Please tell us about yourself

Years ago when an animation movie `Toy Story’ was released, little did anyone know that it could inspire someone to get into the field of computer animation. Yes, that is how the story of an architecture engineer from Tiruchi, goes.

She went on to become part of a world-renowned animation film team. However, it took the glamour and limelight of the Oscar Award, for everyone to recognise her talent. She is the lighting technical director of the film `Shrek’, which was hailed world over as the best animated feature film. For Vanitha Rangaraju Ramanan, who has the honour of being the only Indian woman in the `Shrek’ team that won the Oscar, success came gradually. But when it did, it came in the form of an honour.

In 2002, `Shrek’ won accolades for being the `Best Animated feature film’. DEEPA KANDASWAMY speaks to Vanita Rangaraju-Ramanan, the movie’s `Lighting Technical Director’, and also the first Indian woman to bask in Oscar limelight.

EVERY March, attention shifts to the Academy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles, U.S. And amidst the speculation and excitement, it is not very often that one gets to know about a special Indian woman. Further,only a few know the name of that young woman

She’s Vanitha Rangaraju-Ramanan, who won an Oscar for her technical work in the animation film, “Shrek”.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

When she was growing up in Trichy, in southern India, Vanitha Rangaraju-Ramanan was drawn to a career that would not generally interest many women.

She studied architecture, but as she was a practising architect in Bangalore, she had been begun wondering what it took to work on animated films. She had fallen in love with animated films like Lion King.

She headed for a graduate programme in Austin, Texas, with her husband Venkatramanan Ganapathy Subramanian, to continue studying architecture. “I was scared to start studying films,” Vanitha Rangaraju-Ramanan says. “Also, to go into a graduate programme in cinema, you require a degree in cinema at many graduate schools. I did not have one.”

Vanitha Rangaraju was born in 1970 in Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu. The older of two girls, she did her schooling at the Holy Cross Girl’s School and then St. Joseph’s Convent, Trichy. She graduated in B.Arch from the Regional Engineering College, Trichy (now the National Institute of Technology) and went on to work for a firm in Bangalore. At Bangalore, she met Ramanan, an engineering graduate from REC, Warangal, whom she later married.

As a young girl growing up in Trichy, Vanitha says she became interested in animation. “All those Tom and Jerry cartoons I watched when I was young inspired me.” she says. But the turning point was when she decided to make the jump from architecture to animation after she watched a TV interview in 1995. It was about “Toy Story”, the first full-length 3-D computer graphics feature film. “In the interview, they talked about how people from many different fields contributed to the movie’s creation,” Vanitha says. “I’ve always loved animation and the interview got me thinking seriously about entering the field.” While many dissuaded her, she attributes her success to those who supported her. “The people who helped me didn’t think it was silly for a professional architect to want to become an animator — my parents, sister, Ramanan, and my friends Vidya, Babu and Kala.”

What did you study to become an animator?

But she began studying on her own about animation. “In Bangalore, I had started dabbling in computer imagery,” Rangaraju-Ramanan, who has worked on the landmark movies Shrek and Shrek 2 says. She found an unused computer in Bangalore and began using it to create images of buildings, and alter those images in consultation with clients.

“I had also realised before I came to America that animation in films needed the input of a large number of technicians belonging to various fields and the artists who would draw the sketches,” she says.

In 1996, Vanitha and Ramanan headed for the United States to enrol for a masters programme at the University of Texas, Austin. Vanitha did her studies in Architectural Studies, majoring in Computation and Simulation. It was while doing her masters, that she got an internship during her last semester (Fall 1998) at Industrial Light & Magic, a leading visual effects studio in Northern California.

What was your career path after graduation?

“That was my big break. It gave me a chance to get my `foot in the door’,” she says. “Right after I completed my internship, I was to finish my master’s thesis in Austin when I got the job at Pacific Data Images (PDI), now PDI/DreamWorks after merging with Spielberg’s Dreamworks to work on `Shrek’. This was in April 1999. Needless to say, I’m still trying to get back to school to finish my masters.”

In 2002, “Shrek” won the Oscar as the “Best Animated feature film”. The technical achievement, which translated into making “Shrek” a visual success, helped tremendously in the movie bagging the Oscar. The film is based on a picture book which is just 10 pages long, unlike other movies which are based on novels. Vanitha’s credit title on “Shrek” was “Lighting Technical Director”.

Apart from digitally lighting the film, the Lighting Department is responsible for bringing the many different components of shots together — complex geometry, motion of the characters, textures, effects such as fire and dust, and the matte paintings. As a technical director, she was responsible to make this happen, using both her artistic and technical abilities. In addition, Vanitha also worked as a lighting animator on several shots, and as a co-developer for many animation sequences.

Tell us about your work in Shrek

“During the initial months of a feature film project, we have a small team of people working on various innovative developments for that film. It is called the visual development stage,” she explains.

In Shrek 2, she also worked on hair design for several key characters, including the king and the Queen. “Hair is one of the hardest things to do in computer graphics, mainly because it is extremely geometry-intensive,” she says. “For example, having one character with a full head of hair strands is equivalent to roughly 100 characters without hair.”

“This is pretty rough, by the way. It is just to give you an idea of what I am talking about,” she says with a chuckle.  She also had to create the hairstyle the way the art director wanted.

In Shrek 2, there are many characters with very detailed hairstyles. “The Queen’s had to fit nicely into a hairnet; the King’s was fluid and very stylised,” she continues. “The Fairy Godmother’s hairstyle is very sculpted. It was a really interesting challenge to make them look good. We got one of my co-workers who had grey hair similar to the King’s and made him walk and run for reference [by shooting some video footage], then used that and the artwork from the art director as the starting

Then she would spend many hours “tweaking the style,” and going to the tool-writers to do the required modifications. “There would be more tweaks to the style,” she says laughing, “And we would make the co-worker run again.”

In  addition to above work, she was a leading lighting artist on the film.

“In this role, you work with the art director and the director in locking the look of the sequence in lighting — whether it is a moonlit night in the forest or a warm evening day in Far Far Away, I was responsible for bringing their vision to life. I really
enjoyed that part of my work.”

Her goal for Shrek 2 was to go more in the artistic direction. “I have the technical knowledge,” she explains, “improving the art side excites me a lot, so that was what I wanted to pursue.”

“The joy and satisfaction you get when you look at that one frame of picture you created is beyond words!” she says. “And the process itself, to make that picture, is enormous fun. I am really lucky to be doing what I am for a living. It is work, but I enjoy it tremendously.”

Lighting technical directors also help the artistes achieve their goals, she continues. “You act as a liaison between the technical side of the production and the artistic side, because you have both technical and artistic knowledge and skills.

“In Shrek I was a lighting technical director,” she says. “In the new film, I moved up to become more involved in the creative process directly as a lead lighter. You get more hands-on with the work.”

What does she do in-between the movie projects?

“Usually there is another movie in the pipeline ready, so there is visual development to be done on that film,” she continues. “There are also many promotional materials that we work on like commercials involving, say, the newShrek film.”

There is also plenty of DVD-related activity. “I also do the things that you never had the time to do,” she continues, “like going to universities to give students an indepth understanding of the CG filmmaking process.”

She is now working on another DreamWorks animated movie feature, Madagascar. “It is a funny story about four animals that escape from the New York zoo and get stranded on the island of Madagascar,” she says.

Her husband is a major film buff. “He is way fonder of the movies than I am,” she says. “And he loves animated films! ”

She would love to make a short film when she gets time, she adds, asserting that it will be animated. “That is the medium I enjoy the most,” she says, chuckling more. “So do my nieces and nephews.”

How was the oscar experience?

Vanitha is humble about being the first Indian woman to win an Oscar. “It felt great! Almost unreal. I’m excited to have been a part of this great team. I still remember watching the Oscars in India six years ago, wondering how it would be to touch the statuette, to feel the appreciation of the entire world for your work on a movie. Our producer Aron Warner returned with the Oscar to PDI. When I actually got to hold the statuette in my hands, it was a wonderful feeling.”

Her parents who had been watching the ceremony live on TV in Trichy were more excited according to her. Her mother then distributed sweets to everyone. “So many people whom I hadn’t even kept in touch with wrote to me, congratulating. To me that’s what makes it all worthwhile. I agree, it is special to be a part of the Oscar winning team but it’s more special when you make your friends and family proud.”

Vanitha chose not to become an American citizen despite her successes. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband. Says Vanitha, “Trichy is my hometown. I miss home, my parents, my sister, and all my friends.” Vanitha is currently busy imparting the finishing touches to the sequel, “Shrek 2”, which is to be released in July.

Considering her drive and dedication, it wouldn’t be surprising if she wins the Oscar again in 2005.