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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Lights, camera... animation!

Manjit Majumdar was working in a multi-national company. But for the 36-year-old with a passion for animation since childhood, a lot was missing in life. 'So, when Toonz Webel Academy opened, I decided to take the plunge,' says Manjit. A few months away from course completion, Manjit is having the time of his life.

Like Manjit, animation is vaulting the barrier between passion and pursuit as more and more Calcuttans sign up for training institutes mushrooming around town and production opportunities opening up.

'After information technology, the next boom is animation,' says Ranjini Mukherjee of The Academy of Animation Arts & Technology (AAAT), a two-year-old animation school on Hazra Road.

And like in infotech, there's no dearth of talent here. 'I've been in Calcutta for a while but I can already see there's a lot of potential,' says Toonz Webel Academy's latest faculty member, Filipino animator Rosauro B. Adorable.

If human resource is a plus, so is heritage, as information technology minister Manab Mukherjee points out at every animation seminar. 'This is the land of Abanindranath Tagore and Sukumar Ray. It's only natural that Bengal will produce the best animation workforce,' muses Mukherjee.

CLASSROOM TALES

Creating that workforce is the first step towards claiming a slice of the animation pie. According to National Association of Software & Services Company (Nasscom) estimates, revenue generated from the animation production services sector was between $200 million and $300 million in 2004. It is expected to grow by 20 per cent in 2005.

Closer home, the government-industry joint venture Webel Toonz Academy ' Toonz Thiruvananthapuram joined hands with the Bengal government's nodal IT agency Webel ' set up labs spread over 8,000 sq ft in Salt Lake's Sector V, in 2004.

Offering a one-year diploma in 2D and 3D animation, the institute received 220 applications for its inaugural course, of which 54 candidates were chosen. 'The interesting part is that it's not just students from the city or those with fine-art backgrounds who are applying,' says Srimati Mukherjee, project leader at the institute. 'We have students with degrees like B.Com, B.Sc and MCA, and a significant percentage is from the districts.'

If raising awareness about animation is at the core of the government initiative, production plan is the prime factor for private efforts.

'In 2003, we were thinking of producing animation but found almost no trained people in Calcutta. An advertisement for classical animators drew response from the wrong crowd' the software experts,' recalls Ranjini of AAAT.

Now, with students queuing up for the six-month basic course and one-year advanced course on offer, creating an animation movie does not look too distant a dream for AAAT.

Ditto for Ready to Go Animate, the latest animation school to set up classrooms on Darga Road. 'Our ultimate plan is to make a movie in five years,' states managing partner Arjun Jindal, adding that production has simultaneously been started on a small scale. 'But the more immediate reason was to fill the gap and cater to the growing demand for animators here.'

The cost-conscious Calcuttan is considering a not-too-common career option, but the course fees ' upwards of Rs 1 lakh on an average ' are no longer a deterrent. 'Bank loans for such courses used to be a problem, but not any more,' says Jindal, who has around 65 per cent of his students taking the loan route.

It's a change as well for those looking at Calcutta from the outside, both for would-be animators and potential recruiters. 'After making enquiries, I found Webel Toonz's course content to be the best, so I moved to Calcutta,' says Vardhini Amin, a commerce graduate from Nagpur, who is staying as a paying guest in the city for the one-year course.

'A positive movement seems to be taking place and the prospects are very good,' feels Anish H. Mulani of Mumbai-based Crest Animation, one of the top studios in the country that has recently started recruiting students from Calcutta. 'But their level of exposure has to be greatly improved for them to compete with animation students from other places,' warns Mulani.

STUDIO SHORTS

Supply may have taken wing, but demand remains a downer for city production houses. 'Mumbai or down south is still the preferred destination for graduates since there's little scope in Calcutta,' rues Ranjini.

Going solo is one option. 'We try to tell our students that if you have the skills and the training, why not become an entrepreneur and scout for freelance work on your own,' says Jindal.

Setting up a production unit has its own worries. 'We had to spend nearly Rs 10 lakh on our set-up and banks were just not interested in providing loans,' recalls Santanu Chandra, trying to establish his 800-sq-ft studio Instaniqua in Moore Avenue. 'And the mindset is still 'animation is being done in Calcutta'!'. But that acts as a challenge for us, too.'

What is a plus for classrooms is a minus for studios ' manpower. Ask V.C. Bhalotia of Dawsen Infotech, producing the Thakurmar Jhulie series for a Bengali channel. 'Calcutta is still not the preferred destination for animation' Students churned out by the institutes have no experience and veteran Bengali animators don't want to come and work back home.'

Budgets are a bother, both for those who commission the projects and those who complete them. 'A minute of animation costs anything between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800 to produce. For the product to break even, we have to work on a tight budget,' admits Krishnendu Banerjee of Sagarika Music, which has forayed into marketing animation VCDs. Sagarika believes animation is the future for VCDs and is tapping into Bengali literature ' works of Sukumar Ray, particularly ' for ideas.

'Which is why we work on foreign projects only,' points out R.D. Mallik of Elecom Toon. 'With budgets not a problem, one doesn't have to compromise on quality and there's no payment problem either.' The one-year-old Elecom, in Mahestala, counts among its clients companies in the US, Germany and Australia, and is working on converting a Bengali short story into an animated film.

Special effects is an area of interest and production houses feel a Tollywood with greater awareness and looser purse strings could soon be there for the taking. 'We really want to reach out to that market,' says Jindal of Ready to Go.

The good news is that the government is trying to rope in production houses. 'There certainly is a gap between the training and production opportunities,' admits information technology secretary G.D. Gautama. 'We are in talks with national production houses to set up shop here and something should happen within the next year.'

The wait will be an animated one.

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