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Vision India 2020: Elixar

Posted on Sunday, Jun 22nd 2008

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.

Note: Vision India 2020 was subsequently published as a book. You can order it from AmazonKindleAmazon.in, etc.

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

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Hi Sramana,

I have been an ardent follower of all your articles, especially the Vision 2020 series. I am really impressed with most of the concepts presented in the series. However,i have a few issues with the most current one on ‘Elixar’ .

I am concerned that the crux of the concept lays emphasis on creation of a fantabulous software in the USA and then its use only in India.

I also feel that there is nothing in this concept in its present form that is India-centric nor does it utilize any specific resource in India which is unavailable elsewhere.

What i am curious about is why wont Pixar make such software since afterall it has all the resources at its disposal.

I feel there needs to be something more concrete in the concept to really make it a vision.

Kindly correct me if i am wrong in my interpretation.

Vishal Monday, June 23, 2008 at 8:03 AM PT

Hi Vishal,

I thought for quite a while about this project. Your questions are well-taken. Here’s my thought process on this.

I don’t quite have the confidence that this software can be produced in India, which is the reasoning behind the choice of Silicon Valley for the R&D.

That said, we’re not building a software company, we’re building an animation film company. The software can be used anywhere as long as it is for the same company. In fact, the company can, later on build studios in China, Europe, the US, and use it to make films in those countries.

The animation software market is very small, so this is not necessarily a good market for us to get into. That’s the reasoning behind the company not trying to sell the software to others. Btw, Pixar, in its early days, had thought of selling software. Later, they abandoned that idea.

Pixar making software – they could, I am sure. But we could too. It just turns out, that in this project, we did better than anyone else. You have ahard time believing this? Why did Google make better search technology than Yahoo when Yahoo was the market leader? Answer: nimbleness and focus.

Also, you have missed the essence of the concept: storytelling. We’re taking Indian stories and layering Hollywood “craft” onto them. Disney did Aladin, Mulan, etc. based on Oriental stories. That’s the idea. But we do the films in India, and leverage Indian talent – story, graphics, production.

Most of my concepts, by the way, are done with a global view-point. You have to fuse expertise from placed where there is advanced expertise, with specific Indian talent and workforce (e.g. Urja, MIT India, Gangotri). In some cases, the concepts are taken from elsewhere and superimposed onto India (e.g. Darjeeling is taken from Bordeux / Napa Valley, Renaissance is taken from the Paradors in Spain).

I hope this addresses some of your questions. Feel free to ask more, I will answer.

Sramana Mitra Monday, June 23, 2008 at 9:26 AM PT

Greetings Sramana,

They all call me Madmax out there.”Khemon aachen?”

First off, reading this series ‘Vision 20-20’ ( sounds like the recent IPL Twenty-20, just kidding )was hair raising. I loved it so much that I haven’t read a decent ‘animation’ story in Indian Newspapers ever in the last decade ( dono if one appeared before that ). It reconfirms one of my favourite beliefs that there are 3 kinds of people in this world: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen & those who wonder what’s happening.I continue to believe that I belong to the first category & have been a part in building a small facility called ‘Crest Animation Studios’.

Would like to keep this short. I visit California every month( since we have a small creative facility in Burbank ) and it will be my honor to come and say ‘hello’ to your good-self in person next time. I will be obliged if you could see me at your office at a time that’s convenient to you. My next travel schedule to the west coast is around mid July & will give you a heads up once I lock in my travel.

I look forward to meeting your good-self & I wish Elixar the very best.

Hope this finds you in the best of everything.

Thanks & Best

Madmax

Madmax Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 11:10 PM PT

[…] In the next few columns, however, I want to discuss some opportunities that build upon the concepts we have discussed already. In particular, let me draw your attention back to two prior columns, Renaissance and Elixar. […]

Vision India 2020: Framed Ivory - Sramana Mitra on Strategy Monday, July 21, 2008 at 5:11 PM PT

[…] series can be accessed at MIT India, Urja, Lucid, Darjeeling, Renaissance, Gangotri, Maya Ray, Elixar, Bioscope, Thakur, AdiShakti, Framed Ivory, Oishi, <a […]

The Indian Economy Blog » Entrepreneurship Vision India 2020 Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 7:33 AM PT