I have always been fascinated by Pixar. “The Incredibles” enthralled me. “Ratatouille” mesmerized me.
Apparently, they also seduced many others. The former, with a production budget of $92 million, grossed $631 million worldwide. The latter, with a production budget of $150 million grossed $621 million.
I have asked, how?
The answer boiled down to tight, moving screenplays, superb graphics, and outstanding editing.
In the back of my mind had always been the idea that the Pixar formula needed to be applied to a studio based in India, working with Indian stories, colors, culture. Disney had tried oriental stories earlier, with Mulan and Aladdin. However, the treatment in those movies was distinctly American. I was after something much more Indian in terms of texture.
Now, to achieve the level of graphics excellence that Pixar had set the benchmark for, we needed technology. Screenwriting and editing were relatively lower barriers to entry and were skills that were abundantly available in Hollywood, although not in India. India’s rambling, drawn-out screenplays simply did not have the incisiveness that I was looking for.
With that analysis in hand, we set up Elixar Studios in 2008. Our venture would change the economics of animation filmmaking. We were funded by Disney’s venture capital arm, Steamboat Ventures, and established a close collaboration with Pixar. Disney would distribute all our films, as they did with Pixar.
But we had to start with technology. For two years, our team of top-notch computer scientists worked in Silicon Valley to build new 3D computer animation software. With multi-core computing making headway, the software was optimized with inherent parallelism to run at speeds unknown before. The technology was also capable of an unprecedented level of automation. It could make characters walk, run, swim, fly, somersault, throw a javelin, or wield a sword with commands and rendering, and without much human intervention.
What took 15 hours to do with previous generations of animation technologies could now be done in 15 minutes.
John Lasseter, one of the founders Pixar and director of studio hits like “Toy Story”, and Brad Bird, the two-time Academy Award-winning director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”, were on our board of directors, mentoring us along the way.
We patented every angle of the technology and had no intention of selling it as a tool.
We were going to use our own technology to make movies.
We needed a creative director à la Lasseter. John nominated one of his protégés from Pixar, a woman who studied at his alma mater, the California College of Arts (CCA), and had worked under him on several Pixar films. She was raised in the US, but her family was of Indian origin, so she knew some of the stories and certainly knew the culture in some depth.
We also needed a team of animators in India whom we were going to train on this technology. We set up two centers: one in Ahmedabad, close to the National Institute of Design, and the other in Shantiniketan, affiliated with Viswabharati University. There was tight collaboration with both schools, and our teams of young animators were fascinated by what they could achieve using this technology.
No other animation studio in India or abroad had access to the technology, so word spread throughout the animation community that Elixar is the company to work for.
We started getting resumes from CCA, Rhode Island School of Design, NYU’s Tisch and other art schools. Animators were even willing to move to India to get their hands on our software.
I tried to suppress my smile, but it was hard not to have fun with the situation.
Anyway, we had a big job ahead.
We had to assemble a team of storytellers who knew how to write fast-moving but sensitive scripts. We did this by creating story teams of experienced Hollywood screenwriters who had mastered their craft, paired with Indian writers who knew the texture, culture and heritage of India. Brad helped us locate the Hollywood talent, while the Indian talent came out of the leading journalism and literature programs in the country. The Indians had much to learn, which they did.
The team wrote nine spectacular scripts, each for a two-hour feature film. Five of them were based on the Mahabharat. Three were based on other Indian epics and mythology (Ramayan, Bhagavat, and the Devi-Puranas). The ninth was based on Abanindranath Thakur’s Raj Kahini, set in Rajasthan. The seventh was an adaptation of Shirshendu Mukherji’s children’s ghost story, Gnoshai Baganer Bhut, but superimposed onto the Indian cricket scene.
All films were in English, made for an international audience. I had felt that while Indian stories and contexts were interesting, when it came to storytelling, Hollywood still had the most advanced talent. Proving my hypothesis correct, our Mahabharat script turned out to be a nail-biting political thriller, and a franchise that developed its own Harry Potter-like following. The Raj Kahini film quickened the pace of the original story considerably, while the cricket story was a delightful comedy.
Our budget per film was an unbelievable $15 million. We have released a film each year since 2011. Each film has grossed $250 million. Three out of the nine films have won an Oscar for best animated feature film.
Pixar finally has a competitor.
In the next decade, we will establish Elixar studios in Europe, China, Japan, and the US to work on films with local talent and local stories. Our Italian studio is already working on a script based on Julius Caeser, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. In Paris, we have a team working on a story based on the life of Napoleon’s first love, Desirée. In Athens, we have an effort underway to give life to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
We have gained maximum acclaim for a certain genre of historical animation, and over the next stage of our evolution, that will be our focus.
A call to Indian entrepreneurs everywhere, Vision India 2020 challenges and inspires readers to build the future now. In this “futuristic retrospective,” author Sramana Mitra shows how over the next decade, start-up companies in India could be turned into billion-dollar enterprises. Vision India 2020, which encompasses a wide range of sectors from technology to infrastructure, healthcare to education, environmental issues to entertainment, proves how even the most sizeable problems can be solved by exercising bold, ambitious measures. Renowned in the business world, author Sramana Mitra conceived Vision India 2020 from her years of experience as a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and entrepreneur. Well aware of the challenges facing today’s aspiring entrepreneurs, Mitra provides strategies, business models, references, and comparables as a guide to help entrepreneurs manifest their own world-changing ideas.
This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020