VAM Summit witnesses a candid conversation with DNEG India creative director Merzin Tavaria

AnimationXpress founder, chairman and editor-in-chief’s exclusive fireside chat on ‘The rise of Indian players’ at the VFX & More (VAM) Summit featuring DNEG India creative director and general manager Merzin Tavaria who is one of the most venerated leaders in India’s VFX ecosystem became the ‘prime focus’ of the day for myriad reasons.

For one, Tavaria is known for having led and inspired countless teams of artists, encouraged creative collaboration, optimized resources and created a sustainable global VFX pipeline. But to countless dreamers, he is nothing short of an inspiration who has put India’s name on the global map.

The Rise Of Indian Players

The Prime Focus’ growth story is exemplary for India’s VFX milieu and entrepreneurs. Tavaria shares that their success is largely attributable to the ‘Indian DNA’; which is laced with ‘the never say die attitude’ even when the odds are stacked against us. Along with his associates, he began his journey in 1994 when he stumbled across a graphics course that he signed up for on a whim.

Tavaria narrates, “I thought why not sign up for a quick graphic course while I wait for something better to happen. So the person who was teaching me left midway and the owner of the institute (Compufield Computer Institute) asked me to start teaching and he had no problems with the fact that I hadn’t finished learning 3D yet. He just said, ‘no problem you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure it out’ and that was the beginning of the journey of figuring it out so I was literally going through the manual and learning while I was also teaching.”

It was at that institute where he met Namit Malhotra, Prakash Kurup and Huzefa Lokhandwala. The squad that joined forces to start a post production studio “Prime Focus” in a garage; a venture that has now become a force to reckon with in the entire world.

Recounting the initial days of their venture, he shares, “The good part was that we were passionate about what we did. It wasn’t about charting out a very pre-set plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. That was also one of the things that pushed us. There was no fear even though we were competing against some giants but we didn’t know that they were giants and we were too small for them so it didn’t matter.”

Starting from working on music videos to feature films to title sequences to now editing feature films and right down to setting up the whole visual effects empire, Prime Focus has only gone from strength to strength. Back in those days, VFX didn’t exist as a department he informs and VFX professionals were at the mercy of the directors’ instructions but things have drastically changed now.

India has come far from being a destination for mere low-end labour-intensive work. As a matter of fact, he believes ‘we are now doing volumes of work whilst maintaining the creative and technical specs for which the bar only goes higher’. He shares, “I don’t think I need to sit across to anyone to try to convince them on that part. We are delivering some really kickass work and it is not relegated to just window coms or monitor coms. Today we are doing large scale effects in India. Some of the best Houdini guys are sitting right here in India and delivering and like I said I am really happy about the animation and effects work that has come out of here. It is at par with the west.”

However for India, being a late entrant in the VFX playground coupled with no government support in the form of subsidies has always posed a challenge. And the problem is only exacerbated by the glaring inadequacies in the education system.

He shares that their visual effects studio maintains its own training programmes where talent is nurtured and employees learn the arts and science of effects along with the overview of multiple departments before they can work on a project. He elaborates, “We do a lot of training and we do a lot of career development internally so there can be some movement between departments. Today everyone is focused on being a specialist; you’re either a lighter or a comper or an FX artist but we try to have an interdisciplinary training.”

Outsourcing and Cost Arbitrage

It is common to see international companies jetting down to India purely for the cost arbitrage and cheaper rates but Prime Focus turned this dynamic around by merging with DNEG; world’s most noted VFX studio known for bagging multiple academy awards over five consecutive years.

Expressing his aversion for the words like “Outsourcing and service work”, Tavaria shares, “What we figured out earlier in the days is that instead of waiting to get any outsourcing work, I take that as a bad word today, we just went out and acquired companies internationally because that was the only way that we could be out there and pull the work rather than sit over here and keep requesting work and servicing the bigger players. It would never happen.”

While Indian studios have long sustained on low cost work outsource work from the west, what sets apart DNEG India is that they continue to do high end work informs Tavaria.

 “And that’s what gives the thrill of working on those projects and giving that kind of work to the artist that they feel engaged otherwise how long can you keep doing the basic work?” he asks rhetorically.

Tavaria opines that while training and education are important, it is the work experience that gives you that mileage and training. He shares, “So more work starts coming into that country, there is that much more development. We bring in more freshers into the industry to increase the pool. The talent pool is very important to grow.”

The Limiting And Unfair Tag Of ‘Culture

A lot of what the west deems as a cultural difference when referring to India is not really about culture. According to him, India has hid behind the world ‘culture’ for a long time since “we do not correct the west when they pull the word culture on us.”

Highlighting the need to speak up and communicate, Tavaria shares that we must not allow anyone to unfairly mischaracterise us in the pretext of ‘culture. He shares, “No, it is not a different culture. You’re working on Avengers, we’re working on Avengers. We’re compositing, that’s the language, that’s the culture. So we have to come out of that constant falling back on – ‘Yeah, things are different.’ Ofcourse things are different. We are a much more hungry team. We are eager to please but one thing that also needs to change at our end is the communication where we feel; Do we have the voice? Do we have the ability? Should we be telling them if there is a problem?”

Western clients have often advanced unjustified complaints about the lack of transparency from the Indian side. Tavaria shares that this shouldn’t be the case. He suggests, “India is guilty before proven innocent from the west side. It keeps changing but that is an ongoing problem. So, yes, we need to learn that communication is the key. Building relationships with the folks across the west is the key.”

Latest trends

Covid did put the industry in high gear, forcing the ecosystem to evolve new methods to keep their businesses afloat. VFX industry had to streamline remote pipelines in a staggered manner in order to keep the engines running.

On being asked about the latest trends, Tavaria shares, “I think the world is changing. Necessity is the mother of invention so last whole year suddenly you’re sitting at home and we’ve already seen that productions are not happening but we knew that when they do happen they’re going to be in a mighty hurry.”

Referencing the dominant trend of virtual production and LED volumes, Tavaria shares, “Blockbusters today have so much digital content in them that when we shoot, instead of shooting that scene and later  providing the VFX elements now it is the other way round, now it is the digital that is done before and elements of shooting go into that.”

Expanding on the incoming demand from filmmakers and even actors, he informs, “So instead of being out there in 20 different locations and organising your production on some of our other recent movies, clearly the trend is for actors to want to say ‘why don’t you do digital instead of wanting me to travel to 5 different locations?’ Those are the trends that are definitely changing and I think we are going to see a lot more of that as we see how this year pans out.”

As Tavaria says we indeed have to work out a new normal and digital, VFX and Animation space; all are going to play a big part in the next round of movies that are going to be made and we couldn’t agree more!