The Indian Animation Legend, E Suresh, has been a pioneer in storytelling and animation through films. He currently heads his animation studio Studio Eeksaurus. He was the first to launch clay animation commercials in India. A few feathers in his cap include creating Amaron battery advertisements, music video Bindu re Bindu, the Simpu series for Channel V, MTV Poga series, Johnny Bravo goes to Bollywood, Levis Slim vs. Slim, and so many more.
His short films, Fisherwoman and Tuk Tuk, and Tokri, both won National Film Award for Best Non-Feature Animation Film, apart from winning almost 60 national and International awards at various festivals with over 150 official selections globally.
CG. Where does animation stand today in India? Is there a gap in the understanding of what the animation industry encompasses?
Suresh. There are several gaps in the way animation is understood in India. Internationally ‘animation filmmaker’ and an ‘animator’ are similar. There the animator is synonymous to a filmmaker who uses animation to make his/her films bringing in a holistic process to the film making. In India that is not necessarily the case. Firstly, the animation is associated with cartoons in India. Beyond that, it is widely believed to simply be a technique. And this is used in the Indian animation industry mainly to provide a service, as a BPO format. Unfortunately here animation is seen as a skill set equivalent to learning software or a tool, and not as a conceptual ability of a person creating ideas to tell a story. It is not seen as the overall process.
Another misconception is that animation films don’t require direction/a director. These are all misnomers because it is not yet a popular medium here. The way it is taught or talked about by some of the academies in India, also adds to the confusion and misleading terms.
CG. What do you think it would take to change this perception in India?
Suresh. It would take more exposure to see these films, and gathering a better understanding of what animation is, for this change to occur. This will eventually lead to recognition for animation and its various forms. The evolution needs to happen where people become more aware of animation.
In the West, people have been with animation for many decades now, so they understand all that it encompasses. They understand that it is a tool to tell powerful stories. In India, the animation is still young. I am sure in another 10 years we will be where all these countries are in terms of understanding of the medium.
CG. When you are making your films, what sort of target audience are you looking at?
Suresh. I make both short films and advertising films. Both have different agendas. Advertisement films have a definite purpose, either to spread awareness about a brand or convey a message. In both cases, a behavioral change is desired. The brief and objective are very clear and the process involves a lot of research. We go by the design process where there is a defined problem, a defined target audience, and a very clear message to convey. The advertising films have a wider reach in that sense.
My short films, on the other hand, aren’t targeted to a market audience. Instead, they are targeted to a crowd who are artistically inclined and who appreciate the process. The films also target the festival audience, so that they see what India is capable of creating. It is important for Indians to not just be perceived as a service but also as great storytellers.
CG. Where does India stand on the global platform in the animation industry and film making?
Suresh. At the moment, we are not considered capable. Nobody thinks India will make good content. Right now, there are only a handful of companies that are known to create content in India. But the majority lot of animation professionals is complacent about creating something original. We need to tell more stories and make more films to be put on the map.
CG. In your work, how extensively do you use the design process?
Suresh. We often use the design process in the craft of film making. Through this process, we arrive at the most appropriate form and direction to convey the story in the best way possible. Different production houses are bracketed for making a certain type of content. It took us some time to establish ourselves without being labeled in that manner, and instead to be perceived as a design-driven production house.
We are known to work with any medium in order to make the idea stronger. I have directed and produced close to 500 films now, and I don’t consciously try to come up with a new medium, but somehow that has always happened. Each of my films has a unique look and feel to them. This is mainly the result of the design process that we use to strengthen the idea we want to convey.
CG. Creative professionals often begin to make the same kind of work, and then get stuck to that style. How did you escape that?
Suresh. While making films we first look at the story and then the form. We never begin by deciding the form. Many people tend to decide the form first thus stick to it. Sometimes clients go to them because they are known for a particular narrative style or a form that they specialize in.
Creating work with similar form is understandable because of our influences. We see things around us and try to include them in our work. But this is exactly why the design process is important. It diminishes the tendency of aping something or following a trend.
Our attempt has always been to push the form further than the predictable and strive to make it more cutting edge and niche.
CG. What makes a good story? What is good storytelling?
Suresh. No story is good or bad. It depends on how memorable a story is. And this depends on how engaging and captivating the audience is by it. And all this comes down to how the story is told. Majority stories have a similar pattern, the intro, the middle, the climax, the end, etc., but how you manage to tell the story in a captivating way is what counts. For example, the story of Ramayan and Mahabharat has essentially been the same. But the style of narration has changed with time. Every story can be told in many ways. Narrating it in a way relevant to the context is important.
CG. What is the importance of humour in storytelling?
Suresh. While narrating a story, the audience needs to feel good about it, and humour is a sure shot way to do that. It lightens up the mood and adds a twist to look at reality. Laughter is definitely a great ingredient.
CG. An example of great use of humour is the awareness campaign for Mumbai women that you had created. Can you tell us a little more about that, and how humour worked there?
Suresh. The Mumbai police claimed that in Mumbai, anywhere a woman is in distress, all she needs to do is call the hotline, and the police will reach her in within minutes. This was something they were proud of, but when I checked around, no one knew the number. So I decided to create a campaign to create awareness.
We did not want to go by the obvious approach of showing women morose or stressed ‘victims’, because that does not work at all. Through the communication we wanted women to feel empowered and get the courage to face the world. We wanted them to imagine the hotline was their weapon.
The beauty of this campaign is that the way it was executed, still makes it relevant. The form has a cartoon look, but artistic styling sets it apart.
CG. Many youngsters look forward to a career in animation. But Indian parents are very concerned about how lucrative this industry is. How would you respond to that?
Suresh. The animation is unlike mainstream fields like medicine, today in India. Instead, it leans towards art and culture, and these are essential elements of the fabric of society.
Another thing is, if you empower a student with animation, you are making him independent because animation films can be made single-handedly. It is like writing a novel. Just by investing time in it, sharpening your skills and exploring different mediums, a career can be made out of it.
If you are good at it, work will always come your way; because we are living in a time where the demand for entertainment is going to grow. Earlier the platforms were limited, but now there are so many non-linear avenues for accessing entertainment like Netflix and Prime. There is a lot of content that needs to be made available, because not it is turning into a library of content. In that sense, there will never be a dearth of work.
Apart from this, there are so many other emerging sectors connected with animation like the education sector, AR and VR experiential environments, simulations, etc. There is a tremendous scope and I don’t see parents regretting this in the future.
CG. Tell us why you see specialization as a danger today.
Suresh. Nowadays the younger generations are too focused on a specialization. It is necessary to know peripheral aspects that could influence art or the specific subject one is into. When you are thinking of a story or making a film it requires a certain sensibility towards what is going on politically, socially, and environmentally what is happening in the country and outside. Youngsters today find this irrelevant. They focus so much on their specialization that the ideas they give are no more holistic. When you are a specialist, the danger is not being aware of the bottom line issues.
There is always a contradiction between generalization and specialization. The organic path would be specialization after generalization. I am talking purely technically, but in life also, if you have a wider opinion on things, you have a much better view on a specific topic.