Iin his spare time, Aaron Thomas used to watch cartoons, including Arthur, an animated TV show based on the Arthur books by Marc Brown. “I used to watch it even though it was targeted at kids, because it was very well scripted,” says India-born Thomas, who was then a student of digital media in Australia.
Several years later, Arthur still occupies his time and helps keep the cash registers ringing at his firm. As a digital animator at Mumbai-based Crest Animation Studios Ltd, one of Thomas’ projects is converting Arthur from two dimensional (2D) animation to three dimensional (3D) animation. The conversion is a growing trend in animation, and is emerging as a new revenue stream for Indian animation studios. Creating a 3D cartoon involves reshaping a flat cartoon, as in a comic strip, into one where you can go around a character and look at it from all angles.
With the modern cartoon-viewing audience used to a higher level of sophistication in popular animation features such as Incredibles and Antz, it is hard to air a 2D cartoon and expect it to run on sentimental value alone.
“The camera movement in 3D, the facial expressions, the muscles in the face, the hair waving in the breeze, every minute detail of a waterfall— these are things you can’t get in 2D animation,” says A.K. Madhavan, chief executive officer of Crest.
So it makes sense to transfer old and beloved content to a contemporary format.
“And because 3D is a relatively new industry (it began with Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995) and 2D has been around for a hundred years, there is no lack of content to convert,” adds Madhavan. Apart from Arthur, Crest is also responsible for the 3D version of Casper, The Friendly Ghost.
“In Europe too, there has been a lot of sentiment of late in bringing back the cartoon series of the ’70s and ’80s,” says Sukumar Subramanian, chief executive officer of Sanra Software Ltd, a Chennai-based animation company. “It is an opportunity for Indian companies, because the process of conversion can easily beoffshored.”
Sanra Software has just won a Rs10 crore deal for “anywhere between one and three years” to convert a 1970s cartoon series made in the UK. It is also bidding for two more projects which could be worth Rs40 crore, says Subramanian.
“Overall, this conversion of 2D animation into 3D market could be worth anywhere between $1 billion and $2 billion over the next two years,” said A. Venkatramani, a director of G.V. Films Ltd, a Chennai-based film distribution company. G.V. Films is looking for an investment in this space to make the most of the conversion trend, he says.
Others, however, are not as enthusiastic.
Manu Ittina, who heads Bangalore’s Ittina Studios Ltd, says, “There is so much new content out there that you don’t have to go back to the old stuff.” He added that the economics of doing so were impractical, with a budget of roughly $400,000 required for remaking each episode.
“Since the companies that own the intellectual property for those old cartoons will anyway get royalties for the show, it doesn’t make sense to spend any more money,” he argues.
Madhavan does not agree. He says every animation house is converting content, whether it is Disney (with Winnie-the-Pooh) or Paramount Pictures (with Popeye the sailor man).
The process of conversion itself isn’t easy.
Thomas explains that there are three steps: you first have to make a picture into a model, after which the process of texturing—shading and colouring the character—takes over; then comes the third and most difficult step—rigging, the process of giving the character a skeleton so that it can move its body and limbs in the digital world. After this, the character goes into animation, most of which is done using various software tools. Along the way, lighting becomes an issue as well, because a 3D model reacts differently to light because of the added dimension, says Rajeev B.R., a lighting expert.
Rajesh Turakhia, chief executive officer of Maya Entertainment, a Mumbai-based animation studio, says all projects don’t lend themselves to change in the same manner. “Some look just good in 2D, it’s a style thing,” he explains.