Exclusive: DreamWorks’ Sakshi Verma on her experience while working on yeti-feature, ‘Abominable’

With the recently released yeti feature, Abominable, warming up hearts all over, AnimationXpress got an opportunity to interview DreamWorks technical director Sakshi Verma, who played a huge role in creating the friendly yeti animated feature. Talking to AnimationXpress, Verma shared her experience in the animation industry. Currently a specialist technical director for the lighting department, Verma feels that the diversity of our workforce at DreamWorks and the wisdom that all the people bring has a strong influence on the stories DreamWorks tell. Verma followed her passion and pursued an undergraduate degree in computer science at BITS Pilani. There, she did courses and projects in computer graphics, which sparked off her interest in the field of animation. Share your experience while working on hit animated projects including ‘Trolls’, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, ‘The Boss Baby’ and now, ‘Abominable’? It’s been an incredible journey, I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on these blockbuster films with the most diverse and amazing talent in the industry. Starting from the front-end asset creation departments of the animation pipeline like modeling and surfacing which are responsible for developing the characters, props, sets and other things, I have worked across multiple departments in the industry through these films. What role have you played as a technical director in the making of ‘Abominable’?  In an animated film, the role of a technical director (TD) is to design artistic workflows, develop tools and integrate new technology into the pipeline, a TD provides critical support to show’s artists and department heads. TDs are the key players who troubleshoot, solve challenging problems in shot work which could be related to fur, particle effects, animation or rendering. In Abominable my role as a lighting specialist was to integrate DreamWorks’ new in-house renderer Moonray into the lighting software, which was critical to achieve the look of the film.  Lighting is one of the most significant elements in a film because it sets the mood and the emotions being conveyed in a scene. The technology we use over these productions also keeps evolving which lets the artistic vision come to life and makes the work challenging and exciting.  The film has a lot of visual effects-heavy sequences where Everest showcases his special talent, which is to harness the powers of nature in magical ways. These sequences came with new rendering challenges, so I developed a variety of tools and plugins to achieve performance improvements to reduce the rendering cost of the film. I created the visual development lighting rigs for the surfacing department to analyse the look and textures of the characters, props in different lighting scenarios, which was essential to create visually stunning and realistic looking assets. I also worked on integrating image de-noising tools into the pipeline to get rid of pixel noise and artifacts in the renders.  Where did the inspiration and idea for ‘Abominable’ come from? Jill Culton, the director of this film was at Sony at the time and DreamWorks had asked her to come over and look at some of the projects. The projects are pitched in various degrees of development and the one she really gravitated to was a yeti movie. It was a blank canvas and Culton wrote up the treatment and then that led to the script. Culton like many others grew up on a lot of princess movies, which she was never related to as a young girl. She was like a skateboarder, surfer and  liked camping. It was really important to her to create this strong independent, stubborn girl, the character of Yi. Culton wanted Yi to really drive the movie based on her passion for getting this yeti home. Culton was also very intrigued by the relationship between Yi and yeti.  How was the experience while working on such a heart touching feature film? I feel really fortunate and blessed that I got a chance to be on this project. Abominable is notable for DreamWorks, and the industry as a whole: it’s the first 3D animated film starring a female protagonist. The story turns very touching with the beautiful relationship shown between Yi and the yeti, and them bonding without words.  How different is the work culture in Hollywood from India? The DreamWorks India unit in Bengaluru was smaller, with around 250 employees but the work culture was very similar to that of the studio in L.A. which is much bigger and has a lot more diversity. There are artists from a lot of different backgrounds and cultures who are all putting their skills and care into these projects which is what makes it really special. The team I worked with on this film was amazing, all of us share the passion to create new technology which is what enables creativity to come to life. Also, working on these films with people from different countries and backgrounds has played a critical role in my growth and development. What would you like to tell to the generation struggling to enter the animation industry in India? Build strong core computer graphics skills, create a portfolio, network and build new contacts. Expose yourself to as many networking opportunities as possible, and apply for internships. It is all about building relationships with the people in this industry. Make a special effort to keep yourself inspired and never give up!