Vaibhav Kumaresh, chief of Vaibhav Studios is an alumnus of NID (batch of ’98), Vaibhav is known for his creative and witty short films that he’s made for television channels and advertisements. Popular among these is the character ‘Simpu’ that he created for Channel V and the animation created for Amaron batteries. He was recently in the news for the slick animation that his studio created for Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par.
I had bumped into Vaibhav shortly after lunch last Sunday, a day after I saw the movie. During the course of our conversation, I had requested him if he could share his experiences working on the project with a few of us. Generous that he is, he obliged. We fixed up a date and time and had the session. The following is what transpired…
Adel: Vaibhav, how did Taare Zameen Par happen? How did they approach you? Tell us the whole story!
Vaibhav: Earlier, there was another company that was working on the sequence that we were supposed to for almost a year. Aamir Khan was not really happy with what came out and he was looking for someone to direct the entire sequence. Probably that was a production house and they were not probably doing it that way he was wanting it to be done. As a director, he could not supervise everything and he wanted someone to totally handle this. Thats when he started researching on different kinds of animation people and their work in India and thats how they ended up asking us for our reel. We met with Aamir shortly after that to discuss. There were two animation sequences at that time which was about 3 months ago which he wanted to be done – one was the opening title animation and the next was this 3×9 sequence.
Initially he told us the story and took me through the entire film including how the opening title came and how each frame was shot and how the sequence was to come
Ajit: At what stage of the film making process were you called to make this sequence?
Vaibhav: The film was already done. This was about 3 months back from the date of release – 21st Dec. It was delivered around 12th November and then there were some corrections. Final delivery happened around 20th November, a month before the films release.
The story was very nice. Aamir told us about the drawing competition and it seemed like he had so much clarity about each thing and how it happens. For the animation sequences, say the opening titles he was very open to suggestions. He had seen Dhimant’s work. He had worked with Dhimant during Lagaan. Well not exactly during Lagaan, but shortly after that. Dhimant had done the caricatures of the 11 players which is also I think embossed on the DVD set that you can buy. So he knew Dhimant from earlier. He’d had seen his work and ours and got us together to work on the opening credits.
Dhimant worked with Tata Interactive and they had done some model animation workshop and did some very good short film. Aamir had seen that film and wanted that kind of an animation – its like relief clay and that morphs into different animals, like very seamless morphs. He was looking for something like that for the opening credits which was visually rich and had no story as such. It can be a representation of the kids mind. We were planning to do that. I told him clay animation was going to be tough as we were at that point of time not able to take any work for the next 2-3 months. The day I had met him I told him that its a very tight thing but I’ll let you know and we really want to do this. I came back to office and discussed this with the team and we felt that we should definitely do this because it was a brilliant opportunity whether it was the opening credits or the 3×9 animation. We were going to do the opening credits earlier. Even that is very well integrated into the film and I felt really happy to be a part of that project.
I had asked Aamir about whatever queries I had because he just explained till the sequence and I felt I should know more about the film and more importantly about the kid. We needed to know what kind of a kid he was so that we could visualize what he thinks and try and have fun with it. I asked him about the film and he asked us to watch the film. They had done a rough edit of the film. The background score and music were not ready yet but there were some songs. Infact there were having regular screenings with all kinds of people so that they could get some initial feedback and work on them. They internally too had some doubts, whether it was too long or if it needed more chopping of scenes. That way they used to have a couple of screenings for audiences every day. There was a screening for us too, where Dhimant’s team and our team had gone to see the film. After we saw the film, we felt more charged about doing it. Although there weren’t any background score, the story came out so beautifully.
One day Dhimant called Aamir and told him that he wanted to do the opening credits. I was quite happy because we would be then working on the 3×9 animation which Aamir had narrated to us. This was more exciting as it had the character in it and was part of the actual story.
Adel: The whole concept of the planets crashing was Aamirs?
Vaibhav: Yea Yea. It was scripted. I’m not sure if it was written by Amul Gupte or Aamir Khan, but the sequence was already planned for the film. Infact a company was also working on this for almost a year and had totally bounced it. They were actually planning to scrap the sequence from the film. We were also in a situation where we couldnt take work but then decided to do this any how. We even planned to assemble two different teams so that both happened simultaneously. We took it up and had started with it. In between Dhimant said that he wanted to do the opening credits and I was glad to do the 3×9 sequence as it was a story. I was pretty excited about it and we totally got into that.
We started with the character design and how it should be. We would email Aamir and he used to send us his comments – “this looks nice”, “avoid this”, “try adding this”… We had certain crucial dialogues of the kid recorded and used that to create a basic timeline. When we worked with the dialogues, a lot of interesting visuals came to mind and we could thereon visualize the story much better. We then did the visual scripting of the story. We added a lot of other layers; like Mars can be a hot planet that blows fire. The script in that sense was pretty basic where the character comes and takes number ‘3’ and does an into ‘9’ where ‘9’ gets destroyed and ‘3’ remains. Thats the basic concept. We had to flush it out and make it a little more interesting like what was the space he’s in and how do we introduce captain ishan and what does the area look like; how simple or complicated should it be. We got into all those things. We edited the kids voice….
Adel: You had the voice recorded before producing the sequence?
Vaibhav: Yea, we had already recorded the voice. But that was an old recording that we had. It was again dubbed once the final production was done.
We started on the character design and a rough story board on how we visualized it. We used to keep bouncing it off with Aamir so that he knows exactly the way we were working on it. We did a color animatic of the whole sequence and showed it to him and he was happy with it. There were some minor things that he suggested. Once everything was locked we started production – actual animation of the sequence. We did one month of hardcore production.
Ajit: Could you tell us what exactly happens in production and pre-production?
Vaibhav: Pre-production is like homework. You’re trying lots of options, explorations, etc. For example: character design – how does the boy look and what should the color scheme be like, what is the event flow, how do you get into the story from the the place (the test paper) it takes off. Now, the kid does not see the alphabets as letters, they are dancing or something else for him. Same for numbers, he does not see them as we do, probably its some other shape. Say he thought of ‘3’ as the third planet from the sun. So you see, these are in his thinking. Now how do we introduce this kid in the story? He’s coming in a spaceship and whats the area that he’s going through. How does he approach the solar system and how does he approach the earth and so on. This is visual scripting where you visualize how the story is going to go and thats the homework we do. Once we decide and freeze on what we’re going to do, we take it to the next stage which is, Production.
Production is where the story is actually executed. In this particular sequence, everything was hand drawn. We drew the main poses of the character and then we drew the in-between movements. We also did the shadow for the character. For every drawing there was a shadow depending on where the light is. For every shot there is a background. Some places the background is moving and some had them static. All this comes under production. Once all these layers come together, we compose it and render them. Its about 5 times the resolution of broadcast, so the rendering time and file size shoots up.
Sachita: How much time did the pre-production take you?
Vaibhav: Well it was about 2-3 weeks hardcore. We didn’t do the pre-production full time because we had some other projects that were in various stages of production. We started the work pretty late. Out of the 2 months, about half a month went in meeting and discussing the project with Aamir.
Adel: What was the size of the team that worked on this?
Vaibhav: About 15 people.
Adel: How was it working with Aamir?
Vaibhav: Great. It was the first time that we worked on a big screen. Apart from the technical learnings, even just to be a part of the project was inspiring. Many a times, when we used to go to present some stuff, there were other stuff going on and we used to see him perform all those roles. Just observing a production of that kind happen is itself a learning.So many people – the cinematographers are doing their jobs, the sound engineers are running around, the assistant directors are ensuring that time commitments are being managed. He himself is producing couple of other projects. At the same time he’s meeting with so many other people. He has to do 3 hours of exercise before getting ready for his next film. It was such a happy experience to see someone who was so committed and clear – he also used to talk about font sizes, like why is it so big? can we make it 70%, why is there a slight jitter happening here, should this be on a black background instead of a blue background – he’s so concerned about each and everything. Even with sound – certain theatres are equipped with Dolby, certain others with DTS and so on. He’d listen to an audio clip in all formats. Every detail is so personally and meticulously gone through. At the same time he gives you total freedom to apply your own creative thoughts, unlike what is being said in the media about him being an interfering person and all that – we’ve never felt that working with him. Everything went so smooth.
Sachita: What sort of an experience was it for you to start your own setup?
Vaibhav: Well, it happened overnight. There wasn’t any plan to start on our own. We used to think but never really made an effort in that direction. There was a project which I wanted to work on. We were consultants at Famous Studios and we could not do freelance projects. It was a project for a friend, which Famous had refused because it was a low budget children’s film or something… I was very eager to work on that and I couldn’t work on it being at Famous. It was being produced by a friend of mine and I had started to do some ground work for him to make sure that this project happened. There were some disagreements that came up with Famous and I was given the choice to either do that or this. That was when I made the decision to break from Famous and I was happy. Once that happened, I thought why not start making films on our own. We gradually got people to join us and ended up getting projects to work.
Adel: E. Suresh would have been mighty upset with you.
Vaibhav: Yes, he was. (smiles)
Adel: You took away his people and projects too!
Vaibhav: No, I never took away his people, but projects yes! (laughs) No, it was a coincidence with Mahboob and Chandini. They were employed with Famous and for some reason they totally agreed to discontinue. So I guess it took off really well. The timing of a lot of events was perfect.
Pankaj: How was it like for you to be your own boss?
Vaibhav: I was the most happiest. The best part of being on our own is that we could manage our own money, our time and resources. It just felt like being in total control. If we wanted to do something in a certain way, we could. Over the years, we’ve worked exactly that way and its given us much more confidence and recognition for doing that kind of work. When we dont want to do something in a certain way, we dont do it and people respect our decision. There has been many times where we’ve refused projects. Infact this is the first time we did simultaneous projects in parallel. We usually work in a linear manner – finish one project and then get into the next.
Samarth: Vaibhav, when did you create Simpu?
Samarth: Did you start your own company when you created Simpu?
Vaibhav: No. It was around the time I completed with my course here at NID
Samarth: When did you start creating Simpu?
Vaibhav: I had started sketching him while at school in my 10th grade.
Samarth: Did you get a brief from Channel V for such a character. How did that come about?
Vaibhav: No, we made a few stories around this and approached them. They liked the idea and asked us to produce it.
Samarth: Are you in a contract with Channel V? Does Channel V allow to use Simpu any place else?
Vaibhav: Yes, we do have a contract. Channel V i.e. Star Networks owns Simpu.
Samarth: So, you’ve basically sold them the rights?
Vaibhav: No we didnt sell it. Infact they dont pay us – its like very bad money. We’re doing it more like a hobby. But the recognition that we got from Simpu is much more than all the other commercial projects that we did. The challenge at that time was that they wouldnt pay us anywhere close to commercial rates. Every year, they’d increase the paycheque by about 10%. Its almost like doing it for free. However, it did add a lot of value to our work. They’ve supported the character (Simpu) really well. They’ve given him a lot of coverage.
Samarth: Have you done any feature film projects?
Vaibhav: No, but we’ve been approached for a lot of feature film projects lately. There’s now a nice revenue model in place. If you invest so much and do it a particular way, you’d at least recover your cost and might also end up making good profit. Like the Hanuman character which has become famous. Now all the money-people have suddenly woken up and have started hunting animation directors, creative artists, etc.
Bhavna: Lots of mythological animations have been cropping up lately
Vaibhav: Yea, all sorts of gods will start popping up now! (smiles) But a feature is such a big investment of time. A feature might take 3-4 years to complete if done properly. We are not prepared for it as we are not excited about doing a story that will last that long. We’ve been making these one minuters and 30 seconders for so long, but we do feel the urge to tell longer stories. If we feel strongly about a subject that we’d like to make a film on, that would be more satisfying than just catering to a demand. We have a concept for a teleseries – these are stories that we want to tell every week. These are 22 mins stories that will have characters that are repeated in every story but the stories themselves will be completely different from each other. Thats something that has been really exciting us for a long time and we’d like to get into production for that. Thats something that we’d like to do. The feature offers are not something that we’re excited about right now.
The conversation goes on and we talk about the animation industry in India. Vaibhav shares that 90% of animation houses in India do outsourced work. They tend to be factories churning out half hour movies every 2 weeks. Although not bad, he feels that there’s a huge potential for a lot more. Training institutes are mushrooming all over the country teaching software and trying to cash in on the boom. The problem, he says, is animation is seen as a business and not as an art form.
Before we wound up, we asked him whether he was interested in doing more big screen projects. He replied – “If its as interesting as this, definitely. One thing I really like about this is the mass audience it touches. We’ve done something, its released a week back and all of you know about it. Its such a beautiful platform. Maybe tomorrow it might go for some international festival and your work is suddenly all over the world. If you do something of good quality and it goes all over the world – thats the biggest high!”