How did you get into animation film making?
Since my childhood I was enticed by the creative arts. Creativity is in my genes, I guess, as my father Dr. Sudhir Desai is a well-known Gujarati poet and scholar, my mother Tarinibahen Desai is a distinguished writer, my elder sister Sanskritirani is an established poet, while my elder brother Sanskar, is a senior documentary filmmaker.
I started drawing as well as writing poetry at the early age of four. My mother, in order to create a quiet artistic space for writing her stories, would buy me some crayons and ask me to draw/paint and even encouraged me to write whatever came to my mind. I would get deeply engrossed in my own world for hours together. This is when she identified my distinctive colour sense and strong creative instincts.
Also, a lot of my father’s friends who were leading poets, writers, painters and musicians, often came home and there would be discussions on Samuel Beckett’s plays, Ezra Pound’s poetry and on Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, as well as artists of the Dadaism and Surrealism movement. In my free time, when kids my age would go out to play, I would prefer to read poetry of modern poets like Baudelaire and Rilke, even write poetry or paint. Hence I must have entered the artistic world at a very early age, just like my other siblings.
Tell us about your journey so far.
When I was less than five years old, I won my first special prize in a drawing contest organised by the Lion’s Club. Later, with awards at interschool and state level competitions, I got passionately driven for the creative arts.
Education, however, was a priority for my family. My parents wanted me to have a good professional degree to fall back on. Therefore I pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics (BSc), then a Post-graduation Diploma in Computer Management (DCM), and later a Master’s Degree in Business Management (MBA) from the Mumbai University, with specialisation in Finance.
I believe in the Indian philosophy of ‘Aham Brahmasmi’, i.e., I am God. I felt like a small God when painting or writing poetry and enjoyed creating different independent worlds of my own! Gradually, I convinced my parents that I wanted to chase my dream in the animation industry.
In 1991, with few animation institutes around, I directly joined a small animation studio as a trainee. I picked up 2D animation, and later took formal training in 3D Animation from Xavier’s Institute of Communications, Mumbai. After a couple of years at two animation studios including a pioneering studio called ‘Computer Graphiti’ which did advertising films, I decided to be on my own and started my own animation studio, “Metamorphosis,” where I do animation and special effects for advertising films.
Who has been your inspiration in animation?
I was exposed to Russian, Czech, Croatian, Japanese and several other European animation films by my father. The two animators who have particularly inspired me are the Polish master Jerzy Kucia for his surrealistic films, and Indian Canadian animator Ishu Patel for his spiritual approach. I even visited the animation studio of Kucia in Krakow, Poland.
What according to you is the requisite of a good animation film?
Hailing from a writer family, I believe that the soul of any film, be it animation or live action is the ‘story’. Enticing storytelling with powerful visuals is most important for a good film.
As director of animated films, what do you do?
Well, I start with the concept, then illustrate my visualisation into a storyboard with shot divisions. I then design the look of the film, which would include character designs, layouts, backgrounds etc. I sort of create a library of it, if my film is stylised, and then work on the sound design. Once that is completed, work on animation, compositing, visual FX if any. Then move on to post-production for edit and music/sound.
Do you usually work with animators, sitting down with the storyboards and describe exactly what you want, down to the smallest gesticulation, sometimes even act it out?
Animation filmmaking is team work. Depending on the intricacies, style and duration, it takes a long time to complete an animation film, i.e., several months or even years in some cases. Before I start my film, I work on the pre-production very carefully to avoid pitfalls and not waste time. Several tests have to be done before the final sequences are ready, in terms of colour schemes of characters, backgrounds, movements, timing, etc.
I do a lot of research and if need be, even travel to places for references. As an animator myself, it becomes easier to explain every detail I need for the scenes and movement. Oh yes, I act it out to my artists. Just a bit of trivia, having acted in professional children’s plays as a child, I have learnt the craft of acting and dramatics. So it is fairly easy for me to bring out the correct emotion wherever required.
Do you depend on others for the story, casting and record- ing the characters’ voices?
As I write my own scripts, it’s always easier to animate your own story as there is more control. Depending on the treatment of story, there could be more voiceovers or even just a narration or simple background music. I select the voices myself, and even guide the voice-over artists at the recording studios by explaining to them the expressions and emotions needed for the dialogues.
Are you a generalist animator or are you one of those who is specialised in one technique?
An artist cannot be contained or restricted by any style or technique. I like experimenting and using different styles as per the need of the subject and the story. I have even used conventional style in my films.
Do animation films have to have a message, or should they merely entertain?
It is purely up to the animation filmmaker to have his/her creative freedom to experiment. I have seen some brilliant work which was abstract animation, purely experimental, without a story… which is also powerful and unique, and also animation films driven by message.
Can social messages be delivered through animation more effectively?
I realised that when I made an animation film Chakravyuh (The Vicious Circle) to bring awareness about the ‘Right to Information’ (RTI), a serious subject, and difficult for the layman to understand and enjoy.
Having myself used RTI extensively, I knew exactly how powerful it was, and so was very keen to make a film on it. It was a Herculean task for me, but it created a move- ment among masses which inspired them to use RTI in their lives to solve their problems regarding corruption or non-governance. In fact, it was voted the Most Popular Film Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2014.
A film produced by the Films Division and Government of India(GOI), it was also publicly released by the Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT) headed by Padmabhushan Shri Julio Ribeiro. It was also uploaded on the official RTI web portal of GOI and shown in the theatres across India before the feature film.
What do awards mean to you?
I have won some international awards like the Gold Remi Award at the Worldfest, Houston, at the New York Film Festival, Prix Danube Diploma Award at Bratislava, etc., and also in India, the Most Popular Film Award at the MIFF 2014, from DOPT and Yashada, IDPA Awards, etc.
Awards encourage me to keep doing good work, reconfirms that I am on the right path, and that my work is being appre- ciated by people globally. It is a positive motivator since I had taken a big risk by entering the animation industry, even when I was professionally qualified to join the MNCs.
What project in your portfolio are you most proud of?
The project that is closest to my heart is Manpasand (The Perfect Match), produced by the Children’s Film Society, as it gave me my identity. I used a unique and very difficult style in animation, not done hitherto. It not only won international awards but was officially selected at over 22 international film festivals. It is indeed an immense pleasure when animation experts from overseas recognise that film by just seeing a frame, even today, which even found me a place in some encyclopaedias on animation.
What is the scope for animation film making in India? How does it compare with foreign films?
There is a plethora of talent and innovative ideas and hence good scope, but what we seriously lack is funding for films. Indian narratives and treatments are very different from foreign films with their own distinctive flavour, visually as well as execution-wise, and hence I would not want to compare them. Dedicated slots for animated short films on various TV channels, would see a lot of good quality work and scope for experiments.
How important is music in animation films?
Music, I believe gives the film completeness and an explicit flavour. I get music composed specifically for my films. My film Manpasand has two songs, when the film is only of 12 minutes duration. I wanted to give the flavour of classical raga-s. With the help of my mother and my elder brother Sanskar who are trained in Indian classical music, my film has raga-s like Darbaari, Pahadi and Miyan Malhar. I was also keen to use the percussion instrument Pakhawaj in some portions.
What fuels your creativity?
Whenever I see beautiful pieces of art, be it paintings, poetry, stories, films, or dance forms, it inspires me. I love to travel, and whenever I am invited as a jury member or to give lectures on animation, I make it a point to try and understand the culture, architecture, mundane life of people of different regions. These scenes and experiences invariably peep out in my films. Creativity gets activated within me, when I relish some spicy deep fried pakoda-s and several cups of tea! Maybe that’s the secret of my creative juices!