Big hopes for Kuttan : An Interview with creator Anand Babu

Big hopes for Kuttan : An Interview with creator Anand Babu
Not too long ago we lamented the dearth of themes in the mainstream Indian Animation content. Et voila! We caught a whiff of a fresh new series cooking at Vaibhav Studios.
AG : Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Anand Babu and what is his relationship with the medium of Animation?
AB: I am an animatics artist and co-director working at Vaibhav Studios in Mumbai. Currently I’m working on season 4 of “Lamput”, a show produced for Cartoon Network Asia. The show was created by Vaibhav Kumaresh, my Boss and mentor.
I’m told I was always drawing since age two, and I remember as I got older I was trying to make drawings move in some way or the other. And by high school, when I discovered this magical thing called Flash MX, I couldn’t stop.
Animation is what got me into stories, and storytelling has been a guiding light in my life.
And all the times it misguided me, is actually worth it now because I can help others when they go through the same.
AG: What has been your experience working at Vaibhav Studios? How would you describe the shift to your current working situation?
AB: Currently because of the lockdowns, I’m working from home in Thiruvananthapuram. Work does go smoothly when operating remotely, but I miss the energy that I get from the studio.
In the studio we had the freedom to gang up and spitball ideas for the episodes we worked on and it always helped us to refuel ourselves. That energy cannot be replicated on an online group chat.
Vaibhav Studios is like a safe playground where one can fool around to explore ideas and play seriously to make the ideas work. And as a side effect, it hones one’s skills and helps one figure out what one actually wants to do. I’d say, that pretty much sums up what my experience has been so far.
The best part is, if there is something you don’t like or agree with, or if there is something you strongly believe in, you can fight for it. If something makes the show better, it benefits everyone. Even the audience. Win-Win.
AG: Let’s talk about Kuttan. We understand that your project is currently in it’s nascent stage, however, we’d love to get a glimpse into the world of Kuttan.
AB: “Kuttan the Medicine Boy” is the name of the project I am currently developing at the studio. It is the story of a sentient pot & basket character named Kuttan, who is brought to life by magic for an evil purpose. But once he comes across a noble Ayurvedic doctor named “Vaidyan”, Kuttan slowly grows from a naïve henchman to a loyal assistant.
The show is currently at its rough scripting/thumbnailing stage. We have completed storyboarding the first episode. The rest of the episodes are in the outline stage. The show will have 10 episodes of 30 mins, we think. It will be a family show, maybe PG rated, since the story involves weapons and some violence.
Currently there is no producer or investor on board and we are self-funding it.
AG: How did the idea of Kuttan come into being? Did the drawing come first or the story? Is Kuttan your first self-initiated project?
AB: I have always been developing my own gags or concepts, as far as I can remember, and have been lucky enough to implement many of them into “Lamput”. So Lamput has been like a personal project for me.
But Lamput has its limitations. We cannot use dialogues, violence or weapons. We had to somehow dance around these limitations and make it work for five years and it started to get frustrating at one point.
And out of that frustration burst out “Kuttan” which was cathartic for me. The idea for Kuttan was already gestating since 2017 when it was an instagram comic called “Tinman”.
I liked the character but I didn’t like the setting too much. And so, I kept tweaking it for years and it finally came together in 2020 when I changed the setting from Medieval Europe to Ancient Kerala, and thus was born “Kuttan the medicine boy”. That was my Eureka moment. It has no resemblance to the instagram comic now but it retains the personality of the protagonist.
So you could say the instagram comic was draft one and that way the drawing came first.
AG: You mentioned that the project was being developed while you continued to work on the studio projects, what was that like? How did you find the time and discipline to continue with this body of work? What were the challenges along the way, if any?
AB: Jumping between projects slows down the work on Kuttan but that is the only way to do it. I work on Kuttan when I get a break, pause it when it's time to help with Lamput or the Advertisements, then take a break and get back to Kuttan!
Switching between Kuttan and office work usually keeps me fresh and excited. The challenge is always to get the best out of both.
AG: How did working with an industry veteran like Vaibhav help in the development of the pitch ?
AB: Vaibhav was very supportive when I pitched the completed boards for episode 1, which was shocking to me, because he is a tough audience! The whole studio’s support gave me the confidence to daydream and build the rest of the show as I pleased!
Since it is like a personal project, I only reveal stories to the studio once it’s clear in my head. And the feedback helps me make changes if any.
AG: Nailing a story and premise is one part, breaking down the narrative into smaller episodic points and building those is another. What was the process of building the world of Kuttan ?
AB: The process was very slow and the concept took its own time to develop. Same way the episodes are also taking their own time to form.
If I speed up the story process or force a theme or a message, it doesn’t work out for me. I've started to notice that (sometimes) the audience can pick up subconsciously if things have been forced into the story, even if they are well hidden with gags and bright colors and fluid animation. So for now, I'm taking my own time to figure out where the story is going.
Kuttan’s world came about slowly as I explored the characters. Like, a surprising direction a character takes, changes the next few stories!
AG: What was the lead-up to the pitch and the eventual win at Annecy? If you can share some anecdotes with us...
AB: For the Annecy competition, we entered the whole of episode 1 as boards, along with a small bible and an animation test of 15 seconds. Once we got selected, Annecy got us in touch with Disney EMEA, where Shamik Majumdar and Orion Ross gave us some good pointers on how to make the pitch video for the final round of the competition.
Our pitch was the least polished visually, but it had an episode 1 that showcased the personality of the show, so that helped a lot.
AG: What is the future of Kuttan, when and how will it be going into production ? How long before we all have to wait with bated-breath to catch a release?
AB: I'm actually not sure what Kuttan’s future is. We won the Disney+ award and that got us some attention. That does not mean Disney is investing in the show; the show is in its early stages for them to back us or anything. So, as of now, Kuttan is self-funded.
If we do get an investor, and if things go well, we will proceed to animating episode one and fleshing out the rest of the scripts. But, if that doesn’t come to pass for some reason, Kuttan will probably get released as a comic book. And in both cases I will be extremely happy. So, I’m praying for Kuttan.
AG: So are we!
AG : Now that you have undergone the first crucial and most rigorous stage of actually committing to an idea and finding an interested party, what advice would you give to other budding creators who are looking to make original content?
AB: We do not have an interested party yet, but hopefully we will.
The biggest help I got for my concept was when I started reading books.
So I would suggest the same. What a book gives you is a very personal P.O.V, what that author got from life, the kind of stuff which would take us years to get! If you don’t like reading, then meeting or talking to different people to get their views helps. This helps you strengthen your own point of view.
I always thought books were boring because they don’t have pictures. But now I can say with assurance that boring books are boring. Just like how boring animation is boring. And the good ones, they can actually change you!
AG: While we have a rich and diverse regional story culture, we often don't find it explored outside of student projects. Our animation films and episodic content is still very formulaic. Was it a conscious decision to move away from these themes?
AB: Having a unique vision is risky for business and we all know that’s why our animation films tend to get formulaic. But if we really want to, we can tell our unique stories in simpler mediums, like comics for example.
Yes, it was a conscious decision to steer away from the usual, mainly because I’ve gotten tired of the sameness. Everything in Kuttan is what I want to see or haven’t seen anyone do in this particular way.
AG: Anything new and interesting brewing at the studio that we will hear the echoes of later...(new works in process, perhaps a sneak peek)
AB: Return of the Jungle! Vaibhav’s maiden feature film will hopefully release in a year's time!
AG: Quick 5 - Favourite animated film by far / Best character / Influences / person who's skills/talent you wish you could inherit/embibe/steal
1) Not a film but a series- Future Boy Conan 1978 by Hayao Miyazaki
Krazy Kat, the newspaper comic strip from 1913 by George Herriman.
because no one has yet caught up with what these two classics have achieved.
2) Little My- from Moomin novels/comicstrips by Tove Jansson. Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge from the comics, not the series.
3) Too many to point out. Most recent is Arthur Ransome.
4) So many people I admire but I’d rather stay the same.
AG: What are your views on the Indian Animation scene? According to you, what are the biggest challenges within the industry ?
AB: That’s too big a question for me to analyze. all I know is It is in its very early stages, and it will take time to make its mark.
AG: Any parting words of advice for us here at AG
AB: I've noticed we tend to say that animation is a visual medium and hence we should show, not tell. It works at times yes, but it limits our storytelling.
Sure it is a visual medium, but we have other senses as well. Our job is to give the audience the best experience with whatever tools we have. We have yet to find a way to convey through visuals the feeling of having a heaviness in your chest so much that it hurts. Or, the feeling of shivering on a snowy road in Narnia and sipping a glass of magic wine that gives you a sourness in your mouth and a burning in your throat which gradually moves down to warm up your chest, groin, thighs and then to the tips of your toes!
Boring words are boring. But words that can trigger a feeling can enhance an image further. And when used in the right combinations, you get alchemy like Krazy Kat, a magical newspaper comicstrip from the 1913s.
AG: Word. Or should we say word(s).
Will this tiny step of Kuttan be the giant leap for original Indian content? We sure hope so!