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Art of the title: How the opening credits of 102 Not Out, Vikram Vedha, Lust Stories are taking Indian animation forward

The artistes behind the imaginative and marvellous animated sequences of these recent films speak about the creative process and how, with each project, they are changing the perception of Indian animation.

Sonal Pandya

Since the dawn of cinema, title credits have held an important place. In the early days, they were perfunctory and often illustrated by hand, telling viewers about the film's title, cast and crew. These were primarily a showcase for different kinds of fonts and lettering. But over time, they have become more artistic.

In 1958, for Satyen Bose's madcap comedy Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, rudimentary figures outlined the zany story of the film and introduced the behind-the-scenes artistes.

Two decades later, RK Films’ Biwi-O-Biwi (1981) presented its cast of characters as different animals. For instance, Sanjeev Kumar was a tiger while Randhir Kapoor was a rabbit.

The titles for Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) were done by A Zacharias while those for Biwi-O-Biwi were done by Ram Mohan Biographics, the company established by famed animator Ram Mohan, also known as the father of Indian animation.

There were innovative titles in Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) as well. In Paranjpye’s Katha (1983), a retelling of the classic fable of the hare and the tortoise was woven into the film's narrative, leading to the credits. This time around, however, the ending of the fable was altered. This sequence, too, was headed by Ram Mohan.

The last decade has seen some interesting opening credits sequences. Rohan Sippy's Kuch Naa Kaho (2003) began as a product placement for Western Union and transitioned to cleverly show the credits embedded into ordinary props around the scene. Leading actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was introduced on a shower curtain while editor Rajeev Gupta's name appeared, fittingly, on a pair of scissors.

Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par (2008) used stop-motion animation to convey the imaginative mind of eight-year-old Ishaan played by Darsheel Safary. The sequence was created by animation film designer Dhimant Vyas and his team. It was the first time clay was used in the opening title sequence.

Zoya Akhtar's debut film as director, Luck By Chance (2009), took the viewer behind the scenes into the Hindi film industry, from the spot boy to the choreographer, the sound designer to the cinematographer; all these oft-forgotten talents were given the limelight.

The last couple of years, the use of animation in titles has seen an upswing. Films like Fukrey (2013), Shaandaar (2015), OK Jaanu (2017) and Vikram Vedha (2017) have assimilated animation into their credits. And in the last three months, Umesh Shukla’s 102 Not Out (2018) and the Netflix anthology Lust Stories (2018) also displayed striking title animation credits. These animated sequences have proved to be an integral part of a film's storytelling process.

We spoke to the creators of the title sequences of Vikram Vedha (2017), 102 Not Out (2018) and Lust Stories (2018) to know more about how the sequences came together and how they view the trend.

Animator Kalp Sanghvi of Kolkata’s Ghost Animation had previously worked on Mani Ratnam's O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) and the Malayalam film Double Barrel/Eratta Kuzhal (2015) as a freelancer. He and fellow animator Upamanyu Bhattacharya graduated from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, two and three years ago, respectively.

“There aren’t any 2D animation studios in Kolkata, [so] we thought we could come together and start our own collective," Sanghvi said of his studio. "By the end of it, there were six animators, some are juniors, some are my batch and one of us is a senior. Six of us came together and we started this Ghost Animation Collective and now we are a studio.”

Sanghvi was contacted by the makers of 102 Not Out after the film had been edited. They had seen Ghost Animation's previous work.

“Basically, at the last moment, they wanted a 2D animated opening sequel [which had] a whole feel of Bombay from the 1920s to the present day, the life span of the character that Amitabh [Bachchan] plays," said Sanghvi. "They wanted a very nostalgic feel to the city.”

Sanghvi sat down with director Umesh Shukla, who gave him a brief of what he wanted. The result is a nostalgia jaunt of Mumbai’s most iconic locations from south to the north. Shukla asked for certain Mumbai locales which are featured in the film as well.

Sanghvi revealed his own connection to the film’s title sequence. “My mother is from Bombay, so I spent most of my childhood summers in Bombay," he said. "It was really nostalgic and nice to recreate all the places I have been to, especially the aeroplane Juhu park where I actually played as a kid.”

Four artists, Sanghvi himself, Bhattacharya, Shaheen Sheriff and Anwaar Alam, worked on the sequence. “Shaheen and Anwaar helped with a bunch of shots in the end because we were running out of time. Otherwise, Upamanyu and I did the major stuff, as in developing the shot, and finally compiled the entire thing. The music was given to us,” Sanghvi said.

To create old and new Mumbai, the Ghost Animation team used the reference of many images and the entire project was finished in about five weeks. “We sort of made a list of what can follow from one spot to another," Sanghvi said. "The entire journey from VT in the south to the north towards Juhu and Vile Parle. [For] all of that, we referred to a lot of images, looked at a lot of old photographs, and made a mood board and then slowly, keeping that as reference, started developing the shots.”

The team didn’t watch the film before working on the title sequence, but it had obviously been given the story and saw a few shots to familiarize itself with the mood of the film and its flow.

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

For Lust Stories (2018), Studio Kokaachi's Prateek and Tina Thomas were able to watch the Netflix film and based their title illustrations on the four short films directed by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar.

"We were given a budget and two weeks to complete the titles, and we were sent a copy of the film to watch," said Prateek and Tina Thomas. "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."

The duo felt that part of the appeal of working on the title credits was the integration of the film and the opening sequence. Besides working on feature films, Studio Kokaachi also publishes comics, books, graphic artworks and more. Their work on the big screen (and, sometimes, the small screen) brings them recognition for the other kinds of work Studio Kokaachi does.

“That’s what we aspire to do," said the duo. "It primarily depends on the content of the film and the brief we get from the team. The fact that Lust Stories was a collection of four films and we were given a free hand to conceptualize the titles was a huge factor.”

Vikram Vedha (2017) animators Sandhya Prabhat and Jemma Jose also shared, on e-mail, how they collaborated on the Tamil thriller. Prabhat was contacted by co-directors Gayathri and Pushkar for the title sequence.

“They explained in detail to me what the sequence would depict and how it would interpret the myth of King Vikram and Vetaal," Sandhya said. "I began to develop looks for the characters and backgrounds to be designed and had begun storyboarding when I realized that I would need another animator on board to complete the project on time.”

Sandhya had worked with Jemma Jose previously and contacted her to join the project which referenced the story of the courageous king and the mischievous spirit through a righteous cop, Vikram, and an elusive criminal, Vedha.

“We set up design rules for both to follow and had character and background guides and common digital tools that we shared. We then divided the shots between us and tried to make our character-background division homogeneous such that our styles would get evenly distributed over the sequence. We did have a tight deadline but planned a rigid schedule, stuck to it, and enjoyed the rush!” she said.

Sandhya said the key to their success on the sequence was letting go of their individual styles and doing what was required.

“The directors and their team of creatives that were guiding us had a solid vision but were incredibly open-minded about our visual interpretation of their story," she said. "They also were kind to collect tonnes of references for us and give us timely feedback. Often, when something wasn't working, they would take the trouble to explain why it wasn't working and why something else would work better, and this kept our collaboration really smooth.”

The 134 second sequence is devoid of any colour except for the touches of red added for striking and deadly details.

“Sandhya and I both love working with colour, so the animation’s black and white palette was indeed a challenge for us in the beginning," Jemma said. "But we were able to crack this immediately and seeing the story unfold on screen, the muted tones were required to bring out the intensity of the visuals. I also felt that the shades of grey were a reference to the characters’ behaviour in the film. It’s a small detail, but paying attention to details like these made the experience of working with Gayathri and Pushkar a rewarding one.”

Unlike the teams working on 102 Not Out (2018) and Lust Stories (2018), Sandhya and Jemma were focused only on the title sequence. They did not watch the film until its theatrical release.

“We had no idea what the plot was about and were completely involved only in the title sequence, paying attention to the nuanced script that the directors had provided us," she said. "It was only when we watched it on the big screen that we ourselves saw the parallels and realized the major role of this sequence in setting the tone for the complicated story that followed.”

All three title sequences show audiences the variety and talent that is available in the world of Indian animation now. Yet, these are but a glimpse of what Indian animators are capable of. Is this the first step to exposing an Indian audience to animated films, those that feature local content, not those that come out of Hollywood?

In a previous interview, Prateek and Tina Thomas had told us, “In India, animation is likely to play a ‘supporting’ role in live-action films for the foreseeable future, but that’s a good start!”

They believe that is because in India animation is seen as children’s content and said a change can come about with audiences seeing these animated sequences in films. This is a viewpoint backed by Ghost Animation’s Kalp Sanghvi.

He said, “I think [with] 2D animation and animation in general in India, this is really helping with the whole awareness, and making it different from not just children’s content and cartoons, but as a serious medium of storytelling and making films.”

He added that exposure in the mainstream through popular films watched by the majority of the nation helps their studio. “It would really help to pitch our own films and other ideas," he explained. "We specialize in hand-drawn 2D animation. That’s what we are trying to promote and put more work out there, especially in India.”

Sanghvi and his colleagues have been working on an animated short film called Wade, which deals with climate change and how it will affect the humans and animals living in and around Kolkata. The crowdfunded short is due to be finished this year. They also hope to start their own feature film.

However, Sandhya Prabhat said, “If a lot of films are already incorporating so much animation into mainstream filmmaking, then I don't really agree that most audiences still view animation as children's films.”

She pointed to the Tamil film Aalavandaan (2001), which features animation significantly in the film and not just in the title sequence. “This is what inspired Quentin Tarantino to incorporate animation into Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)," she said. "Tamil films Moodar Koodam (2013) and Sathuranga Vettai (2014) used some animation, but I am not sure if they are title sequences.”