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VFX chronicles 2023: Triumphs, challenges and 2024 aspirations in the Indian visual effects landscape

The dynamic relationship between the media and entertainment industry and visual effects remains a persistent and intriguing subject of discourse. In the current landscape of content creation, the emphasis on crafting captivating visuals has taken centre stage, significantly enhancing the trajectory of the VFX journey. Filmmakers now recognise the pivotal role of integrating visual effects seamlessly from the inception of the script, allocating substantial budgets to facilitate VFX studios in delivering extraordinary visual spectacles. This strategic approach allows for the creation of remarkable visual experiences without the constant strain of resource management.

In 2023, Indian VFX space has been creating a buzz globally with films like Jawan, Tiger 3, Pathaan, Leo, and so on. From explosions and fight scenes to digi doubles and de-ageing, studios have done it all this year. Noteworthy mentions extend beyond the silver screen to include OTT platforms, where productions like Mumbai Diaries Season 2, Kohrra, Tooth Pari: When Love Bites, The Village, Jaane Jaan etc showcased brilliant visuals and garnered commendation. And philmCGI bagged the Filmfare OTT Awards 2023 for Best VFX for its work on Amazon Original series Jubilee.

On the flip side, the highly anticipated film Adipurush faced initial criticism for its subpar VFX in the teaser, prompting the filmmakers to refine and fine-tune their work before release. Despite boasting a substantial budget and an impressive 4,000-plus VFX shots in the final cut, the film failed to meet the expectations of today’s discerning global audience, highlighting the challenges in meeting the standards of informed connoisseurs.

While the year showcased positive strides for various Indian studios in terms of engaging projects and expansion, the industry experienced the impact of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike. This labor dispute led to a notable reduction in outsourced work to India, resulting in widespread layoffs. In response, some studios diversified their portfolios by exploring domestic projects or forming collaborations with international markets, employing innovative strategies to navigate the challenges and maintain financial stability.

To gain deeper insights into the Indian VFX industry’s inner workings, Animation Xpress conducted interviews with studio heads. Here’s a glimpse into what they had to share:

Highlights from leading studios

Redchillies.vfx worked on several large scale films like Dunki, Jawan, Animal, Pathaan, Tu Jhooti Main Makkar and 12th Fail. All their projects since Ra.One have always had challenging elements where they push the envelope. Among the 8,000-plus shots delivered by the studio this year, the groundbreaking achievements were evident in projects such as Jawan, where the RCVFX team seamlessly executed character duplication and de-aging, allowing the on-screen presence of Shah Rukh Khan as both Azad and Vikram, forming a compelling father-son duo. Additionally, in the film Animal, the team skillfully transformed Ranbir Kapoor into a convincing 16-year-old student, surpassing the challenge of making Aamir Khan appear 21 in Laal Singh Chaddha (2022).

Framestore India worked on over 30 projects in 2023, creating 5,000 plus shots and credited for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, The Little Mermaid, Barbie, Wonka and many other films.

Five projects that MPC- a Technicolor Creative Studio, has worked on – Napoleon, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – made it to the top 20 list for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The studio – which is part of Technicolor – has worked on other films as well like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet S2 and Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time S2.

FutureWorks delivered more than 8,750 shots for films like Rana Naidu, Selfiee, Scoop, Bloody Daddy, Kohrra, Jaane Jaan, Rocky Rani Ki Prem Kahani, Aye Watan Mere Watan and Heeramandi. They also collaborated with VFX supervisor Jay Worth and director Jonathan Nolan for the upcoming Prime Video series Fallout.

Pune-based Digikore Studios delivered over 4,000 shots for various film and episodic projects that it cannot reveal names of. “Apart from several Netflix projects, one of the biggest projects we worked on this year was an eight episode series for Apple TV,” said Digikore Studios founder and CEO Abhishek More.

PhantomFX worked on numerous fascinating projects like Indian Tamil-language action thriller film Leo. The captivating car chase sequence from the film was entirely built within a CGI environment, designed and executed flawlessly as a single shot by the Phantom team. For PhantomFX, the car chase sequence from Leo, proved to be one of their most challenging endeavours which they successfully executed within a mere three-month timeframe. Within this period, they constructed the entire environment, orchestrated the effects, managed the car crashes, conducted research, and built assets. The filming of this sequence took place over three days. Remarkably, the entirety of the filming occurred within a studio setting and the environment was meticulously crafted using CGI.

Their involvement extended to another recent blockbuster Salaar where they contributed significantly to creating various environments. “Recently, we were deeply engaged in an intriguing sci-fi film, Ayalaan. For this project, we developed over 4,500 plus visual shots, including an alien world, extraterrestrial beings, alien spaceships, and a host of captivating effects,” PhantomFX founder / CEO / VFX supervisor Bejoy Arputharaj shared.

Expanding horizons and achievements

From opening new facilities to winning accolades for their work, VFX studios have grown and expanded in multiple avenues.

Digikore Studios made a mark by launching its Initial Public Offering (IPO) on NSE EMERGE. The studio showcased robust financial performance, with a noteworthy quarterly revenue of Rs. 11.83 crores and a net profit of Rs. 2.80 crores as of June 2023. 

“We are on target to achieve our projected revenue of Rs. 50 crores for FY 2023-24,” shared a confident More.

For Technicolor India, a major highlight of 2023 was its win at the Asian Academy Creative Awards for Best FX (special effects) for the film Bhediya. The year also saw the inauguration of a new studio in Mumbai and the maiden trip of their CEO Caroline Parot to India.

The studio has also expanded its learning and development programs within the organisation as well as at its Technicolor Creative Studios Academy. The academy is open to anyone who wishes to enter the audiovisual, gaming and computer graphics industry. Technicolor India country head and MESC governing council member Biren Ghose said,  “Actively working with multiple state and central government ministries, we continue to advocate and support the integration of creative arts as a viable career option.”

FutureWorks too has added a new facility in Mumbai and Hyderabad. “We have made significant investments in training and technology in 2023 and continue to invest in our people,” said FutureWorks CEO Gaurav Gupta.

Basilic Fly Studio has marked a significant milestone with the launch of Lightrunner Studio in the UK, extending its capabilities to deliver top-notch visual effects for feature films, television, and advertising. With a strategic focus on hero environments, animated creatures/characters, and special effects, the new studio is poised to contribute innovative storytelling solutions to the entertainment industry.

“A highlight of this year was the resounding success of our IPO. This milestone was more than a triumph for Basilic Fly; it served as a powerful boost, not just for Basilic Fly, but for the entire VFX community. It was a testament to the hard work, creativity, and dedication that is the hallmark of our industry,” Basilic Fly Studio founder/managing director & CEO Balakrishnan R shared on LinkedIn.

Progress, challenges and job prospects

The current status of VFX within the larger Indian entertainment industry underscores its immense importance and widespread adoption across various platforms. Over the years, VFX has evolved from being a niche element to a critical component in the creation of captivating and visually stunning content. This trend is evident not only in mainstream cinema but also in web series, advertisements, and even regional language films. 

Technicolor India shared that across all revenues generated in visual effects, the global services from India exceed 75 per cent and they are likely to have a higher portion of the pie, notwithstanding the 2023 writers and actors strike in Hollywood, that will cause a temporary bump in how the first half of 2024 starts.  

The Hollywood strikes impacted the overall VFX industry globally. However, despite industry challenges, Technicolor India demonstrated resilience, consistently working on over 12 projects at any time throughout the year. 

“Retaining our valuable talent continues to be a top priority, and we implemented specialised skill development programs to equip our teams with the latest tools and techniques. We have introduced several cross-functional training initiatives to ensure that our workforce remains competitive, versatile, adaptable to new challenges, and ready to cater to the pipelines of the future,” Technicolor pointed out.

PhantomFX, with a workforce of over 650 individuals, navigated through the writers’ strike challenges by leveraging existing projects and its established client base. Framestore Mumbai, boasting a team of around 600, proudly avoided layoffs during the challenging business circumstances triggered by the strikes. The growing number of top-notch projects and the influx of global companies setting up in India bode well for the industry’s continued growth.

The reverberations of the Hollywood strike, leading to project delays and cancellations, created significant global ripple effects, particularly affecting studios heavily reliant on service work. Despite these challenges, a noteworthy aspect emerges as several studios demonstrated resilience by avoiding layoffs within their workforce. While the strike prompted temporary adjustments and necessitated strategic responses, studios adapted, emphasising the importance of retaining skilled talent and fostering industry growth. In instances where adjustments were made, there is optimism, with plans for rehiring and expanding teams as the industry rebounds from the aftermath of the strikes. 

Digikore Studios, which currently has a team of 400 people, revealed, “We did have to part ways with some talent due to the writers strike. But that was temporary and with the strikes over we are looking at hiring over 100 people in the next two months.”

Gaurav Gupta

FutureWorks also did not cut their staff strength because of strikes or industry slow down as they had a strong lineup of work. “We have not cut any salaries and have in fact done appraisals in line with our companies policies,” Gupta mentioned.

Redchillies.vfx too expanded their workforce, with additions across the VFX and production pipeline. 

Plans for 2024

As the new year unfolds, prominent VFX studios are gearing up for ambitious ventures and strategic expansions.

Talking about their plans for this year, managing director of VFX and animation studio Framestore India Akhauri P Sinha shared, “Framestore Mumbai had started with the ambition of becoming a full service studio, and I am pleased to say that, as we have done in 2023, we will continue to work towards that goal in 2024. We will also be completing the third phase of our studio buildout in 2024, thus further expanding our studio size and capacity. On the projects front, the Mumbai team is also going to be working on some very prestigious titles in 2024.”

Redchillies.vfx is working on the aerial action thriller Yodha, a Dharma Production’s film slated for release in 2024.

PhantomFX has significant plans for expansion in the European and North American markets. “We are consistently working on this and actively recruiting. We will be unveiling a lot of interesting news in the new year,” added Arputharaj.

Sharing their take on this brand new year, Technicolor mentioned, “When asked about the future, we should remember the saying that the greatest enemy of tomorrow is yesterday’s success. As we open in 2024, there are things that we will do across talent, and technology that will continue to take us, our clients and the projects that we work on beyond what we imagined in previous years.”

Digikore Studios is all set for a giant leap this year. They are expanding into the North American market with a production facility in Canada.

“We are also hiring some very key clients facing business and creative talent in Los Angeles and New York. We are working on positioning Digikore as the go to VFX studio for episodic VFX in North America. Our plan is to have a team of about 40 to 50 talents in North America supported by about 500 talents in India by March 2024. We have a revenue target of Rs. 100 crores for FY 2024-25,” More revealed before signing off.

(This article is jointly written by Anshita Bhatt and Binita Das)