Indian native Apurva Shah brings a wealth of expertise in 3D visual effects and animation to his role of effects supervisor at Pixar Animation Studios. Apurva joined Pixar in 2001 to lead a team of effects animators to create a variety of shot sequences on the Academy Award®-winning film Finding Nemo. He was an effects supervisor on Disney•Pixar’s 2007 release Ratatouille for which he won the VES award for best supporting effects and which also bagged an Academy Award® for Best Animated Film. He was also involved early on with the technical looks development for Ratatouille and Toy Story 3 (2010 release). He is currently working with Director John Lasseter on a series of short films, CarsToons, based on the endearing characters from the feature film Cars. Prior to Pixar, Apurva held a variety of key positions in the animation and effects industries.
At PDI/DreamWorks, he was a sequence supervisor on the Academy Award® –winning Shrek. Apurva also was effects lead on the studio’s first animated feature, Antz, and created visual effects shots on the live action films Batman Forever, The Arrival, and Broken Arrow. Apurva is as active in the world of teaching digital effects as he is at putting them into practice. He was a faculty member at the Art Institute and the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida where he taught classes in Visual Effects and Motion Capture. He is also active in the CG community and served on the Siggraph sketches jury in 2005-08. He has presented at several conferences and Universities both in the US and internationally. He also has several patent applications pending for animation technology developed at Pixar. Apurva earned a master of science in computer science from Texas A&M University and holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from University of Mumbai. He also attended art and film classes at the Ringling School of Art and Design during his faculty tenure there.
We caught up with Apurva for an Interview.
Q. Hi Apurva, please tell us a little bit about your journey from a graphic artist in India to being a VFX Supervisor in Pixar. How does it feel?
Actually when I was in India my main interest was in computers and programming. This was in the late eighties when PCs were just starting to become prevalent. I spent a lot of time (although I should probably have been at school) studying with Vijay Mukhi who was an excellent and motivating teacher. Finally after I completed my B.E. from Somaiya I came to the U.S. to pursue a Masters in Computer Science at Texas A&M University.
That’s when things took a different turn. The Architecture School at A&M had an excellent animation program so I signed up for a class there. In the class we were required to produce an animated short of our own. The creative excitement of doing that and the ability to combine my technical and creative skills was an awesome feeling! It was like love at first sight.
After I completed my Masters I knew that to really get deeper into animation I needed to round out my artistic side. I got an excellent opportunity to do just that by working and studying at the Ringling School of Art & Design in Florida.
After about a year at Ringling I was able to get a job in California with PDI in their R+D department. PDI, which was later acquired by Dreamworks, was one of the oldest studios in Computer Animation and I got a very broad and diverse experience there in everything from commercials to film visual effects. More importantly this was also where I met my mentor, Richard Chuang, who taught me so much of what I know about animation and visual effects.
When PDI started working on the feature animated film Antz, I naturally got involved with the effects on that project. From there I went on to serve as a Sequence Supervisor on Shrek. While working on that project we had no idea that it would eventually go on to become one of the most successful animated films.
After seven years at PDI, I decided to start my own studio focused on broadband/internet animation. This was in the late nineties and my timing couldn’t have been worse. So after a year I decided to join Pixar, which is also in northern California. That was an excellent move since Pixar has an amazing team of filmmakers and artists and gives employees educational opportunities to advance themselves in these areas. The studio’s goal is to make every technical director and artist working on the projects think like a filmmaker.
At Pixar I have worked on visual effects for Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. Currently, I am supervising several short films based on the original characters from Cars. This is also the first time after being at Pixar for seven years that I have had an opportunity to work with John Lasseter. As with all of my previous projects it’s been an amazing learning experience!
Looking back on my career so far I feel very lucky that I had mentors like Vijay and Richard who took interest in me and also got the opportunity to work on some great projects that helped me learn and grow as an artist. Through teaching, mentoring and other activities I hope I will be able to give back to the community in the same way.
Q. From Finding Nemo to Ratatouille, how has the work flow changed according to you in terms of technical possibilities and ones approach towards the industry ?
The bar in visual effects as well as feature animation is a moving target. At this point we are technically capable of producing almost any kind of imagery so the dominant factors now are how to creatively apply what we know as well as do it cost effectively. The latter could be a distinct advantage for the Indian animation business provided it is able to deliver high visual quality at a competitive cost basis.
Scenes from Finding Nemo
Q. How challenging was it working for Ratatouille for the technical look development stages ?
The initial visual development phase is one of the most exciting times on a project. There are lots of conversations with the Director, Production Designer, DP and Editor about the challenges and visual goals. It’s a blue sky phase! We come up with lots of different ideas, almost like seeds, having no knowledge of which ones will work and which won’t but that’s what makes this phase so exciting. Later, once you are in full on production, you often wonder why we didn’t do this or why did we do that – but that’s 20-20 hindsight and hopefully you apply that experience to the next project.
On Ratatouille we worked on several different problems at this early stage – quadruped rig for the rats, organic modeling and edge displacement to avoid straight, CG lines, translucency and subsurface for food and skin, food effects and visual manipulation of the image to avoid grey, CG colors to name a few. I can’t imagine how we could have taken on the film without some of this initial development. However, it’s also important to balance how much you invest in upfront activities without solid story and layout to back you up. Time and budget is finite so you want to pick the most important things to focus on.
Q. You had also worked in VFX in live action features like Batman Forever, Broken Arrow, have things changed drastically since then, now that you are in a completely CGI environment?
The tools used in CG visual effects for live action are not that different than what we use in animation. There are naturally creative differences – in animation we strive for caricature while live action visual effects are focused on realism. Both have their own unique challenges and I would love to work on the visual effects project at some point, especially one that integrates practical special effects with CG visual effects.
Q. You have been an active participant in SIGGRAPH for years and now the Indian Community is excited that SIGGRAPH is happening in Asia for the first time in Singapore this December. What are your comments on the same?
Siggraph Asia is a very exciting development. It has always surprised me that India has such a vibrant IT and engineering community and now a fast growing animation industry but some how they don’t overlap. Technology has always been one of the corner stone of production at Pixar and is one of the key reasons we are able to make the kind of movies that we do. I hope that events like Siggraph Asia will pull the academic community into engaging conversations with the animation industry and its problems.
Q. So, what projects have you been working on lately? Is it a high after the Academy award for Ratatouille?
Since the beginning of the year I have been involved with some short animated films that we are making with the characters from Cars. These are 2-5 minute films with a lot of inventiveness and physical humor.
Scenes from Ratatouille
Q. Pixar's latest release, Wall-E has been a craze across the Box Office and drew large audiences here in India as well. What was your involvement in the feature?
I wasn’t really involved with Wall-E – although I enjoyed it thoroughly. Now that we are doing a film a year its not really possible to be involved with every film, especially if you start on a film 3-4 years out during the development phase.
Q. What do you think is the potential of the Indian Animation and VFX industry ?
Most of the Indian animators and TDs who I have met are very skilled at what they do and are passionate about learning and growing as artists. This bodes really well for the industry as a whole. There are a couple of areas, in my opinion, where more work remains to be done. First, animation education is still very spotty. Diploma programs or short term, intensive software training has its place, especially for a practicing professional, but isn’t the right way to learn the art of animation. Yet a bulk of the talent in the Indian animation industry still comes through this route. Second, is collaboration between studios to advance and improve the quality perception, dependability and long term sustainability of the animation industry in India.
Q. What message do you have for the cgTanta community and every young aspirer that wants to get into the industry, what important things that one must remeber apart from the software that he or she learns ?
Become an animator or a TD because its something you enjoy and love to do – the fact that it becomes a career should be secondary. You will soon discover that there are lots of easier ways to make a living.