Saraswathi Vani Balgam’s journey with Unreal

Vani, you have been an inspiration for many in the animation Industry, would you like to tell us about your story on how and where it began? 

My association with the Indian animation industry dates back to my childhood. My father made a decision to do creative work and left his secure job as a banker and decided in the 1980s to start an independent 2D animation studio from his house. His dream was to tap into the rich Indian cultural heritage and create original animation properties for the global audience and thus he developed a treasure trove of characters and stories. 

The foundation of creative freedom comes from my parents. They have always shown that in their own way. The power of telling stories, especially from my dad and of course the joy of playing with colours. My mom is a hobby queen, she continues to make beautiful things. 

My inspiration mainly comes from my father’s early projects which I further adapted and redeveloped at our studio – Dancing Atoms. Through Dancing Atoms, I try to bridge the gap between Asian and North American storytellers. I am currently developing and pitching several original animated preschool TV shows to studios and various streaming platforms around the world. I am also co-producing Return of the Jungle with Vaibhav Kumaresh. (to know more about Dancing Atoms Studio:

Tell us what were you working on before Dancing Atoms Studios? 

Previously, I was the founding director of Rhythm & Hues Studios, Asia – an Academy Award-winning VFX and Animation studio. I also served as the Head of Creative Management and Training at DreamWorks Animation’s studio in Shanghai, where I championed and mentored Chinese creatives. I have managed the teams of artists and technicians that created the digital characters for Academy Award winning films Life of Pi, and The Golden Compass and global blockbusters such as the X-Men films, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

How do you select people for your teams? 

I believe that people are talented. We all have immense potential. Trusting in their potential is the source for being a good team leader. 

Would you like to shed some light on your experience of using Unreal and how has it helped you in filmmaking?

In 2019, I was invited as a fellow in Unreal Fellowship 3. I am a person that DOES not use tools. I was scared and filled with the fear of failure. I was in a group of talented people all over the world. I was intimidated to be on a zoom call with 100 plus people, being trained virtually. A few weeks into the programme, I learnt to simply let go of the fear and create. From being naive in using Unreal tools and by taking inspiration from my love for song writing, I came up with a digital short music video – ‘Jeet – Victory’. I visualised it very quickly in Unreal. I loved editing until I felt like I had a version that connects with the music and the emotional message of JEET. Literally covid had us all in our home scared whether we would meet our family ever again! My brother was in London and my mom was all alone in India. It was hard for me not to have the freedom to be with family, so the birth of JEET came as a way to channel the energy into something positive and creative. 

I believe in the motto: “If the idea does not emotionally connect, work on it and perfect it, change it very quickly”. Changing colour/modes etc is a breeze while working with Unreal. 

In the olden days, I mean many many years ago, we needed very high end and expensive computers, cameras to tell us ideas and make our films. Today, anybody and everybody can access it from their home, from phone cameras to super powerful laptops that we can create at the comfort of our home. Today the game engines are making it effective as well as user friendly along with having an immense amount of tools. 

In Unreal we can make mistakes faster! In the sense that Unreal helps us to try something very quickly, pre-visualise that and then see if that’s what you want. And it saves a huge amount of production time because you’re not going into production and then making those changes. But you’re making all of that as you’re seeing things in real time.

(making of Jeet music video)
(making of Jeet music video)

(To know more about Unreal engine:

How did this Women Creators Program idea come up ? What is your vision behind this program?

So basically having been in the visual effects and animation industry during the COVID times I had seen a lot of panels that were happening in Asia , India, but there were not that many women in these panels. As a president of ASIFA India, I connected with Shruti from Unreal and we were talking about how we need to empower women. Shruti has a great vision and I am totally enamoured that she acts on the vision! Anyways, it’s time that we did something, and we did !! That’s how the birth of the woman creators program came to life. It looks almost eight months after that initial thought to see it happen in 2021. 

Also during my Unreal fellowship journey as a fellow, the Unreal mentors and technical Artists trainers of the fellowship were kind and wanted us to really succeed. It was a very special feeling. I felt the need to share my empowered feeling with the community and inspire more women creators to overcome their fears by using Unreal. Along with the awesome team at Asifa India and with a great partnership with the Unreal team in India, we all launched the WCP batch one in 2021. Charuvi and Marta along with me creatively mentored and and supported 20 amazing talented Indian origin woman creators.

To know more about WCP 1 Inaugural Session: Women Creators Program Inaugural Session

To know more about Asifa India and its events: 

To View the six best Shorts of WCP -1 : Preview the top shorts from India’s Women Creators Program | Unreal Engine 

What after that ? What did you do? 

I was fortunate to be invited to be a mentor for the Unreal fellowship. My focus was mostly on story and structure. To help the creative not just create great visuals, but tell a compelling idea. Always requesting them to see what the audience will take away from their short piece. It was a great time, listening to creative ideas and being surrounded by talented VFX and animation artists from all around the world. Mentoring them, I learned the most. People are super awesome. Just like me they need a little push and they created some amazing films. 

WCP, batch one was a huge success inspiring many women creators. What else have you been working on towards community building? 

Apart from WCP with Unreal, I was also a mentor for Sony Talent League by THU – Portugal. Again, people were stuck at home, Covid was not easy, Visiting Portugal was a highlight and connecting with all the teams was a highlight. The Sony talent league is a very unique mentorship programme. My goal was to ask questions about their projects and to get them thinking about the wants and needs of their characters and their projects along with the structure of their stories to make their dreams come true.

Asifa India gives me the ability to connect with many students and professionals in India. And that takes up some of my time. Programming and planning sessions, master classes for the community along with the very dedicated team, Sanjay Khimesara, Sesha Prasad, Siva kasetty, Ramakrishnan Vinod, Priyanka Ajit and Natalie Jadhav all inspire me to do better. It’s my brain trust team. Some I have known for over twenty years of my professional life. At the end of the day, we are all volunteering our time, we are a non-profit organisation. 

Apart from this I’m helping a few students from reputed art and design colleges in India and in the US. I mentor them whenever I get a chance to help them make their projects. 

Siggraph Asia is also another place that I contribute my time to, when I can. As Dancing Atoms Studios the team curated Unreal short films by women in various Unreal fellowship programs and Indian Short films to present and promote filmmakers at Siggraph Asia 2021.

We are excited to know about your journey with Tribeca’s Writing in Unreal Program with Epic Games? How do you think it will help other directors/ writers?

During the Tribeca’s Writing in Unreal Program with Epic games, I was invited to become an associate producer. I shadowed Karen Dufilho and her clear guidance helped me understand the creative vision of the programme. Karen had spent years working on the programme. I was humbled to work with her, in the sweetest way she was my mentor. Brian Pohl was the head of the programme from Epic games and he is a fantastic person to work with, collaborative and always there for you. Julie Lottering, Director of Education, trusted and empowered all of us. Again, I believe it’s this trust that moves mountains. The tribeca team was super efficient and took care of everything. My responsibility was to just be there, observe and help Karen with producing the programme. And help Brain with producing it. 

The vision was to support the filmmakers through their journey of using Unreal for the first time as part of their creative process.for the ten American writers, directors and producer teams which were selected by Tribeca and epic games.I think every filmmaker should know about this tool, and virtual production. Being aware of technology helps in writing and crafting your film. A first draft is never made; it usually goes through many rewrites until it gets polished. As a writer, it helps me continuously to help shape my ideas. Once I see it in blocking, I know if that shot has the cinematic appeal or needs polishing. It’s like I am storyboarding in Unreal and it is all happening in Unreal, allowing me to make decisions faster and effectively. My team gets to see my vision as well. That’s lovely, isn’t it?

As a filmmaker yourself, how do you plan or currently use Unreal engine & virtual production in your live action, animated films and preschool shows? 

Unreal Changed my life in 2020 and it gave me a new creative strength. I am working on writing my preschool shows keeping the Unreal animation pipeline and virtual production in my mind. As an independent filmmaker, a mentor and consultant for the VFX industry, I continue to explore the forefront of filmmaking through new tools. Awareness is the key. For my preschool shows, I am working with a Canadian collaborator helping figure out the pipeline between blender and Unreal. 

I am also working on my first feature film – Raj where I plan to use Virtual production in various animated sequences that will give the film a unique visual tone. For example, in a scene where the protagonist is hallucinating, Unreal Engine and its vast array of visual effects can be used to portray the mind of the character. Using meta humans as his alter egos is something I plan on creating. 

How is the WCP two batch different from the WCP one batch? 

This year again, Asifa India and in partnership with Epic games Unreal engine have come up with Women Creators Program 2, where we are selecting Women creators from India, Thailand, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore. This program is for Women storytellers, producers, VFX supervisors and VFX artists, animators, storyboard artists having industry experience for over five years . 

The Women Creator Program 2 is a paid virtual fellowship and is funded in two milestones (Previz) & (Final Submission) from May – July 2022. The women creators will be paid USD 5,000 for the submission of their project. 

The trailblazing program will have reputed evangelists and top industry experts as trainers, mentors and producers supporting your creative vision. The Women Creators Program has already shown its amazing results during its inception in 2021 and is a significant step closer to empower talented women creators across the world and provide a platform for them to express their creativity.’ 

What message do you want to give to the artists/talented students of our animation, VFX & film making industry? 

Storytelling is a journey, we are amazing story tellers, if we choose to. It is the most rewarding craft. It gives us the one thing we all crave , response from the audience.I want the creators all across the world to feel empowered and use all the resources we have. The Internet has changed the way we view content. So let’s play and create our projects one step at a time. 

I also believe that women creators need to rise up and take the risk and challenge themselves. I want us to ask the question why not me – why not now! Nothing is stopping us from becoming creators except for our own attitude. I want the best for everyone! I am also happy that many men are supporting women and nominating their names. 

Come register and nominate from the women creators programme: at Last date to apply is 18 April 2022 at 11:59 pm (IST).