India’s Growing Visual Effects Industry

Can you name the country that leads the world in movie ticket sales and the number of films produced? Hint: It’s not the United States. According to online sources, that country is India.

Thanks to the huge demand for entertainment, India has become a hotbed for computer graphics and animation. The country offers talented technicians, competitive pricing and finished work of the highest quality, all on blockbuster titles you’re sure to recognize.

India’s first animated film, Agent Vinod, featured (amid the traditional singing and dancing common to movies from Bollywood) an animated scene with actor Jagdeep flying around Bombay holding balloons. From that humble start, animation and visual effects have grown considerably. According to the 2011 FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report, the Indian animation industry is predicted to grow from the present $1.8 billion to $2.9 billion (USD) by 2015.

To explore the importance of technology at a pair of leading animation studios, we spoke to executives at Rhythm & Hues (an international producer with developers in India), and Crest Studios (a local production house). They discussed their technology infrastructures and demonstrated their enthusiasm for future product development.

Cutting Down Compute-years

Starting in 1987, Rhythm & Hues transitioned from creating simple flying logos to more challenging animation. Today it creates Academy Award–winning VFX.

“In 1999, we acquired VIFX from 20th Century Fox, and in 2001 we opened our first international studio in Mumbai, India,” says Gautham Krishnamurti, CTO at Rhythm & Hues. “In 2007, we expanded to Hyderabad, India, followed by Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2009. We are currently opening a facility in Vancouver, British Columbia.”

The company currently employs more than 1,400 workers in three countries. Recent and upcoming projects include X-Men: First Class (Fox), Life of Pi (Fox), Everybody Loves Whales (Universal), Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (Fox) and Snow White and the Huntsman (Universal).

Rhythm & Hues has encountered some big changes in the industry lately, such as the VFX requirements becoming significantly more challenging while the production schedules have grown tighter, says Krishnamurti. “It took us 2,000 compute-years to render the imagery seen in Hop,” an Easter-themed movie released in early 2011 that was produced by Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment. “Prior to that, our most intensive job only took 400 compute-years. We had to scale our infrastructure eightfold to handle that show’s demands,” he says.

The growing power of multicore CPUs with hyper-threading have made Rhythm & Hues rethink its programming paradigm. “Our compute infrastructure includes workstations and render nodes,” says Krishnamurti. “A few years ago, most of our compute infrastructure comprised dual-core machines with four to eight gigabytes of RAM. Today, they range from quad-core to dual six-core machines, with 24 to 64 GB of RAM.”

Hooray for Bollywood!

If you’re speaking with A.K. Madhavan, CEO of Crest Animation Studios Ltd., you’ll notice that his passion and enthusiasm for the Indian animation industry is contagious.

Crest first delved into long-format animation in the computer-graphics animation space in 1999. “I think we have established credibility and a comfort level among several big boys, like Universal, Sony and Lionsgate, and we are doing some great work for Disney and DreamWorks,” says Madhaven. “So the industry has grown fairly well in the outsourcing model.”

The key behind Crest’s growth has been continual investment in technology, according to Madhavan. “Over the years we made many mistakes; we learned by falling down and getting back up,” he says. “In those days, we didn’t know how to build a storage system, so we used the workstation hard disks to do our renders. We soon realized that wasn’t enough. When faced with a bottleneck in terms of a networking issue or storage, we solved the problem and moved on. It gives me great pride to say that we didn’t miss a single air date.”

Today, Crest boasts state-of-the-art systems that rival any global studio, another source of pride for Madhavan. “On the floor today we have about 400 graphic seats.”

Setting the Stage for a Bright Future

Madhavan’s enthusiasm about the future of India’s animation industry is for good reason. “When it comes to technology and the creative competence, we’re far ahead of China, Philippines, Korea, Malaysia and even Singapore,” he says. “A lot of Indian production facilities are delivering great animation quality for the television and the DVD market space. We are a long way from doing feature films, but we’re far ahead of many Asian countries in the long format space.”

After nearly a decade of growth, Madhavan believes India has an edge in terms of developed talent. “It’s not only because we are an English-speaking country, but we’ve also adapted to the cartoons and humor,” he notes. “If you see Alpha and Omega, you will find in the credit list 260 names — all Indian talent — who worked on the movie.”