Toonz Animation in Kerala

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM – In conservative Kerala, offices tend to be sleepy places filled with bored staff and dusty files. That’s why walking into the Toonz Animation office in Thiruvananthapuram is a bit of a shock. The walls of the office hall are spattered with caricatures. Dozens of 20-somethings are rushing around, shouting instructions. Another 100-odd youngsters are busy drawing cartoons.

Toonz Animation is India’s first digital ink and paint studio and is hoping to grab a good slice of the $35-billion global animation market. The other major animation studios here — Pentafour, Crest etc. — have focused on 3D animation, used for special effects in films. Toonz, on the other hand, follows the classical cell animation technique — where every single frame is painstakingly drawn by hand. And then, the frames are individually scanned, digitised and sequenced to form a complete 2D animation story.

To understand the difference, consider this. If you were looking to create special effects of the type you saw in, say, The Matrix, you would probably go to Pentafour. But if you wanted something like Walt Disney’s The Lion King, you would go to Toonz.

The technique it follows isn’t the only thing that makes Toonz different from other animation studios. It’s also the way it was set up. In the late 90s, the Canada-based $3-billion Chandaria group had set up an electronic components firm called Technomate Marketing Services in India. G.A. Menon, chairman, Technomate, thought that India could be a good base for setting up an animation studio. He persuaded animation expert Bill Dennis to head the project. (Dennis worked with Walt Disney Feature Animation for 20 years before taking over as the president of Fil-Cartoons, a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting, and later as CEO of RMUSL in Mumbai.

With $2 million from the Chandarias and a hand-picked team, Dennis set up a state-of-the-art animation studio in Kerala in 1998. His A-team included commercial director K. Subra, ex-head of Animata Studios of Singapore, studio manager Cathy Peza, who had worked with Dennis in Fil Cartoons, and Tom Tilbury, formerly of Cambridge Animation. (The rest is local talent though.)

But why Kerala? Dennis gives three reasons. “The right environment,” he explains pointing out that Kerala offers excellent infrastructure and a serene environment. Second, Keralites have a talent for drawing and can be easily trained. They understand English and western humour better than people in other Asian countries. That’s a definite advantage when your clients are western studios. (Two-thirds of the 270 employees hail from Kerala.) And finally, the cost of operation is very low in Kerala.

In two short years, Toonz has created a name for itself. It bagged the first prize at the World Animation Celebrations at Los Angeles last year for a short film ‘Stone Crusher’, which was made for UNICEF. And now, it is building a reputation for creating animation films based on Indian mythology. In fact, it is this that Dennis thinks will set Toonz apart from other animation players in India. While its rivals are almost entirely contract workers — that is, both storyline and animation brief is given by the client — Toonz is trying to develop Indian stories and Indian characters.

It is focusing on the development and production of original animated TV series and feature films based on the rich treasure of Indian mythology. “Till now, the world only saw western characters because animation was monopolised by the West. The distinction between cartoons based on Indian stories is that they have a moral and a lesson. Therefore, they have a market not only in India but also abroad,” says Dennis. Six films including ‘Tikoo’ and ‘Clever Barber’, an old tale from Assam have been produced. Toonz has roped in Academy Award nominee Ishu Patel to help create a 70-minute animation feature film on the Taj Mahal and to explore other themes. Kerala-based Zachariah Maharaj is working on an animation film based on Tenali Rama, the 16th century master of humour from Andhra Pradesh.

Not that Toonz is ignoring contract work. “It is the bread and butter of any animation studio,” points out Dennis. And Toonz is hoping to grab a big share of the $350-500 million contract work that comes to Asian studios annually.

Today, China, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines grab the largest chunk of animation contracts given out by major studios in the US, but Dennis claims that Toonz can offer better quality animation at rates that are 25-40% less than other Asian studios. Says Dennis: “The cost of making a full-length animated film in the US is $100-175 million. We can make it at $15-25 million.”

Toonz is currently producing ten, 30-minute Turtle Island series, for Canada-based Mimosa Productions, and recently signed a deal with Rainbow Animation in Italy to make many 30-minute episodes of its series, Tommy and Oscar. Other clients include Cartoon Network and Doordarshan.

In its first financial year, Toonz managed to pick up business worth Rs 70 crore ($1.49 million). Dennis says that we should break even this month. Now, he is trying to persuade Walt Disney to give a chunk of its animation work to Toonz. Nothing has been tied up yet but some senior Disney officials recently came down to check out the Toonz infrastructure and work. If Dennis succeeds in roping in Disney, Toonz could get a ticket to the big time. And God’s Own Country could also become an animation paradise.

By Sebastian John

Published in Businessworld, 2001.