Managing Paperboat in COVID-19 environment. Interview with Soutmitra Ranade, Co-Founder and Chairman Paperboat Design Studios
This is a huge humanitarian crisis. Millions of people all over the world are going through perhaps the worst times of their lives. The element of fear also plays a terrifying role – how long will this last? Am I or my family safe? Are our jobs secure? Will there be a cut in our salaries?
These of course are the immediate fears. Then there are of course the larger fears– Where is this world heading to? What have we done with it? Is it destroyed beyond repair? Will our children always have to wear masks all their lives? Are we losing control over our lives?
But right now, very honestly, my priority is the 250 people who work with us in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. They and their families. So about 1500 people. We are responsible for them and have to ensure that at least these 1500 people have a comparatively easier life. Then each one also has dependents. They have their maids and their vegetable vendors etc. So it’s extremely important that we run our studio efficiently even in these terrible times, because it impacts so many people.
And since we don’t know yet when this is going to end, we must take a deep breath and take the calamity on the chin. Two days before the first lockdown was announced in March, we anticipated it and shifted all the equipment to people’s homes so that they could work from there. All the employees have co-operated with us. Believe me it’s been a big challenge but we have done well for the first four months. And I am sure we will get through these tough times.
Yes. Our Canada plans got delayed due to the pandemic but I feel that is nothing as compared to what so many had to suffer. I mean, we have to be realistic. This is a world crisis and honestly it doesn’t really matter if a studio gets delayed in some place. We have to see things in the larger context. There are more urgent matters that the world needs to concentrate upon right now. The delay has been disappointing but we are sure our Canadian studio will take off as soon as the pandemic is behind us.
Our Canadian studio is called UtSide Inc. and focuses on creating a synergy between art and technology and we want to develop ideas in various medias such as animated films, apps, VR/AI, physical interactive experiences etc. Our vision is to empower individuals in their formative years. We aspire to create worldwide communities that bridge geographical, linguistic, sociocultural gaps and strive for a world that is inclusive, compassionate and joyous. We have identified many projects and the work on them would begin hopefully by the end of the year.
It’s always a crisis that either brings people together or tears them apart. We as a world community need to take a decision which way we want to go. For us, these co-production treaties are not just documents or agreements between two governments. It is a partnership between two people, two cultures, two languages, two world views. And this union can be very exciting.
In a co-production project it’s the artists from one country working with artists from another country. I am very keen that my next project – an animated feature film based on Tagore’s Kabuliwala is not just an Indo-Canadian co-production. But we would like to work with artists from all over the sub-continent. Imagine a situation where the musicians are from Afghanistan, artists, designers, animators, voice actors from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Tagore after all belonged to the entire subcontinent. A collaborative film of this kind on Kabuliwala would be a true salute to the great man’s vision.
It’s very easy for us to go from 250 to 500. But that’s not the kind of scaling we want to achieve. For us the primary scale up would not be in numbers but in a constant pursuit of quality. With the three films that we have done recently we have shown to the world that we can do it in India. We want to break this perception about Indian animation being shoddy and low standard. If we concentrate on quality, and keep delivering path-breaking animation year after year, the scaling up will happen automatically. Afterall, everyone wants an artistic and efficient animation studio, even people from Europe and North America. We want them to come to us with great stories and we can create the animated world for them.
Up until now, me, Aashish and Mayank have brought Paperboat to this stage without a single rupee of outside investment. We have put systems in place, have a very good client base, and are working for the top TV channels. As we now start work on our own IPs, we need investments. Big dreams need big investments and these investments may not always be counted in monetary terms. We are also looking for collaborations, partnerships and joint-ventures.
Our clients are well aware of the situation and although they have their own pressures, which may or may not be in sync with our pressures but they all have reacted most positively to all our problems. We are talking to each one of them very regularly and updating them of the immense pressure that our team is going through. Many employees have shifted to their villages since the cities are not very safe. There are different challenges there. Internet speeds are ridiculous at most places. It takes hours to upload/download a simple file. But all the clients have been extremely understanding, and supportive. Actually it’s also got to do with intent. If we start using this pandemic as an excuse for our inefficiency then they will obviously see that. If the problems are real and if we keep updating them regularly then there need not be any friction.
I feel traditionally, the Indian mindset has always been a bit fearful of technology. We don’t invest enough in it. Even big stars and producers tell us proudly that for such and such film they have got the experts from Hollywood: for prosthetics, for VFX, for CGI and so on. I think they should actually be ashamed of themselves to even say this. Why can’t they invest in creating the talent here in India? They have the resources, they have the money.
Our films have primarily been driven by the star system. When you have a big star in your film, you don’t even need a script, forget about VFX and animation! That’s the mind-set that we have. But the star system is dead now. Infact it’s been dead for a while but they have somehow kept it alive through PR which won’t last for too long anyways.
Then they will have to turn to VFX and animation to get the eye balls. So primarily we will have two kinds of films: the ones with great, hard hitting content and then big spectacles with huge amount of VFX and animation. As far as gaming goes, I honestly think that we still have a long way to go.
I do think that the AVGC sector cannot be seen separately. The internet speeds that we have in India right now, the accessibility to technology, proper training institutes, and many other factors define our AVGC sector. It’s the entire ecosystem that matters. The government must recognise that this sector is a huge job creator. We must look at the taxation laws if we want to encourage this sector. I feel we have a huge opportunity. We have a vast young population that is willing to move towards this area as the traditional sectors like medicine and engineering etc., are beyond the reach of most people. Also, this is a very exciting world and the youth would naturally feel attracted towards it. We must make this movement easier for them.
Over the past many years we have had extremely talented youngsters from the valley, working with us at our studio in Mumbai. Unfortunately they had all done their animation courses from other parts of the country and it pained me that there is not a single good animation institute in the valley. It was a dream to start something there so that the locals don’t have to leave their wonderful environs to come and study and work in our rotten cities.
Animation is not just a medium of art, expression and entertainment but it also offers job opportunities in large numbers. With our institute in Kashmir, we also hope to start a branch of our studio, which will employ the artists graduating from the institute. The ultimate aim ofcourse is to produce animation films written, designed and directed by Kashmiri artists!
As a teenager in Kabul, I was witness to some of the most horrific armed struggles that the world has ever seen. In the following decades a most compassionate and loving people have been crushed to pulp and we don’t want Kashmir to go that way. I am sure art can heal.