UTV Toons.

We are getting business though. To the tune of two to three orders a month.

What are the costs of making commercials and what margins do you get?

NV: An average 30-second spot costs anywhere between Rs 8 to 12 lakhs (Rs 800,000 to Rs 1.2 million). And the profit margin is roughly 35 per cent per commercial.

Are you looking at increasing your presence in the field of 3D animation?

We are looking at buying outright or setting up our own studio in Mumbai. The whole thing should be finalised in the next two months.

Speaking of mergers, has Mr Ram Mohan increased his stake in UTV Toons above the 40 per cent stake that he holds?

There is a general misconception on that score. UTV Toons is a 100 per cent UTV-owned entity. Mr Ram Mohan has a profit sharing arrangement in UTV Toons.

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