Bagging 6 Ann Awards, Paperboat Design Studios ushers in its 12th year; studio’s top creative minds share their strategies and future plans

This year, the Mumbai headquartered animation studio, Paperboat Design Studios completed 11 years in the animation industry with a bang! Having delivered various hits including TV series, feature films, animated shorts, advertisements etc, the studio recently bagged six Ann Awards which is India’s largest animation awards. Known as a best-in-class animation studio with the most skilled and imaginative storytellers, the studio has always been at the forefront in incubating new technologies with cutting-edge artistic pursuits. They also offer VFX and CGI services through its majorly owned subsidiary Occult Studios.

In an in-depth interview with Animation Xpress, Paperboat Design Studios co-founders shared about the studio’s journey and the vision. 

The journey so far

Paperboat’s co-founder and chief creative director Soumitra Ranade said, “The journey has been quite incredible. We have done many things that have never been done before in the context of Indian animation. Three features that we worked on (Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa, Bombay Rose and Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon) went international in a big way. We did some cutting-edge series for television too. It’s been exciting. The main challenge is to try and achieve very high standards with the kind of budgets available to us in India. But every challenge offers an opportunity and we managed to work out ways of doing that through planning and a very supportive team.”

From left to right: Mayank Patel, Soumitra Ranade, Aashish Mall

He further added, “We started Paperboat as a result of my own personal frustration as a filmmaker. There was no place where a creative, ambitious animation filmmaker could go to. So, we started Paperboat primarily to create a creative, dynamic space which I myself and other filmmakers could trust. We have been successful in creating that space. Today while we work on our own IPs, we are also talking to many filmmakers who have never done animation but are now interested in this space. We have created a studio that people can trust.”

Listing the key strategies that worked well for the studios in delivering global contents, co-founder and director Aashish Mall added, “It’s not that complicated really. While I could throw a lot of jargon, it all basically boils down to a few simple things. Firstly, we are serious about our work and we back ourselves. For us  quality is more important than numbers and we work as a team. And yes, we also party hard!”

Indian government and M&E industry’s perception towards animation 

On asking how has the industry evolved in the years and the major changes observed, Ranade opined, “Unfortunately the industry hasn’t really evolved much. Of course, some experts will give you figures stating how much the industry has grown and all that may even be true but that’s primarily the servicing industry. As far as I am concerned not much has changed. There is still no serious funding for animation in India. How many students of animation end up making animation films? Almost none! Why? We need to answer these questions. Also, there is still a dearth of talent. That situation too hasn’t changed. Big international studios start their sweatshops in India offering crazy salaries (which are peanuts as per American budgets) and attract all the good talent. This leaves a big gap for Indian projects being made on Indian budgets.”

He also said, “The problem is that animation/VFX is not a priority for India as a nation. We are still trying to make better roads, hospitals and universities, which certainly are more important than animation. Animation is way down in the priority list and that gets reflected on the studio floors. Just this year there was at least a mention of the AVGC industry in the national budget. So, let’s wait and see where that takes us.”

Commenting on how receptive the brands, broadcasters, OTT platforms have been towards animated content, Ranade commented, “The OTTs in India are by-and-large an extension of Bollywood. The same producers and directors making substandard feature films (which no one is seeing anyways) are now making web series. There are some exceptions of course but it will take a long time before the OTTs turn to animation. Unke bas ki baat nahin hai (They are not capable of it). They prefer to take the easier route – take a bunch of semi-known people, put them all in some Indian village, add some guns and sex and abuses and LO! (there it is!) The web series is ready! To create animation, one has to work harder, and I am not sure if they are up for it.”

The big leap with Vistas Media Capital

Earlier in May 2021, the Singapore-based media and entertainment investments company, Vistas Media Capital announced its acquisition of a majority stake in Paperboat Design Studios. The studio also unveiled  its upcoming projects Kabuliwala (feature film), Itch (webseries) and Tattva 118 at Cannes.

Commenting on how the acquisition helped in accelerating the studio’s growth, co-founder and director Mayank Patel expounded, “Oh, in numerous ways. Firstly, many of our ideas that were languishing in folders gathering dust in my laptop, suddenly came alive. Kabuliwala and Itch are just two examples. Also, UtSide, the online animation/VFX school that we have launched recently. And it’s not just about the finances – it’s about structuring, it is about an international vision, it’s about having someone with whom one can brainstorm at an intellectual and creative level. For many years I have believed that we need to be in Canada to have an international presence. This became possible because of VMC, and we started our studio in Toronto. And yes! They too party hard like we do!”

Paperboat keeping up with the technology

Talking about the tech focus for the studio and how the integration of Unreal Engine will change the animation industry, Ranade said, “I have always believed that technology is like a dog. You need to spend time training it so that it becomes your friend. An untrained dog can bite your backside! Technology, however, can only make surface changes to the world of animation. In its essence animation will always be about a story that touches people’s hearts – it could be hand drawn, or computer generated or puppet or Unreal – the technology is irrelevant.”

He further added, “I personally have no time for technology, and I can afford to say this because I have partners like Aashish Mall and Mayank Patel (at Paperboat) and Sachin Shardul and Prashant Shahane (at Occult). All these guys are at the top of the game. They know the latest and work with the latest. So, at Paperboat our relationship with technology is quite well defined. While I think about the stories that we can tell, my partners think about how best we can tell them. Both are incomplete without the other.”

Shedding light on the studio’s NFT/metaverse projects and its way ahead, Mall explained, “NFTs and metaverse is an incredibly exciting space. I am particularly interested as I come from a background of cinema. What is Tarkovsky’s Stalker if not an example of metaverse! Tech has changed now of course, but the spirit of the metaverse has been hovering over us for centuries – right from the Ajanta caves. Metaverse challenges the very basics of how we have been ‘seeing’ things traditionally. It creates a new idiom. It is perhaps the most extraordinary amalgamation of art and technology and that’s the reason why we are interested in it. But honestly, it is part of Paperboat’s three-year plan. While the work has started on it, one will be able to experience it only a bit later.” 

The studio’s Tattva 118 is a hybrid multi-platform metaverse-centered franchise being developed and made into an animated feature film, TV series and game for all age groups, featuring both 2D and 3D animation. Anthropomorphizing 118 elements from the periodic table, Tattva 118 is a unified vision for entertainment, education and environment. Beginning with the release of NFTs, it is one of its kind products that uses blockchain technology to offer movies, metaverse and magic.  

Team Paperboat at Ann Awards 2022 ceremony

Studio’s upcoming projects

The studio has bagged about six Ann Awards including Best Director, Best Animated Brand Film, Best experiential marketing, Animation Personality of the Year and Studio of the Year. Sharing the gratitude, Ranade commented, “So, I have these twin personalities: one as Soumitra Ranade of course and one as the head of Paperboat. On some rare occasions these two guys do not agree on certain things. But I must be honest about both. So, as the head of Paperboat I am elated. For a few years now we have been receiving so many awards and twice in a row as the best animation studio which is quite incredible really. It is a great shot in the arm for the entire team. On the other hand, as Soumitra Ranade, I am pretty detached from any awards or recognition. We have a long, long way to go. We need bigger challenges. We need to excel at the international stage. We need to be the best amongst the best.”

Paperboat has also worked on a number of popular television series including Bandbudh aur Budbak and Fukrey Boyzz. The studio also worked on the 2D animated feature film, Bombay Rose, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 and was the first Indian animation film to open for the Venice Film Critics’ Week. The studio is also working on international animation projects – Bhrigu and the Palace of Mirrors which is all set to release in 2025. 

Not revealing much about the upcoming projects, Patel concluded by saying, “Just last week we signed a co-production agreement with a giant production house. Unfortunately, we cannot announce it yet but will be doing so very soon. We are very excited about this feature film as it is written and directed by someone whose work I am a big fan of. We also have an extraordinary production designer on board for the film. Yes, we are extremely excited about this project. We are also in talks with a couple of TV channels. We should have something going in the next couple of months.”

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