What connects Bhanu Athaiya, Satyajit Ray, Resul Pookutty and A.R. Rahman? They are all people of Indian origin who have won the prestigious Academy Award for cinematic achievement.
And now, there are two more to that list: Rahul C. Thakkar and Cottalango Leon. Both Thakkar, who has roots in Mumbai, and Leon, who hails from the town of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, were rewarded by the Academy for their scientific and technical contributions. Mint profiles both these enterprising men:
Ask Rahul Thakkar who is favourite character in the Shrek series of animated films, produced by DreamWorks Pictures and pat comes the reply: “Donkey, of course!"
“That character is the anchor of the film. He brings the best out of Shrek. And yes, he manages to make a girl-dragon fall for him instead of eat him," he grins.
Thakkar who received the Technical Achievement Award jointly with his mentor Richard Chuang for contribution to cinema through ground-breaking design was part of the DreamWorks Team that conceptualized this character way back in 1999.
“It is an extremely complex arrangement of artistry and technology: donkey’s fur looks real, he kicks up dust when he walks, he really feels like an animal and there so much of Eddie (Murphy) in that character. You forget that it is just a bunch of computational math," says Thakkar.
Born in the UK, Thakkar spent his early days in Mumbai and graduated in computer science from the University of Utah in 1995. “I did my thesis at an art school, developing technology for artists," he says, adding that he landed first job in New York before he graduated. “The US likes rule-breakers. They like people who do different things," says Thakkar who currently works in the aerospace industry bringing advanced technology to the commercial enterprise market.
It was at a studio called Post Perfect: an animation, editing and visual effects studio for television shows and commercials that he first encountered animation. “They wanted me to do live extremely complex computer graphics for the senate election broadcast in 1994," he says. As a newbie who got stuck with the job because the veteran in charge was unexpectedly called away, Thakkar volunteered to program a supercomputer even though he didn’t know much about it. “It was the size of a refrigerator. I did not go home for a few days but I finally figured it out. That was a great learning," It makes you realize that you can do anything," he said in a video interview.
Thakkar says that as the only software person in the animation department, if there was a problem and the existing tools could not do it, he would write the tools. “Eventually, I’d write tools that would stretch over tens of commercial and special projects. The Letterman Show open, CBS Election Broadcasts for 1994 (US senate) and 1996 (US presidential) were projects I got to work on," he says.
His two years at Post Perfect , “gave me the confidence I needed to get into film," says Thakkar, who went on to join PDI, another studio.
“In 1996, DreamWorks invested in PDI to make their first Computer Generated (CG) feature called Antz: the second all-CG feature ever made, the first being Toy Story," he says.
He also worked on live action film, commercial VFX (visual effects) and of course, Shrek that went on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, “I remember that Shrek and Donkey meeting in the forest was the first entire sequence we completed during the production of Shrek," he says recalling the rib-tickling sequence which has Shrek rescuing Donkey who then proceeds to pay him back by annoying him terribly, “It came out so well—at that point, we knew that Shrek was going to be a hit."
It was here at DreamWorks that Thakkar, mentored by Chuang, developed what is now called the DreamWorks Animation Media Review System, “I was fortunate to be the creator, designer and principal developer of all aspects of the system," he says, adding, “I drew from Richard Chuang’s prior work, his mentorship and an immense body of technical wisdom. I built and supported it until January 2003 (he quit the company then)," he says adding that the software has stood the test of time and is still in use.
According to Thakkar, the Academy’s evaluation process is a very exhaustive one, “They have a large team of seasoned professionals who evaluate technologies and science that has influenced the film making process successfully. They do extensive research, interviews, in-person demonstrations before making a recommendation," he says, adding that he was interviewed twice for this, in 2014 and 2015.
On the award itself, “More than anything, it feels nice that the years I spent in university getting an education resulted in a great job, which in turn allowed me to learn and create with amazing artists and technologists, and finally, what we created influenced the creative process so deeply," Thakkar says.
The soft-spoken Cottalango Leon is delighted about winning the Academy Award for Technical Achievement, but says it didn’t come as a total surprise.
“Most studios are globalised today and there is so much distributed workforce," Leon said explaining the relevance of the ‘itview’ software submitted by Sony Pictures Imageworks that won its technicians J Robert Ray, Sam Richards and Leon the golden statuette.
‘itview’ is essentially used as a communication tool between artists at different stages of the movie-making process. Everyone from editors and animators to modellers, painters and compositors, often from around the world needs to provide inputs and feedback on various aspects of the same visual element which the software facilitates.
Unlike other categories, the projects need not be created during the current year or be tied to a specific movie released that year. The idea is that the Academy recognizes that technology is often reused by companies across several movies and products, thus making this category independent in itself.
Companies are encouraged to submit and nominate their own products and demonstrations and interviews are carried out as part of the process to identify a winner.
“We got to see other people’s products and their feature set. We knew we were in the finals at least," Leon admitted. “So it wasn’t too unexpected when we got it. But of course, it was quite something."
Born in 1971 in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu to parents who worked as primary school teachers, Leon grew up in Coimbatore. After graduating in computer science from the PSG College of Technology, he worked at Softek LLC in New Delhi for two years. Just before moving to Arizona State University for a masters in 1994, he happened to watch Steven Spielberg’s classic science fiction adventure Jurassic Park and realized that working on technologies behind such movies would enable him to utilize his engineering and analytical skills and also be part of something that everybody in the world could see and enjoy.
“I was just an average movie-goer as a child," Leon confessed. “When I saw these films, I got interested in the idea of using computer visuals and technology to create something everyone could watch. At that time, there were only traditional courses for computer graphics but nothing related specifically to movies. Nowadays, there are a lot more opportunities like that. So I just took up regular computer graphics (for masters) and thought I’d give it a try. Luckily, I got an opportunity at ImageWorks. So I joined and just stayed there."
The company that had only started two years ago was reasonably small at that time.
“We were a tiny group; I think there were only about 15 people. It was like you could just pick on something that interested you and begin working," Leon recalled. “That’s how I got involved with the ‘itview’ software."
Starting out as a simple movie playback tool that artists could use from their desktop, Leon, the sole engineer, released the first version in 1996.
“There was a similar software for animators at that time, but it was kind of hard to use, so people didn’t like it. My first thought was how I could make it better. It wasn’t very complicated, it could be done in three to six months," Leon recalled. “We did come up with a replacement in about three months. People within the company started using it and gave me a lot of feedback. We started adding more features and before I knew it, I was working on it for eight years. From then on, it grew into something big."
Leon who tries to visit his family in India once every couple of years likes to keep track of Indian films and feels there is a lot of good work happening even though the industry here is constrained in its own way.
“Obviously there is a big difference between Hollywood and Indian movies but I don’t think it’s a problem. Not every movie has to be a big-budget, big-effects spectacle," he said. “I personally care more about the story and how well the movie is directed and how good the actors are. And you don’t really need technology for that. I feel the directors are very imaginative and given the technology, they will do things that aren’t possible right now."
Leon doesn’t rule out the possibility of working on an Indian film either.
“Who knows?" he laughs. “It would be awesome to someday be part of the artistic work that some Indian graphic actors are doing. I hear a lot of Indian movies are coming to Vancouver and getting their special effects done so it might happen sooner than we think."