O Animator, Who Art Thou?

By Team Digit Published Date
01 - Jan - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2005
O Animator, Who Art Thou?
Step into Crest Communications, and your first impression is that it resembles a busy hive. Behold a hundred animators poring into their workstations, heads riveted to their screens-welcome to one of India's biggest and best-known animation studios!

Nestled  within a multi-storey  building, in upmarket Worli, Mumbai, Crest is home to several budding animators and special effects professionals. Yet, the insanity associated with the art is not reflected in the environment. Bright attire and friendly banter abound, but post 10 am, the cubicles morph into sacred altars where ideas are born-"shhhhhhh," insists someone when I raise my voice to ask for directions.

Is this really the animation studio that earned an Annie Award nomination for Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks (a laugh-a-minute cartoon strip broadcast on PBS Kids in the US), and may bag a Disney project soon?

Who are these people we call animators?  Digit spent a day with three members from the Crest world to answer: was it all just about Maya and 3DS Max, or is there more to an animator than just fancy hardware and software?

The Cast
Mr Incredible: Upinder Dhaliwal, 24 year old and an Aquarian Occupation: Animator
Undercover: "Proud Sardarji," with his heart in the Armed Forces
Education: Symbiosis (BCom), Arena Multimedia (Photoshop), Digital Concepts, Pune (3D Studio Max Release 4), Vancouver Film School, Canada (a course in animation)

Buzz Lightyear: Rajarajan, a 24-year-old Piscean
Occupation: Background artiste, Team Leader, R&D
Undercover: An exasperated son still trying to convince his parents that  animation is indeed a respectable profession!
Education: VISA Silicon Graphics degree from Pentamedia Graphics (Chennai), diploma in textile design, CAD/CAM courses

Princess Fiona: Shilpa Bobade, a 33-year-old Piscean
Occupation: Compositor (2D & 3D)
Undercover: A doting mom
Education: Degree in Commercial Art from Raheja School of Art, Mumbai
Upinder, Raj and Shilpa are part of the Jakers!.. team, a series that tells the story of Piggley Winks, a cheeky eight-year-old pig, and his friends Dannan the Duck and Ferny the Bull on Raloo Farm in Ireland. A typical team includes eight to 10 animators, two to three background artistes and two rendering artistes. Although there are several stages in the animation process, we focus on three aspects-character animation, background creation and compositing.

To get a fix on what animators exactly do, here's a quick tutorial: an idea is first incubated in the collective head of the producers of a show or a film, who then invite sample showcases (dubbed "pilots") from top studios across the globe. Once a studio wins a project, the team gets down to the basics-drawing board, pencil and paper. Trained artistes then sketch the characters with inputs from the producers and animators.

Making Faces
Character animators create the characters and movements associated with specific scenes. The animator is pretty much the "model" for the character and simulates body movements and facial expressions that he/she thinks will suit the character.

Upinder is an animator-"I am the actor behind the characters you see in an animated series!" From mimicry to lip-syncing dialogues, which are recorded as audio, his movements, which are recorded on video, are transposed using Softimage XSI onto a digital character's movements. "Piggley, for example, is a naughty character-like me! I have to create movements according to the mood of the scene."

His "workspace" is filled with sketches of a character-in-progress. Walk cycles, facial expressions, test sketches-Piggley's movements have a hundred different variations on paper, before being "born" on Upin's PC. 

So what does Upin do all day? The first half hour involves chatting and e-mails. But soon after, Softimage XSI takes over as the sole mate, demanding complete and undivided attention. With eat-your-heart-out hardware specs (2 GB RAM, an Intel Pentium4 processor, a GeForce Quadro graphics card, an 80 GB hard disk, a 17-inch monitor), it's not hard to decipher why!

"No distractions while at work. No MSN, no chat." And music? "Rock, of course-Metallica, GnR, Linkin Park." ("Music does distract us a bit, though," he confesses.)

Caffeine keeps his system running... so lots and lots of coffee too!

After a hard's day's work, Upin and his friends head to Starcity in Mumbai for a movie. "Too few women in the animation industry, yaar!" Out of Crest's 350-odd employees, there are hardly 40 women. "I do go to a club and let my hair down once in a while."

So are work hours always "official"? "Creativity is not time-bound. Although we do have work hours, a five-second shot could take several days and nights. Sometimes, I have worked straight weekends," says Upin. "Not any more, though! Privileges of being a senior animator," he adds dryly.

My Favourite Things! 
What makes these animators tick?
The Movies They Love
Dhaliwal: Kal Ho Na Ho, Veer Zaara ("only for the camerawork!"), Iron Giant, Toy Story, Lord of the Rings
Raj: Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Ice Age, American Pie
Shilpa: Pet Aliens (a cartoon series), Disney films
Their Music Playlist
Dhaliwal: Metallica, GnR, Linkin' Park
Raj: Pink Floyd
Their Software Weapons of Choice
Dhaliwal: Softimage XSI, Alias Maya (character animation)
Raj: Softimage XSI (BG)
Shilpa: Shake (2D) and Animo (3D) (compositing)

The Ambience Man
Once the characters have their, well, character, the team has to work on other elements such as texturing, colouring, lighting, and shadow effects, based on the scene. The background artiste, meanwhile, is working on the environment surrounding the character-from the furniture to the sky to overhanging vines.

Raj, a former background artiste and now team leader ("involved in top secret R&D activity!") is in charge of creating the background images for Piggley and his friends. These are created part-by-part and then later merged.
And A Team Leader's Workday?
Raj works on Softimage to create background images relevant to each scene. Raj builds the scene bit by bit-the fireplace, the floorboards, the attire, even the material of the clothes worn by the cartoon characters is carefully chosen. "In between, I receive SMSes from team members with innovative excuses for not turning up…", he jokes.

Oh, and as team leader, Raj has meetings to attend, called "dailies" by the insiders.

Tea and nicotine keep his system running-several smoke breaks daily.
8:00 pm sees  Raj-incidentally, an avid gamer-wooing Doom 3, going bowling or visiting nearby pubs. "Mumbai's a happening place!"

A college lecturer's son, Raj has two sisters. He is popular with his nephews, although his dad insists he should come back to Dindigul and get a "proper job." "I've brought several of my friends into the industry," says Raj with a smile. Sure enough, Tamilians abound at Crest!

But all the scuttling around that a team leader needs to do has denied Raj of a dedicated workstation. "At one time I had the fastest machine in India." You can almost see the flashback effects-"An Intel Pentium4 Xeon, in a dual-processor configuration with HyperThreading, with 4 GB of RAM, and a 3Dlabs Wildcat video card." We feel his pain.

Merging It All
Once the characters and background are ready, the compositor works on merging the character with the background. Facial expressions, music and voice-overs complete the job.

"The compositor basically  puts together all the layers-characters, background, shadows, lighting," says Shilpa, who has to ensure that there is perfect harmony amongst the individual elements, while creating the final package.

How It's Done: Making It Big In The Animator's World 
The Courses Involved                                             
Basic modules in 3DS Max, Alias Maya, or Avid SoftImage XSI offered by institutes such as Arena Multimedia, Pentamedia, ZICA. Or a BA/MA in Fine/Commercial Art offered by institutes like JJ School of Arts (Mumbai), National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) or any of the Government Arts Colleges. Or Visual Communication/Mass communication courses from places like Symbiosis (Pune), Loyola College (Chennai), Sophia Polytech, Xavier's Institute of Comunications (all Mumbai), Jamia Milia, IIMC (Delhi) 

The Companies Involed                                  
Rhythm & Hues India, Crest Communications, Toonz Animation, Maya Entertainment, UTV Toons, Zee Institute of Creative Arts (ZICA), 2NZ Studios, Prasad Studios, Acropetal, Padmalaya Telefilms, UTV Software Communications (UTV), Pentamedia Graphics, Jadooworks.

The Gods to Worship
Ram Mohan: One of the pioneers of animation in India, Ram Mohan is considered by many to be the "Bhishma Pitamaha" of the Indian animation industry.
Shyam Ramanna: Promoter of Crest Communications, son of late nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna, SFX and 3D guru. He is currently based in Bangkok.
Dionysius: The Greek God of fertility and wine, often associated with insanity and inebriation!

Art was a fascination from childhood-"I used to draw funny, animated characters and went to school half an hour early, just so I could draw them on the blackboard!"

A senior member of the Crest family, Shilpa has been around for 10 years. She started out as a visualiser, handled pre-press, animation, worked as  an ink and paint artiste, did 2D and is now into 3D compositing.

Shilpa's three-year-old son Ved is her biggest fan. "My son is very excited about my work. We watch a lot of films together," she beams.

Oh, and her days involve only work! She reaches office around 11 am-work and meetings keep her busy. "I leave around 10:30 pm and even work overnight at times. It's a stressful career, but it's a choice we've made."

Quiz her on why there aren't too many women around in the industry and she says: "It is a high-pressure career. My family has been extremely supportive of my work and I've been able to focus on my career." And what has ten years in the animation industry taught her? "I think women have more patience than men!"
The 'Incredible' Kamal Mistry
The man behind the year's most talked about animation movie takes us behind the scenes

You have seen the movie, you fell in love with the characters, now meet the man behind The Incredibles-Kamal Mistry, the Gujarat-born, New Zealand-educated technical director at Pixar. Founded by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Pixar is undoubtedly the world's leading animation studio. Mistry speaks on what goes into the making of an animation blockbuster.

The Magic Is The Story
"At Pixar, we concentrate on the story. Next comes the storyboard. Each and every frame is first drawn there. Then come story layout, modelling, shading, building characters, building models, sets and props, hair shading, and lighting."

Making Hair
"I was mainly involved in the creation of the hair for the characters. We wanted a 'cartoony' yet real look for the hair. Modelling was done in Maya, including the sets and props. We used Marionette, an in-house animation software, to make hair. We first made key hair strands and then wrote the code that made the hair in between. The next step was to make it wavy. For this, we made some key strands on the model so we could understand what it would be like. Maya already had tools to comb hair, so that was easy."

A Hairy Syndrome
"Syndrome (a character in 'The Incredibles') had the most complicated hair-it always stood on end. So I first made a tube first with the key strands, and then filled it with the other hair. This was mainly accomplished with the help of MEL script." (MEL stands for Maya Embedded Language and is used to create scripts that automate processes in Maya). "With MEL, we could create programs that performed tasks within the software. For hair, we wrote many scripts that helped us groom and sculpt hair on all characters.
"The next step was the simulation of the hair we had created. Before Voilet, hair beyond shoulder length was theoretical. Getting the right simulation for her hair was a real challenge. Initially, we tried using cloth strips for hair, but it is unsuitable as cloth behaves differently. It was then worked out with the help of velocity smoothing algorithm and our own simulator program."

Giving Characters A Soul
"For the character articulation of The Incredibles, we developed software that gave us the ability to create bones and muscles, and then skin that would sit on the bones and muscles! We had the ability to tweak the bones, the muscles as well as the skin. This was necessary to create the look of characters like 'Mr Incredible'.
"Character articulation was a real challenge. For 'Edna', we had to do a variety of facial expressions. To get the required outcome, we made a bone-muscle-skin set up where we preserved the volume of muscle as they contracted and expanded. In the muscle-bone system, the muscle would drive the skeleton and the end-result drives the skin. In order to avoid mathematical complications, we made characters that could be manipulated in real-time. Our emphasis for the facial expressions were on clean lines. Director Brad Bird told us to push the character to do as many things as possible.

Bam! Boom!! Kapow!!!
"After working on hair and characters, the next task assigned to me was the creation of explosions. The director as well as the Art Department wanted to have explosions with 'tentacles' or 'fingers'-where the explosion would start from one point and explode outwards with the tentacle or fingery look. We developed an explosion simulation set up within Maya, where we would draw curves to denote the direction and then simulate the explosion, given those curves. This was all possible with the help of MEL scripts within Maya. "We mostly used Maya's fluid dynamics for explosions. For this, colour heat value and density was considered. Explosions were done using particle dynamics and fluid simulation."

In A Nutshell
"Making The Incredibles was a lot of hard work and fun. Today, when we look back, there is a sense of achievement. My favourite scene in the movie is when Dash gets to run really fast and in the process moves through many sets like forest, land. There was a lot complexity involved, the motion blur, the blur on his feet; it was all very daunting."

The Final Frame

Synergy would best describe the work environment at a place like Crest. Like dedicated worker ants, heads buried in their workstations, the 250-member strong Team Crest works together to create the "picture perfect scene". Ideas are generated on the go, thrashed at meetings, and only the best ones make a successful journey to the big screen. "It takes us about a month to create a single, 22-minute episode!" says Dhaliwal. His impish smile does not give away the stress, the late nights, the intense pressure of deadlines… yet, at the end of the day, nothing beats the satisfaction of a job well done.

As we walk away from Crest, Sherwin, our photographer, remarks thoughtfully, "At 24, these guys are in a prime spot." You bet.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.