When the cat bandit “Puss in Boots” strides onto the big screen this weekend, Vanitha Rangaraju and her colleagues in Bangalore, India, will take special pride in the feline’s starring role on the global stage.
A spinoff of the hit “Shrek” movies, “Puss in Boots” represents a milestone for DreamWorks Animation and for the fledgling animation industry in the world’s second most populous nation.
The film, starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, marks the first time that the Glendale studio has relied on a crew of Indian animators to help produce a full-length feature film. Until now, DreamWorks Animation had used the studio it operates in Bangalore to produce mainly TV specials and DVD bonus material. But after investing more than $10 million over the last three years, DreamWorks has turned the Bangalore studio into an increasingly important piece of its production pipeline.
The investment underscores how Hollywood is increasingly farming out animation and visual effects work to India, both to capitalize on the country’s low labor costs and to tap into a large pool of English-speaking workers with sought-after computer skills. The pace of production also is accelerated because of the 24-hour cycle that can be maintained by pairing the Bangalore workers with their counterparts in Hollywood.
“We’re very excited because we’ve been working toward this for three years,” said Rangaraju, head of lighting for the India animation unit. “This is the first time this has happened in India, and it’s going to encourage a lot of people to move into the industry.”
DreamWorks is among several studios tapping into the labor pool in India. Sony Pictures Entertainment and Rhythm & Hues, the Los Angeles animation and visual effects house, each have facilities in India that have done work on such feature films as “Yogi Bear” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Walt Disney Studios partnered with Mumbai-based Prana Studios to produce its 2008 computer-animated movie “Tinker Bell.” Additionally, several large Indian companies, such as Reliance Group, Tata Elxsi and Prime Focus, have established beachheads in Hollywood to do visual effects and 3-D conversion work on films such as “Spider-Man 3" and “Clash of the Titans.”
Traditionally, much of the film and TV work Hollywood has outsourced to India has involved low-skill, labor-intensive tasks such as wire removal — the tedious process of digitally erasing wires used to suspend stunt people and stars in action movies. The animation work has been confined mostly to TV series or made-for-DVD movies. But that’s beginning to change, as evidenced by “Puss in Boots.”
A team of about 100 animators in Bangalore spent six months animating three major scenes in the feature film — including one complex sequence in which Puss, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and Kitty Softpaws (Hayek) enter a giant’s castle surrounded by a lush jungle in the clouds. “Except for the story boarding, we did everything from start to finish,” said Philippe Gluckman, creative director for the DreamWorks India unit, housed on the eleventh floor of a building in a high-tech park in a suburb of Bangalore. “I would hope nobody would be able to tell which sequences came from India.”
DreamWorks launched the India studio in early 2008 as part of a partnership with Technicolor, which acquired the Indian animation company Paprika Animation Studios. Technicolor owns the facility but has tapped DreamWorks to hire and train 220 illustrators who work there. DreamWorks sent staff members to India to train the crews and hold master classes on topics such as how to properly shape mouths.
Before embarking on a full-length feature film, the DreamWorks India unit started with smaller projects, such as holiday TV specials including “Merry Madagascar” and “Scared Shrekless” (a separate unit with the Technicolor studio animated the successful Nickelodeon TV series “The Penguins of Madagascar”). Currently, the group is working on its next film projects, including “Madagascar 3,” due out next summer, and is expected to have a role in the upcoming Bollywood-style musical “Monkeys of Mumbai.”
“It has been a very steep learning curve for all of them,” Gluckman said.
“Puss in Boots” Director Chris Miller said he was impressed with the quality of the work from India. “The work that came out of it was terrific and stands up to anything that was done here,” said Miller, who also directed “Shrek the Third.”
The ability to farm out even a small portion of the work to India has obvious financial advantages to DreamWorks, given the substantially lower labor costs — about 40% less than in the U.S. — and the increasingly competitive market in the U.S. The typical DreamWorks film costs about $130 million to produce.
But Joe Aguilar, head of the Indian operation for DreamWorks and producer on “Puss in Boots,” said the primary rationale for expanding into India was about tapping a scarce resource: people. The studio didn’t have enough people to meet its production needs at its two principal centers: in Glendale and at the PDI/DreamWorks facility in Redwood City. That became apparent when the studio began producing as many as three films in a year, he said.
“For us to continue to expand our capacity, we needed to have this facility,” Aguilar said. “There is a tremendous amount of talent there.”
Aguilar acknowledged some initial concerns within DreamWorks when the studio, which employs 1,561 people in Glendale and 557 in Redwood City, opened its facility in India.
“There has been fear in our studio,” he said. “But, if anything, we’ve just built more space in Glendale to increase our capacity there, and we’re moving into a bigger office in Redwood City. We’re not reducing jobs in the U.S.”