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Interview Hindi Tamil

Studio Kokaachi: People have told us that they re-watched the titles after seeing Lust Stories

The founders of the Indian storytelling and publishing house spoke to us about how they came to create the animated title credits of the Netflix anthology in two weeks and how they are dealing with the overwhelming response to their work.

Thomas with Sox and Surumi, and Tina Thomas with Dash and Bolt

Sonal Pandya

If you were one of the hundreds of viewers who saw Netflix’s Lust Stories (2018), which featured four different films by directors Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, then you likely saw the imaginative, beautiful title designs (with a fitting background score by Sameer Uddin) that preceded the film. What was refreshing to see what that the creators’ names featured prominently in the credits (right after the main cast) and not tucked away at the end of the film. This trend can also be noticed in 102 Not Out (2018) which had animated title designs by Kolkata's Ghost Animation.

The 2-minute-11-second title sequence in Lust Stories gives us a brief preview with glimpses of scenes and a few tantalizing hints of what is to come ahead from the four diverse shorts. The credits were a result of the hard work done by the husband and wife team of Pratheek and Tina Thomas. They are the founders of Studio Kokaachi, a Kochi-based studio, which produces comics, books, matchbox stories, animation in feature films and more.

Pratheek, Tina, and their small but hard-working team pulled off the title design in around two weeks for Lust Stories. We spoke to them about how they got involved in making animation for films, how they tackled the tight deadline for Lust Stories and how animation will continue to play a ‘supporting’ role in Indian films. Excerpts below:

An early design of the Lust Stories title sequence

When did you both first set up Studio Kokaachi? I believe the name comes from Malayalam folklore.

We started Kokaachi in 2014, and yes, the name belongs to a monster-creature from a story that we were told as kids. Back then, whenever we put up a fuss about eating our food, our mother/ aunt/ grandmother would tell us that if we didn’t eat, the Kokaachi would come and catch us.

When we started our storytelling house, we chose to name ourselves after the Kokaachi.

Can you tell us a bit about your studio and its goals?

We’d been making comics under the banner of Manta Ray from 2011-13, and when we had to shut down Manta Ray, we wanted to continue making comics, and that’s how we started Kokaachi. But this time around, we wanted to go beyond just comics and were keen to create stories in any visual form.

Kokaachi is primarily Tina and Pratheek. We’re both writers and we collaborate with our friends and peers — who are artists, illustrators, animators — to create the various comics, picture books and animated films that we have put out in the world.

The studio also focuses on publishing comics, books and creating graphic artwork along with animated work for films and ads. How do you balance it all?

With much difficulty, to be honest!

Since it’s just the two of us, not only do we look at the creative aspect of what we make, but we also have to consider the production and business side of things — from printing our books, to partnering with retailers across the country, self-distributing our books and keeping track of all of that… And besides all these, we’re also working on our own stories for comics.

Between the two of us, Tina handles the bulk of the responsibility of Kokaachi, our comics publishing wing while Pratheek handles Studio Kokaachi, where we take up the various commissioned projects — ranging from the animated content and other illustration/ comics work that clients approach us for. But we also dip into and extensively support each other in these respective roles.

How did you first get into animating for films?

Back when we were Manta Ray, we’d released the second volume of Mixtape (our anthology comic series) at Papaya Café in Kochi. Aashiq Abu, a well-regarded director and producer in the Malayalam film industry, saw our work at the café and asked us if we’d be up for creating an animated segment in his film.

We love animation, especially 2D animation… you could say [Japanese filmmaker and animator Hayao] Miyazaki is like a god to us! We jumped at the opportunity and created about 13 minutes of animation for Gangster (2014). This was in collaboration with our friends at the Trivandrum-based animation studio Dreamcatcher (which has since closed). The animation sequences bookend the film… and Aashiqettan trusted us completely with it, he was so hands-off. It was a wonderful experience and confidence booster to make our first foray into animation with such a project.

You've worked on the title design on films like Gangster (2014), O Kadal Kanmani (2015) and its Hindi remake OK Jaanu (2015) and Kalaakaandi (2018). Is that how you were approached to do the credits for Lust Stories since you had worked with Karan Johar's production house before?

No. What happened is that Neel Bhoopalam who played the gun-slinger Omelet in Kaalakaandi (2018) was familiar with our work and connected us with [director] Akshat Verma. The initial idea was to make a graphic novel adaptation of the film. That didn’t work out, but Akshat and we remained in touch and became friends. He commissioned us to create the titles for Kaalakaandi. Kaalakaandi was produced by Ashi Dua Sara of Flying Unicorn, who also co-produced Lust Stories, and that’s how we came to work on it.

What was your brief for the title design and how did you both bring your inputs on the credits?

There was no brief besides to design the titles for the film — so it was a completely open brief. We were given a budget and two weeks to complete the titles, and we were sent a copy of the film to watch. The timeline was really scary. Two weeks is really no time, but we saw the film and loved it, and immediately brainstormed on how to approach the credits.

From the beginning we wanted to bring storytelling into the credits — that’s our forte — so our concepts revolved around how best to do that.

What was your process like? Once it was storyboarded, did the title credits go through many changes?

We considered two approaches… the first was to take visual elements from the films and illustrate these along with the corresponding titles… but this wasn’t really exciting, especially from a storytelling perspective.

So we took a different path and started connecting the stories and the characters… and we started with Kalindi’s character [played by Radhika Apte] and built from there. In many ways, she’s the anchor for the titles. We keep returning to her again and again throughout the sequence.

We skipped the static storyboard frames and directly went to an animatic (which is more like a moving storyboard) and we did about 5-7 iterations on the animatics before we locked on it.

The pre-production phase is the most critical aspect in a project like this, so we spent a good chunk of time on getting this right.

An early design sequence from the Lust Stories (2018) title sequence.

Typically, how many people work on a project like the title credits of Lust Stories? How much time did you guys have?

A team of 10 (working from different places) came together to create this sequence. From concept to final delivery we took 15 days on Lust Stories.

Are the title designs 2D? Or is it a mixture of hand-drawn and computer animation?

Yes, it’s 2D and it’s entirely drawn and animated on computer.

What feedback have the Lust Stories filmmakers given you about the title sequence? What have you been hearing from people who've seen the film online?

We’ve been told (by the production team) that the filmmakers loved the title sequence. Zoya Akhtar reached out to us and told us that she loved it. And we’ve been getting a wonderful response from everyone who’s seen it — from viewers, our friends, our peers in the animation industry, and from a lot of other filmmakers who have seen the film.

In fact, we never expected such a response. We didn’t even imagine that people would get to see the titles because, for one, the film was directly released on Netflix, and to date, all the films we’ve worked on have been released in theatres. Added to that, there’s the ‘skip intro’ option in Netflix, so we expected people to skip the titles and go directly to the film. But that didn’t happen too. In fact, a lot of people have told us that they re-watched the titles after seeing the film!

But all credit goes to the four films in Lust Stories, it’s because the films are so good that word spreads so fast and people watched it, and it’s the films that inspired us to create this title sequence too.

The title sequence, when I first saw it, reminded me of old Hollywood title credits especially by Saul Bass. Were you both inspired by any title sequences from other films before doing Lust Stories (2018)?

We’re fans of Saul Bass’s work, but we didn’t take inspiration from his work in the creation of the Lust Stories title sequence. But we did take a lot of inspiration from the illustrations of [French illustrator] Malika Favre. We just love her work!

Would you like to see more Indian films adopting this practice of including animation with live action?

In India, a good part of the audience sees animation as children’s fare, but that’s only because they haven’t been exposed to more mature animated content. That’s also the reason why all the animation feature films we make are aimed at a younger audience. But that will definitely change if people see more animated content within the live-action feature films.

Having said that, there are many filmmakers who are trying to bring in animation in their live action films. It’s predominantly in the title sequence, but Gangster (20140 and O Kadhal Kanmani (2015)/ OK Jaanu (2017) went beyond that. Shaandaar (2015) too uses animation to tell the backstory of the protagonist. In India, animation is likely to play a ‘supporting’ role in live-action films during the foreseeable future, but that’s a good start!

After the brilliant design on Lust Stories, what's next for Studio Kokaachi? Will we be seeing more of your work on the big screen soon?

We are working towards releasing some new comics from Kokaachi. We’ve been silent on the comics front for the first half of this year, so that’s one thing we’re looking forward to.

There are a couple of projects at a discussion stage, but it’s too early to say if these will translate to the big screen soon.