Clair Weeks and the Beginnings of Indian Animation

Clair Weeks with storyboard for The Banyan Deer

The ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archives has recently been posting a slew of wonderful material from their Clair Weeks collection, including this entry on Weeks’ role in jump starting the Indian animation industry. Weeks’ career is a fascinating one, as after 16 years at Disney (where his credits ranged from Snow White to Peter Pan), he went to India as part of the American Technical Co-Operation Mission, where he set up the country’s first animation studio for Information Films of India. The image above shows Weeks at work during the production of the studio’s first effort, The Banyan Deer. The posting also includes a Quicktime version of a silent film showing the studio (and Weeks) at work on the film.

Weeks was born and raised in India the son of missionaries; and because of this he apparently felt more at home there than in the United States.  Given this background, it is probably no surprise that:

What started as a one year project expanded into almost a decade of service abroad working for the US Agency for International Development. Weeks toured Southeast Asia and headed up a [communications] office in Katmandu, Nepal. He made films and audio-visual programs that aided in the social development and economic growth of third world countries.

Indian Animated Movies Stumble at Box Office

 

A veritable flood of locally-made animated movies were released in India in 2008, but according to The Times of India,

Trade sources confirm that Bollywood has had a bad run with animation this year. Between Hanuman Returns, Krishna, Roadside Romeo, Dashavatar, Ghatotkach and My Friend Ganesha parts 1 and 2, insiders estimate animation losses will total up to about Rs 70 crore [over US$14.5 million]. “Indian animation has suffered quite a few hiccups,” says a trade source. “What’s worse is that many animation films that are complete and awaiting release have no takers.”

Barely a year ago when Walt Disney tied up with Yashraj Films to commission their first joint venture Roadside Romeo (Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor dubbed for the lead pair), Bollywood pundits went to town claiming that animation as a genre had `arrived’. In fact, at least 25 animation films were announced by various corporations, and an estimated Rs 4,000 crore [over US$831 million] was to be kept aside for the animation studios that were being planned across India. “Everything is on hold now,” says trade guru Amod Mehra. “Film corporations are shaken with the blow-hot, blow-cold response to this genre.”

Another story on the situation, in The Hindustan Times, notes,

Roadside Romeo at least stood out from animation point of view while Jumbo made waves due to Akshay Kumar factor. [Jumbo, it should be noted, was really a Thai movie,  Khan Kluay, even though it was promoted as an Akshay Kumar film.] However, rest just fizzled completely hence putting a question mark on the future of animation films in India.

The story then attempts to analyze what went wrote, including the complaint that Roadside Romeo was poorly promoted.

The new batch of animated movies was perhaps inspired by the earlier success of Hanuman in 2005, but the still new Indian animation industry has been chomping at the bit to show it can be a world-class player. And what better way than with feature films.

When I was working for Toonz Animation some 8 years ago as Festival Director of the Week With the Masters Animation Celebration, studio head Bill Dennis (a former Disney executive) was trying to get a movie based on the story behind the Taj Mahal into production; it was a serious effort with Ishu Patel (an Indian best known for his work with the National Film Board of Canada) attached as director; Western artists were to be brought in to do most of the key animation, with Indian artists assisting them. Alas, the project never came off.

I am not qualified to speculate as to why the latest batch of animated movies failed, though animation has traditionally not been well received in India. When I was there, it was pointed out to me that films like The Lion King did not really do that well outside of large cities; this was  attributed to both a bias against animation and the overwhelming popularity of Bollywood films over imports. When Cartoon Network opened its local branch, attitudes among the emerging middle class started to change towards animation; in fact, Cartoon Network buys were vital in jump starting the production of local animated TV series.

The Indian animation industry appears to still be suffering from growing pains, including a shortage of trained animators. As such, the failure of the new slate of animated movies may be the result of producers trying to do too much, too soon.