April 27, 2001 VOL.27 NO.16
Toy Story Too?
Bit by byte, Shyam Ramanna is building India's rep as a computer animation superpower
By ALEXANDRA A. SENO and ROGER MITTON
Paint-by-Numbers: Making movies with machines
Artistic Vision: Malaysia wants some animation action
Under the circumstances, no one could confuse Shyam Raja Ramanna with Walt Disney. A
multimillionaire digital animator and filmmaker with a taste for jazz, Ramanna is on a break.
Earlier, he finished brainstorming a new project with clients from Dubai. With him in the bar is a
film director who has just flown in from Bombay. Soon, they will return to Ramanna's suburban
Bangkok headquarters to continue work until nearly dawn. "We often continue through the
night, for several days," says Ramanna. "That's why we have bedrooms upstairs." As an
alternative, Ramanna often invites the crew back to his home, where the more audacious
skinny-dip in his pool.
No, this is not Hollywood, and Ramanna is not Walt Disney. But the whippet-thin Indian with the
wicked mustache has more in common with the wholesome head Mouseketeer than it might
appear. Both are animators, and like Disney half a century ago, Ramanna, 42, is a tireless
force in a promising new corner of the entertainment industry. During his lifetime, Disney
worked with pencil and brush. Ramanna's medium is the computer workstation. He wants
nothing less than to make a blockbuster digitally animated movie that will play to the world. By
acquiring overseas animation shops and snatching business that might otherwise go to industry
leaders such as U.S.-based Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic, Ramanna hopes to lift his
company, Bombay-based Crest Communication, and his native India's standing as a mecca for
the computer-generated special effects business. Says Ramanna's wife Seema, Crest's
executive director: "In two or three years, India will be seen as a major supplier of animation for
all media — broadband, gaming, films, television, the Internet. India is undoubtedly sitting on
the edge of a revolution in animation."
You don't have to endure 15 screenings of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace to
understand the changes computers are bringing to the entertainment industry. From the digital
oceanliner in Titanic to the Roman Colosseum in Gladiator, computerized special effects are
being used extensively to gin up scenes and characters that in the past required elaborate
sets, models, makeup and hands-on manipulation. The average live-action film nowadays has
anywhere from 10 to 100 special-effects shots — explosions, car crashes, and other scenes
created through computer-generated imaging (CGI). Computers are not only being used to
mimic reality that would be too dangerous or expensive to stage; they are also being used to
conjure up entire on-screen worlds. 3D animation, successor technology to Disney's hand-
drawn cartoons of the last century, has become a practical moviemaking tool capable of
producing the digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or the colorful universe in Toy Story (see story
The market for digital animation and special effects has already reached $25 billion a year,
according to industry estimates; it is set to expand to $70 billion by 2005. While still relatively
unknown outside of India, Crest is bidding for a share. Founded by Ramanna in 1990, the
company has more than 500 employees and studios in Mumbai, Madras, Bangkok, Singapore
and the U.S. The digital production house has four major divisions — advertising, animation, TV
software and post-production film editing. Crest did the special effects for the hit Indian flick
Border last year. Movies still make up just 7.5% of revenue, projected to exceed $4 million in
the company's 2001 fiscal year.
Until now, most of Ramanna's work in films, commercials and special effects has been focused
on the Indian market, with about 20% coming from Southeast Asia and Arab countries. But
Crest is looking to capture a share of the global marketplace through contracts with shops in
the U.S. and Europe and by acquiring production houses overseas. Last year, Ramanna spent
$5 million to acquire Rich Animation Studios, a Los Angeles animation factory that produced a
cartoon version of The King and I for Warner Brothers. Crest's global maneuvering is not an
original strategy. Other Indian digital animators and software companies are trying to expand
internationally (see box page 43).
Attracting new computer-imaging and animation contracts is just part of the plan. Ramanna
wants to make a big splash — with a full-length, 3D animated feature distributed worldwide, not
just in India. There are two in the early stages of gestation. One is a $50 million production
provisionally entitled Automation, a Toy Story-esque tale about robots in a car factory that
come alive after the humans go home. American film giant Columbia Tristar is an investor in the
project; Ramanna will be the assistant director. "Tristar is now re-writing the script with us, using
the same scriptwriter who wrote Men in Black," Ramanna says. A lot is riding on the outcome.
Warner Brothers and Disney have outsourced to Crest, but Ramanna wants more. "For years,
Asia has not been considered a world-class center for animation," he says. "All you need is one
good 3D animation film and it changes the perception of people around the world." Who outside
of Silicon Valley had heard of Emeryville, California-based Pixar until Toy Story came along?
That Crest is playing this high-stakes game at all is testament to Ramanna's reputation as an
award-winning 3D animator. It says little about his administrative abilities, however. Two years
ago, Crest was struggling under a heavy debt load and was in danger of defaulting on loans. A
group of investors was brought in to rescue the company from bankruptcy. His wife, a chain-
smoking accountant with an economics degree, was installed to oversee the financial,
administrative and commercial functions as the company's executive director based in Mumbai.
Ramanna remained in charge of creative operations. He opened a sister company, Digital Asia
Concepts, in Bangkok, where he handles production, searches for talented animators and
markets Crest to Southeast Asia. Since the management change, Crest, which is publicly traded
on the Mumbai stock exchange, turned a $1 million profit last year.
This is, after all, a man who made his mark a decade ago when he made India's first condom ad
for TV. He created a sensuous shower scene in which an Indian actress caressed a phallic-
shaped shower head. "There were lots of letters and complaints," he laughs. "But it was a
milestone — and that condom is now India's best-selling brand." He won three awards for the
commercial: best direction, best film and best camera work. He has won 42 awards since.
Safeed Al Nabouda, marketing coordinator for the free-spending annual Dubai Shopping
Festival, says his organization hires Ramanna to handle their TV spots for a simple reason:
"Because he's the best."
Ramanna has always been deceptively unorthodox. His dad Raja is a veteran politician, a
former Indian defense minister and a renowned scientist known as the father of India's nuclear
program. Like others in his family, as a teenager Ramanna was directed into the sciences; he
graduated in geophysics from the University of Mumbai, later getting a master's degree in
technology. After a brief stint with a government oil company, he started helping a friend with
production work for a music company. Music videos were just then coming into India, so
Ramanna began dabbling in editing. That led him to computer graphics. "I was getting $25 a
month," he recalls. But he liked the work, found he had a talent for it, and started directing and
producing commercials before eventually setting up his own company. Nowadays,
advertisements are a Crest staple, accounting for 24% of revenue last year. A 15-second slot
will take Ramanna 10 to 15 days to complete and costs the client about $40,000.
That's a bargain price. Watching Ramanna create a figure on the computer screen from scratch
is akin to following a wizard's wand. "The computer is just a tool," he shrugs, "like a brush for a
painter. It's electronic, but you still have to know how to give life and character to the animated
figure you create." Anatomy books and other reference works jostle for space on his desk in his
Bangkok office. "Even something as simple as a bird flying, you have to study the skeletal
movements. You go to the zoo and see how it behaves. You have to give it weight and dynamic
properties so that if it moves quickly its feathers flutter in a certain way that makes a layman
say: 'Hey, that looks real.' " He once shot a commercial in Paris featuring a Thai model. The
same commercial was needed for India, but since it would have been too expensive to reshoot
in Paris with a geographically correct model, Ramanna and his team replaced the Thai woman's
face with a computer-generated Indian face. Although he won a technical award for it, he says
the procedure is too expensive for commercial use. Besides, "I can't get all the emotions of the
human face and I don't think I ever will get 100%."
Ramanna says his perfectionism and work habits so exasperated colleagues in his native
Mumbai that he was obliged to become an entrepreneur. "No studio could cope with my hours,"
he says. "I would come in at 9 p.m. and want to work the whole night. It was easier for me to buy
equipment and start up on my own." Part of his job today is passing along that passion and
technical skill to Crest's young animators (average age: 25). Ramanna's management style is
hands-on, detail-oriented, and driven. He doesn't shout; he seethes. There are plenty of
frustrations. Trained animators are in short supply in Asia, a situation so bad that Crest is
setting up its own computer animation school in Bangkok to feed its growing needs. "There are
far too few people who can work on the computer directly and animate characters so they can
emote," says Ramanna. "We need about a tenfold increase."
India's growing army of fearless young computer jockeys is the country's strongest ally in its bid
to become a global center for digital film production. Despite the star quality of the Hollywood
digital animation studios, "in Los Angeles, no one is really making any money in this industry,"
says Prashant Buyyala, strategic planning executive with Rhythm & Hues, a Hollywood visual
effects outfit that won a 1995 Oscar for Babe. Buyyala says 80% of his firm's operational costs
are attributable to the labor-intensive nature of the work. Labor costs "are killing us," he says.
In the U.S., accomplished animators earn $100,000 a year. In South Korea, they earn $50,000.
In India, they make $12,000. India leveraged its pool of English-speaking, computer-literate
workers into an $8 billion computer software outsourcing industry. Now, smart entrepreneurs
are looking to do the same in digital special effects and animation. Like most of the major
California special effects houses, Rhythm & Hues is meeting with Indian companies with an eye
towards strategic partnerships and outsourcing deals, says Buyyala. There are plenty of
partners to choose from. More than 250 animation and new media production companies have
sprouted in India in anticipation of grabbing market share. Because of declining prices for
powerful graphic workstations needed for computer-generated imaging, hardware is no longer
in short supply. P.R. Suresh of Shaf Broadcast, an Indian company that markets Silicon
Graphics workstations favored by computer animators, says he has sold more than 250 of the
$12,000 machines over the past 12 months alone. "Hardware is not an issue anymore," Suresh
says. "I expect to see exponential growth in 3D applications in films, television and ads."
Nevertheless, the craft of digital animation is in its infancy in India. Only two companies — Crest
and Pentamedia — are credited world-class skills. "Advanced computer technology is nice,"
says Los Angeles animation consultant Harvey Deneroff, "but all the software and infrastructure
in the world really does not matter unless there's some sort of passion behind a movie's
creation." India has yet to demonstrate it can play at the highest level by producing a digitally-
animated movie that is marketable overseas.
There's no domestic appetite for them. "Indians think cartoons are for kids," says Bollywood
actor and director Abishek Kapoor. Getting your movie in front of the U.S. audience — which
generates 60% of global film receipts — is crucial as a demonstration of mastery. Pentamedia
grabbed for the brass ring last year with a U.S. release of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists,
India's first all-digital animation foray into America. The movie bombed. Reviewers said the
animation was jerky and unconvincing.
In part, the difficulties lay with cultural sensibilities. Unlike Chinese cinema, which has a cult
following beyond its home, the formulaic plots and the jarring tendency for actors to suddenly
break into song and dance limits the overseas appeal of Bollywood flicks. "We aren't ready for
world markets because we don't do enough research on characterization, storyboarding, all the
pre-production aspects," says A.K. Madhavan, Crest's senior vice president for international
business. "We also remain weak in post-production, sound effects, dubbing — you still can't
see a movie like The Matrix happening in India."
Ramanna, having witnessed the failure of Sinbad, is determined to get it right with Automation,
Crest's full-length feature now in the works. Hollywood veteran Rich will handle direction. Tristar
is on board, and Crest officials say a U.S. distributor is lined up (although they won't say who).
"It's an interesting story," says Ramanna. "The robots have their own nighttime world where
they have bars, but instead of drinking beer, they drink oil." Now comes the hard part — two
years of painstakingly complex production. The movie is set for release in 2003.
And if Automation belly flops? Crest officials see other opportunities in video gaming,
broadband entertainment, and interactive television. Besides, Ramanna has an even more
ambitious project in his pocket: Ramayana, a digital-animation epic based on a classic Indian
fable. Ramanna conceived the movie and will direct. To be made in Bangkok for a projected
$10 million, the ancient tale will be rendered in animated figures that have a distinctly futuristic,
Star Wars cachet. "We are looking at this story in a completely new way. It's going to be totally
3D animation, definitely my most complicated job and my most exciting work right now. It's going
to be my world for the next two years."
He'll be in his element. "What I do is not moviemaking, it's more like playing God," he says. "You
sit here behind a computer and you are creating characters from nothing, characters that
someone is going to talk about, that people will take home with them." He believes those
characters in the future increasingly will be Asian. "We want Automation or Ramayana to do that
for Asia," he says. If there's an Oscar in it for Ramanna's trophy case, all the better.
3D CGI ANIMATION ADVERTISING PRODUCTION GAME DEVELOPMENT CGI 2D ANIMATION FILMS LONG FORMAT ANIMATION MOTION CONTROL MOTION CAPTURE 3D OUT-SOURCING