Timothy Jones – Rhythm to Reliance: The Globalized Discourse of Indian Animation

In 2000 the Mumbai-based commercial graphics firm Crest Communications acquired the struggling Hollywood studio Rich Animation. Five years later, the combined companies signed a three-picture deal with Lions Gate starting with the 2010 feature Alpha and Omega (Bell and Gluck 2010). This was an audacious move for the newly minted Crest Animation, a studio that had only recently entered the market for outsourcing contracts. Likewise, in 2001 the pioneering US studio Rhythm & Hues opened its own office in Mumbai, then a second in Hyderabad; two parts of an in-house production pipeline that would soon span five countries. Such moves signaled newfound confidence in the capabilities of a vibrant Indian production sector, suddenly poised to crack lucrative global markets. Yet by 2013 both firms were bankrupt; a shock to the local animation sector that, although increasingly familiar, is still felt today.

In this paper I examine that history to argue that even as local animators seek greater control over their own cultural production, the industrial logics of outsourcing linger to favor more globally oriented narratives. These emphasize the integration of domestic practices into international structures that perpetuate a separation of creative and technical work. In India outsourcing brought rapid growth but not stability. Yet rather than spur rejection of global engagement, this has precipitated even closer integration: coproduction, localization, and the naturalization of Western firms. Producers represent the achievement of even narrow areas of local creative control as contingent on strategic negotiation with global partners and mobile capital, exemplified today by transnational firms like

Technicolor and Prana

This paper is drawn from conversations with studio heads, creative and technical directors, animators and designers from six large animation firms. In recreating a narrative of global engagement across practitioner accounts, I present the critical assertions individuals make about their work largely intact (Ortner 2013, p. 27). Following Caldwell and Ortner, I interpret these as theoretical texts in their own right, directly comparable to other sources of cultural testimony, rich in distinctive modes of expression and ways of thinking about the world.
Initiating Global Engagement

In 2005 approximately 90 percent of revenue for Indian animation companies came from “global services,” that is, from outsourcing (Economic Times 2009). Nascent studios jostled for global film and television contracts, and it seemed like there would be more than enough to go around. Despite global recession, the 2010 Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), KPMG Report, projected annual growth at 18.5 percent to $1.5 billion by 2015. Such numbers are invariably accompanied by enthusiastic testimony, such as these remarks from then-Crest CEO A.K. “Mad Max” Madhavan:

Animation is the future of communication! In an ever evolving and burgeoning market space transcending geographic and demographic limits, IPs [Intellectual Properties] are imperative to success. The matured markets have proven that Creation, Development and Distribution of original brands are the way forward for sustainability and profitability of business. (KPMG 2011, p. 100)

Madhavan not only describes the economic impact of Indian animation practice, he attends to its meaning. He invokes several features of what I identify as a narrative of global engagement: a concern for sustained growth, a creativity as a tangible economic asset, and an assertion that global markets are key to both creative and professional autonomy. Madhavan and others envision circumstances where the distinction between local and international production is increasingly difficult to discern; yet Indian producers have the flexibility to manage their own resources.
A casual observer might be forgiven for assuming that the history of Indian animation begins not with the 1890s lantern shows of the Patwardhan family (Jones 2012) or even the 1956 founding of the government Cartoon Films Unit, but in the 1990s with the first major Hollywood service contracts. Hollywood has long looked to Asia for inexpensive labor. This has almost always been justified in the same ways: outsourcing creates high-status jobs that otherwise would not exist. However, these new animation workers are exploited in that they are excluded from much of the creative process, and stripped of incentive to identify their contributions as creatively significant (Stahl 2009, p. 64). Still, it is common among narratives of animation outsourcing to suggest that contract work for foreign studios actually catalyzes homegrown production (Tschang and Goldstein 2004, p. 2; 2; Lent 2000, p. 5). India has a ready model for this in its ascendant Information Technology (IT) sector, where the increasing “knowledge capabilities” of key firms ostensibly drives growth (Tschang 2011, p. 5).

The narrative of such an outsourcing “ladder” (Chatterjee 2003) seemed to be borne out by the appearance of domestic feature films. Percept Picture’s 2005 film Hanuman (Samant and Ukey, 2005) was the first to market, setting off a surge in feature production. The well-publicized disappointment of subsequent films brought an abrupt and painful end to most development. Investors wrote off their apparent losses and very few other features have been distributed. As IDC associate professor Sumant Rao described: “What works, what doesn’t work, they don’t know it because they are trying to use paradigms from some other industry and apply it to animation” (Personal interview, 13 Nov. 2011). Common across critiques is the assertion that money and technology have taken precedence over creativity. However, many do not confront the underlying logic of the ladder itself. Instead, firms like Crest proposed a different path to global engagement through acquisition and integration, gaining access to creative autonomy and professional agency by sharing it with established partners.

Acquiring ‘Creative Sensibilities’

In our conversations Crest’s Madhavan reframed the outsourcing ladder as a “learning curve,” built upon investment in “creative sensibilities,” closely tied to reputation and personal trust. By cultivating relationships in Hollywood, Crest sidestepped the hard-learned lessons of the feature bubble, recognizing that the firm could not expect to navigate the transition from commercial graphics to long-form animation alone: “[W]e didn’t have the skill sets in India to understand creative sensibilities for a global animated product” (Madhavan, Personal interview 12 July 2011). Creativity and confidence, understood as knowledge of the market, could now be purchased. Developing capabilities by acquiring western companies has a long history in the Indian IT sector and such partnerships have a lot to offer animation firms as well, not only the institutional knowledge and larger profile of Western brands (Govil 2005, p. 106). Retaining infrastructure in Hollywood allows Indian companies to compete for work in US currency, while still leveraging cost savings at home. In return, for 2D animation producer Richard Rich, Crest offered not only inexpensive labor, but the technical expertise and institutional investment to survive in the post-Toy Story industrial climate.

This also has a cultural dimension. What Madhavan describes is Indian animators reasserting a degree of control, albeit collectively and largely symbolically. This extended down through the studio hierarchy, as Department Head Dibyalochan Chaudhury and Art Director Kedar Khot suggest:

We used to feel that people from outside know everything and we don’t know anything, […] So now we feel we are on par with our partners. (Chaudhury, Personal interview, 1 Nov. 2011)

[…] We had this freedom where we could voice our concerns and maybe do some validation. (Khot, Personal interview, 1 Nov. 2011)

Although subtle, this does suggests that at least Crest’s senior production team felt less alienated from creative authorship. Nonetheless this collective agency is contingent on the logic that the ostensibly senior Indian partner adopts practices from the established global industry. Such an achievement appears at odds with a continued geographic separation of creative and technical practice, in which pre-production, design, and post-production still occurred in the US under the supervision of American directors. Of course, even these gains were short-lived. While the low budget of Alpha and Omega made the film a moderate success for Lions Gate, recouping distribution costs left little for Crest, which had invested a year’s revenue in the film (Thomas 2010). By July 2013 workers faced nine months without pay. 250 were asked to resign, leading to a tense management standoff, and the company ultimately folding in July 2014 (Sadhwani 2013; Animation Xpress 2014).

Becoming ‘Geographically Agnostic’

Other companies in the Indian production environment have adopted different strategies to enter global production workflows. Firms like Crest that emerged from outsourcing into IP coproduction are today increasingly joined in India by fully owned subsidiaries of firms like Technicolor, and Rhythm & Hues. The early success of Rhythm & Hues and its flat management hierarchy allowed it to develop a unique global in-house production pipeline that has served as a model for other studios. The impact of this on practitioner identities is significant, as opportunities to participate in global management appear to offer increased sense of professional agency within the institutional culture of the firm.

The leadership at Rhythm & Hues presented creative practice within an explicitly global frame of reference. For US visual effects firms, as for their animation contemporaries in India, the production process is largely defined as technical labor. Rhythm & Hues as a “service provider company” has sought means not only to increase its economic stake in content, but to legitimize its creative practice as well. This is apparent in the testimony of long-time staff. Head of Digital Production, A. R. Seshaprasad drew a clear link between the company’s independent status and global profile:

[W]e don’t have any big sugar daddies or big corporate backing us. We are forced to be innovative, to look at how things are going to be five years down the line […] we thought that the talent was global, and we also realized the world is going to become a global marketplace. (Personal interview, 28 Oct. 2011)

At the root of this comparison between Hollywood ‘sugar daddies’ and a smaller and agile firm we can make out the same discourse of distinction between money and creativity from earlier outsourcing debates. Further, as in the case of Crest, this definition of creativity is extended to how labor is made meaningful within the firm’s Indian operations.

Production staff at Rhythm & Hues India principally worked on animation and visual effects sequences for Hollywood features. However the studio leadership has been clear to distinguish their process from more common forms of contracted labor. Seshaprasad refers to this approach to production as “geographically agnostic” in that: “[E]very single shot [and] every single discipline can be done anywhere across the globe” (ibid). What sets this conception apart is the invocation of mutual interdependence, based in the firm’s well-publicized flat hierarchical structure and informal communication (Jason Scott, Personal interview, 30 April 2011). The combination of these factors has allowed staff in India to conceive their professional contribution not only in terms of production but also the institutional culture of the company. This is reflected most clearly in inter-office training:

[W]hat happens is that curriculum and the content that we developed in India, we leveraged that to bring our [Kuala Lumpur] facility up, and similarly now, Vancouver is coming up or some new hires come in Los Angeles, then, they use our curriculum that we developed. (Seshaprasad 2011)

Here we get a glimpse of a changing relationship to industrial authorship, not creative autonomy per se but clearly defined professional agency. While Rhythm & Hues may not have survived as an independent company to see its own global production pipeline fully realized, much of this has been replicated at other firms, in particular Technicolor India’s DreamWorks Dedicated Unit in Bangalore. While increased exposure to the global market has not lessened the precarity faced by the vast majority of creative practitioners, it has brought Indian management into the heart of global production networks. These managers have also been drivers of the development of professional organizations, including Seshaprasad at ASIFA-India and Technicolor country-head Biren Ghose at ABAI.

One downside of flattening power hierarchies is the extent to which the effect may be localized within the firm. Creative workers may be empowered to make creative contributions to Western content as well as to contribute to institutional culture, but they are in the process separated not only from much of the creative process of work originating in overseas but also the rest of the production sector in India. The economic cost is that they are effectively unable to interact with the Indian market. This division between the lucrative but high-risk global market and the underdeveloped local market has been problematic for globally engaged firms operating in India. Hollywood projects with their higher budgets and more extended time frames attract senior practitioners not only with higher salaries but the opportunity to work on high-quality content, but this overhead makes it difficult or impossible to “compromise” for the needs of the local market. As Crest’s Chaudhury observed:

Every big company over here in India, they have to contribute something to local market, because as we all can see there is an up and down in the international market… If we want to sustain in the long run we have to develop that content. (Chaudhury 2011)

For staff at both Crest and Rhythm & Hues, reliance on the upside of the international market ultimately cost them their jobs. Despite recent management gains, the experience of practitioners in Western firms in India still demonstrates a large degree of separation not only between creative and technical practice, but the maturing animation sector within the country and its own domestic audience, which it is increasingly creatively and economically ill-suited to address, except through multinational intermediaries.

Epilogue

Both of these stories have an epilogue. Soon after leaving Crest in 2013, Mad Max Madhavan was back, this time with Assemblage Entertainment, co- producing the former Crest Animation property Norm of the North (Wall 2016) for distribution by Lions Gate in 2016. In Assemblage, one can observe not only Crest’s emphasis on track record and creative investment, but in the in-house R&D unit MadLabs, the clear imprint of Rhythm & Hues flat management thinking as well. As for Rhythm & Hues itself, the studio was purchased at auction by Prana Studios, another US company with production facilities in Mumbai, for $1.2 million cash, $30 million in total (Verrier 2013). Backing this bid were Mahindra Group’s Anand Mahindra, Reliance Industry’s Mukesh Ambani, and venture capitalists Naren Gupta of Nexus Capital, and Sherpalo Ventures’ Ram Shriram (Cloutier and Rothman 2013. India’s Prime Focus, a losing bidder for Rhythm and Hues, in 2014 bought London’s Double Negative instead, with Reliance taking a 60 percent stake (Bhattacharjee 2015; Animation Xpress 2015). Even as Indian creative practitioners struggle for creative agency, substantial economic power is vested in a relatively small number of Indian hands.

Conclusions

In this paper I have considered accounts of coproduction and the localization of multinational brands as major turning points in an ongoing narrative of industrial power and professional identity. I observe how the logics of volume, quality and cost central to the management of international production workflows and brand management are repeated in local production discourses as the main criteria for success, secured not by contract but dynamic cultural factors like personal trust. Local interpretations of global narratives are characterized by a concern for incremental but sustained growth, adapting production processes to gain competitive edge and meet global standards, prioritizing both client and partner expectations, while focusing on intellectual property and long-term brand priorities. Nonetheless, small gains in creative and professional agency are possible, if difficult to sustain in the long term.

Despite the often well-founded tendency to view globalized production in terms of the exploitation of local creative labor – a one-way flow of both culture and capital, that is not exactly what the testimony in this paper reveals. Rather than engage in a relationship of simple imitation with Western practice, practitioner theorization is deeply inflected by subjective experience and personal interpretation, increasingly critical to securing an emerging sense of creative and managerial agency. With few notable exceptions, creative and technical production on an industrial-scale remain largely divided across geographic lines, suggesting that attempts to frame globalized practice as nonetheless autonomous, creatively rewarding, and professionally meaningful aren’t going away any time soon.

This paper was presented at Cosmos of Animation, the 28th Annual Society for Animation Studies Conference, held at Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design and Media, 26-30 June, 2016.

Timothy Jones is the Production Manager in the Office of Instructional Enhancement (OIE) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension. Timothy’s recent dissertation investigates how Indian animation practitioners represent their practice theoretically as well as the impact of this upon their professional identities. His research interests include animation pedagogy and professionalization, virtual reality and games. His publications have appeared in Animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Animation Practice, Process & Production, and The South Asianist.

References

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© Timothy Jones

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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