KL Foray: Interview with Rhythm & Hues Head of International Operations, Prashant Buyyala

By ANAND GURNANI | 3 August, 2009 - 14:55
The R&H team in KL will be an extension of the Rhythm & Hues production infrastructure and will be part of the same network that we have set up between LA, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Rhythm & Hues India MD & Global Head for International Operations, Prashant Buyyala (Extreme Left) with some of the members of the new KL team.

In what is a very significant development for Visual Effects and CGI Animation in the Asia Pacific region, the multiple Academy Award winning VFX & Animation Studio Rhythm & Hues is setting up a new facility in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. R&H which is one of the world's leading studios with facilities in Los Angeles, and India (Mumbai and Hyderabad ) has had a very positive effect on the ecosystem in India where it set up operations nearly 8 years ago. With its Malaysian facility set to kick-start in a few months, the leaders at Rhythm & Hues are all gung ho about their new baby.

AnimationXpress Asia PacificManaging Editor Anand Gurnani met up withR&H India MD & Global Head of International Operations Prashant Buyyala to catch up on the buzz about the Malaysia facility....


                         Email This Story                                        Refer New Readers

First, to catch up, could you summarize how things have been at Rhythm & Hues over the past year?
It been a wonderfully exciting year for Rhythm & Hues! We have had the pleasure and privilege to work on a large number of creatively challenging Hollywood feature films and we have used these opportunities to grow our company in many areas of strength.

Over the past year we have seen significant growth in our Los Angeles and India facilities not only in terms of overall size (we now have over 700 employees in Los Angeles and over 1000 employees worldwide), but also in terms of artistic skill-sets and advances in our proprietary production pipelines that have uniquely positioned R&H to leverage internationally distributed production teams. The fruits of all these efforts are clearly seen in our 2009 feature film releases including Night at the Museum 2, The Land of the Lost, Fast and Furious, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, Aliens in the Attic, The Vampire's Assistant, and The Wolfman. We are very proud with the quality of the work and are looking forward to many more rewarding experiences on our upcoming projects and continued growth.

Looking forward, we see many great opportunities and exciting projects and are looking forward to the start of our latest new facility in Kuala Lumpur to add to our global family.

What is the strategy behind the Asia Pacific expansion and what made you freeze on Kuala Lumpur?
Our move into Kuala Lumpur is part of the ongoing global expansion strategy that we started in 2001 with setting up the India facilities. We believe that the industry is becoming more and more international and as a result of R&H transforming itself into a global company, we are now a stronger company. Not only do we now have access to regional talent that we couldn't hire before, but our diversification also helps us to better weather the macro and regional fluctuations of the global economy.

Our success in India has given us the confidence to expand into other parts of the world where we can have access to new talent pools. So essentially we are opening up satellite studios and going to where the talent is rather than requiring the talent to relocate to us. We picked the Asia Pacific region as our next destination due to the tremendous untapped talent, the amazing infrastructure, and the sheer excitement and support for our industry that we found in the region. We soon narrowed that down further to Malaysia, and specifically Kuala Lumpur for a myriad of reasons.

The leading reasons to pick Kuala Lumpur amongst all the other cities became apparent to us when we decided to focus on the issues from the perspective of our potential employees rather than from the perspective of the corporation. It became clear to us that in the long run, the quality of life of an employee living in Malaysia would be higher than most other countries in the region. We felt that Kuala Lumpur was more family friendly, multi-cultural and that the lower cost of living meant that our employees could provide a better life for their families. While most employees today would probably be recent graduates who are single, we were thinking of where they would be 5 or 10 years down the road after they started their own families. In Kuala Lumpur they would be able to afford a spacious house to call home and can raise their families in conducive environment.

Further reasons that made Malaysia attractive compared to other countries included the prevalence of English in the work environment, the world class physical infrastructure, the great colleges and universities, and the strong support of government organizations like MDeC with their MSC Status Bill of Guarantees. With MDeC we have a great partner with local knowledge whose primary goal is to help facilitate and ensure your success in Malaysia, and this has been invaluable.

We found that almost all the ingredients for success are already there in Malaysia, and that the only negative was the lack of the exposure and experience with high end international productions, which meant that the industry is still in its relative nascent stage. We faced a similar scenario when we started in India, and we hope to leverage that experience to ensure success with our efforts in Malaysia too.

Great Rapport! - Team members of R&H from KL & India

When was the KL decision formalized?
We have been exploring the thought of setting up in KL for a while now but we only officially started moving forward at the end of last year.

So you have been busy with getting things off the ground since then?
Yes. Since the decision, what we have focused on is things like learning how to do business in Malaysia, getting incorporated, taking care of all the various legal requirements, etc. We have also set up a small incubation space, where we have begun recruiting and establishing/testing our technology infrastructure. We have a great team core team established in KL and we have gotten tremendous support from the rest of R&H in LA and India. Currently everyone is quite busy in the process of building a temporary production studio. The temporary facility is around 15,000 square feet will be fully functional in 2-3 months, at which point we will relocate everyone there. The facility will be similar to the studios in Mumbai and Hyderabad in terms of infrastructure and design but it will have a uniquely Malaysian flair.

We have already started recruiting students and recent graduates, and have flown them over to our Hyderabad studio in India to participate in our apprenticeship programs. They are going through 10 weeks of intensive classes and mock production while living and breathing in a real production environment. Our first batch of apprentices are already back from Hyderabad, while the next couple of student batches are currently training in Hyderabad. The passion that we see in the individuals we have hired is very heartening and quite contagious. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the start of the new studio.

What team size will you begin with?
After our first year of operations we want to be around 40 to 50 employees in KL. Eventually, we plan to grow to a full size of around 200 employees. Our focus right now is not about rapid growth in the numbers but its more about having the patience and taking the time to train our select employees in delivering the quality of work necessary to be a seamless part of our overall R&H team. The R&H team in KL will be an extension of the Rhythm & Hues production infrastructure and will be part of the same network that we have set up between LA, Mumbai, Hyderabad. The KL team will work on the same projects, on the same pipelines, using the same technologies, and essentially being part of the same team as all R&H employees globally. It will be no different from what we have been doing in India in that it is not a back office or an outsourcing operation, but a highly integrated and collaborative team effort.

In Mumbai we took 4-5 years to grow the team in terms of all the skill-sets, though KL should not take that long as we now have the experience in setting up such operations and we now also have experts from LA & India who will relocate and seed the team in KL with real production experience. I am particularly excited about this aspect as it will give our artists in LA & India an opportunity to explore and live in new cultures while still working on the same projects that they are passionate about. The fusion of cultures that is already happening between our freshly recruited Malaysian artists and Indians artists is great. Furthermore, the opportunity for our senior employees to be involved in the build up a new facility and a new production team in another country is also a very exciting challenge. You can be a tourist in any country, but to be able to live locally for an extended period and really immerse yourself in a different way of life is a potentially life changing experience, and I am glad that R&H is able to give that opportunity to many employees that want that kind of an experience.

Whats your perspective on the animation education scenario in Malaysia?
From an education perspective we found several universities and colleges in Malaysia that have 3 year diploma and 4 year degree programs specializing in Computer Graphics / Animation, which is very encouraging. This is very different from what we found when we started operations in India where at that time there were primarily vocational multimedia training institutes that taught people how to use software rather than fundamental principles. There is a huge difference in terms of the scale of education and the number of students between India and Malaysia, however the smaller batches in KL seems to have a larger proportion of quality students.

The other interesting thing is that we are finding a lot of international students from Indonesia, Iran, Brunei, Vietnam, China, etc.. coming to the universities in KL to study animation. So this is another endorsement about the quality of education that students are getting in KL, and for us it is a benefit as we are able to recruit from a larger pool of quality artists.

That said, no one coming out of schools in KL is immediately production ready. We still have to train them and invest a lot of time and energy to get them to the level that we need. However, this is the same story pretty much everywhere in Asia, but at least in KL they start with more of foundation, and that is very helpful.

You have already been part of MDeC Industry workshops and training programs?
Yes. MDeC recognizes the nascence of the industry and they are doing a lot of things to support and nurture it. They have started several initiatives like the Industry Academia Interface and 'Train the trainers program', and they have been actively promoting a lot of workshops, conferences, contests, etc. R&H is very much committed to help grow the Industry in Malaysia and we have given our full support to help in any way we can.

We are already doing a lot of outreach to many of the major universities in KL, giving presentations and feedback on their curriculum. These are the sort of things we want to invest time and energy in, with the recognition that there might be very little return in the short run, but we are hopeful of having a positive impact in the long run.

We want the animation, VFX and gaming industry in Malaysia to host a large cluster of successful companies doing good quality work. We would love to see a vibrant ecosystem develop in Malaysia with healthy competition, so we are doing everything we can to share our experiences and spread the word about Malaysia. That said, we are still very new to Malaysia, we also have a lot to learn from the other organizations and companies that have been well established there. The local companies have been very positive and warm to us and we are appreciative and thankful.

We look forward to be sharing more of our experiences once we get our operations started.