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Year Ender: How did VFX industry fare in 2021?

The VFX sector steadily recovered from the COVID-19 crisis in 2021 with remote pipelines and virtual technologies taking precedence as new workflows got streamlined. With the year coming to a close, we look at some of the trends and developments that took place and how some of the noted studios in India fared.

One thing that stood out the most this year was — the staggering pace at which technology evolved and adapted, leading to new mechanisms and modalities of working, thinking and creating. Mark Zuckerberg’s masterplan of the metaverse, further crystallised with Facebook changing its name to Meta dominated the ecosystem with developers and artists spinning their wheels to contribute to what is being dubbed as the future. With the final goal of full 3D telepresence via VR or AR glasses Ready Player One-style, various VFX technologies became even more relevant.

Sharing how Unreal Engine is helping manifest the vision of Meta, Epic Games (India/ASEAN) Tech evangelist Arvind Neelakantan shared, “The Metaverse itself is going to be a place where you are not just watching films or you are not just playing games but it also helps you collaboratively make games and movies and produce content. Unreal Engine is well-equipped to help build the Metaverse and the tools around it. We have been building the Epic Games ecosystem towards the goal of Metaverse which includes Unreal Engine, Pixel, Meta Humans, Reality Capture, and many companies that we are working together on. Many creators can come together to build the metaverse itself.”

Potential competitor Unity also made huge strides by announcing the acquisition of VFX giant Weta Digital as it geared towards broadening the metaverse canvas. “By combining the power of Unity and Weta Digital, the tools and technology that built characters and scenes from the world’s most iconic films such as AvatarLord of the Rings, and Wonder Woman, will enable an entirely new generation of creators to build, transform, and distribute stunning RT3D content,” Unity President and CEO John Riccitello said in a statement.

Machine learning is another phenomenon which continued to advance with low-code ML like Microsoft Powerapps, Visual LANSA, Google AutoML OutSystms easing the workflow for artists around the world. LED volumes, game engines and in-camera VFX allowed filmmakers and directors to create fantastical content, imagine worlds and iterate on shots and sequences in real time.

Supported by the Academy itself, open source technology movement remained a constant subject of buzz and attention throughout the year, enabling the democratisation of the ecosystem. Its appeal and promise remained firmly etched in its ability for fostering more collaborative relationships and workflows across artists, teams and studios. Projects such as OpenColorIOOpenEXR, and OpenVDB allowed for studios to seamlessly collaborate with each other on major VFX films. Universal Scene Description (USD) continued to open new gateways for VFX as an open standard enabling smart, collaborative and parallel department workflows.

With the unclogging of pipelines, many studios opened new outposts in India. Oscar, Emmy and BAFTA-winning creative studio Framestore opened the doors to its latest state-of-the-art facility – a 30,000 square-foot, purpose-built studio located at the heart of Mumbai’s creative and technological ecosystem.

Framestore Managing Director India Akhauri P. Sinha shared, “While the pandemic delayed the physical opening we’ve already started to bond as a team, and the additional time has meant we’ve really been able to fine-tune and finesse what the studio can offer our artists. It represents a new high watermark for India’s burgeoning visual effects sector, and the fact that we have such ambitious plans to expand and grow demonstrates our incredibly strong commitment to the city and the country’s wider VFX industry.” 

Speaking about the studio and its future, Framestore CEO Sir William Sargent shared, “The plans include the integration of Method Studios’ film and episodic teams, the growth of our pre-production services division and our R&D ambitions – plans that speak to scale and capacity, as well as the ability to predict and meet industry demands. On a human level, the studio speaks to our ethos and how we want to help our colleagues develop and progress. This is a state-of-the-art creative space designed with artists in mind, and with many new technology solutions being installed first in Mumbai it will, in some regards, be our most advanced location. Beyond the space and the tech, everyone working there will have access to our global training offer and, of course, the combined skill and knowledge of a community of thinkers and creatives who have been spearheading visual effects innovation for the past 35 years.”

Pune-based Animation and VFX studio philmCGI, which celebrated their 8th anniversary also opened a branch in Kerala. Recounting the milestones of the year 2021, the studio representative shared, “Unlike 2020, the year 2021 saw more opportunities along with progression and change for the better. With the pandemic upon us in 2020, we had introduced Work From Home and Hybrid pipelines which we made advanced, stabilized and artist friendly in the beginning of 2021 that helped us become more efficient. Released in 2021, some of our animation projects include Xilam Animation’s slapstick comedy series Where’s Chicky and the adorable cat Oggy Oggy along with Arri Media’s The Ogglies. Also our VFX project was the recently released, the Netflix Original Series Decoupled.”

On being asked as to how the new studio is doing, they shared, “We achieved a new milestone this year with expanding our foothold in the south with the opening of our new studio in Thrissur, Kerala. We have quickly grown to a team of 100 plus and are currently working on a number of projects for VFX and CG Animation including the recently released Netflix Original Series, Decoupled.” They also informed that they are running training programmes for VFX compositing for freshers who we will then absorb.

Nube Cirrus, a division of Nube worked on shows like Ray on Netflix and Aarya 2 on Amazon Prime. Speaking about the year 2021 on their blog, they shared, “We unleashed both the narrative craft and visual techniques necessary to bring the stories to life on screen. With world class talent, new technology combining with inventiveness to solve production challenges, we offered the finest end-to-end post- production set up for commercials, long form, OTT content which left an indelible mark in the minds of the audience.”

Bollywood Superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s VFX studio redchillies.vfx also worked on a variety of projects over the year. Reflecting on the year, the studio representative shared, “2021, for Redchillies.vfx was a year filled with opportunities & prospects seized to their maximum. The year started on a positive front, with us bagging 3 awards for our work from 2020. Even with remote working, our team of talented individuals worked in perfect harmony, and proceeded with the release of more than six feature films, including the likes of Roohi, Saina, Shershaah, Dhamaka, to name a few ; with each of them winning accolades in their respective categories. To conclude, 2021 has been a fulfilling year, gearing us up for a much more exciting & eventful ’22.”

PhantomFX, a bourgeoning VFX studio that recently opened a branch in Mumbai also had a promising year. Founder Bejoy Arputharaj shared, “The year 2021 had a good start, after the pandemic. At the beginning of 2021, there were some ups and downs, but after the first quarter of the year, we were picking up some good projects, and signing in lots of international and domestic projects. This year, we are working on notable films like Beast, Dangerous, and a few more interesting projects.”

Reflecting on their decision to start a new branch in Mumbai, He shared, “It was a significant move towards expansion of our work base. It has been one month since we started our production in Mumbai. We also have developed several pipeline tools between Mumbai and Chennai’s work base for seamless integration. We are keen on creating an integrated workspace that allows artists to feel like working as a team, though they are working from different places. We are also working on several projects that have interesting creatures and CG environments. We are looking forward to 2022 as a productive and interesting year that brings more success to the company as a whole.”

US-based VFX company BOT VFX also recently announced that they will officially open an office in Pune in the month of January in 2022. “Operating during the pandemic has reminded us of two things about the importance of having a physical office: it is essential to the collaborative nature of the visual effects work we do, and it is essential for people to have a sense of belonging to an organisation. Our culture has always been a key part of our DNA,” observed BOT founder and CEO Hitesh Shah.

Speaking about the new office, BOT co-founder & MD India operations Sreyans Bardia shared, “Pune is a vibrant city with great infrastructure, and many trained artists are ready to join the BOT family, so expanding our footprint there seemed to be a very natural step for us. This is yet another confirmation that we are truly a global company, with not only global clients, but talent across many cities including Chennai, Coimbatore, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and now Pune.”

Mumbai-based studio F9 Post that recently lent its services to the futuristic advertising campaign for HP fared well in 2021, delivering multiple projects successfully. They shared that they are ready to usher the new year with major upcoming projects and other forward-looking plans.

“This year we have done multiple projects for different brands, with renowned agencies & production houses. Some of the brands are HP Laptop, Maruti Suzuki – Brizza, Evara Platinum. Agencies like O&M, Leo Burnette, LOWE and so on,” F9 Post founder/CEO and graphics head Nitesh Patil told AnimationXpress. 

They have a 10 member- team each of them having various kinds of expertise and years of experience. With specialisation in preproduction, production, post-production to completion of a film, the studio has been bagging one project after another, ending the year on a positive note.

“We have some international projects. Due to confidentiality, we can’t mention it but very soon we will share information on this project,” Patil revealed. He feels virtual production and online shoot made a huge difference in the VFX industry.

Sharing details about their plans for the coming year, the studio head said, “Facebook Metaverse has a great opportunity for content creation we are working on that with the support of Unreal engine and also getting into virtual production. We are even working on our association with international studios.”

Another Mumbai-based studio Identical Brains is ending the year on a positive note. Recently, they tasted success as their work in Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story bagged the Filmfare OTT Award for Best VFX. The studio witnessed growth in their business and is gradually spreading its wings in the Indian VFX market. “The year 2021 for Identical Brains was very exciting, after the Scam we got quite a few Sony projects (Simple Murder, Kathmandu Connection, 9191, Tabbar, etc). Later we got projects like Matsya Kaand. Netflix and Amazon are still quite far but we will get there. It has been good overall. In the context of revenue, we are growing and expanding. We recently opened up a small set up in Palghar,” Identical Brains founder Raghav Rai told Animation Xpress. 

UK-based visual effects organisation Outpost VFX, known for The Wheel of Time also announced its plans to open a branch in Mumbai. They announced the launch of their first Indian facility in 2022. Operating remotely throughout 2021, the Mumbai team have already been working on high-profile productions including The Wheel of Time, Foundation, and Star Trek: Picard. The facility will be based in the Western Suburbs when it opens in 2022. Syamantak Thakur who joins as GM, will bring Outpost’s unique culture and benefits to India, including its enhanced holiday entitlement and paid overtime policy. “Entering any new region is tough – you have to find leaders that exude the beliefs and ways of working that we’ve adopted throughout Outpost. In Sam we have a leader that not only lives and breathes putting artists first but also has exemplary local knowledge of the market and a proven track record of delivering at the highest level. We couldn’t be happier to have Sam on board and I’m looking forward to bringing Outpost’s positive approach to the region,” said Outpost VFX COO Gez Hixson. 

As we go barrelling into the 2022, we hope with the new AVGC policy that is being shaped, Indian VFX industry will get a leg up, touch newer heights and set newer benchmarks in the new year!

Written by Binita Das and Parth Kaushik








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