Saraswathi ‘Vani’ Balgam – Pioneering the Art & Craft of Animation & VFX

Saraswathi ‘Vani’ Balgam, Director, Producer, Writer, and Dreamer, Founder of Dancing Atoms Studios, VFX, Animation, and Virtual Production Enthusiast, is a leading figure in the Indian animation and VFX industry with many industry laurels to her credit.

She is currently developing unique original content with Dancing Atoms Studios, and her goal is to bridge the gap between Asian and North American storytellers and bring Asian stories to the world.

She earlier served as the Head of Creative Management for DreamWorks Animation in Shanghai and as the Executive Director of Rhythm & Hues Asia (a multiple Academy Award-winning animation and VFX studio). For 10 years, she was the president of ASIFA India and Women in Animation India.

Vani spoke about her fascinating journey in an exclusive interview with Broadcast & Film.

Tell us about your journey in the animation and VFX industry. How has the transition been over the last two decades in the animation and VFX segments?

My journey in the animation and visual effects industry began when my father had the vision to bring Indian stories to the world through animated films back in 1984. At that time, the animation industry was quite different from what it is today. There were no specific schools or tools, and the creative outlet was limited. It is a bit disheartening to see that we, as a country, have not fully explored the potential of animation as a medium. Unfortunately, due to a few films that did not perform well, animation in the Indian market was often referred to as "cartoons" instead of being recognized as a form of filmmaking. Most of the IP was created based on Bollywood film characters. Most of them were for boys. A few good IPS have come out and have been well recognized.

This perception set back India's animation film industry by about 20 to 25 years. However, the visual effects industry has thrived thanks to studios like the one I was part of, which provided opportunities for artists to showcase their skills. Today, the visual effects industry is using stories to create remarkable films that combine authentic storytelling with visual effects that enhance the narrative rather than being mere gimmicks. I believe there is still significant untapped potential in both animation and visual effects in India, and with the right support and opportunities, they can propel the future film industry.

I remember you and Prashant being part of the team that set up Rhythm & Hues way back in early 2000. How tough was it to put up a studio of that scale?

As a woman, I faced the challenge of earning the recognition and respect I deserved for simply being myself, which was not always easy. It required tremendous effort to overcome societal expectations and biases. I made numerous sacrifices on the personal front, and my family experienced some hardships along the way. Building Rhythm and Hues demanded significant dedication and perseverance.

, amidst these difficulties, I am grateful for the presence of a few forward-thinking schools that existed back then. These institutions cultivated exceptional students, enabling us to establish apprenticeship programs. Through these in-house initiatives lasting over six months, we had the opportunity to mentor and train talented young artists who had just graduated. Witnessing their growth and potential was truly inspiring.

While the journey was challenging, it allowed me to discover my own strength and resilience. Each obstacle I encountered served as a catalyst for personal growth. Despite the sacrifices and hardships faced, the experience of building Rhythm and Hues and empowering others was deeply rewarding. It reminded me of the importance of perseverance, and it filled me with pride to see the talented individuals I mentored thrive in their artistic pursuits.

Regarding the establishment of Rhythm and Hues in 2000, it was a challenging endeavour. Setting up a studio far away from the main headquarters in Los Angeles posed several difficulties. Convincing the Los Angeles team that we were on the right track and could deliver high-quality work was a hurdle we had to overcome. Rhythm and Hues India was initially operated from my apartment in Mumbai, keeping costs low and assembling a talented team.

One of the significant challenges was recruiting passionate individuals dedicated to producing outstanding work. We had a rigorous recruitment process to ensure we had the right people on board. Additionally, we developed our own proprietary software and tools, which required time for the artists to adapt and excel. Building trust among the team members was crucial for the success of Rhythm and Hues.

During the early years, we faced scepticism from the Los Angeles office, with concerns about how India was being managed differently. I made trips to the LA office, where some employees expressed concerns about losing their jobs to the Indian studio. However, I reassured them that our expansion would create more opportunities for everyone and allow us to handle larger projects.

Rhythm and Hues Asia provided apprenticeship programs and cross-training opportunities, fostering talent development and growth within the company. Our emphasis on trust, respect, and transparency resulted in low attrition rates and a strong sense of unity among the team.

While running Rhythm and Hues Asia was a tremendous responsibility, it also came with immense satisfaction. Witnessing the studio's success and the impact we had on the visual effects industry in India fills me with pride. The team's dedication, commitment, and passion were crucial to achieving these milestones.

Our experiment was truly fantastic. We brought India to the world stage by winning Oscars and bringing them home. The Oscar was shared with everyone, including artists, security guards, and their families in both Mumbai and Hyderabad. It was a magical experience within our studio, and I am proud that the talent I worked with continues to embody that culture.

They give back to the community, share credit, respect fellow artists, and prioritize self-care wherever they are. It is a rebirth, and I see a significant change in the Indian visual effects industry because of studios like Rhythm and Hues coming to India. We set a high bar and became an example for others to follow.

Tell us about Dancing Atoms, and what does this studio cater to?

Creating content that represents the diverse roots of India is a mission that's close to my heart. That's why I founded Dancing Atoms Studios, a content creation company with the goal of bringing more Indian stories to the world. My background in animation and visual effects gives us a strong foundation, and I'm excited to see where we go from here.

I am currently at the Annecy Film Festival pitching our original IPs, including preschool shows and feature films.

What were the factors that led to the closure of some of the leading animation and VFX studios in India in the late 1990s and 2000s?

Regarding the closure of leading studios in the late 90s and early 2000s, I can only speak about Rhythm and Hues. Numerous factors contributed to our closure. As a service company, we strive to generate enough revenue to sustain the studio. However, some projects experienced delays due to late plate deliveries, leading to idle talent and financial strain.

Despite our efforts to secure additional projects, we faced challenges and, unfortunately, did not receive the necessary support. This resulted in the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues, even though we had won an Academy.

How do you look at the future of the media and entertainment business in India? Specifically in the animation and VFX sector

My journey in the animation industry started when my father, back in 1984, wanted to make animated films and bring Indian stories to a global audience. At that time, the animation industry in India was still in its early stages, with no specific schools or tools available. Over the years, I have witnessed the industry evolve and overcome various challenges.

One challenge that has impacted the animation industry in India is the perception of animation as mere cartoons rather than a legitimate medium for storytelling. This misconception has hindered the growth of animation as a respected form of filmmaking. However, the visual effects industry has flourished during this time, thanks to studios like Rhythm and Hues, where I had the privilege of working.

The visual effects industry has made significant strides in using storytelling to enhance films and create authentic visual effects. In the past, visual effects were often seen as gimmicks, but today, they are integral to the storytelling process. The industry has witnessed a shift towards using visual effects as a means to add value to narratives rather than relying solely on flashy effects.

Looking back, I acknowledge that the visual effects industry has achieved great success, but there is still much untapped potential. With the right support, training, and opportunities, animation and visual effects can play a crucial role in propelling the future of the Indian film industry.

We are just scratching the surface. The numbers in terms of box office revenues are huge, but we have not fully tapped into that potential yet. The success we are experiencing with some great movies from the South is just the beginning. There is so much more storytelling and growth to come, especially in the animation industry.

To make a significant impact, we need alignment between government policies, industry strategies, and the involvement of top studio heads in India. It is also important to bring in talent from around the world to collaborate and elevate the animation industry in India. While a few IPs are doing well, we need more Indian IPs that can resonate globally.

The association for the animation industry, with a focus on empowering women, is crucial for promoting growth. Community building is key to developing the industry further. We should share our knowledge, provide mentorship, and create opportunities for students and professionals. It is essential to support talent in attending conferences, film festivals, and learning from the global animation community.

India has a strong platform, such as ASIFA India, that has been actively involved in community building for over 23 years. With local sub-chapters across the country, we are creating a nationwide network. Volunteering and coming together can make a significant difference. I invite everyone to join ASIFA India and the Women in Animation India Collective and support the growth of the animation industry.

My goal is to help push the agenda to make sure that there are more women visible and they are more opportunities for women to establish and empower themselves.

What is your Tip or Advice for Indian Talent?

Above all else, prioritize your well-being—nurture your emotions and care for your physical health. They are the most precious treasures you possess. Surround yourself with kind-hearted, understanding individuals who bring out your best qualities and uplift your spirit.

Embrace the power of collaboration with talented souls, both within and beyond India's borders. Let your creativity shine through your work, showcasing your distinct voice and perspective. India brims with enchanting concepts and untold tales, eager to be shared. Thanks to platforms like OTT, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, you now have a chance to showcase your artistry and express yourself to the world.

I wholeheartedly urge the gifted artists of India to seize this opportunity, promoting your creations and forming meaningful partnerships with fellow creators across the globe. Together, we can amplify our voices and establish a dynamic, harmonious global community of creativity.