In conversation with vivek shukla

Hello readers,  Introducing you all with Vivek Shukla, a freelance screenwriter for Animation and Live action T.V. Shows and Feature Films and is an Indie Filmmaker. For him, creativity is a new dimension of life, which he tries to explore through his writing and film making.

He is currently working as creative director at Varmora Animations and director at Insync Music Channel. He loves to experiment with creativity and try to stretch his capability to cross the LIMIT of imagination. Talking to him, we tried to figure out complexity, struggle and stability of Animation Script writing job and Vivek told us upfront up and downs by marking key issues which he faced in the industry.

Till now his major animation writing & scripting work includes episodes of Chhota Bheem for Green Gold Animation (Chocolate World and many more), The New Adventures of Bal Hanuman for percept Pictures, Adventures of King Vikram’ for Disney being aired on Disney HD. 

Chhota Bheem for Green Gold Animation (Chocolate World and many more)

Script writing projects by Vivek Shukla 

Interviewer: How did you get into writing?

Vivek: This is a rather strange tale. It is so confusing I don’t know where to start. I completed my twelfth in commerce and proceeded to do BCA. But I stopped attending classes after the second year as it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I was beginning to lose interest in the whole thing, which actually echoed my feeling from school days, where the feeling of ‘what am I doing here’ was ever-present. Anyway, I managed to step over these hurdles, and that marks the end of that part of my life.

I had a few friends in theatre. I developed an interest in the idea and started backstage work for 6-8 months. As I gained interest, a spark ignited inside me to move away from the backstage and towards the front. Thus began my journey to learn about script writing. 

Chhota Bheem for Green Gold Animation (Chocolate World and many more)

It so happens that I had a keen interest in reading stories and comic books since childhood. And even though I had a good imagination, I never gave much thought to writing my own tales due to lack of knowledge about the intricacies of writing. Attending a few workshops in the theatres revealed that theatres put more emphasis on the art and literature side of stories rather than their commercial appeal.

I was reminded of movies I had seen when I was little, most prominently, ‘Cinema Paradiso’, which had won an Oscar back in 1990. Once I started studying and discussing a couple of films like this, I realised that I had an ability to analyse and criticize various aspects of stories. Then, one day, a friend prompted me to collaborate on a story for this workshop we had been attending. I took the matter rather seriously and the story ended up being appreciated. This boosted my morale significantly. Slowly, I gained confidence about writing.

Some 8 years back, I was inclined towards watching quality movies. I happened to download the script for ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and started reading it with the purpose of studying it. I found this to be an enjoyable exercise and started reading more and more scripts, mostly of foreign movies. People like reading stories, but I had developed this craze for reading screenplays and scripts of numerous Hollywood and foreign movies which were nominated for Oscars and Cannes Film Festival. I found that these movies had a very unique quality about them which was absent from Bollywood and even most Hollywood movies that air on cable TV.

Later during my theatre days, I got the opportunity to write and direct a short story, although it didn’t turn out to my liking as there was no one to guide me. But, I did learn the nuances of writing dialogue, script, and screenplay. It helped me on my way to becoming a self-learned writer. I later wrote a story for one of my friends which he directed. The story was very well received among my friend circle. I wrote and directed some more after that. I was then disconnected from writing for about 6-7 months due to some other work.

Out of the blue, I received an offer from an animation studio called Envision Creation based in Ghatkopar Mumbai, for the post of script writer. Being an aficionado for everything fantasy, I promptly replied to their offer. A couple of months passed before I received a call for the interview. It was a newly started business, and they were looking for fresh, young talent like me. The proprietor, who was also a young man, asked me about my writing background. I told him all about my days at the theatre and the other small ventures. We decided to begin our journey together.

He showed me an episode of ‘The Little Kiddy Tales’, a show that they were making, and asked me to write the further episodes of the series. The studio became an institute of research and development for my entry into the writing world. We were both people who had just stepped into the world of animation. Thus began my research into writing for animation. The internet became my friend as it taught me the differences between writing for live-action and animation.

Now, I don’t know if it was my in-born talent or my hard work, but the essence of writing for animation came very naturally to me. My work was appreciated, and we went on to create 13 episodes for the series. It took a little while to get those episodes to air on DTH television, due to a lack of viable market for such shows during those days.

I was inspired to write more. I even wrote live action for regional DD (Urdu). In the meantime, I continued directing. I was blessed with friends and colleagues who were in the graphics field who used to do a lot of freelance work. We used to brainstorm ideas. They received an offer for a live-action show for DD. We were able to write, shoot and edit the whole project, which consisted of 26 episodes, in 10 days! I proceeded to write a film for ‘Envision Creation’. The project never got past the story stage due to a lack of market.

Then one day I got a call from Rajiv Chilaka of ‘Greengold Animation’. He offered me a position as animation script writer. He told me of this show that was airing on Pogo TV and sent me details of the characterization and a couple of storylines. I sent him two story ideas that very day. He liked them a lot and gave me the thumbs up to develop them. This marked the beginning of my work on ‘Chhota Bheem’ in April, 2009. I worked on the scripts of Chhota Bheem for another 2-3 months. One of the episodes from the second season of the series, ‘Chocolate World’ gained a lot of popularity among the audiences. Even today Pogo airs reruns of the episode among the other popular episodes, there’s a comic book based on the episode, and there’s an advertisement of ‘Eclairs’, starring Kareena Kapoor, which they’ve merged with snippets of that episode.

Thus began my foray into the world of fantasy and writing for animation and my hunger for writing grew more. I then got an offer from ‘Percept Pictures’ to write for a series known as ‘The New Adventures of Bal Hanuman’. This series was based on the Anurag Kashyap movie, ‘Hanuman Returns’. I was part of a team of four writers. The response for the first season was satisfactory. The second season started with a writer short. Slowly, I realised I wasn’t satisfied with the style of working in Percept. Their methods were very formulaic whereas I was in favour of experimenting with new things.

A couple months had passed before I received a call from Pune-based ‘Phoebus Media’ saying that they had received my contact details and testimony from Disney. They had an on-going show called ‘Adventures of King Vikram’, being aired on Disney HD. They claimed that they had finished work on part of the first season and wanted me to continue the rest of the season. I started writing for the show while simultaneously working towards the second season as well as a tele-film.

Then I worked with ‘Dart INC’ where I was developing content in the form of 30 minute animated shorts. I am also directing the animation flow for a few shows. We are not totally reliant on channels for this content. As I see it, there’s very little scope for any change among the thinking of channels in the current scenario. Unfortunately, they are not ready to embrace any kind of new or experimental content. So, our purpose is to popularize our content through various different media like YouTube. There is no doubt, this is a risky venture but this business currently is very TRP-driven instead of being content-driven.

Interviewer: What part of your job do you like best? Why?

Vivek: I love to write gags in a animation script, that’s the best way to show things.

Interviewer: Where do you get these ideas from, and how do you relate them to children so well?

Vivek: Because I enjoy them myself! There is a world of fantasy living inside my brain. I used to lots of such movies as a kid, so a part of that has survived inside me. That and my imagination – I constantly imagine a world with various possibilities.

Interviewer: You happened to stumble upon this career path quite by accident. Do you feel it is a good path for sustaining your livelihood?

Vivek: Definitely. Yes, I have had to struggle a lot in the beginning. But today, I am one of the few animation script writers in India.

Interviewer: And that too, at a young age!

Vivek: (laughs) the way I look at it, the animation industry is also young. So we’ve grown together, the industry and I. It hurts me to learn that the graphics and visual workload of such internationally acclaimed movies like ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Shrek’ are done in India. We have a wonderful labour force, but we shy away from exploring a variety of content. I will be very happy the day we are given a free leash with respect to developing novel content.         If someone says there is a dearth of content in India, I’ll say that’s true as well as false. It’s true because obviously there is no such content out there yet, and it’s false because such content is not allowed to come reach the audience. I refuse to believe that there is a dearth of ideas in our country.

Interviewer:  Any struggle or   a tough situation faced by you as a writer?
I worked really hard and wrote for a animated short film on urgent basis but never got my cheque from the studio. That’s really frustrating when someone breaks the trust, but that also taught me a lesson, to not to work before any agreement no matter how urgency is there for the project.

Interviewer: Why is there such a strong impetus for mythological characters and shows in our market? Why not something else?

Vivek: I have debated upon this subject countless times! This topic was up for discussion in some of the seminars I have presented at ‘Dart INC’. I get many queries about why India does not have fresh content. The answer is simple. We have this knack for idolising icons. We go to see movies to see the actors rather than characters. We are more interested in Amitabh Bachchan than in Vijay Chauhan. Similarly, we idolise mythological characters. We love to see our mythological characters as superheroes. We like seeing Bheem and Hanuman in action, but do not pay much attention to the theme of the story. This problem is present not only in animation, but in our live-action content as well. Now, there is nothing wrong in liking superheroes. But we need to get out of the comfort zone, and start creating new heroes instead of using existing ones. A regular child character doing good deeds can be portrayed as a hero. He doesn’t have to be superhuman in order to be idolised.

I believe that this trend can only being if we develop content powerful enough to break the existing mould. A creatively written story and inspiring characterisation can convince our audiences that there are heroes beyond superheroes! Many studios are interested in working with me towards this very goal. I am even trying to penetrate the game genre. Many of us have this wish to create something different, something game-changing.

Animation is a field where creativity knows no bounds, but even so, I feel trapped by the norms and limitations present in the current scenario. There is very little wiggle room for expanding our creativity. Channels have created strict formats and are not at all open to suggestions. As a result, the creative decisions lie with the channels, whereas the writers have become mere tools! This affects the content negatively. I am not one to criticize, but I have seen people from animation jumping to live-action. Conversely, some people working in these channels have no idea about animation film making. As a result there is no real direction any of the channels are going towards, and they end up copying and emulating the other in the race for money-making. Creativity has taken a backseat as the channels feel it too risky to enter anything remotely fresh.

The internet has brought the world closer together. Indian audiences now have access to a variety of content from all over the world. And when someone has access to content like Ben 10, why would they want to see something mediocre? This is somewhat of a double edged sword for us. One the one hand, the quality of content goes up, but on the other hand, we have to face the challenge of presenting the audience with something that is equal to or better than international shows. The competition is no longer with Indian content; due to the easy availability of international content, the challenge now is to create something that can stand on its own against shows like Ben 10. But we do not have the necessary backing from the big names in the industry.

Interviewer: Of course, there is an abundance of literature.

Vivek: There is, but that is not what I expect from this generation. Today’s generation has a very good potential to pen interesting ideas. A very big problem with the animation industry here is that people address animation as ‘cartoons’. Animation films are called cartoon films. This is the mentality that we must strive to change. The audience for animation in our country is not mature enough. Animation is still something that only children are meant to watch. If a child is watching cartoons, his/her parents or elders will not accompany him/her because of the belief that it is meant for kids. And this is true when it comes to Indian content. Our animation content is actually cartoonish! It is meant for children of pre-primary maturity. So, I’ll discuss Doraemon here. Doraemon is made in the manga style of animation, also known as anime. The visual style may not appeal to everyone, but what will appeal is the content. I am sure that any adult who makes an attempt to watch an episode of Doraemon will definitely be attracted to the literature part of the story. They will realise that this is more than just a cartoon – it is an animation series. The way to change this mentality – and it is very important that we do - is to not assume the quality of the content, but give it a sincere chance.

Interviewer: What do you do in your free time?

Vivek: I enjoy cooking! I have even thought of a concept involving food. I would love to do everything that I enjoy. Because I love eating, I like to get into the intricacies of how food is made. I love animation, so I like to learn how that is made. I like live-action, thus I learn about film-making. I like to get in depth and get utterly involved in anything that interests me.  I am a self-learned person. I believe in experimenting.

Interviewer: When you set about writing a script, is there a specific style or format that you follow?

Vivek: This subject had come up during my days at Percept. I had given them a format to be followed for script writing. I assured them that if followed, this format would help iron out all the inconsistencies that are currently prevalent in their episodes. It would eliminate jerks in the story, and change the overall ambience of the show for the better. My idea was rejected without any clear grounds.

Interviewer: What you have to say about animation script writing?

Vivek: Animation script writing is very much like direction. The script writer has to visualise each and every frame of the animation whilst writing the script. The script then goes to the storyboard artist and director. The director supervises the drawing of the storyboard and makes changes according to his visualisation. He changes certain angles or the framing of cells. This is the process that is followed.

I have a format which involves certain calculations when it comes to script writing for animation. Say for example you have to create a 7-minute short film. You have to keep a few things in mind. Firstly, make sure that you never have more than four characters in a frame. Secondly, in order to keep production costs low, there is a calculation for the number of different types of frames to be used. There is a method to determine how many long shots, mid-shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups will be there. The method can be experimented with, obviously, but the basic knowledge of the method is a must before you start experimenting. These methods have roots from live-action. Even there, one must pay attention to what kinds of angles and frames to have to convey a certain type of scene. This trickles down to animation as well. The only difference is that here, the script writer has to decide these things, not the director.

So the script writers play a very significant role in making animation films. Of course, the director has a big role too, having to lead the whole project and approving the final look of the film. But the script writer has the task of visualising everything, which is a very responsible job. And this is the reason I believe the process I mentioned is very important.

Chhota Bheem for Green Gold Animation (Chocolate World and many more) 

Thank you Vivek for sharing insights. 

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