Some career stories are worth telling because they are not only stranger than science fiction, but also proof that even seemingly impossible dreams can become a reality !
Chatrasal Singh, our next pathbreaker, 3D Animator at the iconic Walt Disney Animation Studios, animates characters to breathe life into them and create believable performances in a movie.
Chatrasal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about never wavering from his single minded goal of becoming an animator despite several challenges in his path.
For students, always commit to the cause. If you want to do it, just go for it 110% and don’t quit until you get it. Don’t try anything half heartedly. Sometimes you might quit when the turning point is really nearby.
Chatrasal, what were your growing up years like?
I was born in Jaipur, Rajasthan but grew up mostly in Kerala. My father is a retired IPS officer from the Kerala cadre. I did my schooling up until 4th grade in local public schools in Kerala, as my father had to keep moving cities nearly every year as per his job postings.
From 1999-2007 I was at a residential school in Ooty – Lawrence School, Lovedale. I was always interested in computer classes from my younger days. I also played in the school marching band and western music band as I play the guitar and sing occasionally as a hobby. There were also art painting classes that I had taken on and off throughout my schooling though I wasn’t particularly good at it.
My biggest interests growing up were computer games/ animation movies and music, more related to arts than STEM. I was a very average student in school in terms of marks, as most subjects in CBSE board did not interest me.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
There were not many schools in India teaching animation back in 2007. Typical feedback that I got from people attending any academy back then was that though there is a general training in software, what is lacking is training in artistic skills and specialization in any specific department. Animation film-making has several departments that all require very different methods of training to be able to work in their respective crafts i.e layout, lighting, rigging, modeling, etc. to name a few.
Unlike today, there were no major online animation schools that one could attend while being at home. Though Animation Mentor had started around the same time, I hadn’t heard of it until I was done with my animation studies.
During that time, I heard a lot of online forum/chatter about Vancouver being the new hub of animation and having many art/animation schools. The fact that the schools in Vancouver, Canada were nearly 1/3rd the price of their competitors in the USA, made the decision easier for me to go and study animation in Vancouver.
There were more jobs in 3D animation and that was my interest as well – to be able to animate on a computer. However, I was told by my father’s friend Mr. Jayakumar (CEO of Toonz) to try and apply for the traditional animation course at Vancouver Institute of Media arts (Vanarts). He said to learn the basics of animation and understand the principles correctly, a 2D animation foundation would be beneficial, a great advice in my opinion.
I did my 1 year diploma course in traditional animation at Vanarts. Though I found it very challenging because I could barely draw, I had highly qualified instructors who made me fall in love with the art form. My main 2D animation instructor, Charles Philips, inspired me a lot with his passion for the subject and gave us a deeper dive into animation with his animation history classes.
After finishing my traditional animation course, I still wanted to do 3D animation and did a one year 3D animation course at Think Tank Training center in North Vancouver, Canada to help me make a 3D animation reel and equip myself better to get a job and build a career of my dreams. Something that I was ecstatic about.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I can almost certainly say that my love for computers/games started when my father brought home an Intel Celeron Computer Circa 1996. Some of my earliest memories on that computer were playing the games “Road rash”, “Duke Nukem 3D” and “Dangerous Dave” on MS-DOS.
My favorite and earliest cartoon i remember that I fell in love with was the dubbed hindi version of studio Nippon’s “The Jungle Book” that used to air on doordarshan channel. This was a very popular cartoon in India with the title song “Jungle-jungle pata chala hai”. Directed by Fumio Kurokawa, this long form series version of Jungle Book, was really beautifully told and filled with memorable characters.
This coupled with the many animation movies/TV series that I watched during my residential school days had an impact on me. Among the many movies we watched, I remember watching “Lion King” and “Ice age” on the big screen at our school and absolutely loving them.
During my school days, I think when I was in the 9th grade, we watched “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. I was blown away and completely engrossed in the story line and the perfect pacing of the movie. The visual effects were so tastefully done that it never took me out of the movie. To this day, that trilogy is my favorite piece of art and I instantly became a huge fan of director Peter Jackson.
Going back to my silly school thoughts, I used to wonder, whoever was behind those scenes, making these games and animation/VFX movies was either getting paid well or doing this as a fun hobby and we were just enjoying the fruits of his/her labor/passion. A pretty “crazy thought” this, as I realized later that this career is not only super fun but also requires a LOT of hard work and talent.
In 2006 during my 11th grade, I was introduced to animation in movies/games by my father’s friend who was running a highly successful animation studio in Trivandrum, Kerala called Toonz Animation studios. I got a chance to visit the studio as I wanted to see what the process is for making animated cartoons. After my visit, which nearly took 4 hours and about 100 annoying questions from my end, I was certain that I wanted to do this for a living.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?
I am among the few privileged ones whose parents had zero opposition against me wanting to study animation and film-making, a career that is often seen as one with not many opportunities after graduation. At least this was the case back in 2007.
My love for gaming and animation pushed me to explore animation without thinking too much about the future and job prospects. The more I learned about the craft at Vanarts and Think Tank, the more I got interested in Animation as a career option. It was a really fun problem – solving job where artistic skills had to go hand in hand with the technical advancements in order to tell a story. I also really enjoyed acting, and this was a way to act through characters in 3D by breathing life into them.
After I finished my course in Canada, I was unable to convert my student visa into a working visa. Though several studios were interested in hiring me, their hands were tied as they couldn’t obtain a visa for me. Usually for a company to get you a visa they need to convince the government that you have more skills than what someone in their own country has. Being a graduate there, it was hard as there were hundreds of students just like me who were graduating every year.
June 2010– I then moved back to India and was able to get a break through my first job at Toonz Animation Studios in Kerala, the same place I had visited a few years before to understand animation. I worked there as a 3D animator on local TV shows like “Jil Jil genie” as well as “direct to DVD” projects. While working on TV might not let you hit a high quality, you do learn to animate fast, as there are very tight deadlines and you have to quickly commit to your choices in animation and stick to that. This was a good learning experience to get into a production environment and pick up speed.
June 2011 – After completing nearly a year at Toonz, I got a job at Prana Animation Studios. Back then Prana was one of the leading 3D animation studios in India that was working on a variety of projects, mainly Disney Studios’ Tinkerbell DVD series. They did nearly 6 of them there. I was at Prana for 4 years and worked on 2 tinkerbell movies, a few theme park rides and also 2 feature films. At Prana, the quality of work was higher as we had more time (less quota of animation) to produce our work and the client studio that would give us feedback was Disney. This helped artists push their quality of work and I was able to really start increasing my efficiency by producing higher quality work. It was very enjoyable and the team at Prana was very helpful and talented.
May 2015 – After 4 years at Prana, I got what I consider as my biggest break, in getting a job at DreamWorks Studios Bangalore, a direct subsidiary of the DreamWorks Animation Studios USA. While there was feature film work happening there, I was hired with about 20 other animators to work on mini webisodes of their beloved franchise characters Kung fu Panda, Shrek & Donkey, Puss in Boots, King Julien etc. to name a few. Within 4 months of being there I was promoted to a Lead Animator and was leading the team of animators along with our head at the USA site to not only animate the characters but also help maintain the quality of the animation on the show. At Dreamworks, the quality was even higher, now we were doing as good or slightly less than what you would see in feature films from the big studios. It was a huge learning curve for me where I got to understand design, posing, and the appeal of the characters and really sink my teeth into the acting and personality of the characters. I was there for 2 years before DreamWorks India closed their doors after the NBC universal takeover.
March 2017 – I had a very brief 6 month stint in London, UK for Mikros Animation Studios where I worked on “Sherlock Gnomes 2: Gnomes and Juliet”. This was my first time working for a studio outside India, and it was nice to get the multicultural exposure, and work with people all around the world. I got to animate some nice chase sequences on the film and also some subtle acting work. Since the movie was less cartoony and more realistic than anything I was used to before, we filmed ourselves to implement acting and body mechanics in our animation. It was a fun show to be a part of.
September 2017 – When Dreamworks India and Dreamworks China closed after the NBC universal merger, some of the leadership from both those studios were developing a show. This was being done at Base FX studios in Xiamen, a beautiful island located in the south east of China, very close to Taiwan. The show was “Wish Dragon”, a Sony/Netflix production. It’s a story similar to Aladdin, where a boy wants to befriend his old friend and he finds a magical teapot that summons the dragon who can grant 3 wishes to the owner of the teapot. This is the show that I am most proud to be part of, as I was on it for nearly 2 years, it really challenged me and I was in it from the start (often known as the pre-production phase, where you get to animate personality test shots of characters and try to experiment as much as you can before you actually start movie production). I was also appointed as acting lead on one of the side characters, for which I was responsible for creating pose page/ expression sheets that could be used by the entire team during production. I also animated many important sequences with the lead character – the dragon. It was an extremely cartoony and pushed style of animation and I had a lot of fun working on it. The team on this show was relatively very small and so there was a great team bonding and the fun we had on the show can be felt in the movie, I believe. Wish Dragon was the most played animated movie on Netflix in 2021.
June 2019 – After my Base FX wrap, I got a job at Animal Logic in Sydney, Australia to work on the sequel of Peter Rabbit. I always wanted to try working on a VFX show but wasn’t taking the jump as I felt it might be too different from animation and I might not enjoy it as much. Peter Rabbit 2 was the perfect show to transition and try this out as it was a hybrid style show. It was a VFX show that still required cartoony animation on the creatures in the movies. On this show I faced a number of challenges. In VFX we have to match our animation to the live actor’s movement and give the audience the feeling that the animals are part of the same world as humans. The physics of the animation/weight has to be right to make the performance believable. I had to work with many hard action sequences in the movie that had moving live action cameras, and my job was to animate the characters to that moving camera and make it look believable. I also got to animate long dialogue acting shots, something that I enjoy doing as well. Overall it was a great experience, I was on the show for 9 months and the movie seemed to do decently well despite its release during the pandemic.
March 2020 – After over 10 years of finishing my animation studies in Vancouver, I finally returned to the city, but this time for work. I got a job through Animal Logic for their Vancouver studio, to work on the Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart starrer “DC League of Super Pets”. This movie had a lot of animals, mostly 4 legged creatures that I animated on, which required a whole different level of understanding of quadruped creature movement. We had to study and analyze many animal movements /walks/behaviors to be able to incorporate that into our animation and still make it entertaining. This was also a special movie as it was the first one where I mostly worked from home and was working with a team that was mostly working remotely (due to the pandemic). It was a strange experience. It however proved that animation movie making is possible even in these circumstances. I animated a lot of footage in this movie which included some really cool, emotional beats. I was in this movie for about 17 months. The movie got good reviews when it came out and we were very proud of what we did.
August 2021 – When my super pets run ended, I was already well set up for remote working. I had an opportunity to work for Weta Digital studios New Zealand, remotely from Vancouver. This studio has always been a dream studio for me as they were behind creating VFX for the biggest and most inspiring movies that I saw while growing up, like “The Lord of the Rings”, “King Kong”, “Avatar”, “Planet of the Apes” series, etc. I was hired for an 8 month remote contract and got to work on a Blizzard cinematic for their games. The Blizzard cinematics have really cool facial animation and dynamic action sequences. A combination of those are every animator’s fantasy. There’s a different appeal and design that these cinematics demand, so we had to try and shoot multiple video references to choose and animate the most entertaining take for the cinematic. It was an absolute blast to work on that show and the team at Weta was highly talented. The final cinematic looks fantastic and I am very proud to have worked on it.
March 2022 – End of 2021 I applied to a studio I always wanted to work for – Walt Disney Animation Studios. In feature animation, in my opinion, Disney does the finest looking work – an epitome of appeal, design and level of animation. The studio has a rich 100 year history in making the most memorable animated films like Snowhite and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Beauty and the beast, Lion King, Aladdin, Tarzan, Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, etc. to name a few. All the way while growing up, learning animation, working in various studios, Disney movies inspired me to keep reaching for greater heights and hopefully get a chance to be a part of their team, which I finally got a chance to do. At Disney, the quality of feature animation is at the peak. We just finished wrapping up on the upcoming movie “Strange world” which is releasing in November 2022 on thanksgiving weekend.
How did you get your first break?
Networking is super important. My first break was majorly through networking, as I got my first job through my father’s friend at Toonz. Mr. Jayakumar, who is the CEO at Toonz, and was kind enough to open the doors and allow me to work with the team there.
All other jobs after my first job also, were not only through demo reels of my latest work, but recommendations from supervisors/heads of previous studios. The latter is also a form of networking. If you perform well at a studio, and are proactive, willing to learn, you will most likely leave a good impression with your superiors. The animation industry is quite small, and the chances of supervisors/department heads in studios knowing each other is very high. Thus, a recommendation from one of them can really clear the path and get you into another job that you might seek. This coupled with a strong demo reel for the job can almost always get you through.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The biggest challenge was probably getting my first job/break. Networking is key, and getting a good demo reel ready is important to be able to impress studios and convince them that you can perform the artistic task. In my case, I was able to get my first break at Toonz studios through my network and perform well at the studio. While being at the studio, I continued to improve my school demo reel by adding more dialogue/acting pieces to my demo reel for better opportunities. This is where many people might lose motivation and it can get frustrating. The key is to try and get feedback from your peers/seniors and also present your work in online forums. This can help you catch your mistakes faster and improve on them, ultimately helping you create an impressive demo reel.
After getting the first job, the next challenge for me was to perform efficiently at the studio. During animation productions, you have to create performances that are meaningful, full of personality and within a particular timeline. The movie has a release date and we have to respect both the quality of animation and also the timeline, as your work affects all the other departments. On top of that, if there are ways that you can showcase more interesting acting choices or solid body mechanics, that can really help you stand out. It is hard to do so when you are surrounded by immensely talented individuals, but that is the challenge. A very healthy competition among peers helps each other improve daily.
Challenge 3 :
The last challenge is to stay motivated. It is not easy to stay motivated at all times. There are some shows I like more than others and some shots or sequences are more challenging/fun than others. An artist could also reach a burnout stage if he pushes himself too much without breaks. I would say what worked for me was taking sufficient breaks, prioritizing personal time/mental health over work (this is hard because as an artist you never want to give less effort to any of your shots and sometimes you might ignore everything while trying to pour too much of yourself into your work). Breaks helped me clear my mind and come back to work fresher. I also watched older cartoons/ movies to get motivated.
Where do you work now?
I am now working at my dream Studio – Walt Disney Animation Studios. In order to be able to work at Disney, you need to have an animation demo reel that clearly shows good acting and personality, and some nice close ups of facial animation. Showing some good mechanics in your reel also can go a long way. They also look at how well you polish your work (polish is the final layer of animation finesse we give to a shot to make sure that the character moves smoothly, and every frame looks beautiful). It took me over 10 years of working at different studios to be able to get to this level of craftsmanship that resulted in Disney accepting my reel and interviewing me.
What are your primary skills in animation?
My primary skills are to animate a character only. We don’t model or rig the characters, nor do we light and render them. In our role we primarily breathe life into a static character. Animators are responsible for creating believable performances of characters in a movie. This involves any action/acting or movement of a character that we see in a movie. I enjoy acting a lot and to be able to silently act through the characters of the movie, and thus creating entertainment, is highly rewarding.
What’s a typical day like?
We get shots assigned by the Director/Head of Animation. We usually discuss the expected performance to get an idea/feel for what they are seeking. I rely a lot on shooting references to be able to get truthful/ raw performances for the characters in the movie. After we are able to get the performance of our character done, we spend a lot of time polishing and refining the animation so that every frame looks beautiful. I got to animate some very complex body mechanics shots coupled with subtle acting shots involving the hero characters of the movie, and getting the support of the supervisors at Disney helped elevate the work. There is truly magic in the air while working at Disney because of the state-of-the-art craftsmanship of the people at the studio and how encouraging and contagious the artistic environment is.
How does your work benefit society?
Movies have an immense reach to the global population and it is a powerful way to convey messages and tell stories about important topics. It can be a great educator and a great entertainment.
Movies have also always been a great way to escape from the ordinary. A place where imagery, motion and sound can transform you to a different place and entertain you. It’s a great way to relax and have a fun evening with your loved ones/family.
Animation movies in particular are a very versatile medium. One where you can really push the limits of physics, personality, camera in a way live action will not permit you to. It is a fantastic medium to explore imagination and storytelling.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My most memorable work will have to be on “Wish Dragon”. It’s the series of shots when the main character “Din” meets the dragon “Long” for the first time as the dragon is summoned from the teapot. It was my first set of shots at the studio and also the first time we were animating the dragon in the movie. I was quite nervous being among the first few that got to work on it, but with the help of my leads and by gathering good references, we were able to tackle the scenes and the whole sequence played out really well. It was special, because they were complicated shots, the kind that I’d never done before, and ultimately with the right mindset and teamwork we were able to make them so much fun.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Always commit to the cause. If you want to do it, just go for it 110% and don’t quit until you get it. Don’t try anything half heartedly. Sometimes you might quit when the turning point is really nearby.
There are a lot of online platforms/discord/reddit groups etc that have animation discussions. Get involved there and don’t be afraid to show your work to the world. The faster you can get rid of the mistakes, the faster you can be on your way to carving a successful career in this business! Networking is also very important, try to attend art conventions, animation festivals, etc. and speak to as many people as possible to build a network. Work hard and be humble. Remember, there is always someone in the room who can learn from you and also someone who you can learn from.
I am new to Disney, so for now I want to continue to learn and grow as an animator. I’d like to continue to improve my design and aesthetics skills. As for looking further into the future, I always wanted to direct my own short film. I also do have some ideas in my mind, but nothing concrete to take a leap yet. Hopefully in due time.