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Cultural Exchange: A native son brings his Hollywood animation know-how back to Nepal

Disney-trained Kiran Joshi has founded an animation studio in Katmandu in an effort to raise the profession's profile at home and bring Nepali stories to the world.

March 13, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Nepalese animator Kiran Joshi.
Nepalese animator Kiran Joshi. (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Katmandu, Nepal — — In something of a classic immigrant story, the boy from Nepal arrived in America at age 19, attended Cal State Long Beach, studied computer science and got a job in the early 1980s at then-struggling Disney, which was just beginning to use computer graphics.

Over the next two decades, Kiran Joshi rose through the animation ranks, working on "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Atlantis" until he was eventually made Disney's head of production for several digital projects.

He'd succeeded beyond his wildest dreams since his first exposure to the West in the 1970s watching foreign hippies land in Katmandu for hiking and hashish, buying used blue jeans off them and copying their tie-dye shirts. But something nagged at him despite his success: a desire to incorporate some of Nepal's rich story tradition into Hollywood animation features and give something back to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia.

In fall 2007, he finally got his chance when a family death called him home and he realized there was no animation business in Nepal, compared with the 220 or so in India and some 1,200 in China.

He also saw how young Nepali animators struggled in a culture that still viewed the profession as a dalliance relative to "real" careers such as engineering or medicine. Weeks of rain and flash floods coincided with his return, so he named his new studio Incessant Rain.

Since then, Joshi has struggled with extended power cuts, yawning cultural differences and patchy broadband against a backdrop of political upheaval, corruption and dysfunctional government. He's also faced some less obvious challenges, including figuring out how to create the open, freewheeling, creative corporate culture that Hollywood's best studios enjoy.

"You need people who aren't afraid to say, 'The emperor has no clothes,'" he said.

Most of the animation artists he hired initially — weaned on rote education and a business culture that viewed executives as mini-gods — were reluctant to speak up and question authority. "People in Nepal don't communicate, don't like to confront," he said. "At the beginning, I'd say, 'We need to share ideas,' and it would inevitably be me doing all the talking."

With his acquired American perspective, he also noticed a different view of collective responsibility. Despite Nepal's perennial power shortages, for instance, most employees wouldn't think of turning off the lights when leaving a room.

He also spent a lot of time teaching his programmers the importance of deadlines, quality, attention to detail, even as the company struggled with bus strikes, government shutdowns and related infrastructure problems. "We haven't missed a deadline, but we've come this close," he said, holding two fingers a quarter-inch apart. "In May, a Maoist strike closed Katmandu down completely for six days. But you can't tell customers that."

Newerashmi Bajracharya, a 25-year old animator, said joining Incessant Rain three years back took some adjustment. She'd never argued over ideas, questioned her boss or struggled mightily to meet a deadline even if it meant skipping important festivals organized by her native Newar community. "I didn't feel like I had anything to contribute and couldn't really express myself," she said. "But after a while it got easier, and I've learned a lot."

Incessant Rain has persevered and prospered, growing from a handful of animation artists in a small office to a staff of 115 in a three-story building on the outskirts of Katmandu. Some 95% of the firm's television, feature film and special-effects work comes from U.S. customers, many expecting a quick turnaround.

Among the work they've done is a TV spot for Disney India that featured the studio's famous rodent preparing for Diwali, Hinduism's biggest holiday, as he tries unsuccessfully to make ladoo, a South Asian festival dessert. "The idea is to take a well-known character like Mickey Mouse and localize it," Joshi said. "That's the best way to build markets in Asia."

Many clients hire Incessant Rain because it charges less than other studios, but price alone won't keep the business coming back. Film companies these days need to minimize risk, said Charles Cohen, president of Los Angeles-based film development company XLT Inc. "Animation is labor-intensive, so everything's moving overseas," he said. "The key is to work with partners who can hit the quality and are on time. Incessant Rain is the best I've worked with, a lean, mean machine."

Joshi's many years at Disney also mean you're not "losing anything in translation," Cohen added, as for instance when Chinese and Korean animators don't understand the subtleties of making a character move so Americans find it funny or natural-looking.

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