Still from Wade. Image courtesy Ghost Animation.

When the animated short film Wade opens to the stillness of a Kolkata ravaged by the forces of climate change, it is impossible to shake off the sense of foreboding that follows. Imagined by the Kolkata-based collective Ghost Animation, Wade foretells a post-apocalyptic tale: Having fallen victim to rising sea levels, the once-thriving Kolkata now stews in the flooding waters of the Bay of Bengal, which has filled every inch of the city. Amid the rising water lurks a more sinister threat, one of an ambush of Royal Bengal Tigers driven out of their home in the neighboring mangrove islands known as the Sundarbans. The eleven-minute crowd-funded short, which captures a face-off between the tigers and a group of humans, makes for one of the most deeply layered, poignant, and charged animated films coming out of India.

Still from Wade. Image courtesy Ghost Animation.

“While there is a lot of nostalgic storytelling about Kolkata, being a space steeped in centuries-old culture and tradition, not very many stories envision the future of the city,” says Kalp Sanghvi, one of the six co-founders of Ghost. Kolkata, along with places like Bangkok, Dhaka, Shanghai, New York, and Amsterdam, belongs to a list of cities under imminent threat of rising sea levels. “The more we started thinking about how the whole city was living on borrowed time, almost waiting for an imaginary dam to breach, the more afraid we got,” adds co-founder Upamanyu Bhattacharya.

With its considered details and sharp storytelling, Wade makes its post-apocalyptic future seem immediately palpable. It also positions Ghost among an emerging group of studios tapping into original and local narratives, which the Indian animation industry has only recently begun to explore. Just across the Indian national border in Karachi, Pakistan, Mano, the country’s first-ever hand drawn animation studio, is tracing a similar path with its forthcoming film The Glassworker. With stories and animation styles rooted firmly in their local landscapes and cultures, these studios are standouts in the region, and the communities they’re forming give a glimpse of how the industry is changing.

Since the late ’90s, India has been known for the quiet production of much of the stellar animation that has made films like Finding Nemo, Shrek, How To Train Your Dragon, and The Jungle Book absolute crowd-winners. Yet even with the abundance of talent in the country, original animated stories rooted in local culture have been hard to find. According to the 2018 South East Asia Animation Report by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), a significant chunk of the revenue and much of the steady 9% growth rate of the Indian animation industry can be credited to the outsourcing of production packages by international companies. Cost-competitiveness is probably the biggest factor for why India is chosen over other countries for these projects (an Indian animator costs $25/hour as opposed to the $125/hour American rates). The report also notes the “limited production budgets and training support” that curbs the industry’s capability to create original IPs. 

But that’s beginning to shift, thanks to young collectives like Ghost, as well as independent animators and filmmakers who are weaving the country’s inherent sense of plurality into their narratives. “From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to make films for ourselves,” says Sanghvi. “With Wade, we wanted the film to belong to our place and our people, hardly ever represented in animation.”

Founded in 2018 by six animators who met at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Ghost cites studios and collectives like The Line in London and CRCR in France as particular inspirations, both for their style of work and for their non-hierarchical ways of operating. Similarly, Wade was realized by the collective efforts of thirty creatives, including summer interns, new graduates, and animators from India and elsewhere. “We take in interns every year, and we try to make the experience a comprehensive learning process for them. Most of our interns have come back to collaborate with us on projects,” says Bhattacharya.

But perhaps no better example of an animator fostering a community can be found than at Mano Animation in Karachi, Pakistan. Its founder Usman Riaz grew up in the city watching the fantastical works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. In 2015, Riaz gave a TED talk in Tokyo about his love for Japanese animation and was immediately afterwards extended an invitation to visit Studio Ghibli. “Normally, one does not get to go to Studio Ghibli on one’s first-ever trip to Japan—or ever, really,” says Riaz. “More precious than the guidance they offered me was their advice for me to graduate beyond my love for Ghibli and make something that was truly my own. I went back to Pakistan inspired.” 

Still from The Glassworker, courtesy Mano.

Back in Karachi, Riaz decided to open a hand-drawn animation studio—Pakistan’s first. “Since there was no such industry here, there were no rules. And because there were no rules, we had no restriction,” says Riaz.

But there also weren’t very many animators to be found around, so Riaz had to widen his horizons, and the first crop of creatives brought on to make Mano were a curious lot. “I realized there must be many people like me in Pakistan who love animation, but work on their own, or simply cannot find an opportunity to work on animation at all,” says Riaz. “We searched online for like-minded artists, illustrators, architects, animators, and video game designers, and spread the word by organizing workshops in art schools about what we wanted to achieve.” When Riaz and his wife and studio partner Mariam Riaz brought on the young creatives, they taught them how to animate using the tools they were working with, and educated them in the aesthetics of animation, before they started working on The Glassworker. In only a few months, they went on to become team leads and were training the next batch of new recruits.

Gravitating towards themes like innocence and the effects of conflict on children, The Glassworker is a coming-of-age story about a young boy named Vincent who is learning the art of glassworking from his father. As Vincent grows older, he is intrigued by a frequent visitor to their shop, a young violinist named Alliz. The film follows the two characters as they juggle their artistic dreams and the threats of an increasingly tumultuous world.

While the world that The Glassworker inhabits is fictional, the film is unmistakably rooted in Pakistani culture. Much of the nuances in the film have been shaded by executive producer Geoffrey Wexler’s keen eye for detail. Riaz first met Wexler when he was invited to visit Studio Ponoc, which was founded by producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, in the wake of Studio Ghibli shutting in 2014. A veteran of both Disney and Studio Ghibli, Wexler is currently the chief of international at Ponoc, and founder of his own production company, Kiyuki Inc.  “Jeff pushed us, quite passionately, to be deeply proud of the Pakistani roots of the film, which led us to bring more variety to the physical appearance of characters, their clothing, the settings, and even the food and objects portrayed in the film,” says Riaz. “It was quite liberating to be so strongly encouraged to keep the ‘local’ in our film, while also striving to make it universally appealing.”

Concept art of frying gulab jamun for The Glassworker, courtesy Mano.

Films with a strong identity like Wade and The Glassworker are not only changing the landscape of the local animation industries, they are also catering to an audience with a growing appreciation for the craft. So what promises does the future hold? “Globally, there is a latent hunger to learn about other cultures, which presents an incredible opportunity,” says Riaz. Sanghvi echoes the sentiment. “We think there will soon be significant interest in co-production and cross-border collaborations, which will help a lot more stories to get told,” he says. 

Whether working out of a studio tucked in a corner of Karachi, or nestled in a gulley in Kolkata or Mumbai, it seems that here, there’s never been a better time to be an animator.