“Benefits start at Rhythm & Hues India from day 1. We value people. We invest in them. We listen to them.”
It could be her prodigal status, it could be her knack for understanding creative people, it could be her people management skills … whichever of these it is, … Rhythm & Hues India Director of Operations Saraswathi Balgam or Vani (as she is known amongst colleagues and friends) comes across as someone who knows what she wants.
Saraswathi has been working in the animation and visual effects industry in India for over 9 years in various roles ranging from marketing to studio management. 3 years ago, she was hired as the first employee of Rhythm and Hues Studios in India, and she was tasked with setting up the Indian operations for the company. The challenge in Saraswathi’s words “Was to build from the ground up a world class production facility that would be capable of creating high quality work while at the same time fostering a work culture and an environment that took very good care of its employees.”
In a freewheeling interview with Animation ‘xpress’ Anand Gurnani, Saraswathi spoke on a wide range of topics, amongst them being the art of managing creative people.
Excerpts-Industry insiders identify Rhythm & Hues as a name that is always associated with quality work and outstanding people management. What is the R&H philosophy for managing people and how do you implement it out here in India?
Since the founding of Rhythm and Hues both in the US and in India, we have clearly identified two main purposes for our existence. First, we want to create the highest quality work in whatever endeavor we take on, and second, we exist as a company to provide our employees a great working environment where we take very good care of our employees. At Rhythm & Hues we believe that the highest quality work is created in an environment where people enjoy working and where people are treated fairly, honestly, and respectfully. At our company, this is more than just a statement that receives lip service.This is something that we focus on in almost every action that we take.
When we talk about a great working environment, we are also talking about fostering an open and collaborative environment. We have a very flat corporate structure over here without much hierarchy as we believe in empowering our employees to make the decisions that matter. We take great efforts to see to it that the team understands the company’s vision and goals, and then we work together to try and achieve these goals. People working at Rhythm and Hues in India, have all the freedom to express themselves and to be curious and to ask questions. We want everybody in this office to know whatâ€™s going on, what each department is doing, how long they spend on what projects, how difficult it was. The idea is to motivate them by making them a part of the process and by getting them involved in the productions and the decision making process.
Go on… it is interesting to hear about the art of managing creative people, especially in times when holding on to people is an issue…
We want to make sure that people here don’t stagnate but evolve and grow and learn. Not only individually, but also to learn things and become better as a team. It has to be collaborative.
We want to provide a working environment where our artists really prosper and blossom as artists, so we provide them with all the resources that they could want. Our people are constantly learning to better themselves, both on the productions they work on, as well as with other activities at work. For example, we have several periodic workshops and classes where we teach everyone a large range of topics from Art and Life drawing classes, to acting classes, photography classes, sessions on camera lenses and cinematography, etc., etc.. Again, it is about really caring for your employees and investing in their growth, which naturally results in the growth of the company.
Garfield the Movie TM 2004 Fox
“Today, most Indian studios are pitching Brand India as a low cost high volume solution and that I believe is not a very good focus.”
What are the HR policies that you have adopted?
We don’t believe in overworking people, we want them to have a life, to go out have fun on weekends, do something else to expand their minds. We only expect our employees to work 5 days a week and to be precise it is 40 hours a week. We want them to go home and spend time with their families, watch movies, learn some thing else creative. We believe that good quality work can be expected out of individuals that are not only learning constantly, and improving their skill sets, but are also enjoying life at the same time. So far we have generally been successful in implementing this 40 hour work week at R&H India, and the results have been wonderful.
We also provide our people with free health benefits, such as mediclaim insurance, accident policies, and the like. Benefits start at R&H from day 1. We value people. We invest in them. We listen to them. We have also implemented several other HR policies over time. For example, sometimes it is so tiring to sit and work on the computer, so we have free yoga lessons twice or thrice a week. We also, have free breakfast, subsidized lunch, i.e. we like to pamper our people. We have other fun activities that we do as a company, like going on road trips outside of Mumbai, having parties, celebrating birthdays every month, going out for free movies and the like.
On the longer term what matters to every individual is how he/she is being valued and treated. We pay close attention to this in our day to day practice and we try very very hard to maintain a strong consistent sense of fairness throughout the organization.
While still on the topic, lets talk about poaching too…
As the talent pool in India is small, there are always attempts to poach the employees that we have invested in, and grown at our company. As a company, we value our employees and the decisions they make, and of course if they choose to leave, then we wish them well. However, we try to make it such that, an employee doesn’t feel the need to want to leave the company. There is a sense of belonging from our employees as this their company too. We hope that by providing good projects and a very good work environment we have done our share to keep our employees happy and loyal to R&H.
On the other side of the equation, at R&H India its been our policy not to poach from other companies. We do not cold call anyone from other companies and try to recruit them here, since we don’t like it when others try those tactics with our employees. So as a policy, we select people only from the pool of candidates that apply directly to our company on their own initiative.
Are there any plans of R&H setting up a training facility or an institute in India?
No, not in the near future. Our current focus is in building a world class production facility that creates great work, and this one challenging task is large enough without having to also focus on creating a world class educational institute that teaches great animation and visual effects.Any plans to promote sharing of know how within the industry?
We believe very much in giving back to the community and sharing our knowledge. We have plans to have workshops and seminars in the near future for anyone that is interested in how we go about doing our work… our methodologies, techniques, etc. So stay tuned for news on that. On a related note, we also have an internship program for students to come and spend time at our facility to learn and to get exposure to working in a production facility. We hope that this is a trend that more and more studios in the industry start doing.
Alley Chase – Channel V promo
“If there is a good quality project in India that has the right amount of time with the right amount of creative vision we are definitely interested.”
Could you talk about your in house training?
Every new employee that comes to R&H India, goes through a rigorous training program, even if they are very experienced. Our training does not focus on software and technology, but is designed to leverage the over 17 years of knowledge in terms of techniques and methodologies that R&H has accumulated through its history. We have pretty well defined production pipelines and standards that we train everyone with and then we reinforce that initial training with constant on the job training, workshops, and learning sessions. We want people to be constantly learning and growing at R&H. Beyond, the production specific techniques, our in house training also focuses on important soft skills like teamwork, collaboration, and communication.
We also focus on leveraging R&H USA quite a bit in our learning. We have video conference session that happen almost every single day where the artists in India and our supervisors in the US talk about the productions. The communication is very important to understand what our clients want, and it is also a great learning opportunity. We also have our supervisors from the head office in LA visiting regularly and they spend time interacting with the people out here, spending as much time as they can, and being open to the most junior person to the most experienced person. It has been very fruitful. We also have full access to all the resources available to the artists in our Los Angeles office over here in India. Our computer network is tightly integrated with the US office, so we have access to all the proprietary internal documents and videos that talk about how we accomplished certain projects in LA, so this too has proved to be quite valuable.
Finally, we really encourage people to learn on their own and pursue their own interests, so beyond the work projects we provide our employees access to all the computing resources for people to work on their own personal projects as well. Furthermore, we provide every employee with a high speed Internet connection to every desktop so that they can surf the web and access any multimedia rich resource online to enhance their personal learning. Last but not least, we also have a well stocked internal library where we have several books and special DVDs on computer graphics that every employee can checkout.
Why isn’t anyone out here in India making a complete animation feature film?
Honestly there is potential but there aren’t enough experienced animators yet to embark on creating a high quality animation feature film. You need a certain consistency when you are out to make a film… uniformity, consistency, flow in terms of quality all are important in the story telling of a good movie. We believe there is still a lot of learning left for us to do. You become experts at doing one small thing first, then you gradually grow into other aspects of the movie making process. Slowly you will have the whole team ready right there and then you can be successful.
I believe we in India can definitely produce a great animated feature. We just have to keep working towards that goal and I’m sure we’ll eventually get there and come up with our own special brand and style of animation.
Wouldn’t it be great if all studios collaborated on a co production and make a feature…That would boost the country’s image in the animation world. Our studios have to sell BRAND INDIA…
It will take some time. There are people I know, who will take Indian animation to the next level. Right now though, the industry is going through a teething process. It’s going to take us some time as an Industry to get to making something like what Pixar or Dreamworks does. With regard to all the studios collaborating to make one movie. It is something that is very difficult to accomplish today. There are too many competing interests and too many different production standards and values. It would be difficult to come up with the consistency and uniformity necessary to create a good movie.
Brand India is good quality… please comment
In my opinion good quality is what Brand India should really try to focus on and try to achieve. Today, most Indian studios are pitching Brand India as a low cost high volume solution and that I do not believe is a very good focus. My hope is that this will change over time.
“Rhythm & Hues is here in India for the long term”
What is the critical difference between the quality of work being produced here as compared to that being done abroad?
When talking about the quality of the work abroad, I’ll focus on the North American market as that is what we have most exposure to at R&H India. I believe that there definitely are some very creative and talented individual artists in India. The problem that we have noticed is that these few individuals are spread across several companies and they just have not been given the right opportunities, exposure, or support from those companies and their clients to be able to output high quality work. Therefore, it is very difficult to compare the quality of Indian work to work being done abroad as today there is not a basis for a fair comparison.
The Indian industry is still very much in its nascent stage compared to the maturity that the international market has already achieved. So, a lot of the problems we see in our industry today are due to the young stature of our industry. I believe that as we mature over here, the quality of the work and the projects will naturally improve dramatically. We just require patience and a lot of hard work.
That said, at Rhythm and Hues India, our focus has been from ground up to deliver international quality work in whatever we do. The work that we output here has to be equivalent to the quality of work that Rhythm and Hues USA creates. Therefore our strategy has been to take a few smaller sections of the overall pipeline of production and really focus on those sections to make sure we output the best quality work. Once we get these portions of the production pipeline working, then we can build on that expertise to take on more complex portions of the pipeline. For example, at R&H India, we started with feature film compositing and 3D matchmoving. We have had the pleasure to work on these portions of the pipeline on several Hollywood feature films right here at our Mumbai facility. These movies include, Daredevil and Garfield the Movie from Fox, Scooby Doo 2 â€“ Monsters Unleashed from Warner Brothers, Welcome to the Jungle (aka The Rundown), The Cat in the Hat, and The Chronicles of Riddick from Universal Studios. Just to be clear, we did not do all the effects in these movies here in India. Most of the work including the 3d character animation and effects was done by out talented colleagues at Rhythm and Hues in Los Angeles. However, we were able to help out with compositing and matchmoving on portions of those movies, and I am proud to say that in terms of quality, our work in India has been up to par with our colleagues in Los Angeles.
Could you talk a bit about your recruitment plans ?
Rhythm and Hues is here in India for the long term. We are slowly building a strong company from the ground up, and this requires patience and a determined focus on getting the right people. We are always looking for good people in all of our disciplines. Today we are actively looking for Feature film VFX compositors and Roto artists as well as 3D Digital Artists who are good in Modeling, Matchmoving, Rigging, Animation, Lighting and Texturing. We are also recruiting technically savvy people who have exposure to programming, systems administration, pipeline support etc.. as well as people with managerial skills like production coordinators, producers, department managers, etc.. We list all of our current job openings on our Rhythm and Hues India website, so I encourage all interested candidates to go there to find out more details.
We are definitely open to hiring freshers as well as experienced individuals. We emphasize more on things like artistic talent, intelligence, attitude, integrity, communication skills, and overall potential rather than on things like past experience and what software one knows.
As I said before, we are here in India for the long term, and we are always looking for people who will be a good fit in our culture and at our company.
Are you open to doing work for the local market now?
Yes we are definitely open to doing work for the local market, but it is not an active focus of our company. If there is good quality project in India that has the right amount of time with the right creative vision we are definitely interested. When looking at any work that we might do, we analyze if that is a project that excites us and whether it is a project that fits into our longer term strategy with regard to growing our team in the right direction.
We already have done a few projects for the Indian market but in these cases, we came up with the projects on our own and we used our own creative. For example, we did Alley Chasefor channel V, which is a small 30 second animation piece that we did in house as a good training exercise to start implementing our character animation pipeline. After we got done with the exercise we showed it to Channel V , who loved the project and they been airing it for some time now. For us though, it was a training process where we could learn about our skills and capabilities. It is a starting point, and we see lots of room for improvement and areas that we still need to focus on. We used this project as a stepping stone to develop and keep improving the quality of the 3d work we can generate at R&H India.
Any sequels for Chase in the offing?
We were asked to do several sequels for Alley Chase , but we are currently busy with other projects where we are learning about different styles of animation and imagery, thus it didn’t make sense for us to create another project with the same style and characters at this time. Therefore we had to kindly decline Channel V. However, it might be something that we will do in the future and that would be great as this is a project that is very dear to us.
‘Scooby DOO 2 Monsters Unleashed’ TM 2004 Warner Brothers/ Hanna Barbera Productions
“Good Quality work can be expected out of individuals that are not only learning and improving their skill sets, but are also enjoying life at the same time”
We are still a small company that is focusing on building a strong core team and a well established infrastructure. We plan to slowly keep adding talented individuals to our existing pool and keep refining our work to something that we can truly be proud of. We are of a strong belief that once we build a studio that can produce high quality work, the opportunities are nearly limitless. As Rhythm and Hues, we will have access to some great projects that will creatively challenge us and allow us to tell stories in our own unique way. These plans require a lot of patience and hard work for everyone involved and this is something we understand and are committed to following through with.
Overall, I know that if we stick closely to the values that Rhythm and Hues has be founded on… if we stay committed to producing high quality work and taking good care of our employees.. great things are in store for us. In the meanwhile, we are making sure that we are focused while at the same time keep savoring and enjoying the journey of getting to these goals.