Interview with Rohit Kelkar, Animator – “My Father’s Dragon”

Interview with Rohit Kelkar, Animator – “My Father’s Dragon”

Meet Rohit Kelkar, an Indian 2D Animator working in the animation industry. Known for projects like My Father’s Dragon, Star Wars: Visions, Mum is pouring rain, and many more. 

What made you get into the world of animation?  


I’ve been one of those kids who’ve been drawing since ever and don’t remember a time when it wasn’t a constant. Growing up, I was utterly fascinated by cartoons and animated films. Disney being what it was back in the 90s, it had a huge impact on me. I watched a lot of Disney cartoons that aired at the time, like Disney Hour, Silly Symphonies, Duck Tales, Tale Spin, Chip n Dale, Timon and Pumbaa, etc. I would also scavenge for Disney’s comic books and other merchandise, mesmerized by their rich and expressive drawings, and would emulate them in my sketchbooks.  It was only much later in the 2000s that I saw my first Disney feature film, ‘The Lion King’ on a rented VCD, which completely blew me away. After we got a PC at home, my obsession went into overdrive and I would step through all the beloved Disney films frame by frame, and would draw what I saw.

I would also dig through all the newspapers and magazines to relish all the cartoons by the likes of the incredible R.K Laxman, Ajit Ninan, Manjul; and also the syndicated comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes, Dennis the Menace, Garfiled etc. By then, I was also hooked on to Tinkle, a monthly comic magazine from Amar Chitra Katha, which I ardently subscribed to for a decade. The relatable characters and the Indian touch to it all also shaped my visual taste a lot. I would cook up a lot of my own characters and make small comics out of them.

So, by the time I had finished schooling, it seemed quite obvious for me to pursue animation. I had no idea if we even had a sustainable animation industry in India, but all I knew was as long as I got to do anything around drawing characters for a living, I’d be happy. Luckily for me, my parents have always been very encouraging and supportive of my artistic inclination, so I looked up the design schools in India offering animation training and started applying. Then one thing led to another, and here we are!

Could you please share your journey from being a Character Design Intern to now being an animation director?


I studied Animation Film Design at Symbiosis, Pune. In 2014, after my 3rd year, I went to Studio Eeksaurus in Mumbai for a summer internship. Since there were multiple projects going on at the studio, I had the opportunity to help out on several of those and got to try my hand at pre-vis, 2D animation as well as character design. I primarily worked under the guidance of Vivek Karandikar, who was the Character Designer on a (probably now shelved) project. It was a great learning experience to see the functioning of an Indian animation studio and how things flow in that setup.


I graduated from Symbiosis in 2015, with an unfinished short film. As I had been doing freelance illustration gigs since my second year of college, I decided to keep that going and not look for a full-time job. It was also partly because I didn’t feel like I was at a level I’d like to be with my animation skills, and that giving myself some more time to learn and explore might be worth it.


It was only a couple of months after I graduated that Vajra Pancharia, a great friend who was a Project Manager at IDC, IIT-Bombay at the time, called me up asking if I’d like to join him on a project to develop an online animation resource. I thought it couldn’t get any better, that I’d get the time to explore and push my skills while getting paid and I’d get to live in the beautiful IIT-Bombay campus! So, I spent around a year there in the company of some lovely artists, basking in the creative air around the campus, partly working, partly drawing, and just having a good time.


Incidentally, it was right at that time, in 2016, that the famous French animation school Gobelins announced their new Master’s Programme in English. It was a well-timed opportunity for me, since I was still in the course of learning the craft of animation, and thought this could be the definitive next step in that direction, I put together a portfolio reel and applied. I made it to the waiting list, but couldn’t clear it after all. So, I decided to prepare better and apply again in the following year. So, I wrapped up at IDC and moved back home to Jaipur. For the following months, I did a lot of animation and character design pieces to strengthen my portfolio and applied to Gobelins again, and this time around I got through.


So, in September 2017, I moved to France to study at Gobelins, where I spent two incredibly fruitful years with some very talented peers, and learned a great deal both in terms of the skills/techniques, as well as the production side of animation. I graduated from there in 2019, with a graduation short film ‘Blind Eye’, which had a great festival run and won many awards and nominations, and also made it to the shortlist for the Student BAFTAs and Student Oscars.


As I was at the heart of the European animation scene, there were a lot of great projects going around that I got to be a part of. I worked as an animation assistant on one of the ‘Gorillaz’ music videos; as a 2D animator on the Oscar-nominated animated feature ‘I Lost My Body‘; and again as a 2D animator on the lovely animated short ‘Mum is Pouring Rain‘, among many other great projects.

I had also applied to Cartoon Saloon on the side, as they were recruiting for their next feature film ‘My Father’s Dragon’. After a successful animation test and interview, I got the job and started working for them remotely from France due to Covid travel restrictions. By the end of 2020, I moved to Ireland to join the studio in person.


I spent another 1.5 years there working with some of the best artists that I know of in the field, on two beautiful projects, learning and growing further. In mid-2022, I wrapped up at Cartoon Saloon and moved back to India.


Now, my primary focus is to help grow the animation scene here in India. One of the ongoing collaborations in that direction is with Upamanyu Bhattacharyya on his debut animated feature film ‘Heirloom’, for which I’m serving as the Animation Director. I intend to collaborate with many more Indian artists going forward, and I’m also actively increasing my involvement in teaching and other academic prospects. 


Your experience working with Cartoon Saloon? And how do international studios like Cartoon Saloon differ from our Indian animation studios in terms of the process?



It was great! To get to learn from the people behind some of the most influential works of animation, to know the production pipeline up close and experience the confluence of the artistry and management that goes into making animated films was quite enlightening. The environment was very committed, but the interactions were always fun and light hearted. The supervisors and directors were warm, approachable and very giving of their time. They’d recognise people’s talent and would make it a point to encourage and trust them with more challenging stuff.


The studio would also arrange any extra classes or sessions that the artists requested for, like life drawing, posture and ergonomics for artists, etc along with full fledged parties to celebrate awards nominations and wins.


I think the major difference between international studios and those in India has to do more with the art/animation eco-system as a whole than just the way the studios function. From my experience, Europe has a solid infrastructure and resources in place for art and art education, which eventually feeds into the industry. Yes, having a more artistically conducive and non-corporate driven workplace helps a lot, but we definitely need to level up the quality of training and instruction provided in the design institutes as well.

As a 2D animator how much freedom of input do you have for the creative aspects of animation and the story of the film?


When a shot is briefed to an animator, they already have the storyboard and the overall intention of the shot as a guiding framework to base their performance off of. Here on, it’s mostly up to the animator to suggest the acting choices and timing that they think would get the intended story/emotions across to the audience. Then the rough pass goes to the director for feedback/approval. Once approved, the animator ties it down, making the drawings clearer, and adds all the secondary motion and other bells and whistles to really make it shine.


From the story point, the animators don’t have much say generally as the animatic has already been locked and all the story beats already thought out.



Your favorite dream studio as a student and if that dream is materializing slowly with your step at Cartoon Saloon?  



There were many, actually. But definitely, when I got exposed to Eastern and European animation, I really wondered how it would be to work on productions like those and what it would take. Luckily, a lot of it has already materialized in my experience. But as I’ve progressed on my animation journey, I’ve realized there’s so much more out there and even more that could still be done. Thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, one can really put oneself out there and grasp all these opportunities and create new ones.

Define the style of your work at Cartoon Saloon and if this style is indigenous, is it connecting local audiences to their culture? And how we in India can do the same.


Yeah, most of the major projects at Cartoon Saloon have been inspired by Irish folklore and the Celtic aesthetic. It does come from the founding directors’ vision to translate their culture into sensitive pieces of art. Although, they do a lot of work that is dramatically different from what the studio has come to be known for. The art style definitely follows the story they’re trying to tell and a particular look isn’t forced onto everything.

In India, since the animation industry is predominantly driven by commercials and outsourced work, there isn’t much legroom for creative expression, I feel. But a lot of great work has been happening in small pockets here and there. And I’m sure with more independent voices coming into the scene, equipped with the necessary skills and resources to back their vision, we’ll definitely have more vibrant and culturally rich work out there. I think we’re already headed that way.


Does a 2D artist in this day and age have to learn 3D and how it helps them make an impact in the work they do?


I would say that all the mediums of animation are quite complete unto themselves. Definitely, there’s been an upsurge in the number of hybrid productions now, with a lot of experimentation happening with the art styles and blending mediums. So, having additional know-how of 3D/2D/stop-motion etc. surely helps as it broadens the way one approaches animation, and could also make one more versatile and/or innovative, but definitely not necessary.

If you can get highly skilled in one animation medium, it becomes easier for you to pick up the others, since the core principles remain the same.

Your experience working with the director Nora Twomey and her vision for creating “My Father’s Dragon”?


It was quite incredible to witness Nora helm the project. The way she manages to hold on to the emotional core of the story throughout the whole process and makes sure it comes through as the film passes through the hands of multiple artists is stunning. Pulling from her theatre background, she would record live-action references for the animators all by herself, acting out all the shots, just to communicate her intentions for each sequence to the animators as clearly as possible. But at the same time, she would give plenty of room for the animators to improvise and improve the scenes with their own ideas.

She’s also very generous with her praises and very supportive and encouraging of new talent.
Although I only got the chance to meet her in person briefly towards the end of the production after the covid restrictions eased a bit, her friendly demeanor and childlike enthusiasm are quite evident and contagious! It was quite a privilege to work with her, really!

Could you please share the animation process that went into the making of “My father’s dragon” in both creative and technical aspects?


There are a lot many teams that help craft a particular shot on a production, which both precede and follow-up after the departments that I’m going to mention. But, for animation purely, we have a Rough Animation team (that I was a part of) – which is responsible for all the character animation and animated performance in the film; the Clean-Up team – which cleans up all the animation provided by the Rough Anim. Team with final precise lines that show up in the final film, adding any missing in-betweens and such; the FX team – which adds all the elemental magic to the shots like fire, water, dust, etc; the Digital Ink and Paint team, which adds colours to the shots; and finally we have the Tonals team – which adds the shadow/highlight passes to the characters. We also had a rigged animation department on this production, which did a lot of secondary animation like crowds etc in a software called MOHO.

In the Rough Animation Department, we had around 20 animators, which were further divided in two teams of roughly 10 each, having one lead animator and an Animation Supervisor for each team.

Early on in the production, we did a lot of animation tests with the characters, trying to figure out how far we could push the designs and the performance, all the graphic choices to take while drawing the characters and so on.

Once we went into production, the process for rough animation was pretty straight forward. When a sequence went into production, the Anim. Supervisor would brief the team about it shot-by-shot, going over the story beats, acting intentions etc and assign the shots to each animator. Then the animator would start tackling the shots on their task list. When starting on a shot, we’d do a rough pass first, usually not taking more than 4 hours for the complex ones, and an hour or two for smaller / medium length shots, generally by blocking it out mostly on 4s. Then, we’d submit these rough passes for animation review, where the director and supervisors would look at it and leave their notes. Once the shot came back, we’d address the notes, if any, and start tying down the shot. It’s in this stage that we’d polish the shot, put the characters on model, refine the arcs, spacing, lip sync, add the in-betweens and timing charts for the follow-up departments. We’d submit it for review again, and once approved, it’d go to the clean-up department.

Your advice for the students who believe software knowledge is more important than creative and visualization skills.


It’s like putting the cart before the horse! Any tool, be it traditional or digital, is only a means to an end. And the tools keep changing and evolving, so if you prioritize your functional knowledge of software over being creative, you’re bound to be replaceable.
Yes, having technical knowledge is imperative to function in any creative field today, but your innate creativity is the driving force and the only infallible source to draw from.


How to bring out one’s personality through their art, and if this is something art schools should aim towards?


I think if you consistently keep doing a certain thing, you’re bound to develop your own unique responses and ways of going about it. And since art doesn’t happen in isolation, it’s always tinted by your likes / dislikes, observation and taste in things.

Referring too much to the artists you like, to a point where you mindlessly start copying their ‘style’, can make your work very dull. Instead, try to find out who are the inspirations of the artists you look up to, and try to find a parallel between their work and their inspirations. This would bring you closer to the core of what their work is trying to get across.

You can also ask yourself what is it that you like/dislike about a particular artist’s work, and what is it that you would choose to do differently. In this way, you can consciously channel your personality into your work.

Also, drawing from life is the best learning/unlearning you could ask for. So, always a great idea to maintain a sketchbook!

Since this is such a personal thing, I think the best thing art schools can do is to be a little more conscious while enrolling the students. The more diverse a bunch it is, the more they’ll learn from each other and grow together.


Was 2D animation your first preference or you found out that this is what you wanted to do as you went through your course?


Yeah, since drawing was my first love, I was always inclined towards hand-drawn animation, and always found it quite magical how a bunch of obviously drawn lines turn into something so real and move people emotionally.


What is your opinion on the protest going on against the A.I art generators. Should an artist be afraid of A.I taking over in art?


My concern with A.I. art/artists is primarily the ethics of it all, since A.I. basically leeches off of the backs of artists and their lifetime of work without any consent or compensation. Strong policies certainly need to be brought on that front. So, I fully support the backlash A.I. art is getting for it.


Now, A.I. as a tool is surely going to change image-making and a lot of the commercial applications of art, and it’s already starting to show. And it’s quite unfortunate that a lot of artists are losing out on opportunities because of that.

But I feel that eventually A.I. generated content will saturate the market so much, that maybe human made art would become a highly sought-after niche, who knows!

I think all automation, not just in art, is eventually going to make humans a lot freer to be more expressive and creative. The tools may change, but I don’t think they’d replace humans altogether.


We need to keep the dialog going on this and be very mindful of how we steer this new technology.


Your advice for the students in animation and VFX?


Study life! As I mentioned earlier, all the software and technical knowledge is only a tool to deliver a performance/experience, which can only come from the heart. So, being a student of life, observing how things happen around you will always keep you inspired.


Your advice on artists willing to do masters in animation and share your journey into a prestigious institute like Gobelins and the life after?


In a creative field, it’s quite natural to keep on learning and growing as the possibilities are endless. So, masters or not, learning should never stop. Now, one major thing that an educational institution can provide is a committed atmosphere and like-minded peers to work and learn along with, which can really accelerate your growth. But it really boils down to how much you make of it.

I would suggest to keep pushing your limits in the undergraduate years, learning and honing your skills to the best of your capabilities, dabbling into all the aspects related to animation filmmaking. Then, take a year or two of professional experience, designing, animating, illustrating, etc, trying to zero down on what aspect of the creative process you love doing the most.

Once you have enough clarity about the kind of work you wish to create, you can really focus on doubling down on it in your 2 years of masters, because it’s a really short and valuable time.

For those who’ve graduated in a completely different field and wish to switch to animation for their masters, again I’d advise you to take some time off in-between and push your skills as much as you can before you start with your masters, so you can make the most of your time there.

About the author

  • Mohammad Khalikh

    Based in India. Khalikh is a Previs and Cinematic Designer with over 6 years of experience in the Indian Film Industry. His passion for films and animation led him to the city of dreams, Mumbai, and he found the world of filmmaking. He loves to share knowledge and he believes what J.M. Cornwell has rightly said "“Knowledge is wasted when it isn't shared.”

Post a Comment