It is late evening, but inside Mickey & Donald’s Famous Sweet Shop the two are hard at work making Indian treats. There is a ‘Diwali Special’ going on, so Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck need 400 kilos of laddoos and 200 kilos of jalebis, as soon as possible. Donald toils over a pot of hot oil, making a valiant effort to get the perfect jalebi and Mickey is trying his best to mold scrumptious laddoo, but the duo can’t quite get either one right. The laddoos fall apart and the jalebis are unsatisfactory. Just as they’ve reached the point of ultimate despair, Minnie Mouse shows up with boxes of perfect Diwali sweets and saves the day. The three rush to the window just in time to see the sky light up with glittering fireworks that read “Happy Diwali.”
“This is our first international project,” says Suyogya Tuladhar, co-founder of Incessant Rain Animation Studios, as he clicks out of the computer screen. For this project, the animators at Incessant Rain in Kathmandu were hired by Disney, headquartered in California, to create this short film to introduce Disney characters to India.
The Diwali film is entertaining, artistic, charming and dynamic. It reflects a globalized chain that connects modern day Indian audiences with Mickey and Donald, classic American cartoon characters, originally created in 1928 and 1934 respectively. And it was all done from a four-story office building in Kathmandu. This is the future of animation. It is global, it is connected and it is exciting.
Nepal’s animation business is still in its infancy, but charging full speed ahead. In today’s interconnected world, location doesn’t matter like it used to. Where there is talent, there are jobs, thanks to 24/7 Internet connections, video-conferencing and tech-savvy people. In the past, Disney animators and visual effects specialists had to live near a major Hollywood studio to get to work. Now, Nepalis can do the same work sitting in Kathmandu. Nepal’s animators are part of a massive, and growing, whole: according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) of India, the 2010 animation industry is valued at $80 billion USD, a 36% increase in net worth from 2006.
The birth of Nepal’s animation industry is largely attributed to Kiran Joshi, a 17 year Disney veteran. Joshi, who worked on movies like the Lion King and Aladdin while in California, co-founded Incessant Rain with Tuladhar, who was formerly the CEO of a boutique graphics studio in Kathmandu. Since its inception, Incessant Rain, which focuses on 3D animation, has grown to employ 90 artists. The team does animated short films and visual effects work for studios in the United States, including on major Hollywood features.
According to Tuladhar, the ultimate goal is for Incessant Rain to create their own movies.
“Our value will be when we can develop our own content and intellectual property,” he says.
Animation is a succession of still images that, when viewed rapidly, give the illusion of movement. The art can be delineated into two types: two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) animation. Two-dimensional examples are Disney classics like The Jungle Book and Bambi. More contemporary films like Toy Story, Ratatouille and Up are 3D.
On a recent morning, the dark computer rooms at Incessant Rain were humming with activity. Casually-dressed, young Nepalis sat with Autodesk Maya, the most prevalent 3D animation software in the business, open on their screens. These graphic artists, many in their early 20s, were creating video games, adding visual effects to Hollywood movies and building digital models of humans.
The majority of Nepali animators, like the business itself, are quite young, but bursting with creative talent and ambition, which makes them internationally competitive. One such artist is Incessant Rain’s Suchan Raj Bajracharya, a 24-year-old project supervisor who has worked in the industry since he was 19.
Unlike many of his compatriots, Bajracharya didn’t go to art school or an animation academy to learn the trade. Fueled by an intense interest and passion, he taught himself painting, sculpting, drawing and, eventually, how to use the animation computer software.
“When I was a child I would hurry home from school just to watch 2D animation movies,” he remembers. “I used to play a lot of video games and my mother used to scold me. But this is what I do now. I make video games, animation and commercials. This is a dream come true for me.”
Bajracharya, who says his first inspirations were Disney characters and Japanese anime movies, started at Incessant Rain as a rigger. Riggers construct digital bones and joints for a character that will eventually enable them to move. Bajracharya shows an example: a frog that has been fully rigged with a digital skeleton. With a few clicks of the mouse he makes the frog wink, smile, swing his hips and bend his knees.
One thing that managers, studio owners, and 2D and 3D animators all agree on: the foundation and core of animation is art. To be a good animator, you must be a good artist.
According to Tuladhar of Incessant Rain, while animators must know the computer software, what is most important is that they are creative and have artistic vision and talent.
“Art has to drive the technology,” he says. “Not the other way around.”
Chhatra Hari Karki, managing director of Yeti Digital studio which does 2D productions, says his employees are almost all fine arts students or graduates. Two-dimensional animation especially relies on the artistic prowess of the animator, as every single frame must be hand-drawn.
“I always recommend people learn art first,” Karki says. He currently has 45 animators working at the studio, but is looking to expand the team to 400 within a few years.
Upstairs at Yeti Digital, dozens of 2D artists are drawing frames for the studio’s current project: a 110-minute animated film about the life and path to enlightenment of Buddha. The studio’s walls are covered with rough sketches of characters’ faces, bodies and costumes, as well as pencil depictions of scenery: landscapes of Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace.
Umesh Khanal, 25, a fine arts student who has worked for Yeti Digital for a year-and-a-half says artists can finish between four and 20 frames per day if the scene involves detailed anatomical drawings. If scenes are less technical, they can complete up to 60. While almost all of his colleagues have studied drawing and painting, Khanal says they must also understand human anatomy and movement so as to make fictitious characters’ actions look life-like.
“Catching movement is a very interesting job,” Khanal explains. He says the artists often act out a scene they will later be animating and carefully observe one another to understand how a human body moves. “We watch the movements for reference,” he says, and then they transfer what they see into their digital art.
For decades, animation’s appeal has spanned the globe. The beauty of an animated character, like Mickey Mouse, is that he can entertain people from all countries, religions, races and socioeconomic levels. This appeal is why the animation business in Nepal, although young, is quickly expanding. With a burgeoning pool of talented artists, several established 2D and 3D studios and global connectivity, the sky is the limit for Nepal’s animators.
“You can create whatever you visualize in your mind,” says Tuladhar. “Just look at Disney characters. They came from just a concept. Today, those characters are still alive and entertaining people all around the world.”
This story was originally published in ECS Living.