MUMBAI, India — Darren Aronofsky may be a household name in Hollywood, where his last two films were critically acclaimed hits. But to the young Indian artists laboring on the director's newest project — the Biblical epic "Noah" — he was just another client with a looming deadline.
"Who's the director on that?" an American supervisor quizzed a group of serious-faced young men clustered around a computer inside the dim, maze-like production room at Prime Focus studios in suburban Mumbai.
The technicians, who were converting a shot of the title character's legendary ark to 3-D, looked at one another blankly.
"Sir, I don't know," one said finally.
The technical whiz kids at Mumbai's top digital production houses might not know the directors' names, but some of the gravity- and logic-defying sequences in such films as "Avatar," "Skyfall," "Life of Pi" and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" were created on computer screens half a world away in India.
In fact, dozens of blockbuster 3-D movies in recent years — from "The Avengers" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" to the rereleases of "Titanic" and "Top Gun" — featured the work of Indian digital artists.
Animation, visual effects and 3-D conversion have become a $700-million-a-year industry here as Hollywood studios join the list of American companies that have found talent and cost savings in India's vast pool of young computer engineers.
Digital effects are an expensive, labor-intensive enterprise, requiring large teams of artists that must meet the ever-changing demands of directors and cost-conscious studios.
Although India's artists typically aren't as technically proficient as their North American counterparts, industry experts say that labor costs here are as little as one-10th what they are in Southern California, prompting studios to shift much of the basic visual effects work to Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and other cities with hordes of young, computer-literate university graduates.
India's digital effects industry, which has tripled in size since 2007, is projected to grow into a $1.2-billion business over the next three years, according to a study last year by consulting firm KPMG. Analysts say it is following a path set by software manufacturers, drug makers and other American industries that have outsourced work to India.
"It's the same as we saw in the past decade or two with call centers or Microsoft software," said Uday Singh, managing director of the Mumbai office of the Motion Picture Assn., Hollywood's leading trade group. "When the package shows up at your door, you don't know that 10 guys in Bangalore did it. The question is, are the skills good enough here, and they are."
Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, is the center of the prolific Indian film industry known as Bollywood. It is also home to several digital effects houses that count major American studios as clients.
Among them is Prime Focus, which began 15 years ago as a start-up post-production studio for Bollywood and has grown into a global company of 4,500 employees in offices from Los Angeles to Beijing.
Of the 600 visual effects artists it employs in Mumbai, as many as 500 are involved in Hollywood projects, said Delna Dhamodiwala, the company's vice president of human resources.
On a recent afternoon at Prime Focus' global headquarters, inside a converted apartment block an hour north of central Mumbai, technical teams were working on the sequel to the 2005 crime thriller "Sin City."
Seventeen Westerners, most from Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada, had traveled to Mumbai to supervise 300 Indian artists who were expected to complete production by the end of May.
The film's live action was shot almost entirely in front of green screens with standard 2-D cameras, leaving Indian technicians to conjure up fight sequences, noir cityscapes and 3-D effects using computer programs. Dozens of monitors glowed in the dimly lighted corridors as servers roamed through with trays of drinking water.
"I've never worked in a place this big," said Michael Pecchia, Prime Focus' director of global development and training and a 17-year visual effects veteran who now spends much of his year in Mumbai.
And it's not just new movies. As classic movies and television shows find new lives in 3-D or high-definition rereleases, Indian studios are increasingly hired to make the conversions.
At Reliance Media Works' 95,000-square-foot facility in Mumbai's western suburbs, one engineer recently spent eight months enhancing the sound on all 202 episodes of "The Cosby Show" — a program he'd never seen before — to better match it to today's advanced television sets.
Reliance technicians also have restored classic movies and TV shows whose original celluloid had been damaged, patching tears in "Alvin and the Chipmunks" cartoons, removing blemishes from Disney's Winnie the Pooh and brightening the 1953 Rock Hudson Western film "Gun Fury."
In 2009, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, NASA contracted Reliance to restore footage of Neil Armstrong's lunar walk after the space agency admitted it had mistakenly taped over the original.