Chatrasal Singh | Photo: Special Arrangement
With over 15 years of experience in the animation film industry, Chatrasal Singh, son of former Kerala DGP Rishiraj Singh IPS and senior animator at Walt Disney animation studios, holds some big titles under his belt including Netflix’s Wish dragon, Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2, Warner Brothers’ League of SuperPets among others.
In an exclusive interview with ‘Mathrubhumi English,’ the leading animator opens up about his childhood, career and his relationship with his father, a familiar face among Malayalees.
Q. Animation movies are often perceived as 'children's movies'. Do you think so?
Although the target audience of animated films are children, there is now plenty of content available for teenagers as well as adults. The recent growth in online streaming platforms has allowed studios to take more challenges and create animated content for older audiences, an initiative that has paid off and increased the demand for more of such content. 5-7 years ago and prior, studios had to spend a lot of money to produce a theatrical movie which may or may not give them a return on investment so the experimenting was minimal, but studios are a lot more experimental now and the results in the variety of content is visible.
Q. Animation is still struggling to find its pace in Indian Cinema. What is your take on the growth of the industry in the country?
VFX heavy movies like RRR, Bahuubali and Brahmastra have garnered a very high appreciation from critics and audiences alike. They have also managed to break all box office records in Indian cinema. The success of these films has increased confidence in production houses to experiment more in VFX/Animation. Although VFX is not fully CG animated and uses live action plates, it is still helping pave the path to more graphics in film-making and thus animation. I also see a lot more interest in younger artists in pursuing animation as a career as these mainstream films have created a demand for such skill. All in all I see more animation growth incoming for India and this is going to be further fueled by streaming content that gets locally produced for audiences in the country.
Q. A few years back, a video of your father commenting on your studies and interest in animation had gone viral. Can you elaborate on your relationship with your father?
My father never pressured me into choosing any one particular career. He was always open to my artistic freedom and advised to pursue whatever it is that makes me happy. He was always supportive of my career since I first told him that I want to be an animation artist, even though he didn't have any idea about animation as a career. It not only gave me confidence but also instilled a sense of ownership of my own actions since I had the freedom to do whatever I liked.
My father never carries his work back home and he is as laidback as can be when he is off work. We have a very open and friendly relationship and we connect over mutual hobbies like music, films, sports etc. My father's work ethic has been highly inspirational for me in my animation career and I always look up to him, for both professional and personal advice.
Q. Did you spend your childhood in Kerala / India? If so, can you share some memories of your experience here?
I spent the first 10 years of my life in Kerala and returned briefly for high school studies and work later on. I mostly studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya in most districts where my father was posted. Kerala is a beautiful state with a lot of art and culture surrounding it and so getting bits and pieces of that growing up surely had a lot to do with my love for arts. I often took singing and painting lessons, which seem to be very common in the state.
My father and I would often go to Kovalam beach or Shankumugham beach in the evenings and talk about films, cricket, future and such. My mother also instilled the love for animals in us and so, growing up, we always had a lot of pet animals at home like cats, dogs, rabbits etc. In most bungalows we stayed in Kerala, we had some room for them. Those are some of my most fond memories.
I think the amount of play time that we had in schools in Kerala was very limited. If I could change one thing it would be to significantly increase outdoor activities/sports time and reduce the amount of time we spend in front of books, as it is impossible to have full concentration for such long hours.
Q. Are you in favour of animation movies given a separate category in the Academy Awards? If so, why?
Guillermo Del Toro, one of my favourite directors, won the Oscar for his Stop motion animation film "Pinocchio". In his acceptance speech he said : "Animation is not a genre for kids. Animation is a medium. Animation is art, and it can tell stories that are gorgeous and complex, and that feel handmade by humans for humans." I couldn't agree more.
At the end of the day, the story is king. It is all about the emotions you generate in audiences and how well you tell a story. Animation, just like live action films, is a medium to express artists telling stories that audiences around the world can enjoy. However the artistic skills and the departments that are involved in making an animation movie come to life are very different from other mediums and hence it deserves a separate category.
Q. Do you think the Oscars still refuse to take Animation seriously?
I personally don't think so, but the film-makers and the audience together are becoming more vocal about this subject. However, having more sub categories like writing, screenplay, voice artist etc within animation movies will certainly help bring more recognition to the artists in this genre of cinema.
Q. Being the only Indian animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, do you find Indians passionate about the field, or not?
I definitely do. Some of the most talented artists that I have been lucky to work with are from India. They are very well spread across the globe making beautiful looking work. I know friends from India that have worked on the new Avatar movie, Marvel movies and also the latest Dreamworks' hit Puss in Boots.
Q. Can you share some peculiar, interesting experiences in your career journey?
Through animation I got to travel and live in nearly 6 different countries. I would take contract jobs, one contract for each movie and so travelling was a great by-product of this exciting job. The most interesting part was experiencing different cultures while collaborating with artists from all over the globe. I lived in China for nearly 2 years when we were producing animation for Netflix hit "Wish Dragon" for Base FX Studios. That was a very interesting experience as I am not fluent in Mandarin at all.
Moving to the USA to work for Walt Disney Animation Studios has been a surreal experience to say the least as it's where I always wanted to come and work. Prior to coming here, I had seen the studio campus only in "behind the scenes" DVD features or documentaries. To actually come into the studio and work with the excellent artists here is a great feeling. It's an honour and a privilege to meet and work with artists that are behind such legendary animation movies that have shaped the glorious 100 years of this company.
Q. A piece of advice for the young minds hoping to build a career in the animation industry?
It's more general advice than specifically for animation but practise and repetition will help you achieve your goals. I don't believe perfection exists but by chasing it passionately, you can go a long way. Specifically for animation, watch a lot of films, analyse and study acting and direction style, do life drawing and above all be observant. The better you observe the more fuel you will have to keep that animation engine running!
[Chatrasal’s career spans over studios such as Dreamworks, Weta Digital, Animal Logic and Base FX. He has held the title of Lead Animator at major organisations like DreamWorks Animation and BaseFX. He is currently serving as a Board Manager at the VES (Visual Effects Society) - LA section.]