September 18, 2015

Dialogue: RocketScienceLab

by Pratika Yashaswi

We caught up with Rajesh and Vidya Thomas of RocketscienceLab at Melt, right after they delivered a talk about what they do. What do they do? “That’s a tough question to answer…” they say amid nervous laughter. With a wide, genial smile that seldom disappears from his face, Rajesh continues, “The best thing to do is make a big montage of all our work and show people ‘We do this.’ I don’t think I can explain what we do. We are a lab. Experimental.”

RocketscienceLab uses a blend of live action, stop frame, animation and graphic techniques to make beautiful films. They are kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, vibrant, showcasing outstanding vision through their reinterpretation of everyday objects. Their short films make the viewer go “How the hell did they do that?” not because it is so difficult to guess about the process, but because the tedium of the task is so evident: the care, labour and attention to detail is painstaking and impressive.

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Stills from the ‘What if?’ films for Kyoorius Designyatra 2014

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Before they began RocketscienceLab in 2010, both Rajesh and Vidya worked in advertising as art directors. Vidya has worked at Lowe and Grey, and Rajesh at Ogilvy, McCann and Happy. Eventually, they got tired of it. “We wanted to do something more…magical,” says Rajesh. “Also,” Vidya cuts in, “As you go higher in advertising, it becomes less of an execution style of work. But for us, that was taking us back: we both loved the execution part of being art directors.” Working at agencies gave them the experience and exposure they needed to decide that filmmaking was the path they wanted to go on, and also to understand their future clients better. When I ask them how they met, from their shy giggles I gather that it is a “long story,” and that, “Advertising is a small world.”

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The makers of the What If videos for KDY 2014 and more recently, the promotional videos for Melt, have been noticed by the likes of Fastcodesign, London International Animation Festival and The Creators Project, just to name a few. Nervous laughter punctuates this conversation with the two Bangalore-based ex-advertising professionals. They come across as a reserved but confident pair, entirely unpretentious and willing to share. I am encaptured by their humility and endless patience: a quality that gets them through the laborious and time-consuming process of stop motion animation — a skill they are champions of — and my extensive questioning.

I start off by tactfully asking about their musical tastes and preferences in art. “I notice that a lot of the videos you make have a lot of psychedelic inf…” — I barely complete my question and Rajesh gleefully interjects, “What have you guys been smoking, right?” [Amid peals of laughter, Vidya answers, “Berserk! Anything berserk, anything extraordinary.”]

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“She’s very good with colours.” Rajesh says affectionately. “You should ask her what she’s been smoking. It was she who initially thought of putting up this lab. So this one day she went to the market, bought a lot of paint and a small fish tank and she started pouring. It was looking beautiful and we didn’t have a camera at the time to shoot that.” Basically, she was trying to replicate in reality, things we can only imagine. “But when you look at paint, mixing up things: you know you’re not sitting and painting. You’re watching what happens.”

“So we started collecting materials, we’d go to the market and hunt in different places to find anything that looked interesting. Materials you could make magic with. Just by moving them, you could give them a life of their own.”

This particular style wasn’t something they arrived upon deliberately. “One of our first videos, our launch video, was again completely experimental, not for a client as such. There was just all this nice, random, colourful stuff lying around our place and we just put it together and started animating. And at that point in time, actually, we were not even clear that this was the kind of route we were going to take and it just started building on from there. And after we had done that, I think in about two months or something, we started getting projects from brands. And it kind of started to move on.”

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The BMW one take stop motion video

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Their first client was a friend they knew from the agencies they had worked at before.

“As beginners we had issues when we started because where there is a brand there is money, when it comes to filmmaking. In music videos, there is not much money. They just give you freedom to do what you want. Initially we started doing a lot of stuff which the client wouldn’t buy. Like if you see the kind of work we did for Kyoorius: if we go to a brand and ask them to do that, I’m not sure they’d want to do it because they have a certain brand look-and-feel or they have strategies and target audience and shitloads of things.”

Five years of hard work have brought the couple to a stage where they have the enviable position of being able to follow their passion and purpose without making creative compromises. “We do not take projects that don’t excite us. That’s one funda that we have maintained as a company. We are very picky and choosy about what we are going to do. Also you know, over time, once we have done work with one client, that client becomes really comfortable with what we’re doing and then it has been a great relationship with most of the clients after that. So it’s about getting on, opening up to something experimental.”

It wasn’t always this easy; it took them a while to get here. Eluding definition and also being a rarity in India isn’t easy. The duo continuously need to cope with the unique challenges presented to them by those who don’t fully understand.

“Recently we did a fashion commercial in stop motion. Every take had a script, an idea. We came across another client who wanted to do something similar, also a fashion commercial. For this one there’s no brief, nothing; he just says ‘Someone is turning, clothes keep changing, and we want to showcase her clothes.’ Some clients think that since it’s stop motion, it’s frame-by-frame, anything can be done, and you don’t need a big camera or big setup: but stop motion is more tedious, more labour work; you need more equipment and it’s more expensive than regular filmmaking.”

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Work for MELT:2015

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So how do they cope? “It’s actually about educating them [clients] beforehand about what we’re going to do,” says Vidya. “Whenever a client approaches us, what we do is we keep the treatment crystal clear, so they already have a very good clue of what’s going to come out of it as much as possible. Obviously, there’s about 20% of it which is unexpected and totally new: because it’s experimental at the end of the day. But in the treatment stage, we tell them very clearly how we’re going to shoot, what are the objects we’re going to shoot and what might come out of it. So by then they start getting a feel of it. Most of the clients that come to us already know that it is going to be experimental, so mentally, they’re kind of prepared to take that risk.”

“We tell them very clearly about the equipment that we require and obviously because we’re shooting frame-by-frame, we would take 4 or 5 days to finish a 30-second, [because] the time frame of a regular shoot takes one day. So all these points are put forth to the client much before we start any work and that’s how, they get a clue of how this whole process runs.”

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“Regular films can be done in a week’s time.” says Rajesh drily. “This couple is just talking and you have a film done. You need just one set and two people. Take a camera, just go there and shoot and then edit it. All you need are good-looking actors, put them in a set and ask them to say something to each other and just shoot them. It can be done by anybody. But the kind of work we do, you need a lot of pre-planning and a lot of sourcing, you need a lot of thinking…usually we take close to one month or two months to finish any project. So if any client comes to us and says, ‘We have a deadline which is 10 days’, we say no. We took three months to finish the BMW project: two months to pre-plan and one month to shoot and do post [production].”

Perhaps what adds to the challenge is that RocketscienceLab has such a small team. “As a company, we are very small, but then we work with a lot of freelancers. In our team, we have Vidya and I, two more post-production people, a marketing/business development person, and then we have a bunch of freelancers. In the BMW commercial we did recently, there were 60-plus people on the set and we didn’t know who was who. We work with a lot of different people for each project. We don’t have a set team sitting there to ‘do this layout or do that animation’.” says Rajesh.

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“We like to experiment with a whole lot of artists. With this digital revolution, and also 3D printing, there are a lot of new artists going to come in. Someone is good at hand-painting, someone is good at sets, someone is good at props, so every time we encounter a new artist, we try and work with them. That’s the way we are able to get a very fine finish to the films that we do,” adds Vidya.

Shopping for materials and the editing are the tasks Rajesh and Vidya let nobody else do. “We don’t let other people do our shopping, we ourselves go to a market and pick up things because when we go there ourselves, we get lots of ideas.” says Rajesh. Vidya adds, “The kind of materials that work best and don’t get repetitive is something we have to take care of. That, obviously, a set designer or a prop collector will never be able to do for us; because we alone know how we’re going to animate each object.”

The couple also work on post-production up to the first cut. It’s a completely joint effort: from picking up props to animation. “Of course we have guys who do the animation; we sit with them. Both of us sit at the editing table,” says Vidya. In spite of the massive effort involved, they prefer to do their own post-production in their home setup.

“We share editing.” says Rajesh. “First half maybe I’ll do the editing and then I’ll go listen to some music; she comes back and looks at it, says, ‘Hmm no this isn’t working’, and then she will sit and edit. And we both have fights, a LOT of fights. Every project we go through a huge fight,” he grins. Again, cue nervous laughter. “Because we love to do this. Like with Melt, we took one month for post-production and we were not happy. We sent a teaser to Kay [Creative Director at Kyoorius] and after two days we send him a text message saying, ‘I don’t think it’s working. We are re-working on it.’ So we did a lot of teasers, a lot of back and forth on it. I do some edit and she won’t be happy with it; she does some edit and I won’t be happy with it.” “We take each other’s trip.” Vidya pipes in, tongue in cheek, “Finally we come to some conclusion and then we hire the post-production guy to come and do all the colour correction and fine-finishing and that’s how we work.”

So, what hopes for the future? “Coping?” Rajesh trails sheepishly. On a serious note, Vidya says, “Anything that’s experimental, that’s actually something new to do. We do not want to do something that’s already been done. That’s the aim actually. Trying out new stuff, even scripts that are new: how do we execute each of these in a new fashion, bringing a new complete plate to the field. Stop motion is just one technique and it is age-old. Camera techniques today allow you to take an entire film with one take: like what we did for BMW. Every single day you have a lot of new technology coming up. And each of these techniques can be used independently and individualistically according to your own needs.”

“There’s no point doing stuff which doesn’t excite you. It’s not justice, it’s not fair. Simple as that.” says Vidya. The lack of widespread understanding of experimental filmmaking in the industry does not seem to faze her much. Says Rajesh, “We are still in a field where people are still wondering what we do. They wouldn’t want to call us ‘directors’ or ‘filmmakers’… what exactly do they call us? And we like that; because once they stamp you with ‘You are this’, then you’re done.”

A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 26

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