From working at the renowned visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues to starting her own venture, Saraswathi Vani Balgam, a self-made independent filmmaker, has come a long way. She started her career at a young age and her journey is a great inspiration for many aspiring artists and filmmakers. Along with working for one of the best VFX studios, Rhythm & Hues (R&H) for 12 years, she also served as president of ASIFA India and Women in Animation India for 10 years.
Animation Xpress got the opportunity to converse with this stellar woman to gain a deeper insight on her journey, her experience with Unreal Engine, and most importantly what she is currently working on and if we will get to see more collaborations taking place with Indian artists.
Vani has worked on many Hollywood films and led a team of artists who won Academy Awards for Life of Pi and The Golden Compass at R&H. On asking how the experience at R&H helped in running her studio dancing atoms, she shared, “I always wanted to direct films, tell stories but it didn’t happen when I was in Rhythm & Hues. It was a six-month contract which later ended after 12 long years. Starting as an independent filmmaker is very hard, especially because if you are a head of the studio, you are constantly delegating work to people and have a team of people working for you. But being an independent filmmaker, you are on your two feet with two hands and one head to accomplish your work and it is very hard. Being independent is different from being supported by a huge studio. A lot of time I reached out to people but nobody wanted to support me because I didn’t have any backup or any big name behind me, but at the end of the day people give you work based on how persistent you are in your work.”
In her 20 years of experience, the filmmaker has contributed to many Hollywood films including Night at the Museum, X-Men, The Chronicles of Narnia. When asked what is the secret behind her Midas touch, Vani humbly said, “Teamwork is the main key to success. Our team had the same frequency, energy, vibration; we wanted to deliver the best. It was this unified energy that kept us working. It has never been just me because to get one shot done, about 40 to 50 artists are involved. If you break it down into pixels then you know someone has put in their 20 or 40 hours for a pixel to look perfect. So I want to give my success credit to the team effort.”
Nowadays VFX and CGI has become an integral part of filmmaking. While Hollywood spends huge amounts of money on VFX to make their films look more realistic and fascinating, the budget allocated for the VFX production in India are constrained. Commenting on this Vani added, “When compared to the past,VFX in India is performing much better. The filmmaker’s VFX budget is based on what they can afford and also based on the actual output they need. There is a huge awareness created among the studios regarding the bidding process so slowly they are adapting to it. Filmmakers should understand that VFX is not a separate element, it is part of their film. So I think that this part of the thought process is happening in the industry and again I feel like it can be better.”
She further elaborated, “VFX is a medium or a tool to convey your story, some films may need VFX and some may not. Other than VFX, good direction, screenplay, cinematography and a worthy storyline is very important for a movie’s success. So I think VFX is evolving, technology is evolving so storytelling also has to develop more to make a match to it.”
Vani has been a part of Unreal Engine’s fellowship-batch III where she created an original music video Jeet and is currently the mentor of the batch V in the US. Talking about the challenges she faced while working on Unreal Engine, Vani shared, “Unreal is changing the game for VFX. So what we did 30 years ago, Unreal is making it very quick and effective. For the first few weeks, it was a big challenge for me as the terminology was very different. But later I accepted the challenge and said to myself that ‘Unreal is just a tool to tell your story’ and then I used it as a tool to create my story.”
Emphasising the inspiration behind creating Jeet, she mentioned, “To be honest, I never wanted to be a part of the fellowship. So basically Jeet is a story of a young woman who struggles to be a part of the Unreal fellowship. She is worried and stressed. Eventually she decides to bring the positive energy, and stops worrying and starts creating.”
At present, Vani is working with her mother Seetha Lakshmi to produce preschool shows. She is also working on a live-action feature film which is in the production process and due to covid, is yet to be completed. Vani said, “Currently, I am working as a co-producer with Vaibhav Kumaresh for Return of the Jungle, and also working as a creative producer with top creatives from India, helping them to promote their work.”
She further added that she is simultaneously working with freelancers from India as well who are helping her with storyboards, character designing, and layout designing. She is also working with Unreal engine artists, and a team of Emmy award-winning producers in the USA. She has a cadre of Canadians, Americans, and also Indians whose focus is on developing unique content from India.
Vani concluded by saying, “India has an abundant amount of stories, and I request everyone to develop writing skills. We need more good writers who can write quality stories for animation and VFX. There is a huge gap that needs to be filled when it comes to writing for animation and directing animated and VFX content.”