About two months ago, I asked Upamanyu Bhattacharyya if I could watch Wade, the animated film he worked on, with his team at Ghost Animation, a studio in Kolkata. He enthusiastically shared a link with me. Wade is a film about climate change, and it envisions a Kolkata ravaged by the sea, battered by human greed; an empty city where climate refugees wander. A few days after I watched the movie, cyclone Amphan made landfall, with disastrous consequences in several districts across West Bengal and Bangladesh. As I followed the news, I kept going back to the imagery in Wade, a relevant and prescient film made by a young and passionate team.
Here is the story of Wade’s making, from Upamanyu.
Wade was born in early 2016. It was in the making for three years.
When we decided to make an animated short film within a couple of years of leaving college, we never knew how tricky it would be, or how much we’d end up learning along the way. It all began in the Animation Film Design department of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. We received fairly rigorous training in the craft of animation, and got a lot of encouragement to “go back to where we are from and tell our own stories.” But they don’t really tell you what that looks like on a day-to-day basis. Making Wade was all about throwing ourselves in the deep end without a very clear picture of how it would pan out.
We met frequently and discussed potential story ideas. We soon decided to work out of Kolkata, and figured it would be interesting to set the as-yet-unformed film in Kolkata as well. In that vein, we considered different ideas set in the city: some concepts were period pieces, some involved contemporary characters exploring the supernatural.
Then, we read an article about an island called Ghoramara in The Sundarbans. [Read a more recent article here.]
Climate change and Kolkata
The Sundarbans is the name given to the mangrove forests and low lying islands across the largest delta in the world. The Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers merge and meet the Bay of Bengal, bringing in colossal amounts of sediment from all over the subcontinent. This leads to a spectacular and surreal network of islands and distributaries. The area is incredibly rich in flora and fauna, but the shifting tides and storms make it a difficult place to live in. The human residents of these islands rely heavily on the mangrove forests for their resources.
Ghoramara island was observably shrinking due to the rise in sea level, leaving hundreds of people permanently displaced. While we had learnt enough in school and afterwards about global warming, this was probably the first time we realised it has links to mass migration.
This tunnelled our vision significantly. The Sundarbans is just to the south of Kolkata. If the swelling sea could obliterate the Sundarbans, surely it would reach Kolkata in a blip. What would a flooded Kolkata look like? Where would the people of the Sundarbans go? They would flee northward, to Kolkata. Would the people of Kolkata welcome them, understand them? When the flooding begins, how many people would stay in Kolkata, and how many could or would leave? The questions dominoed into bigger, scarier questions.
And then there are the Tigers.
The Sundarbans are home to a large population of Royal Bengal Tigers. The human-tiger conflict is pronounced in the region. Humans, as mentioned earlier, need to frequently enter the tiger’s habitat for their livelihoods, and the tigers too are especially aggressive (studies indicate it may be attributed to the salinity of the water).
When the Sundarbans flood, would the tigers be forced to move north too? Right into Kolkata. Right into our homes. Showing this situation might wake us up to what the future holds for us.
We had our log line.
When we wrote early drafts of the script, we had a few constants in mind: People. An abandoned Kolkata. Tigers. Stand-off. A few single-conflict narratives followed. We were dissatisfied. We tried looking at the broader themes of the story. We became obsessed with ideas like balance and action versus inaction in the face of definite doom. When we take something from nature, or when nature takes something from us, how do the mechanisms of compensation play out? We read that when mass extinction events occur, a lot of superspecies emerge—rapid mutations to give the surviving species a better chance at surviving the new circumstances.
We took a closer look at the mythology surrounding the Sundarbans for ideas. We found stories of Dakkhin Rai and Bonobibi, and the strained but reverential position of tigers in local storytelling. We read The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, followed by his book-length essay, The Great Derangement. We can’t recall where, but we read somewhere about a villager recounting with great terror a tiger walking across the water as if it were a sheet of glass, coming straight at him. Somewhere it clicked—a tiger that can walk on water might be an interesting way of visualising that superspecies, to whom the flood wouldn’t be a bother at all. What kind of a character would such a tiger be? An even more brutal force of nature, or a benevolent god?
As time passed, we realised another crucial aspect to life disrupted by climate change: choices. What do you take with you, what do you leave behind? Whom do you save, whom do you sacrifice? The pursuit of self-preservation will be a much more brutal, animalistic affair. What if the animals are more generous than the people in that situation? What if both sides cause grievous imbalances?
On the subject of balance, two objects started playing key roles: Arms, and meat. They became very important to us, as you will see in the film. The food chain as we know it would have been upended by climate change. Tigers eat people, people eat tigers. Ecological chaos.
Storyboards are worth investing that extra time to get right, because this is where the edit and cinematography get locked for good. In draft one, we had incoherent angles, with the camera traveling needlessly. We had a frivolous number of ‘God’s eye views’ (shots where the camera is directly overhead) for no good reason, so those were the first to go in later drafts.
We decided to open the film with a good minute of vistas of the city. We challenged ourselves to make the film without any opening paragraph of text; we wanted to drop the viewer into the city and let them explore the details—the writing on walls, damaged shop fronts, train timetables. We wanted the viewer to wonder about the history of the place.
One cinematic choice we made earlier on was to make the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. And because it doesn’t give you the luxury of a wide vista, it packs your characters close together with no room to breathe, adding to the claustrophobic, helpless feeling of being trapped with a tiger. What’s more, we’re not too used to seeing the ratio anymore, so it causes instant discomfort.
Whenever we wanted to add a sequence, or a situation, we’d hastily add boards for just that scene, sometimes even storyboard it directly on the Photoshop timeline while beginning animation for the scene/shot. We definitely advise against this approach, despite the fact that it seems to have worked out for us.
We didn’t have consistent model sheets, and this meant that every animator had too much leeway in interpreting the characters, especially the tertiary ones. This was bad news later on when we had a more solid idea about the aesthetics of the characters; we had to go over most of the old animation again. When we revisited the characters after our crowdfunding campaign, the main thing that changed was the level of detail. The humans seemed to demand more imperfections, details of anatomy, skin disease and hunger. The tigers too needed to be more real, feeding off legitimate structure and musculature, and have distinctly wet fur.
The Girl on the Raft, our protagonist, is 12 years old. She is blind, and needs to be taken everywhere on a raft made of plastic bottles—something so ruinous to the ecosystem serves as her Ark. This character underwent the most iterations.
Dadar, the tiger, is a force of nature. He is seemingly immune to pain and assault, and has numerous ticks and mannerisms that reveal his state of mind.
The human cast was developed with the idea that each member must have a role to play in the survival of the group. So we have the lead scout (Man in the Mask), the protagonist’s companion (The Sickle Woman), the muscle (The Vest Man), the brain (The Old Lady), the nervous woman (The Bundle Woman), other companions (The Old Man and the Teenaged Girl).
We wanted to be loyal to the colours of the city: the dirty green and brown water we see during the monsoons, the blazing white sky to indicate the heat.
For anyone unfamiliar with Kolkata, Park Street is a road in the north/central part of the city. It has all the good restaurants and bars, fancy shops and iconic cafes. Flurys is more than a cafe on Park Street, it’s a landmark. Its chandeliers and bright pink signage are familiar to all in the city. When we were writing the film and looking for an ideal location to be the stage for the main events in the story, we decided upon Park Street. It would be interesting and even sad to have such grim things happening in an area which most people in the city associate with good times and pleasure.
Animating tigers is very challenging. Quadrupedal characters are a bit of a pain to begin with, so while we were fortunate enough to never have to make any feet or paws (except for the magical tigress), we still had to bring in a lot of weight and get the way tigers move and behave just right. We got down on all fours and acted it out very frequently.
The biggest issue with tigers is that they have stripes. This means that every single stripe on every single tiger has to be animated frame by frame, without shrinking or stretching, without jittering, without disappearing between frames. Tigers also have white patches around their jaw and cheek, and above their eyes. These too had to be animated consistently. A film with black panthers, for instance, would have the benefit of not having these two extra processes in the pipeline.
Wade had 151 shots. It was important to break these into smaller tasks, to give it the illusion of being manageable. Constructing a good production management spreadsheet is an art form in itself, and we had three iterations of the master sheet for Wade.
This is the part we finally see all the work combined to form actual shots. It is a source of immense pleasure to see a piece of animation move over the background art, with all the effects, gradients, and elements stitched in together. It is a tedious process, no doubt, but ultimately satisfying to watch a real life universe being created out of nothing. We tried to achieve a nature documentary-like depth of field, with plenty of focus pulls here and there to subliminally guide the eye.
Sound and Music
With zero sound design experience, we had a very steep learning curve about how to communicate with our sound designer, Troy Vasanth. He broke down the film into themes and movements, and composed little recurring cues and motifs to nudge the audience into latching onto the plot better. The supernatural themes were the toughest to get right, because while suggesting fantasy, the soundscape could never get too fairytale-like.
We hope this was an interesting read for you, and if you’re not into animation, we’re sorry if some parts were too heavy on jargon. We wanted to share how a film goes from idea to execution. Clearly, there are a lot of pitfalls along the way, and nothing is absolute or correct. That’s what makes it fun though! Wade was such a central part of our lives for such a long time; we’re a little sad to be done with it. However, we’ve learnt so much that we’ll definitely be able to move into new film projects with much more understanding and a sense of what to expect.
Track Wade’s journey here!
[This article was first published on Medium. It has been edited for brevity.]
Sundarbans: ‘Not a blade of grass grew…’ by Urvashi Sarkar. Published in the People’s Archive of Rural India on September 10, 2019. Accessed on July 1, 2020.
About the author
Upamanyu is an animation filmmaker. He is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and is a partner at the Ghost Animation Collective, Kolkata. He is the co-director of the animated short film, Wade. He shares some of his art on Instagram.