The Dancing Dogs — a group of six performing circus dogs with cockney accents — aren’t among the 2013-animation Madagascar 3’s primary characters. But even the tiniest aspect of a minor character, in this case, glitter on the eyelids of two dogs, receives the highest attention from DreamWorks Animation’s VFX team. Priyamvad Deshmukh had to make it look as though the animals wore real make-up in their scenes. For it to look authentic, Deshmukh and his team referenced nail polish and car paint.
What makes them shine, they discovered, are embedded micro metallic flakes, shaped as tiny polygons. Placed at different angles, these would act as mirrors to reflect light and hence make the eyelids glitter.
Born and brought up in Amravati, Maharashtra, Deshmukh has since switched jobs and currently works with WETA Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects company. In Mumbai to deliver a talk on his journey at the Godrej Culture Lab on June 26, he admits it is difficult to explain his job.
“We follow the logic of science. When one looks through the camera, the eyes capture many details. We try to recreate those to make animation look as real and believable as possible,” says Deshmukh. He’s an integral member of the special effects team behind visual marvels such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014) and Fast &
Furious 7 (2015).
A “shader writer”, Deshmukh says his job falls at the intersection of computer science, physics, mathematics and art. “We are a bridge between academic research of how an object reacts to light and the artistic side of what a character needs to be. For instance, how cotton looks different from human skin and how in 3D it will appear from various angles,” explains Deshmukh, who graduated in computer science from BITS Pilani and went to Columbia University for masters.
A district-level topper in board exams, he was slipping into the comfort of a regular job at a Noida-based software company. But the lack of dynamism at work made him want to reincorporate art into his life without throwing away the four-year work experience. “I came across a photo of Mahesh Ramasubramanian, a BIT alumni, holding the Oscar for Best VFX for Shrek. I wanted to be in that place. I discovered there’s a field of study for computer science graduates who can specialise in radiometry and maths to create beautiful pictures.”
Deshmukh’s work is at a sublimal level, nearly invisible to the eye. Kitty’s black, feline, slickness in Puss in Boots (2011) or Po’s large fuzziness in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) help the audience empathise with the character. To explain with an example closer home, he compares Yash Raj Films’ 2008 computer animation Roadside Romeo (RR) with Bolt (2008), a Hollywood release, both with an animated dog as a protagonist. “The rough, matted look of the dogs in RR took away what the character wanted to portray. In Bolt, you could feel the softness of the fur, almost touch it,” says Deshmukh, who mentions Jurassic Park (1993), King Kong (2005) and Lord of the Rings series, created by Jackson, among his favourites.
Creating human beings in animation, however, can be tricky. He talks of “uncanny valley” — a theory that describes the strange repulsion of the audience towards things that appear nearly human. “It has to either be cartoon-ish or very close to a human,” says Deshmukh. For instance, while Tom Hanks in Polar Express (2004) “creeped out” the audience, characters in Avatar (2009) felt real despite the blue-coloured skin. “The job is to figure out the right balance of technology and art.”
Yet, on his annual visits to Amravati, Deshmukh will join his nephew to watch Chhota Bheem on TV. Two decades ago, when Indian animation didn’t exist, Deshmukh wouldn’t miss his daily dose of Duck Tales and Mickey Mouse. At 30, Deshmukh’s amusement with animation is still intact. Only, he now views them with a critical eye, examining the intricacies of the images in a glance. “If Bheem is the same size as Raju in one scene, he’s smaller in another. It’s disconcerting,” he rues. “Perspective and scale — technical sophistication is fundamentally lacking in Indian animation movies.”