An animation facility in the city pulls off its biggest project yet, at the behest of an Oscar-winning producer. Baradwaj Rangan has the details

Chip-chip is a little boy with an odd name and an odder face. Oversized teeth spill over from a mouth struggling to contain them, and a little above, the eyes are equally oversized, looming through round, black-rimmed spectacles. But oddest of all is his fading-yellow hair, drooping limply on either side of a centre parting, as if a day-old bowl of spaghetti had been spilt on his scalp. Chip-chip's hand is on the compass of a craft that would normally be speeding through the sky but at this instant is headed nowhere, frozen on the monitor in front of Sreejith SV and David Booth in the editing suite of Accel Animation Studios in T. Nagar.

Translating questions

There are two others in the dark room, technicians who speak in Tamil and Malayalam to Sreejith, who translate their questions into English for Booth's benefit and converts Booth's replies back into Indian tongues for the technicians' benefit. Booth, a visual effects supervisor from Australia, jokes, “You should have been here when the Polish people were there. It took an hour to say hello.”

The Polish people Booth refers to are the animators who created Chip-chip, in a studio in Poland, along with the other characters in “The Flying Machine”, a feature film that combines stop-motion animation with live action. Sreejith and Booth are now inspecting Reel 2, frame by frame, and they attempt to explain what's going on, a jumble of jargon with terms such as “compositing” and “reconforming.”

Such an operation, you'd expect, would unfold in a room decked wall-to-wall with buttons and dials and switches, but technology has advanced so much that there's just a compact panel, the size of a laptop carry-bag, in front of the monitor. Its standout feature is a row of metallic-looking crimson balls, and if the panel were removed from this room it could easily be mistaken for a storage case for Christmas ornaments until December.

Arrival of Chip-chip

When Chip-chip and his friends arrived at this facility, in the form of gigabytes of pixellated data, they had behind them a green screen and their arms and legs were attached to rigs that the Polish animators used to move them across space. (Stop-motion animation is a painstaking process where puppets are propelled through surroundings, millimetre by millimetre, through these rigs, and each new positioning is photographed as a frame. A really good day could yield four seconds of film.)

It was Accel Animation Studios that digitally erased these technological imprints, these evidences that human hands were involved, and later filled up the now-empty space with clouds and other backgrounds.

At first, Accel was supposed to do just a few workmanlike things, like compositing. “But we needed a large workforce and cheap,” says Hugh Welchman, the film's 36-year-old producer who also owns the studio in Poland that created the stop-motion animation. At Accel, Welchman completed 20 per cent of his visual effects — the rest were done in Poland — at a third of what they'd cost in London, at half what they'd cost in Poland. These businessman-like evaluations arrive from a man in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, with his sneaker-encased legs sprawled on top of his desk. This is the kind of casual confidence that an Oscar win can bestow.

Before 2008, when Welchman won the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated) for producing “Peter & the Wolf”, based on the beloved composition by Prokofiev, he was less confident about venturing into a project that involved classical music, which was not the music he listened to. But today, he talks confidently about the music of Frédéric Chopin, which invigorates “The Flying Machine.”

Looking for a pianist to record Chopin's études, Welchman, possibly in the flush of his Oscar win, decided that he wanted no one less than Lang Lang, only one of the busiest, most famous performing and recording artists in the world. Lang Lang, even more improbably, said yes, and as Welchman wasn't yet sure which études he wanted to use in his film and as Lang Lang had never recorded Chopin's études before, he performed all 12 études in Opus 10 and all 12 in Opus 25, a total of 24.

Welchman decided to use eleven of these études in “The Flying Machine.” As for the remaining 13, he called up filmmakers and asked them to make one short film per étude. He, therefore, ended up with one feature-length film and 13 short films. Welchman says of Accel Animation Studios, “This is their first really big project. They wanted to prove they could do something on this scale.” At least from the frames on the monitors of Chip-chip coursing through magic skies, it looks like they have.