Engineering opens up a lot of doors to explore. A proud alumnus of PSG, Mr. Anandh Ramesh (B.Tech, Information Technology, 2001-2005), found his door to the enticing world of storytelling through animation and VFX. We met him over a Zoom call on a warm Sunday afternoon and he walked us through his journey from being a PSG graduate to a VFX trainer at DNEG Studios, a top VFX Studio with offices across the world having popular VFX-loaded movies like Avengers: Endgame and Dunkirk under its name. This is an excerpt of the interview:
Let us start from the beginning of this great journey. As a fresh Information Technology graduate from PSG, what was the spark you found that turned your course to animation and VFX?
I have always had a fascination for computer graphics, animation and films in general. Even while I was doing IT in PSG, I wanted to get into the animation industry at some level. But back then, in 2005, we did not have a lot of programmes that specialized in animation. And quite honestly, there were even fewer in India apart from an ancillary in a couple of institutions. So I decided to go abroad for my masters and study computer graphics. I researched more on professors than on programmes, and that is how I landed at the University of Texas, Arlington for my Masters in Computer Science, specializing in graphics. There I realized that mere technical knowledge was not enough to make a mark for myself in the industry, and I had to learn the artistic side of things too. Hence I moved to Vancouver Film School to study that in detail. It was a switch of paths as I felt this was where I wanted to be rather than the programming and tool development side. From then, it has been in that direction.
DNEG holds an important place in the VFX scene when it comes to computer graphics studios. Landing a job there couldn’t have been easy. Can you tell us about how DNEG happened to you?
That was a huge process and for that, I will have to retrace my journey leading up to it. When I started out in the industry, it was on the production side doing VFX as an animator and a stereo 3D technical director. From there I worked in a bunch of films and I got into the teaching side of things and had to shift to the academic wing of the studio. Teaching came naturally to me and to develop that passion, I got into full-time teaching. I moved to Sri Lanka in 2016 to The Academy of Design, which was a partner institution of Northumbria University in the UK. I worked as the Head of the Department that offered the Bachelor of Arts in Animation for 4 years. By chance, a trainer slot was open in DNEG in Vancouver and I had applied for it. The HR from DNEG, Vancouver told me that immigration into Canada was going to be tough, and asked me if I would consider moving to London. It was too good an offer to miss. The interview was a long process in itself as the training department is one of the most important in DNEG. It went on for 8 months with multiple global HoDs across departments before they finally made me the offer. And to quote Disney – Bippidi Bobbidi Boo! I am here!
With multiple masters' degrees from around the world under your belt, could you tell us about your experience studying and working in different countries?
Living in different countries teaches you one thing – how to be multicultural in your approach. It is a paradigm shift even when you move from your hometown to your university. I am from Trichy, and moving to Coimbatore and interacting with people from various parts of the state gave me a different outlook on how people see things differently. When you move to a new country, you get to meet people with multiple nationalities and varied teaching styles. You end up in a class where your team would contain an American student, a Japanese ,and a Korean. There you get to see their background, their journey and their motivation to succeed in their aspirations. Living and working abroad have taught me how to interact with people from other countries. That is one aspect of life that everybody must experience at some point.
A fair share of stalking from our side helped us to know that you enjoy teaching and engaging with students. A little more on that.
Where do I start! I guess teaching is genetic to me as I come from a family of teachers, tracing way back to my great grandparents. It came naturally to me. I get a lot of mental stimulation when interacting with students of different mindsets and discussing different problem-solving approaches. There is one aspect to being a teacher that most people fail to see - today’s students have a hundred times more exposure to what is happening in the industry as opposed to the teachers; if a teacher has to succeed, they have to be at the 101st step. That makes it the most challenging profession to be in – if one can call it a profession that is. It is honestly just about having fun. For instance, there was a student of mine who designed a video game on how an 8-year-old girl would approach domestic abuse, blending Sri Lankan mythology in it. It is wonderful to see students coming up with such ideas and it is fun to be able to support them.
Say a second-year student pursuing his Bachelors degree in computer science or something along those lines, and wants to pursue animation. How do you think he must start his preparation and what universities must he look to study in?
I will say he must forget the software to start with. Software is something you can master with time and practice. Focus on the analog skills - things that probably need the most time to master. Take simple things like photography and analyze why you like a certain look. Even whilst posting a picture online, you scroll through 40-50 filters and finally end up clicking on one. Think about what in that filter attracts you; what is the emotion that you are trying to derive out of that filter? Then you can connect it to what each colour can do to influence your emotional status. Start with photographs and figure out how lights and shadows work. Just take a pencil and paper and start sketching. See what you can do to replicate that level of lights, shadows, and shapes. Start observing people. Sit for a while and watch people walk. You can see that ten different people walk with ten different styles. Apply reverse engineering and analyze what is prompting them to walk that way. This is because everything in the animation industry can be boiled down to being an emotional response. Tools are not even secondary, they are tertiary compared to observation. You've had movies like Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Snow White without computers. Storytelling doesn’t require tools; storytelling requires the story. Creativity is the single most important driving factor in the field. At the end of the day, it is somebody’s vision. If the vision did not exist, none of the tools would matter. I think that is the point to start.
There are so many options for higher studies. If you are looking at options in India, the National Institute of Design is doing an excellent job with probably the best education standards in India when it comes to the art forms. The Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata is doing a wonderful job as well. Even the Chennai Film Institute has been doing some good work. Outside of India, there are a lot of schools in Europe and in the UK that give you greater focus on the artistic side of animation and not just the technical side. That is where the educational approach changes. When you look at the American side of education, there is a greater focus on the technical side. When you look at the European side of education, there is a greater focus on the art side. You can also see more abstract films coming out of Europe and more narrative films coming out of the US. Depending on where your inclinations are, you can choose where you want to go.
There are schools like Falmouth University, Norwich University of the Arts and the Royal College of Art in the UK. You also have the Filmakademie in Baden- Württemberg or Gobelins in Paris. In North America, you have the Academy of Art University, New York Film Academy, Ringling College of Art and Design, Rochester Institute of Technology, Vancouver Film School and I can just keep going. There are lots of online options also.
What are the other fields where VFX can make a difference?
Everything. Every single field you can think of has a potential from the animation and VFX industry. Be it medical visualization, research, weather forecast, augmented reality, extended reality, mixed reality, construction, automotive engineering. Even in fabric design, you can build hybrid fabric using simulated values. At the end of the day, it is all about visualization. That is why you have the age-old saying that the picture is worth more than a thousand words. Prototyping visually is very viable, especially with the conjuncture of 3D printing and many other advances in the kind of prototyping technologies. A couple of years ago, an organization in Sri Lanka made the world’s first completely 3D printed wedding dress. As you can see, the avenues are endless!
VFX in movies has become a regular thing now. Five years from now, what will VFX’s role in the entertainment industry grow into?
Virtual production and digital doubles - they are becoming absolutely breathtaking by the minute. You must have seen shows like The Mandalorian where people did not invest a lot in constructing physical sets. They used huge LED walls, employed a game engine to project the environments on the screens and there it is! A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Srinivas Mohan, the VFX supervisor of movies like Enthiran and Baahubali, did a virtual production test inside a very small room that was actually pretty good. The working canvas of the filmmaker is shrinking. Tomorrow it won’t be impossible to make a 90-to-100-minute film inside a small room. Animated films are already doing this, and it will be possible for live-action movies also. The risks involved in filmmaking also have come down with advances in replicating human movement and emotions digitally. In recent times, in movies like Rogue One, we were able to bring actors like Peter Cushing back from the dead. Tomorrow, a complex sequence may be completely taken over by a digital replica. Even if an actor can’t fly down to do a patch up shoot, we can have a fully digital replica of the actor for the shoot, inclusive of extreme close-ups. As we say, the devil is in the details. Computer graphics look seamless in a long shot. But closer the camera gets, the more defining the discrepancies become. Now that boundary is getting blurred. Five years down the line, it is going to look absolutely seamless. You just won’t be able to spot the difference even in closer angles.
What are the options for engineers who want to do something different from a software job?
Think about areas like animatronics, robotics. They do not involve the traditional software path but you can take the skills that you get in your mechanical engineering stream and use it in robotics, mechatronics, and animatronics. You can take the coding knowledge that you'd have gained in Computer Science and IT and use it for advancing tools in game engines and films. Today if a software like Maya can generate fluids or do a water simulation, there are hours and hours of coding that go behind that. That is why people in IT with an eye for physics and visual effects can actually make better artists than people without a coding background because problem solving comes naturally to them.
How do you think the present work from home culture has been treating the IT field in general? How does it bode for us in the future?
We were already programmed for it! All we needed was a terminal, a keyboard, a mouse, and a good network connection. Work from home, flexible working, remote working - all these are definitely going to increase. In the past, companies were hesitant to get into that culture because they had to invest time and money in setting up that platform. Now necessity has made them invest. You have the platform in place, you are forced to do it anyway. Now I won’t have second thoughts about hiring someone from any part of the world. It is going to be a simple issue of security compliance and greater rule writing for firewalls. Taking our industry as an example, a big production house will not want unauthorized clips from their high-budget film leaking online.
You have to be respectful of the level of security that comes with the flexibility of working from home. Again, the movies give you a lot of philosophy - “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
Team Bridge would like to thank Mr.Anandh Ramesh for taking time off of his schedule to talk to us.