“Today all roads lead to India”: The Rise of VFX and Animation in India

This article is part of a series focusing on the 3D industry in India. Read more here.

In this article, we’ll interview some of the most experienced actors in the Indian VFX and animation industries, from Jesh Krishna Murthy, founder and CEO of Anibrain, to P. Jayakumar, CEO of Toonz Animation, Hans van der Sluys from Scan 360, and veteran 3D artists Gokul and PC Vikram. We’ll also go through the texturing pipeline of Anibrain/Framestore in our on-location filmed interview. 

A Brief History of VFX and Animation in India 

The VFX and animation industries have historically been the starting gate of 3D in India. With a decades-old established presence of 2D animation outsourcing studios, during the second half of the ’90s studios gradually adopted CG pipelines and started working on international shows. This was not an easy task, as CG training courses were at the time virtually nonexistent in India. Studios had to learn and train their teams to adopt these completely new workflows, shifting traditional 2D artists to 3D pipelines. 

While starting as outsourcing and post-production service companies, they gradually became more proficient in the art of 3D, with a myriad of small and larger companies making up the CG ecosystem in India. Throughout the last decade, the output quality and quantity of these studios has grown steadily. The main shift in the past years has been international studios becoming more and more interested in either opening their own studio in India, such as Digital Domain opening a studio in Hyderabad in 2017, or investing in already existing Indian companies, such as the acquisition of Indian animation studio Paprikaas by Technicolor in 2010, or the joint venture between Framestore and Pune-based VFX studio Anibrain in early 2018. These international studios have not just brought investments but also added to the creative and technological pool in India. 

Another trend has been the growing increase in demand for domestic IP versus services for international projects. Nowadays, Indian animation and VFX studios not only support CG content creation for international movies and TV series for a worldwide broadcast market but also work on domestic projects, which increasingly employ the use of CG (Baahubali, 2015). The animation industry has seen steady growth in the past years, but IP work has been growing faster, by 18.4% from 2018 to 2019, versus 8.9% for services, according to a 2019 KPMG report.  

According to the same report, “The Indian animation, VFX and post-production industry is expected to more than double in the next five years.” These are impressive numbers, although we do not yet know how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect these forecasts. 

The emergence of online streaming services has also increased the demand for CG content creation for movies and series, and the Indian market has benefited and surfed this trend. 

Finally, mirroring what has happened in Canada in the past few decades, government incentives have also helped the Indian VFX and animation markets lift off, thanks to national and state-level subsidies, fiscal incentives, and the creation of a large number of local hubs and facilities. 

Anibrain/Framestore offices in Pune, India.

Meet Jesh Krishna Murthy

Jesh founded Anibrain in Pune, back in 2005. As the CEO of the company, he goes through the story of Anibrain to its joint venture with Framestore in 2018 and shares his vision about the future of the Indian VFX and animation industry.

Anibrain

Jesh: I’m an artist, an accidental CEO, and I enjoy doing the impossible. The vision then was to do what I’ve always loved to do: high-end VFX work. The only difference was that now I wanted to do it in India. The Indian market was pretty raw then, especially with regards to the quality I was used to while in London, Toronto, or Vancouver. It was hard to find trained talent. That was the toughest challenge.  

But it has been a labor of love. Lots of learning. Lots of joy. And the journey continues. Today all roads lead to India, and I guess I’ve been fortunate to witness the growth from a very nascent stage.  

Anibrain/Framestore offices in Pune, India.

The Merger with Framestore

Framestore is an invaluable partner and investor in Anibrain. We have a lot of similarities in our approach to the industry. Anibrain is proud to be an Indian company and equally proud to have a partner like Framestore. It’s the best of both worlds, really.  

Evolution of the Indian VFX market

India is already on the map now, isn’t it? It’s now about high-end skills over the next few years. Should be fun. 

With audiences now watching Indian content globally via OTT platforms (streaming services such as Netflix) and bigger releases, and Indian content having to compete for eyeballs with content from across the globe, the needs of Indian productions are rivaling those from anywhere. We use the same talent force for a project from the US as one from India. The lines are blurring, and that’s what we want to see from a creative perspective. 

Substance Texturing Pipeline at Anibrain/Framestore

Meet P. Jayakumar

P. Jayakumar is CEO at Toonz Animation. He tells us about the history of 2D and 3D animation in India, as well as the story of his company, one of the pioneering Indian studios in CG animation.

Toonz Animation

P. Jayakumar: Toonz is now in its 21st year and the past two decades have been a busy, at times challenging but productive and rewarding path of creation, growth, and expansion to build us into India’s largest and most active 2D & CGI animation and SFX studio, and one of the largest and most important in Asia, with a footprint that now extends across the globe. We have around 500 employees in our studio in Southern India, and another 200 across Toonz Media Group’s 11 locations across the globe, as well as an extended network of studios who work with us with a combined talent count of 3,000 animation and SFX professionals.  

We have development, financing, production, distribution, and training academies strategically placed around the world in India, the US, Canada, Spain, the UK, Ireland, Turkey, Russia, New Zealand, and Singapore, and we’re are a true 360-degree, fully integrated studio, and a force in kids’ and family entertainment. 

With an annual 2D & CGI production capacity of 10,000 minutes per year, we develop, produce, and distribute IPs specifically aimed at the Indian market, such as the animated series of the well-known Indian character Chacha Chaudhary, or brands such as Rat-A-Tat, which was originally created for Nickelodeon in India and has since then gained international recognition and which is now in its 11th season, with 577 episodes produced to date and still going strong; or IPs created for the global market with universal appeal such Wolverine & The X-MenFruit NinjaGummy Bear & Friends, or our latest CGI comedy series Mondo Yan, a co-pro between Spain, Ireland, and India that is currently in production.  

As a studio we specialize in kids’ and family IP and brand development, production, distribution, commercialization, and the creation of enhanced viewing experiences through new technologies. We have in this past year acquired a majority stake in the Emmy Award-winning studio, Telegael, adding important pre- and postproduction services and large live-action and stop-motion studios to the group. We also acquired a significant stake in a leading technology company specializing in AR/VR, and other next-generation, immersive, real-world applications, called TiltLabs. 

How it all started

My roots at Toonz go back to its beginnings at the end of the late 1990s when Toonz was conceived. This was at a time when India had hardly any commercial animation studios. The few animators that the country did have at the time worked extremely hard to make the art of animation impactful.  

Around the same time, Mr. G.A. Menon, an entrepreneur who traced his roots back to Kerala, had a visionary idea that changed the landscape of animation in this part of the world forever. Mr. Menon decided to establish an animation and film studio in his home state of Kerala. He shared his dream with Mr. Bill Dennis, who was a veteran in the industry, having spent nearly two decades with The Walt Disney Company USA and serving as the President of Fil-Cartoons Manila.  

The determined duo set out to start a world-class animation studio within Technopark, Trivandrum. I was a key member of the founding team as the CFO. With the best team and the right approach, Toonz was thus born — and there has been no stopping its rise ever since. I proudly became CEO in early 2003 and since then have focused on consolidating Toonz as both a contracted animation service provider, as well as a hub for original IP and content creation, branching our activities out into all areas of the global entertainment business. 

Shifting from traditional 2D to 3D animation

Back in the ’50s, the Indian animation industry began its baby steps into the field of animation and slowly started producing traditional 2D shorts made for education and public awareness programs. Animation enthusiasts in small groups evolved as studios, which, bit by bit, started to consolidate themselves and gain credibility both nationally and internationally.   

The Indian animation industry grew to around 325 studios in a span of two decades. This tremendous growth was not just numbers, but slowly and surely showcased India’s animation power as a hub for global content production. Many global animation IPs and worldwide movie releases since then have a considerable amount of CGI minutes produced in India for the global players of the industry, as the potential and might of the Indian Animation Industry gained recognition and respect.   

During the period of 1997-2000, the Indian animation industry faced the migration from 2D to 3D. Very few studios had been started by this time in India that attracted 2D talent. The strong traditional 2D strengths were considered as the base for 3D creatives. Traditional artists got converted to digital 2D and 3D artists as revolutionary animation software peeped into the Asian region. 

Studios started collaborating with overseas agencies to produce both 2D and 3D content. A few, like Toonz Animation and Pentamedia Graphics, were bold enough to produce their own original IPs, as well as acting as service providers for US and global studios. When kids’ TV channels started appearing, they had to rely completely on shows produced abroad. That was the period when more studios came into play producing Indian content. When global kids channels were introduced in India, the rate of demand became even higher. The number of shows increased which led to the emergence of more studios. An uninterrupted supply of content with top quality, delivered on time and within budget, made India grow in this arena. 

Evolution of the Indian 3D animation landscape

The animation industry in India has had remarkable growth, marking its presence by creating challenging outputs and providing first-class 3D animation manpower to the world. In this continually evolving and growing entertainment business, the Indian industry has very much gained global respect and recognition on a quality production and technology side, and the area where it has perhaps historically been lacking — the creative development side — is now flourishing like never before. The rich stories, culture, and creative talent in India are seeing a surge in original IP development, being carefully crafted into stories with universal appeal and attractiveness. This is very much the case at Toonz, where for the past two decades, we have put a lot of focus into our storytelling capacity and capability and nurturing creative talent to tell them. In many ways we are at the dawn of the Indian animation industry’s creative potential, and we will for sure see original themes and concepts be taken to immeasurable heights as the creative side of the industry continues to unfold.   

3D is no longer restricted to films or TV series. It has spread its wings wide open in the fields of education, medicine, architecture, games, VFX, AR & VR, etc. The dynamism of emerging 3D software is highly customizable to suit the various needs of the world, and Toonz is very much at the forefront of the next generation of immersive technologies and new consumer experiences as a result of this innovative technology, with its own specialized company in this arena, TiltLabs.  

Currently we are exploring the real-time render capability of game engines like Unity and Unreal to be used as an alternate for the lighting, render, and compositing processes. We are proving to be successful in making use of Unity for this purpose and successfully meeting our digital deliveries. Seeing this as a future trend, we see much scope in this area which can save more man and machine hours of production. 

There is now a large pool of software professionals with solid 3D knowledge. The industry is always looking for software specialists who can do coding for the 3D field, especially in the R&D area which develops automation tools to facilitate the pipeline, develop proprietary tools for production, etc. The ratio of software professionals, when compared with professional artists, need to be rationally balanced for more yield.  

The biggest strengths of Indian animation nowadays are its creative strength and cost-effectiveness. That is why global industry leaders try to deploy their production houses straight away in India or in collaboration with existing pioneers. These production houses are young, well prepared, and have an international focus to explore the field with passion, and they have a strong grip and understanding of the evolving and changing business. One indication of this: animation and VFX have become part of the syllabus in visual art studies, enabling artists and creative talent to be better prepared than ever to help take the Indian animation industry to new heights.  

3D education in India

The animation training scenario in India has been using a combination of traditional 2D and 3D techniques within their curriculum. Predominantly the 3D work revolved around Autodesk Maya. But during the last few years, more and more quality live-action/CGI movies like The Jungle BookBlack Panther, and CGI movies like The Lion King started coming to India for the CGI- and VFX-related work, and the demand for specialized software for modeling, texturing, techanim, and crowd stimulation has increased. A lot of schools have started introducing ZBrush, Mari, Substance Painter, Miarmy, and Golaem in their curriculum. The combination of these software tools is also highly in demand with the gaming industry.  

Toonz Academy is our training division; Toonz Academy is one of the top animation schools in India, dedicated to honing the skills of students with a passion for animation. Toonz Academy has a pool of experienced faculty members who have brought out the best potential in students and made them competent to be the best in the job market. The Academy can proudly say that most of its alumni are now well placed in some of the best places of work all over the globe. 

Read more about 3D Education in India.

At Toonz we look for people with professional experience with at least a minimum of two to three years. Unlike eight to 10 years ago, where we saw people who had specific skills, we now seek out more generalists. We do recruit people for a specific department, but we see too that an individual has adequate knowledge in their successive tasks, so that they can carry out a task easily handled by the following departments. Technically, this technical flexibility and savviness results in a substantial betterment of the production and quality. 

Every task is a challenge in this field. The beauty is that we have very varied tasks every day, which makes roles more interesting. As mentioned earlier, the core strength of Indian 3D experts lies in their passion for art, and every artist should concentrate on their core talents and update to the latest trends and developments. They need to be flexible to take over tasks of various complexities and styles, and always have an open eye to see the developments around them. More than observations, putting things into practice is the correct way forward, which makes an artist well rounded and more effective in the tasks set.  

Opportunities in India

While an important part of Toonz’s focus is to maximize the international opportunities, the growing global entertainment industry brings both traditional TV channels and networks, as well as rising OTT platforms, which are growing enormously. The domestic Indian market is also exciting and an enormous opportunity in itself, experiencing both a rise in traditional TV viewership, as well as an anticipated significant rise in digital users over this coming decade as increased income and more affordable high-speed streaming and internet access pave the way for more Indian users to access and enjoy content more readily. This will create an increase in the demand for digital entertainment. To give an idea, there will be around 300 million new users in India by 2025, as highlighted in the KPMG India’s Media and Entertainment Report 2019, and Toonz and the Indian Animation Industry are better positioned than ever to meet this rising demand for entertainment content.  

Preparation of creative and technical talent will play a decisive role in the solidification of the Indian industry powerhouse. Academic training is a key part of Toonz Media Group’s activities and an important commitment of ours to prepare, train, and generate work opportunities for creative and artistic talent, to work either within Toonz or within other animation companies in India. Our Toonz Academy is the perfect talent-nurturing platform and industry springboard to achieve this, and serves to continue our efforts to further strengthen the Indian animation industry and our purpose of entertaining the world.  

Artist at Anibrain/Framestore working with Substance Painter.

Meet Hans van der Sluys

We met Hans at India Joy 2019. Originally from Montreal, he first came to India in 2002, to help set up the 3D pipeline of DQ Entertainment, a studio that only focused on 2D at that time. After training close to 800 people in one and a half years, Hans decided to go back to India to found a mocap studio, Scan 360.

India Joy

Hans: We opened the first, and largest, mocap studio in India, in Hyderabad, because I think there is a willingness to take chances here.  A good example of that is the 2015 movie Baahubali, which became amongst the largest grossing movies in Indian film history. The movie and its sequel were made in Hyderabad.  Baahubali is packed with VFX. It’s one of the first Indian movies that heavily relies on VFX, making it quite groundbreaking for the Indian film industry. It was the first movie where most of the VFX was produced by Indian companies, for an Indian movie.  

In the beginning, our clients were mostly North American companies, and very few domestic companies. But that has been changing in the recent years. We increasingly have more demand from Indian companies to do mocap. The market here for mocap has now grown exponentially.  

The CG market has grown so much in the past 7-8 years. It started when Technicolor opened a huge facility in Bangalore. As they were acquiring companies worldwide, they also brought that work here. Mr. X, Mikros, MPC, etc. all have divisions in India now. And then we saw Ubisoft come to Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. Framestore, DNEG, Digital Domain, are all in India. The craftsmanship of the Indian technicians and artists has also grown just as much. They’re very good in technical and artistic terms, and they work hard.  

It’s highly beneficial to send part of your work here. It started off as sending only roto, paint, and matchmove work, so purely outsourcing work. But slowly but surely, with the larger companies coming in, Indian divisions were starting to get shots. So, their work shifted to doing also pre-comp, and then comp. The marketplace has grown here and it’s now in the tens of billions of dollars per year.  

Another interesting fact is that India has since long been able to train world-class coders. This in turn helped studios to build proper plugins and pipelines, greatly facilitating the CG work done here and giving them an edge over other studios. This has contributed to bringing the level way up. 

Meet Gokul

Gokul is an industry veteran in his own respect. We met him at India Joy 2019, a yearly VFX and Animation-focused event in Hyderabad, Kerala. Starting his career in 1994, we immediately felt we had to interview Gokul to share an inside eye of the evolution and growth of the Indian VFX and animation industries throughout the past 25 years.

India Joy

Gokul: I started my career in the industry in 1994 in Chennai, India. I started learning CG by myself, then worked as a VFX artist in different studios. I came to Bangalore, India, in 2000 to work as a generalist at Jadoo Works, where I started using Maya and setting up a pipeline. 

We were working on a lot of Disney projects, and as the workload increased, we had to expand the team. We started hiring but we realized we didn’t have the right 3D skill set to execute the project. There weren’t enough skilled people in the industry back in 2000. So, our solution was to hire lots of 2D artists, as 2D animation was already big in India at that time. My role was then to train all the artists to work in 3D. We hired traditional sculptors who we then trained to be modelers; we hired painters and trained them to texturing and lighting. The more technical people we would train to work on FX and compositing. That’s how we went from 30 to 600 people in less than two years — by transitioning people to 3D. That’s what was the best model in the time, with the lack of skilled people. 

In 2006, I had the opportunity of setting up Whistling Woods International in Mumbai. It was the first film school in India to have a proper education in the form of a two-year school. It was the first school to teach about the industry and not just about the tools. We were fortunate enough to be sponsored by big companies like Apple, NVIDIA, Autodesk, Toon Boom. The teaching was based on storytelling, and how tools can be used to tell the story. 

When Technicolor decided to move to India, they hired me as a producer around 2010 to set up a stronger pipeline. I left the company in 2017, and since then, I’ve been working as a mentor and setting up pipelines for different studios. I’m currently testing Unreal Engine for making entire movies, not just previz.  

What has changed since 1994? At that time, the tools were expensive and only available if you worked in a studio. Nowadays, tools have become much more accessible and even free for students in lots of cases. Thanks to the internet, people can learn by themselves. 

What I foresee is more and more international studios coming to India. I have seen an increase of interest coming from international VFX companies in the Indian market. In three years, I have seen MPC, The Mill, Mikros, DNEG, Mr. X, Digital Domain, Framestore, etc., all setting up in India. These studios want talent; most of them have their own school in order to train people. 

Technicolor employs 4,000 people here in Bangalore alone. But a myriad of small, independent VFX studios are popping everywhere and competing with the large, international studios. Baahubali, an Indian epic movie released in 2015, changed the Indian VFX industry through its massive use of VFX. 

The direction India is going to in the field of CG is more and more dedicated schools and universities to better form students. I’d like to see India on the global map. We’re already getting work from other countries. But let’s start creating international quality work within India. 

Meet PC Vikram

Just like Gokul, we met PC Vikram at India Joy 2019. With over 25 years of experience, he shares his story and experience in the Indian VFX and animation industries.

India Joy

PC Vikram: I have been a CG industry professional for over 25 years now. I have a background in design, but I dropped out of design school as I wanted to pursue classical animation, which I started learning by myself. 

Soon after that, I started illustrating for advertising companies. I then entered a VFX company called Prasad, where I learned about computer animation. This was back in 1995, so this was the beginning of computer animation. I then joined a small VFX shop recently set up, specializing in 2D animation. In under a year, we had grown to about 150 artists, and we were doing our own animation by 1997. 

In 2000, I moved to Bangalore to join Jadoo Works, where I became a Creative Director and specialized in pre-production. Everyone was training to get from traditional 2D workflows to the new 3D workflow standards. My knowledge in 2D animation applied well, as we still needed someone to draw and understand the craft of animation. I would draw in 2D to direct 3D animation. 

Between 2005 and 2010, a lot of gaming companies were setting up in India, like Dhruva and Zynga. In 2010, I started to pick up 3D properly. Purely to learn 3D sculpting and 3D printing, I joined Technicolor. I was a creative generalist and animation supervisor for the shows we did there, until 2013. 

I was feeling that I was going too much into management positions by that time, and I decided to take a break to focus again on creating art. I decide to get involved more in artistic communities, such as THU, where I’m now a brand ambassador. The first time I went to THU in Europe back in 2015, there were only two of us from India. Over the years, we have contributed to bringing over more and more young talent from India. 

The major change in 25 years that I’ve witnessed is access to hardware and software. It used to be extremely expensive in comparative terms to buy these as an individual. Only companies could afford these investments. Tools have become better and the learning curves easier, and with subscription you can now have a software tool for only the time needed for a given project. 

Read more about 3D in India here.