Animation film designer Dhimant Vyas, who worked on Taare Zameen Par, tells Bhumika K. that India needs to develop a distinctive style of animation and not just bank on mythological stories for subjects.

Slogging away at a computer monitor, many an Indian may have figured in the credits of Hollywood films as “animator”. But what really makes for a true animator is not just the skill to employ some great software — you should be a good observer, know acting, be a storyteller and, you should know how living things move and change shape, says Dhimant Vyas.

And Vyas should know these characteristics best. This animation film designer specialising in clay animation and “go motion” animation — one of the more tedious and old school approaches to animation — has earned fame for himself in India doing the titles for Aamir Khan's production “Taare Zameen Par”.

Recognising his work, a studio in U.K. invited him over to work on the second season of the popular “Shaun The Sheep” cartoon we're familiar with here on Nick. From being in the pre-production department, he moved on to storyboarding and conceptualisation, when they noticed his potential, says the 44-year-old Vyas. He was in Bangalore for a seminar held by Zee Learn on “Animation & VFX”. As we start the interview, Vyas pulls out some clay from his knapsack to oblige our photographer and starts moulding some form even as he talks.

He gives an example of the kind of work involved in the making of “go motion” animation, where each movement of a character had to be shot frame-by-frame. “What we shoot in an entire day is over on screen in five seconds. Each second is about 12 frames and we are able to shoot up to 50 frames a day. I have to move a character, stop the film, move it once more, shoot that frame…”. Despite being one of the most difficult forms, it's a skill in demand, the beauty lying perhaps in the difficulty. “This animation has a special quality that others don't produce. It's almost like handicraft…Clay animation has a very raw quality to it. As kids, we all instinctively play with it. 3D looks technical and plastic and we don't get attached to it.”

Dhimant, who's now creative director with Zynga (India), a company that creates online gaming in the social networking space (you do know Farmville?!), believes that awareness about animation has increased phenomenally in the country over the last 10 years. This sort of template didn't exist in people's minds when Vyas set his mind on animation. Coming from a village in Gujarat from a family of sculptors who made temples, Vyas agrees some of his skills have to do with his genes and his surroundings. The gap was filled with his mum's encouragement (she brought him clay from the riverbed and he made toys for himself with it) and Russian cartoons he watched on TV. “I didn't know how those figures moved, but I knew I wanted to do this.” While he was studying in a fine art college, one of the visiting faculty from the National Institute of Design (NID) noticed his work and told him he should learn animation at NID.

Once he graduated from NID, they had to deal with a life sans computers — “We used to shoot films on 35 mm film, get it processed in Mumbai, take footage back to Ahmedabad, see if there were mistakes, re-shoot…now it's so easy with technology.” But then, Vyas makes it very clear — that technology is only a tool, a medium. “Any medium has its limitations. It's the story that is important.” And it's this important creative aspect of animation that most of the mushrooming animation institutes in India are missing, he points out. He agrees that Indians mostly did sweatshop work for Hollywood. But he says now the country has real creative talent that only needs to be recognised.

Vyas also points out another shortcoming in Indian animation — we still don't have a very distinctive Indian style of animation — like Japanese or Polish animation films do. “We have Indian subjects and themes, but not a style. We need to tap into the khazana of original stories in each of our regions, not just mythology,” he says.

Vyas is a sculptor, painter, caricaturist, photographer, character artist, and much more. When Aamir Khan's “Lagaan” got it's special limited edition DVD release, Vyas did a caricature of the cricket team for the DVD cover. So when Aamir was unhappy with the team that had worked on the animation for “Taare Zameen Par” for a year, he brought in Vyas. “Aamir showed me the film when it was in the editing stage. I was told that my animation would form a dream sequence; I had to avoid humans, as the boy (Darsheel Safry) was in love with nature.” Vyas made a clay octopus to show Aamir an example of the kind of animation he would do, and the director was game for an aquatic series featuring the octopus. By the end of our chat, he holds up the same octopus he's been working on all the while — the guy who made him famous in Bollywood.