The cost of making a 3D Indian stereoscopic film is anywhere between Rs. 15 and 30 crores. Devising a method to reduce it to Rs.10 crores was what visual effects (vfx) veteran, Biju Dhanapalan came up with. He along with his team made a four-minute film as trial. “We were very proud that we could bring the cost down,” he recalls.

But he soon found that a foreign company had come up with a better and more economical package at half the price. He had to retract his offer in the face of cutting edge technology and expertise. His mission is now to take Indian animation to that level and higher.

With a fair idea of where the problem lies, Biju has taken a sabbatical, though he is working on ‘Broken Horses' ( Vidhu Vinod Chopra) and ‘Suppandi', and is addressing the issue at the educational level as faculty in institutes in Mumbai and Kochi.

Need to move on

As an industry insider and after his eye-opening tryst with western practices in the field he believes that Indian animation industry lacks ‘the critical mass of technology guys” required to catch up with the best. This experience has left Biju pondering over the next step to take. “As an industry, do we want to remain doing back office stuff or rise to be original makers of design and bring in innovative ways of marketing? That is the question.”

Biju who has been in the Bollywood animation industry for the past 15 years and has provided visual effects for over 100 feature films, the latest being the box office hit, ‘3 Idiots', is on to making India's first stereoscopic animation film based on the Tinkle character Suppandi. “Work is on, albeit a bit slow,” he says adding that it is an Amar Chitra Katha Media (ACK Media) production.

He believes that the present educational system does not encourage creative thinking, which is hurting Indian enterprise, especially the animation industry that uses both the streams of education-art and science- in good measure. As a former VP of Maya Entertainment Limited, a Ketan Mehta Company, he has been consistently demanding the need to teach animation beyond the software stage. Animation, he declares, has nothing to do with software. He, along with a few others, was instrumental in starting MAAC (Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics).

His educational background is proof of how an art and science combo can give a mindset that can create the most wondrous, digital effects in film, video or gaming. The solution he offers to this lop-sided system of subject selection is to allow for interdisciplinary learning and believes that ‘specialisation' ends in ‘alienation'. For instance, why should students who learn about atomic energy need not know about poetry?

Biju completed his electronic engineering from TKM College of Engineering, Kollam and headed for IIT Mumbai at the behest of his professor who noticed his passion and talent in design. While in college he won the Kalapratibha (87-88) for his works in sculpture. He was known in his college for writing graffiti and his “reverse writing skill” was particularly useful, he remembers, during strikes when he wrote on bus windows. As a child he would make toy models at his home in Alappuzha, inspired by his technically inclined father from the Indian Air Force. “My uncle used to paint and my father used to do all the repairs in the house. I was interested in both these things.”

At IIT his mind opened to newer sensibilities, ‘after all I was interacting with the best creative minds,' he recounts. His first job was in film and television in Mumbai. Later as vice president at ‘Maya Entertainment' Biju began to provide visual effects for both Hindi and English Feature films like ‘Dushman', ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai', ‘Sangharsh', ‘Hera Pheri', ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai', ‘Cape Karma', ‘Straight', ‘Bhoothnath' (he won a Filmfare award for it), to name a few.

He has provided visual effects for only one Malayalam film, Shaji N Karun's ‘Vanaprastham'. The kid's special, Javed Jafferi starrer ‘Jajantaram Mamantaram',(based on Gulliver's Travels) catapulted Biju to instant limelight.

In ‘Ghulam', a film that he says has given him immense satisfaction, he had Aamir Khan race towards a heading train and then pull him out in the nick of time, another visual feat that went unnoticed. That's where he claims lies the skill of a good visual effect. “It should not get noticed.” It is this invisibility of his work that was responsible for him not getting an award for ‘Ghulam', “which got rejected, because they did not realise that the scenes had visual effects!”

Biju wishes that his work goes unnoticed, as proof of his skill, but his company, Fable Farm (in partnership with ACK Media) gets nominated each year for awards, often winning them. Presently a different kind of his work, an installation along with filmmaker friend and video artist Kabir Mohanty is catching eyeballs at the Deutsche Guggenheim museum in Berlin.

Biju is married to Parul, a Gujarati, who works along with him. He feels that still many don't understand the nature of his work and narrates a funny incident about explaining his work to an inquisitive, warm aunt-in-law. After narrating the Aamir Khan episode in ‘Ghulam' she asked him whether he was a stunt artist. When he further explained about working in films and on a computer she seemed to comprehend and arrive at her conclusion of his work. She said, “Arre saab ko ullu banane ka kaam hai….(Oh, your work is to fool everybody)!.”

Biju says his work has never been defined better!

Biju D, can be contacted at biju@fablefarm.net