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Disney with the desi touch

The latest Disney product, "The Incredibles," launches its next cartoon era to critical acclaim. ANAND PARTHASARATHY speaks to Kamal Mistry, Technical Director at Pixar, the animation studio that crafted the seamless crossover from 2-D to 3-D.

Kamal Mistry ... responsible for creating many path-breaking techniques.

THE FAMOUS `Disney' look-and-feel of an animated film has remained largely unchanged over the 67 years since "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" first burst in on an astonished, and delighted cinema audience.

For almost half a century, the films were painstakingly crafted frame by frame using a technique called `cel animation' and photographed in what was known as `stop motion.'

With the advent of computers, some parts of the process — like the colouring — were automated.

Clay and mechanically-operated models (animatronics) were used to provide basic movement and reduce the work of drawing thousands of frames. But the essential quality of the end product was not much different — while computer graphics added tremendous realism in close-ups particularly of animals, it was still an essentially flat canvas in two dimension.

Path-breaking technology displayed by new players like Pixar in products from "Toy Story" (1995) to "Finding Nemo" (2003), allowed animated films to be entirely made by computer.

An Indian team also worked behind the scenes to bring "The Incredibles" to life.

All that has changed in ways that could end up being as revolutionary as the advent of sound or the coming of colour in cinema.

High-tech tools

Animated filmmakers have discovered that computer graphics tools could just as easily add a third dimension as engineers using computer-aided design (CAD) software, these days, gives one walk-through views of one's dream houses, before building them.

So finally, the classic children's `cartoon' film format has had to bend before the `garam hawa' of high-tech animation tools: "The Incredibles," which opens its India run on December 17, is possibly the first international mainstream animated feature film release from a major studio, to seamlessly cross the `Lakshman rekha' between two dimensions and three. It is not something all of the film's juvenile viewers will necessarily applaud.

For those reared on recent triumphs of the animated art like "The Lion King," "Shrek" and "Dinosaur," the extra dimension may seem like adding depth but sacrificing the `touch me!' type of realism they have come to expect.

The three-dimension (3-D) is yet to achieve anything like the accuracy in rendering human figures, that 2-D has perfected.

Grappling with these problems of transition is a very creative `desi' brain. Kamal Mistry is Technical Director at Pixar Animation, the studio that crafted "The Incredibles" for Disney. The Valsad (Gujarat)-born Mistry, spent his early years in Zambia, before he graduated in computer science and fine arts from the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a happy combination of talents that landed him various jobs as an animator for film and television for a decade before he joined Pixar in the U.S., three years ago.

In Mumbai earlier this month, to speak at a technical workshop for users of `Maya,' the industry-standard 3-D modelling, animation, effects and rendering tool from Alias, Mistry relived his experience in the making of the film in the course of an exclusive interaction with The Hindu.

Over 80 creative persons collaborated on the project, which took almost three years from concept to realisation, he said.

"The Incredibles" tells the story of a family with super powers, `recalled to duty' 15 years after papa and mama (or Mr Incredible and Elastigirl) were forced into premature retirement by a society that did not relish do-gooders. The kids are growing up with super-skills too: Violet can vanish at will; Dash can streak faster than any kid and baby Jack-Jack is just about to realise his own potential. The reappearance of Syndrome, a robot-crazy baddie from the past, sucks the Incredible family into action once more. In a nod to the James Bond saga, and its gadget master, `Q,' the film features Edna Mode, the diminutive fashion diva, who is given voice by the film's director Brad Bird.

For Mistry, Edna is something special: While he was responsible for creating many path-breaking techniques to model hair and cloth for all the characters, and orchestrating the bangs and explosions in the film, he was also in charge of articulating Edna, giving her the movements, that the computer graphics animators later turned into the final product. Pixar has its own proprietary graphics tool, RenderMan, but Maya was used for the things it did well, Mistry said.

Mistry is not the lone Indian hand behind the crafting of "The Incredibles." The full credits for the film is replete with Indian names: animator and story artist Sanjay Patel, modeller and shader Sanjay Bakshi, lighting artist Vandana Sahrawat, hair and cloth simulator Arun Somasundarum, software experts Sudeep Rangaswamy, Rudrajit Samanta, Arun Rao and Sharmila Lassen.

Technique incidental

After all-computer-generated films like "Final Fantasy" (2001) and its use of `synthespians' or synthetic actors and after the excessive special effects of products like "Matrix," film critics sounded the alarm about where computer-generated cinema was headed. They saw ``a clear and present danger that film would henceforth be driven not by story or character but by technology, that the medium would become little more than a comic boo'' (New York Times).

Mistry does not share these fears: ``What matters is: what is the best way to tell the story — 2-D, 3-D, animated, live action or whatever... '' And reminded of the increasing de-personalisation of the automated, computer-assisted filmmaking process, he points out: ``You're taking to me, a human, not to a computer. It's hundreds of people like me who still have to work to make one film like `The Incredibles' happen. If it is based on a story with a heart, if it moves you, the technique is incidental.''

Emerging as global hub

The Incredible family with super power (from left to right) Elastigirl, Mr. Incredible, baby Jack-Jack, Violet and Dash.

WHILE "THE Incredibles" is somewhat inaccurately being touted as a first for 3-D animation in feature cinema, the pioneering effort in this arena was in fact an Indian product: the Chennai-based Pentamedia's "Pandavas: The Five Warriors" was the first full-length 3-D stop motion animation feature film. It won the National Film Award for Best English language film for 2001. The company went on to make other 3-D films like "Sindbad: Veil of the Mists," "Alibaba" and "Son of Alladin," while a Zee TV production company made "Bhagmati: Queen of Fortune," India's first live-action-cum animated product.

Major users

In other ways too, India is fast emerging as a global hub in the 3-D animation business and studios like Jadoo Works, Graphiti, Padmalaya and UTV are major users of tools like Maya.

Visual Computing Labs (VCL), a division of Tata Elxsi has `composited' a 3-D character with live action, for the Bollywood feature "Fun2shh."

Paprikaas Animation Studios, based in Bangalore, Italy, and the U.S., has created a full-length 3-D animated movie, "X and I," for an unnamed European studio, for a worldwide theatrical release in 2005.

While the rest of the world has largely forgotten live action 3-D, the kind you see with special red and blue glasses, after the 1950s products like "House of Wax" and "Bwana Devil," Indian producers have been putting money into the technology.

The commercial success of the Malayalam film, Navodaya's "My Dear Kuttichathan" (Hindi: "Chota Chethan") two decades ago — it won the National Award in 1984 — led to the revival of the genre last year, with "Chota Jadugar" from the same Kerala-based company.

`3-D Plu'

However one problem has been the need for special projection equipment and screens (not to speak of viewers' glasses). An Indian producer, Dheeraj Kumar of Creative Eye, Mumbai, has announced that his company has perfected a new `3-D Plu' technology where projectors do not need special lenses and which can also be shown on TV. A maiden product using this technique, "Abra Ka Dabra" is awaiting theatrical release.

A 2-D animated full-length feature with 3-D backgrounds, "The Legend of Buddha" is the Indian entry in the animated film category for the 2005 Oscar awards. The film, which was part-funded by a Singapore Government agency, is a joint effort of Pentamedia's artistes and engineers in Manila, the Philippines, Singapore and Chennai.

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