July 1, 2013
In our ongoing pursuit to showcase animators and studios we stumbled upon this surprisingly under-featured studio, Underground Worm. Surprised at the under-featured bit because they’ve produced some stellar work. They’ve worked with some of the biggest names who are known to use a sizeable amount of animation snippets like Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and MTV. So we decided to venture out there and meet Santosh Kale, the director of Underground Worm to share his story and work.
Kale started his career in the US by working with studios like Giant Studios and doing some unbelievable work like research for The Matrix which unfortunately got pushed to another studio as they refused to relocate to California for the film. He then continued to work on game cinematics, prop design in games, animation for Cartoon Network, some television commercials and game design for Sony. He was nurtured by some incredibly talented and respectable people but soon realised that he could only do bits of work for massive studios which did not satiate his enthused creative self. So he moved to India and started what now is Underground Worm. Alright no more spoilers. Enter Santosh Kale.
In conversation with Santosh Kale
Why is your studio called Underground worm?
It’s for my mother. She has been working with earthworms for about 40 years now- Vermiculture and vermicompost. I’m so deeply associated with worms because even as a child we’d just walk around the field and I would pick up a few worms; I could never tell one from another but just with a glance my mother could state the species name and it’s contributions to the soil. I couldn’t get into the field and usually parents tend to direct you to it but mother did nothing of the sort. So in fact Kavita (partner) and I picked the name ‘Underground’ because we decided to do only alternate/unconventional work and worm because of my mother.
You moved back to India and started Underground Worm immediately then?
So since I decided to venture out on my own and explore, and the only place I could think off was India. And at that point of time, you did have people doing 2D animation, but I had some experience in 3D. So I got back and trained almost a 100 people. And I was still trying to get used to the system here i.e. the way we were working there was totally different from the way people work here. Well now of course it’s improved quite a bit. So there was a little transitional period and it took me about two years to really understand the work ethics here.
So specifically what were the challenges that you faced when you got back here in the business of animation?
See, one thing was that the medium that I was using was still evolving. And another was developing content; I was trying to look for working with a team to make certain things happen but I wasn’t finding the right kind of people. Also, the mentality in the US was different as you have a concept and you break it down well between the people and then work on making it happen. Here, it’s more on the lines if “How could I benefit from this?” Of course it’s not entirely a negative thing as the survival level in India is totally different from the US and there is a lot more competition here.
But the animation space in India is going to change in a few years. Now you have areas like augmented reality. That is going to be an interesting space and it will grow in the years to come.
Your studio’s got a pretty interesting palette. What kinds of work do you guys do?
My partner Kavita Singh Kale does the art as she comes from that background (NID graduate). And the concept we had in mind was to have a free explorative space but still push the film making process. She’s got an animation background too, but more on the 2D front while I have a very technical background; so we blend both things together. And as we are going further, we are always trying to pick up newer challenges. Like right now I’m getting into hard core programming even though there isn’t that heavy a need for it but this is my attempt at exploring different areas. Probably 20 years from now we’ll see from a holistic point of view as to what will happen.
Kavita Singh Kale’s sculpture: STRI 1.0 made out of M-Seal, acrylic paints and found objects
New India Designscape
Something very interesting which caught our eye on your website was how you guys do a lot of personal projects and then see how they fit into a commercial space. So how do you strike that balance?
Since the internet is such a powerful area now, even if you put up some personal project online, people observe you. Kavita did some work based on the commonwealth games and someone in Italy stumbled upon it which further snowballed into a huge project (branding of a museum). We don’t see the end result but instead concentrate on the process. Like for example, we’d taken a bunch of photographs seven years ago which we tried to use as a base for a branding project for a channel. We translated them into a very graphical representation which resulted in the collateral of the branding exercise.
Since the time you’ve started working to now, what is the kind of change you have seen in the client’s perspective? And you’ve also had clients like MTV, Bindass and Cartoon Network. What other kinds of clients have approached you?
See, the clients are always changing as animation in the next few years is going to have a great demand. And right now it’s just slowly picking up. The market right now is mainly governed by live action and animation is side lined. And we put in a lot of hard work. Every frame that we have is created, frame by frame is manually done and we start from scratch always. But still in a lot of ways when I speak to the senior people in the industry, they all agree that the people instantly associate animation to kids. But there are so many other avenues like if you go for Annecy (one of the biggest film festivals) you will be bowled over by the amount of explorations they do. And a lot of clients go for festivals like these to understand, be more aware of the developments in the field and are opening up to various options.
Cartoon Network Identity #2
Channel [V] Branding
We spoke to Suresh Eriyat recently for our previous magazine issue, where he strongly pointed out that storytelling is the most important part of animation. And also as Indians, we do have a lot of stories to tell or a penchant for storytelling but somehow haven’t managed to transpose that into animation.
I made a film called ‘Killing the Fittest’ about 6-7 years ago which is about cockroaches taking over the world. When I did that film, people who watched it said it was “different” but nothing beyond it as it was devoid of chubby characters jumping around funny creatures. So I guess the intensity of it is yet to hit the public.
What is your team strength at Underground Worm and what are you working on right now?
We are a team of just six. It’s because we like to keep a compact team as we feel that the larger the team gets, the dynamic steadily goes away.
Right now we just got done with 13 episodes for Bindass Breakout which is a youth-centric show. Also some identity work for Cartoon Network and now Nickelodeon. And we contributed for the visual effects part for 9XM.
To see more of Underground Worm’s work, click here.
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