Year Ender: How major Indian animation studios survived the pandemic

With just a day left for the unparalleled 2020 to end, here’s a look back at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Indian animation space, specifically the animation studios. 

Several studios across the country could not escape from the jaws of COVID-19 prey but in comparison to live-action and VFX studios, the harm is much lesser. According to the KPMG report, COVID-19: The many shades of a Crisis, the animation sector has a medium effect due to the pandemic and the lockdown that followed.

For Chhota Bheem creators, Green Gold Animation, though the sudden implementation of the initial lockdown didn’t give them much time, they managed to put a business continuity plan in place. “These are truly challenging times for us all. The government regulations have indeed been strict but very necessary. We have been actively working from home and the process even though affected has not stopped. We have made provisions, wherever possible, to continue the work from the safety of the home. (During the lockdown) 70 per cent of the production team was working from home while 30 per cent were discontinuing work due to several reasons,” Green Gold Animation founder and CEO Rajiv Chilaka revealed to Animation Xpress. 

Rajiv Chilaka

The authorities at the studio also took special permission from the Government to have office high-end systems delivered to the homes of the artists across Hyderabad. With the imposition of lockdown and transports being temporarily hindered, deliveries of essential hardware and software were also not possible. Hence, the 2D projects of the studio fared better than the 3D projects which are much more hardware dependent. “There has also been a restriction on final deliveries of projects which are completely dependent on production volume which was hampered to an extent,” added Chilaka.

However, one of the largest animation studios, Cosmos-Maya, largely stayed on course, despite the paradigm shift of work infrastructure due to the Coronavirus outbreak. In fact, it had five announcements/releases in 2020 on both linear TV channels and OTT platforms. Shows such as Bapu, Guddu, Gadget Guru Ganesha were aired on Disney channel and ZEE5, Titoo on POGO, and the studio is on their way to releasing their latest IP this year, Lambuji Tinguji in partnership with Cartoon Network. 

Bapu, Guddu and Gadget Guru Ganesha

Shared Anish Mehta with AnimationXpress, “The pandemic has been a challenging time for every industry. Companies have gone through a considerable restructuring of their workforce. We have tried to stand strong by finding valuable opportunities to provide premium content in sectors such as EdTech’ which is the need of the hour for kids studying at home. Animated programmatic content has also gone up and we have a good number of projects in TV and film lined up for release in 2020… Our employees have displayed a stellar attitude in handling this pandemic. The studio has implemented every step to facilitate all required health and safety measures as mandated by the government. At the office, we have committed to a system to reduce the employees physically present to the most essential ones for now. Barring a small number of employees in the editing department who undergo required sanitation procedures during their workdays, most of our team members are working diligently from the safety of their homes and this structure shall likely be followed until the situation becomes significantly safer.”

Dabangg

The studio also announced Captain Bharat on Independence Day (15 August 2020) and Dr. Tenali Rama, which is an ode to the selfless, tireless efforts of doctors around the world battling the COVID-19 outbreak. Cosmos-Maya is also foraying into Indonesia, teaming up with Jakarta-based Spectrum Film to co-produce a new 3D animated comedy series Putra.  Additionally, its latest offering, Dabangg animated series, co-produced with Arbaaz Khan, will be arriving soon on Disney+ Hotstar VIP, as the Disney and Star India owned streaming service has taken up 104 episodes of the animated property upon release. 

Situated in Trivandrum, Kerala, Toonz Animation is a noted name in the animation industry. Speaking about the pandemic, Toonz Media Group CEO P. Jayakumar stated, “The safety and health of our staff, partners and clients has been our paramount concern and hence we initiated work from home even before the nation-wide lockdown was officially declared. All the artists and other staff are working from the safety of their homes and continue to deliver as efficiently as possible. Our employees have really risen to the challenge and are ensuring that deliveries as well as sales are continuing to occur at its intended pace. Toonz also decided not to take any harsh measures such as salary cuts, lay-offs that would cause distress to our employees.”

P Jayakumar

Post the unlock process, several artists of the studio continued to work from home and only had around 20 to 25 per cent attendance. “Wearing masks and maintaining physical distance in office has been made mandatory since. We have made sanitizers readily available everywhere, especially in all entrance and exit points. We haven’t yet started conducting face-to-face meetings, all our meetings are on Zoom/Skype/Microsoft Teams. We have also asked all employees to mandatorily download the Arogya Setu app for tracking their health status. Since we operate in the Technopark SEZ campus of the government, the Technopark management also has put in place safety protocols from their side. Such as taking the temperature of everyone entering buildings, making sanitizers available everywhere, maintaining physical distance in lifts, and so on. We also do frequent full fumigation of our office premises,” mentioned Jayakumar.

Kolkata based Wackytoon Studio, the partner company of Green Gold Animation, was another studio to not only adapt to the pandemic following the Government mandate (of complete lockdown and the unlock that followed) but also faced the wrath of super-cyclone Amphan and its aftermath. 

Wackytoon studio before lockdown

“Early into the lockdown, all our employees of the studio were working remotely with 90 per cent production output, successfully delivering 100 per cent projects to clients within the deadline. Anticipating the duration and seriousness of the lockdown as per their understanding from the international market, we had already taken measures beforehand knowing that they will not get any logistics support for hardware peripherals delivery. However, the software inventory is well managed by the expert IT team to keep work seamless,” said Wackytoon Studio CEO Niloy Kanti Biswas.

It is the studio behind the popular animated show Honey Bunny Ka Jholmaal on Sony YAY! which came in with fresh episodes and brand new telemovies during the lockdown. Biswas further added that the studio also extended help and support to the employees to manage their personal, professional, financial, and family tensions in a healthy way thereby reducing stress and workload from them. “We neither laid off any employee nor asked anyone to take a pay cut as long the work from home model fulfils our production targets,” he noted.

Honey Bunny

Amid the pandemic, Noida (Delhi-NCR) based animation studio, Digitoonz Media and Entertainment which opened its second animation studio in Kolkata in January 2020, went for valuations (as per IndiaBiz) in July 2020 and came out as a Rs 325 crore (3250 million) company.  

The animation production company that specialises in 2D and 3D animation for TV and feature films also outsources and co-produces projects for US-based companies. Mentioned Digitoonz CEO Vikas Kumar, “It was a difficult phase initially to plan the entire ‘work from home’ infrastructure but our cooperative and tech-savvy team helped us throughout. There was a major effect on the productivity side for various reasons, but we had constant support from our clients. We didn’t have any pay cuts either during the crisis period. 20 to 30 per cent of Digitoonz employees resumed work from the office after the unlock process started but had a free choice to go to the office or continue working from home. The office space was sanitized weekly, wearing masks, hand washing, temperature screenings are mandatory for everyone. The sitting placements are also put on a certain distance with sanitizers on each desk.”

Digitoonz Noida office space

Assemblage presented Quaranteam!, a made-at-home short film featuring the Assemblage Entertainment team with a heart-warming tribute to the commendable efforts in the animation industry.

The short film begins with Assemblage CEO and industry veteran AK Madhavan aka Mad Max on a phone call with someone asking when they would be sending the “maal” (deliveries).

A chain of events ensue and it sets off a string of actions to get the studio functional in the locked-down circumstances. Remote-setup plans are triggered, catchup schedules are put in place, pipeline and workflows deployed, technologies enabled, and a great display of teamwork towards achieving a single common objective — getting “up and running” to meet the client’s schedules, despite the pandemic. “As they say, the show must go on!”

A K Madhavan

The film concludes on a lighter note which highlights that whilst client deliveries have been a key focus, health, wellness and safety is an essential priority. There is a moment of light humour at the realisation when it is revealed that the “maal” Max was speaking about was his grocery deliveries, in fact!

Max and the Assemblage team end on an optimistic note and share a special message and remind viewers to remain indoors to control the spread of the coronavirus. #StayHome #StaySafe

The animation industry has made an incredible effort to be functional despite the circumstances, truly, the efforts have been nothing short of magical. 

(This is a joint article by Sharmindrila Paul and Yugandhara Shete)

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