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Ram Mohan: Interview

Series on design masters in India:

“Working with Satyajit Ray
was great because he exactly
knew what he wanted”

Question: How did you start on your own?

Co-incidentally somewhere around the same time Prasad Productions studios in Madras had acquired an Animation stand, Oxbberry - a very sophisticated Rostrum Camera. They had decided to set up Special Effects Department in Animation. They approached me and asked me if I could take over their department. But since I didn’t not want to move from Bombay to Madras I told them if they could bring their equipment to Bombay then I would join. So they brought their equipment here and Prasad Productions Animation Department was set up in Film Center in Tardeo- Bombay and I joined them. While joining I told them that I will be with them only for 3 to 4 years because after that I wanted to become independent. And we started off with films like films like ‘Baap Re Baap’ and we got this film called ‘You said it’ on how democracy functions. And we got a series to do of ’Down To Earth’ which won several awards. After that I decided to set up my own company called Ram Mohan Biographics in 1972. Bhimsain who had left Films Division at the same time as I did, also joined me and we did a film called ‘Harmony’ which was done with cutouts (cutout animation), and by moving them under the camera. At that time hindi films had just started using Animation. We did some animation sequences for films like ‘Hasina Man Jayegi’, ‘Do aur Do Paanch’, ’Biwi O Biwi’ and songs sequences for films like B.R. Chopra’s ‘Pati Patni aur Woh’ and Hrushikeah Mukheerji’s ‘Khubsurat’ where (the animation was like the Moon coming down and fish flying some fancy things). ‘Bhuvan Shome’ one of the first films where animation was used for the first time was also done at the same time. Because Prasad Productions was in the Films Center and producers used to come there to get their films developed and processed. They also had access to our department and asked us to do animation for their title sequences and it was fun doing it.

Then Satyajit Ray came in and he wanted animation for his film ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’. There was a scene in the introductory passage where he wanted to show the Political situation in India at that time when Vajid Ali Shah was the ruler. It was very nice working with him because he knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted the whole group of Britishers in the style called- ‘Company drawing’. That was all when I was with Company Prasad Productions.

Then when I started with Ram Mohan Biographics the work was mostly Advertising. We were probably the only one who had the camera and all the infrastructure. We got lot of work to in advertising i.e. Commercials. Though it never grew very big the staff was never more than 10 to 15 artists. People were reluctant to come into animation as a profession because they thought it was a very small field because there were not many advertising films that were being made and there was no room for major expansion. So right form from 1972 to 1997 when I finally closed down Ram Mohan Biographics, in the span of 25 years, it hardly grew from 10 -15 people to about 20 to 25 artists. It was very difficult to persuade people to come into animation because they thought there was no challenge in it and was a very small field.

Suddenly in the mid nineties people saw they were interested in doing contract works and outsourced from abroad. I was approached by Rhony Scruwalla from UTV to join hands. I thought that it was a good idea because I found that at the end of twenty five years I had reached some kind of dead-end. There was no scope of growing any further because we didn’t have the infrastructure to grow any larger. I thought it was fine and so we set up what was initially called ‘RM-USL’ and later it was named ‘UTV Toons’.

Everyone used to go and explore the possibilities of outsourced work. So Rhony and I went to Los Angeles, we visited most of the studios there, including Disney and Fox. What we had that time to show there was some of the commercials I had made at Ram Mohan Biographics. Their quality was pretty good, because they were for commercials they require high quality of work. So we had a pretty good show. We didn’t have a problem getting work. The first job that we got was the story of ‘Oliver Twist’ where Oliver was a little dog and all the other characters were also animals like Werin was a wolf etc. It was interesting to work on those episodes. But then we realized that we did not have enough animators. Almost all the people working with me in RMB were joined here so we had a core group of 25 people. But that was not enough to take up works for continuous outsourced work, We needed a much larger set up. Now the only way to expand was to train more people because there was no other way to get people with required skills. hence we started training people. Thus along with our Production program we also set up a Training program. We had six months of training program and then they would take on our production and they would learn while on production. They would start as inbetweeners and then clean-up artists and animators. Then we started growing. At one point we reached a staff strength of 450 which was huge. But then it was not viable to have so many people on the pay role because the kind of work came in differed and it was not the same all the time. So we decided to take people on contract. So the moral is that we went along everywhere in India but Unfortunately in India everyone wants permanent job, security and life long employment which we could not provide and hence some people retired or left their jobs.

Fortunately at that time there were other studios that were coming up. There was Toonz in Trivandrum, Esca Toon in Delhi by the Escort people and in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. And these people realized that having had training with UTV Toons they would be able to get job anywhere provided they were willing to travel. So there was no problems getting job. Because anyone who had training experience with our UTV Toons, had no problems getting absorbed anywhere else, that itself was a good qualification for them. So that is how we expanded and we were doing quite well.

But what happened was in the year 2000 and on there were so many studios that were competing against each other in India. And again India competing against China and other countries that were all into the same kind of business. Studios were undercutting each other trying to work at lower and lower prices which was ultimately unviable. So I was feeling quite frustrated because my whole idea of joining hands with UTV was initially off course getting more and more works which would keep the company running and give us the opportunity to train more and more people. But once we had a team of trained people we should have taken up Original content, doing our own shows and putting them in the world market or at least in the Indian market. But that was not something which was happening. Because once you get into this group of getting more business / work form abroad earn in dollars that becomes the temptation and they don’t go beyond that.

So I finally decided that this was not what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Though there was enough work to do, one thing what I wanted to do was to explore animation further. Working on indigenous animation program with Indian stories and content, Indian characters and for Indian audience. And other thing was exploring that what 3D can do. It was growing rapidly - CGI. I realized that it was important we should move further. The problem with 2D was obviously that it required a lot of labor, so many people involved and large space. And the only reason why 2D surviving was cheap labor was available in Asia. So CGI indirectly was the only option that was worth exploring. But the problem was that- one perceived CGI as high subtle imitation, the kinds of movement that were performed. But after seeing the films that were coming out from Pixar for example we could see that they were overcoming those barriers, tackling the problems and making movements that were pretty close to 2D. So I thought that is what we should explore. “The possibility of taking CGI i.e Computer Generated Animation and applying principles of Classical Animation”. And to see how much of that can be achieved the kind of stretch and squash and secondary movement which we take for granted in good 2D classical animation. That
same principles can be applied. So I decided to switch over from classical animation to 3D and took over the Chairman of this company- Graphiti. First thing we did was that people who were already doing hand drawn classical animation, giving them basic and strong training in how to handle Maya 3D software. And we saw it was very easy within 3 to 4 weeks they were able to pick up and handle the software. And the results of animation were much better than the other schools without any background in classical animation. So we have now made a policy to recruit people with experience in classical animation. Then we train them for the software like Maya and we get good results. Off course there is one aspect of 3D which is very specialized like modeling, rigging, textures and lighting which
are very technical aspects of 3D animation and cannot be done through classical animation. Those are skills which one have to develop independently. But animation as such if you have a good model already designed and already rigged to give it natural movements is the job of a classical animator.“We are exploring - Doing 3D animation and then rendering it as 2D so that it has the look of 2D”

“We have not done anything major in the way how 3D Animation is used abroad only for special effects where you blend special effects animation with Live Action in such a way that you don’t know that which is live and which is animation. That is mainly for Terminator, Titanic and Jurassic Park. That kind of work in yet done but that is the area we would like to venture into.

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