Vivek Ram’s Vaanarsena Studios tells the most fun and quirky version of Durga in this animated short

In yet another offering to the animation industry, Vaanarsena Studios has created a video on the Goddess Durga as a part of its series, Ancient Indian Stories. Started with the intent of doing high-quality 2D animation, Vaanarsena also aims to tell compelling stories that can connect to a contemporary audience. Studio Senapati (founder) Vivek Ram personally is extremely passionate about mythical stories but hasn’t seen any justice done to the medium yet in animation. He feels that most of the work in this genre is “fairly sub-standard and caters to infants.” Ancient Indian Stories is a series started to bring these stories back in a fun and exciting way to the young audience. The series introduces either a character, group or event in Indian mythology in a 90-second format, capturing the general essence of the subject, told with experimental visual styles of 2D animation. In this interview, Senapati Vivek Ram talks about the making of the second episode in the series, Goddess Durga. The first episode was The VaanarSena.
Any specific affinity towards Durga, amongst all mythological characters? Durga or Shakti is the representation of power in Indian mythology. In a patriarchal society, it’s fascinating to see that the idea of true power and strength is feminine. We have a wide array of male gods in our pantheon, but Durga is among the few popular Goddesses who stands on her own right without an association to a male god. In the current era where feminism is taking centre stage, I felt like Durga would be a great character to talk about, and also introduce a more contemporary take on the age old story. Can you share the creative process for this episode, from concept to screen? For every film, the process is largely the same. I’ve spent many years researching the myths, reading and re-reading the texts. As a process, I start with writing down my thoughts for the script. When the script is complete, I record my own voice to fit in 70-80 seconds. The main focus here is to make it sound casual and friendly. I then pick up a track (online) that works for the mood of the film. The animatic and visuals are created and timed to this VO (voice over) and track. I go through a review stage at this point where I share the video with a few select animation and non- animation folks, take their feedback on the film and then the animatic is tightened based on it. In production, the entire film is hand drawn first. This is one of the most time consuming process. Based on the final look that I want to go for, I choose to clean up the lines and add colours only where necessary. The layers are then worked on, final sound and VO are mixed with a little help from friends, and the final film is put together at my end. When and where did you get trained in this drawn art of animation, as we gather, you are a CG, VFX expert with almost two decades in this industry? I’m self taught in the CG, VFX and 2D animation space. I’ve had some great colleagues who’ve been very supportive throughout my career. I’ve also had opportunities to work in some of the best studios where I could soak in as much information as possible. 2D animation started off as something I did at home after office hours, since I’ve always loved to draw and paint. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with the medium. The fundamentals between all the mediums are the same and most of our referencing for animation is always 2D animation. Over a period of time, it just felt like the next best step for me. Could you elaborate on this hand drawn animation style. Any specific influences, inspiration? There is an organicness to hand drawn animation that is quite difficult to achieve or even largely non-achievable in CG animation. There is no set pattern of having two lines in different frames looking exactly the same. There are also some transitions and motions that can be just drawn in hand drawn animation, which would be quite difficult to achieve in 3D. Every frame is carefully drawn and there are no shortcuts to this. The 90-second Durga video comprises of about roughly 3000 individual hand drawn frames. My inspiration for animation is classic Disney and Japanese anime and you will catch a bit of both in my storytelling and visual style. What were the challenges while conceptualising and executing this one? One of the biggest challenge was to change the story but not lose the message or intent of the piece, while at the same time not offending any sensibilities, either religious or gender based. For this, I made sure that most of my reviewing audience at the early animatic stage were mostly women. The video pauses in between, calling it a male version of story, and goes back to take a different perspective of the Goddess. Would like to hear your take on that. Indian mythology is mostly written from a patriarchal perspective. I’ve heard the Durga story since childhood, but it never really made sense to me why the battle would be won just because it was a woman, where all the men had failed doing the exact same thing. The idea of Mahishasur’s boon only made it convenient. Here I saw an opportunity not only to open a conversation about the feminine side in all of us, but also the idea that violence may not always be the solution to all problems. I feel that one of the strongest things that we are capable of is compassion, and this looked like a good story to bring that into the conversation. Every little while, the Durga in the video is seen flipping her hair, which is something I found quite amusing. If you could throw some light on that? Hahaha, yes. At the animatic stage of the film, most women loved the idea of a feminine non-violent portrayal, but also felt that it should be relatable in mannerisms. That’s where the jewellery, the idea of looking beautiful (not for someone else but yourself), the mannerisms with hair and the weight shift, that other women could connect, came in. I’ve grown my hair long too, and as much as you like it, it does get in the way of what you are doing and you constantly play with it. It gave me a device to visually connect movements between scenes. The hair in this film is constantly in motion. Tell us something about the music and voice over? The film is voiced by my lady Pooja Sampath. Once I had my script in place, I asked Pooja if she would voice this, and she was quite excited about it. One of the things I wanted was the switch in the story to sound playful and sarcastic: “Or maybe not all of that weapons and aggression.” And I think it came across quite well. For the music, I wanted the film to have a rock/grunge feel. The track was bought online after going through a bunch of libraries and then edited to work for the film. My friends Meera Shankar and Somesh Saha helped me with the sound, making sure it all sounded great together. How big is your Sena that worked on these videos? And roughly how many hours did it take you all to draw this out? Currently my Sena is just me. Even Ram took a couple of months to find his Sena (laughs). I do have a few people who help with commercial projects, but for the Ancient Indian Stories, all the work is done by me with help from friends on the VO and sound. The entire 90-second Durga film from script to screen was executed in 20 days. During production, I’m usually drawing about 100-150 drawings a day. That being said I am in the process of hiring full-time artists so things should move along faster soon. How was the film received by audience? So far the response has been great. YouTube did take objection to the half a second blood and gore in the film, so didn’t let me promote it, so I haven’t had the chance to let it reach as big an audience as the first film. Nevertheless, the views have been trickling in and the feedback has been great. What was your fun element in retelling this story? What did you enjoy most in animating this Goddess? The most fun I’ve had in this is trying to be creative with the designs and cameras and keeping my process completely organic. For example, the decision to give Mahishasur sunglasses was after animating most of his shots. Most people noticed it and loved it. With Durga, animating her mannerisms, and constantly thinking of ways to portray the power without force (like the laughing and teasing and finally the petting) was a huge challenge and a lot of fun!