Interview - Gotham Chopra

Interview: Gotham Chopra, Virgin Comics Chief Creative Officer
(Credit: Animation Xpress)

Illustrators, Storywriters, Artists, Animators these are good times for the entire visual arts community in India. Every single day one witnesses acitivity and investments in this space.

Even a decade ago who would have thought that someday there could exist a company such as Virgin Comics in India?

A company that has celebrity achievers like Sir Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Shekhar Kapur, and accomplished business leaders such as Sharad Devarajan & Suresh Seetharaman. Creative Direction from the likes of BulletProof Monk writer Gotham Chopra... all these names and people investing time, money, effort and conviction in comics! INDIAN COMICS!

Animation Editor Anand Gurnani recently met up with Virgin Comics Chief Creative Officer Gotham Chopra at the Bangalore studio.

"We've always had it in us" shared Gotham Chopra about Indian visual arts talent. "It's about having the conviction".

Virgin Comics is increasingly being perceived as a company which is a platform for creative people like illustrators and writers etc. Tell us about yourself and your approach to creativity?

I have been creatively inclined my whole life, I wrote my first book Child of the Dawn, which was published by Aber-Allen Press, while in College. The book is now published in 13 different languages around the world. That was my first experience as a writer where I went through the entire process.

After college I worked as a documentary film-maker for five years. I traveled quite a bit and made documentaries on war and conflict in regions such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and wherever there were problems of these kind. That, for me was a really interesting time because I was traveling quite a bit and also doing a lot of film-making, creative documentary film-making. Also I had a lot of time to write and to keep journals. That's when I wrote my second book and also got involved in comic books. I started writing a book at that time 'Bullet Proof Monk' which later got developed into a film of which I was one of the producers with John Woo who ended up producing it and directing it.

Watching the whole process of a comic book maturing into a film was an amazing experience.

After Bullet Proof Monk I started working with Sharad. Ironically, the company that Sharad and Suresh started almost 2 and half years ago has my name.

Creating comic books and then transforming them into movies seems to be the core business model at Virgin. Could you please elaborate and explain?

Our core mission is not just comics to movies but comics as a platform to multi-media. Today you can turn a comic into a game, film, animation, online, merchandising, there are so many different ways of evolving a good property and that's more on the business side.

On the creative side we don't create comic books thinking that we are creating a story board, I think that's the natural evolution. That's why film-makers like comic books so much. We go ahead think about a good story using graphics fiction. With storyboards, one has to think about budgets, draft structures and stuff like that. But with comic books our mission is to create a good story. With comics you can also have multiple levels, comic is a movie with an unlimited budget, you can create a city and destroy it the very next panel.

The evolution of a film, if you look at it in comparison to a comic concentrates on one issue and you develop the story that way. Whereas a comic book is purely for a creator, it's a platform to be creative. When I work with it as a film-maker, work with Shekhar Kapoor that's what he really loves, it's like an engine to put your creativity through.

Talking about comic books like Bullet Proof Monk, being an artist I visualize and help these guys or they help me with the storyboarding and ideas, and how one sees the story unfolding on the page. I'm not a fine artist by any means and these guys (the creative) are teaching me a lot in that sense.

How do projects evolve at Virgin Comics?

We have a great creative core team here. Our process here is that different people like me, Shekhar and any other artists working here come up with their ideas and then there are a lot of brain storming sessions. We share our stories with each other and they gradually evolve. We've got a constantly growing pool of story ideas at Virgin and we have people who come up with concepts and we have writers who then write scripts and storyboards based on these concepts. We take five sentences and turn them into five pages as a treatment. Then you got your process from there and break the treatment down and you've got a storyboard. We discuss how a story would flow over five issues and once we have the storyboard and the process, the artist goes about refining it with sketches and different kind of things, stating what the characters will look like and the universal setting of the story will look like. Much of it is working out the creativity in your own head.

As a comic book creator, what's the aspiration for Virgin?

Our aspiration is to use the comic book medium as a platform to develop IP. We are developing Sadhu as a feature film in the west. Involving big Hollywood actors and producing a big feature film. We'll be shooting some of it in India. The story is about an English soldier who becomes a Sadhu eventually. That's one example of how we take a comic book and develop it into a larger film or property. We've taken Sadhu, Ramayana, Devi and we are creating mobile games here in the Indian market. So in the next few weeks Devi will be available on mobile phones as a game.

We are creatively working with Paradox studios. They got on board as partners with us even before the books were out in the market. They are aligned with us in seeing the future of Indian entertainment and Indian content.

Each property is different some may be developed into creative games, online and different things. Right now we want to work with partners who have their core competencies. Our concentration is on publishing right now and we tend to pick up partners from other multi media disciplines. That is the strategy.

Which Indian professionals other than Shekhar are you currently working with?

We have almost 50 artists and creative people here, they are all Indian. But these guys here are artists, creators, writers, so that's the core. We're also working with some writers like Sumit Basu who is a young novelist here in India. He's writing a book for us. We are also working with Anurag Kashyap. They are all working on comic books.

Just like Japan has its own domestic market for Anime. Do you see something like that happening in India? One side is exporting Indian myth and character to a hungry audience you've identified abroad and when it comes to the local market, how do you see it?

See when you compare with Japan, they have a culture of graphic novels. 40% of their publishing is comic books and graphic novels. India has a culture of story telling but graphics and illustrative story telling exists but more so as an art form with various sub cultures. India's got a long way to go in those terms. What India's got is an explosion of technology going on so when we create comics, we create a package where u can play mobile games as well simultaneously while releasing the comic.

So while we look towards building comics, properties, we're building brands, characters and trying to get close to the Indian market by providing variety.

You have been observing the Indian space for sometime now in terms of animation. What are your comments on the developer's side? What's your take on it?

I think what a lot these studios are doing or have done is incredible. And we know their founders and executives who are pioneers and visionaries. I think the next genesis of evolution for Indian animation is how do we go from the service providers to the creatives or how do we go from the technical to the artists. That's a challenge and something that we are pushing here. We recognize that others are doing it as well. There is no formula to this.

What you find in the big animation companies is that they've got themselves into business that is going to be challenging for them and difficult to get out of. They've built such enormous teams. They need the partners in the west to give capital and resources to keep them going.

We have identified a different strategy that we are not going to scale up so massively that we have to rely on anyone to keep us breathing. We are about building properties and bring them to such a point and building things around them and building teams around them. When you are employing such large teams you are pumping in a lot of cash and it's a constant commitment and however much you get paid to do a Tinkerbell or Shrek or whatever it is somewhere down the line, studios will need to make their own content. Outsourcing is a margin business and those margins are getting thinner. I also think it's a business that will never stay in one region for long. It's only a matter of some other region offering a better price performance ratio. So I guess in our own way, all the Indian studios are thinking as to how we get to the next stage. How do we create the next Tinkerbell? For us that's always been the ambition and for a lot of others it's an emerging mission.

Virgin is a content creation company. Our founders all of them Richard, Deepak, Suresh and Shekhar they've been very successful in the fields they've worked in. they've made money, they're comfortable. For them this was just not about building a lucrative company but starting a revolution. Really triggering a creative renaissance in India. Shekhar and my father specifically because they are Indians and Indian content creators who have been able to take Indian content and really showcase it to the world in a very dynamic and a very successful way. For them it was about raising another generation to do that. Shekhar always says that it's not going to be him who creates the next Lord of the Rings or the next Harry Potter, its going to be some Indian kid somewhere in this country who perhaps comes and works with us because they idealize shekhar. Creativity is what's going to do that and that's coming out of the fresh generation of creative people in India.

So now to the next level what's the road map?

My roadmap is getting our properties going, later this year you are going to be seeing a lot of activity on that front. Besides these four titles, the others to come out include John Woo's Seven Brothers, Deepak Chopra's Buddha, Dave Stewart's Walk In as well as some indigenous properties we are building like Virluents, Panchatantra: End of Story and more.

When you have a comic, there are some properties that would do well in comics but may not lend themselves so well to movies in spite of being popular comics and vice versa. What is the selection process of choosing one title from ten comics to develop into a movie?

There is definitely a vibrant publishing strategy. The concept of producing comic books in India is pretty good right now and publishing the comics in Europe, Us and Asia is what we do and plan to do. That itself has pretty strong economics attached to it. Films are the lottery. There are so many different factors, one of the factors is obviously the cost of producing whether it's in India or the US, and it's still very expensive. That's why you have to work with big stars because of the nature of the business.

I think there are other businesses as well like mobile gaming in the Indian market which is a booming business. I think online gaming is the other market. So we look at different ways of evolving properties.

Looking at the selection process one of the major things is the strong publishing……… that for us is a really important thing and to execute it well. It's all different ways of evolving creativity. Like Pokemon which doesn't even have a story associated to it but has become an iconic figure and got revenues out of it. It's the same creative act. It's how you go to market it and we have some great people here as well as in the west who are experts in that field.

We are doing Ramayana and we wanted to be an iconic thing and we've just finished it and its coming out soon, we're getting there on certain pages you can see that, unique. We want people to look at that book and say that it's different.

My impression of the Indian market is that there is no dearth of creativity but what needs to increase is the conviction in that creativity. At a session at JJ with shekhar and me, a girl got up and said that I'm not really a great artist, colourist, writer nor an animator but I think I'm a good story teller is there any role for me. Shekhar said that I don't write the script, don't act in the script, don't shoot the camera, I don't pay for the shoot, I am the director and people have ideas and I just tell them what to do, lean on their creativity.

At the end of it, Shekhar's pretty good at it and has made a living out of it.

We consider ourselves as part of the creative community in India that is sparking something unique and we are glad to be a part of it. There is a lot of potential and the biggest challenge is how we get there. There is no set formula. How do u a train a guy or girl to think creatively? Look at the Japanese market and the Japanese Manga which is the signature style of Japan. How do we do that in India? How do we form a distinctive visual storytelling style? It's not going to happen tomorrow. That's what we are pushing for. We don't have a training system in place that teaches us. You can't really tell a guy that go and watch this movie. Give them structure or instructions and a chance to articulate. That is the challenge which builds into frustration sometimes. That's the nature of creativity.


Virgin Comics