Personal journey: Getting into animation

The story of my struggles to get into ANIMATION

Or, The Adventures of Sunil Thankamushy

The Dreamer

Sitting still in an especially dry chemistry class one hot afternoon in Kochi, I decided that what I really need to do is have a career making movies in Hollywood.

I remember that moment clearly. The teacher was droning on and on about organic molecules, and I was getting more and more entrenched in my conviction that my best work would be done in Hollywood.

Why Hollywood? To me it represented the ultimate achievement as far as a creative career was concerned. And what exactly would I do in Hollywood? We-ll, something along the lines of creating creatures and special effects. Like what I had seen recently in The Empire Strikes Back.

These fantasies lasted roughly 8 months. At which point there was another epiphany.

The Naturalist

I was in my eight grade now. I felt a strong calling to becoming a naturalist. This was definitely it, I felt. I had been soaking up books on birds, natural history, earth sciences – anything I could get my hands on in my modest school library, or my favorite, ‘lending library’ in town. Books published by Usborne written for the young reader on these subjects, were a particular favorite. National geographic was another source of inspiration. These were precious in India. It still is.

For a couple of years, my brother and I would pack a rucksack and walk into the wilds during our Christmas break, Onam holidays, and of course the extravagant summer holidays. We would carry lunch, water in a canteen, a flashlight, matches, fish hooks, mirrors, a jangle of old keys, a notebook, and a ball point pen.

Fortunately, there was no one around to inform me that the ‘wilds’, were not exactly natural forests. They were in fact, plantations of my grandfathers and relatives. They included rubber, coconut, plantain, arecanut, paddy, mango and other groves and extended several acres stretching as far as our young eyes could see – and sometimes into the mountains at the far ends of the paddy fields. It was wild enough for me. Several species of birds, mongoose, and cranes inhabited, or visited my grandfather’s lands. Waking up early in the morning and hiking a quarter mile from my uncle’s house to the edge of the paddy fields my brother and I would take in the beauty of the dawn along with the thousands of animals that too were waking up with a dawn chorus. Once the sun was fully up and was beating down on my face, the beauty was gone and we would slowly return home for a lovely country breakfast made by my aunties or grandmother.

In these wild jaunts, I carried my trusty rifle. Every naturalist had to have one. I was clearly mixing up naturalist with an explorer or a treasure hunter. These were the years of the first Indiana Jones movies. In hind-sight, the ‘rifle’ was no more than a spring-loaded projectile shooter fashioned in my father’s company workshop (such places are called, 'Makerspaces' nowadays) with custom made springs, PVC tubings, 2x3 lumber, and a great design worked out iteratively with my father, over several vacations. The bullets would be just about anything that was short, had some mass, was cylindrical and fit into the barrel. I remember with a chill that I used to sometimes shoot out discarded AA batteries.

Nobody got hurt. I was too squeamish to shoot at any living thing that moved. The mango trees took several hits, though. Walking about the wilds, biting into freshly shot down mango, my brother and I would carefully collect bird feathers, sea shells, odd-shaped drift wood, butterflies, beetles, interesting leaves, and oddly shaped stones. These would be carefully packaged, and then brought home to our home in the city to be displayed, mounted, catalogued, or pinned in my personal museum/laboratory underneath the staircase.

 The Cartoonist

When I started college, though my subjects of study were physics and electronics, my real interests were in making comics. I had been drawing comic books since my 6th grade and sharing with my friends. There were over a dozen characters I had developed over the years, with storylines ranging between detective mysteries, spy adventures, and vampire themed ones. So, by the time I got into college my newly developed interests in politics hardened my ambition to combine all this together into wanting to become a cartoonist in a national newspaper. I used every avenue I got to express myself. When the world cup of 1990 was raging, I was busy making pages and pages of cartoons based on events on the field. Seeing my friends enjoy my work was the validation I needed to pursue this into a full-time career. Interestingly my math tuition teacher took a keen interest in my interests and instead of lecturing me on deferential equations and integrals, would urge me on to pursue my special interests. He was sure that I would be able to make a great living if I followed my talents. He was a product of the positive thinking generation, and supplied me with books on Norman Vincent Peale, Hypnotism and most importantly, encouragement. Each week when I went to his tutorial office, the math training would quickly switch off, and he would go into encourage-Sunil-to-follow-his-passion mode.

While in college, at the age of 17, I started drawing a full-page cartoon column for a magazine, “Psychology and Human Behavior Digest”, published from Mumbai. For some years before that my brother had been going through a rough patch in his life – getting into trouble with his teachers, causing endless despair for my parents, and we had grown apart briefly. The cartoon column brought us back. Producing a full-page cartoon column every month was a lot of work, especially since several columns had to be sent at a time. My brother helped me ink the column, particularly the effects. The hard work involved, and the pure joy of seeing our work displayed on a nationally available magazine brought us back again. My little sister was often the very first person to view and comment on our work, before it was parceled off to Mumbai.

Soon after this, I walked into the regional office of Indian Express, one of the top newspapers of India. All the positive thinking books of my maths sir had clearly worked its way into all my nerves. I found myself sitting in front of a senior sub-editor of significance, proposing a political cartoon strip. By a local Indian: me. Why would she take a chance on a no-name? Years later, that fine editor, Prema Manmadhan would tell me that I apparently put on quite a show there with my enthusiasm and ideas. She took a chance on me, and I had a political cartoon strip that ran for at least several months in one of India’s largest newspaper. I called it, Funny World. It ended when the particular section of the newspaper that allowed these sorts of creative expressions, folded.

After Funny World ended, I sat brooding over what to do next. The answer came very soon quite clearly:   A science cartoon strip. I came up with a science themed strip about a scientist and his family members that included a feisty robot. I named the strip Short Circuit (I hold firm my position that I had no idea about a similarly named movie from the ‘80s), and got it published in the science edition of Indian Express. Again, this was the result of a sympathetic editor of Indian Express– this time in Mumbai – deciding to be talked into taking a chance on an imaginative kid from Kochi.

I was being published nationally in the Indian Express now. The newspaper had millions of readers. I was ecstatic.  My dreams were coming true. I was surely only a short skip and a step away from being an editorial cartoonist in the newspaper. And I was still in college, pushing 18!

Through the psychology, and the science strips I spoke of multiple-personality disorder, satellites launching, the opening up of the Indian economy, pollution, positive thinking, Operation Desert Shield, transactional analysis, Artificial Intelligence, fax machines, scud missiles, sandwiches, the expanding Ozone hole, fuel efficiency in cars, and pretty much anything else that caught my fancy in those days. I felt on top of the world for a full year.

There was a sinking feeling, growing ever so slowly in the back of my head, over a period of a year, that static comic art was a trifle limiting to me and the BIG ideas I wanted to express eventually. This feeling gelled into a very strong conviction after I saw the seminal movies of that time: Who framed Roger rabbit, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. Animation and Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) was the next step up for me, I resolved each time I walked out of the movie theater in a daze. Six times in total as I saw each movie twice.

In those days, there used to be a big psychological, emotional, and financial wall that separated India from the USA, where all these exciting things in animation and CGI were happening. I could not simply waltz into the USA. Not without a very tough series of battles.

The Battles Begin

The first battle was for filial support to pursue animation as my chosen field. Though my mother was completely on my side, my father took issue with my wanting to pursue a ‘fantasy career’. Especially since this meant throwing away my middle-class Indian student playbook: go into engineering. My father being a multiple national awards winning scientist found it very difficult to support my animation dreams.

The second battle was in finding a place in India where I could pursue animation.

After some desperate misadventures trying to find and break into places in Kochi and nearby cities that did animation (there were less than 3, that I could find. And they were not doing anything more than animating logos and such), I heard about a place in India that actually taught animation at a graduate level!

The entrance examination to the animation course at the National Institute of Design (NID) was at that point - and still is - the most thrilling exam I have ever taken. Grueling, but thrilling. It was thrilling because, for the first time in my life, I found an exam that spoke my language. Their ingenious tests to measure the level of creativity in the applicant seemed written just for me. Here was an exam that was so engaging, and so matching what I had to offer, that I felt positively exuberant after the experience.

I was one of the handful chosen from across the sea of thousands of students that applied nationwide in India for the 1991 batch. And just in time, too! All my college mates had already started their engineering, science, or medical college classes. I was the only one left out of the academic year starting 1991.

NID is in Paldi, Ahmedabad. The campus looked green and pristine. I had never seen anything like it until then. It looked, International. It looked like what I would have imagined a prestigious American college campus to look like. NID was indeed the pride of the art & design industries of India. I couldn’t believe I had not known about this amazing place until I fell into it.

Dreams Shatter

Then started the series of extraordinary and unbelievable incidents that derailed and systematically disassembled my progress towards studying animation in India.

I had known that the graduate level animation was a very small program at NID. Typically, only 5-8 students were taken each year. But that year, in 1991, something strange happened; that had never happened before in the history of the institution.

On the day of registration, the lead professor of the program and the director of NID called me aside into an office. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, they quietly informed me that that year, only three students had been selected into the animation program.


Well, that year, in 1991, only I turned up for registration. The other two students had dropped out.

They cancelled the animation course of 1991.

It was a very painful 1000-mile bus trip back to Kochi from Ahmedabad. My animation dreams were shattered. My life is beginning to look like a tragic movie, I thought on that long bus ride. I had fallen out of the 1991 academic year cycle, and had nothing to look forward to for one long year.

I staggered into my room after that long monotonous ride in the bus, feeling strange. My head felt dizzy, and weird. My mother thought I was just in the funk of a deep depression.

On that long bus ride home, somewhere along the way I had contracted typhoid fever. This would not be diagnosed until at least a week and a half later. Until then, I simply fell apart. Physically, and mentally.

As the fever rose and fell, and I went into spasms of uncontrollable bone-rattling shivering, my feverish brain began to experience fits of hallucinations that were quite simply, extraordinary. The morning birds twittering outside my window began to ‘talk’ to me in perfectly understandable English. The doctors that I had seen earlier that day, invaded my home and crept into my bedroom in the middle of the night with guns and knives in their hands – they were trying to snuff me out, the carrier of a deadly epidemic, according to the drama raging inside my head. Everything was hyper-realistic. Even as these extraordinary events were playing out in front of my eyes, some part of me knew that I was witnessing something extraordinary: the power of the unleashed creative mind. This is what happens when the logical part of the brain shuts down, and the right side of the mind runs amok. Wow.

Three months is what it took for me to fully recover, and regain most of my physical strength. I dutifully wrote down every little detail I could remember of my extraordinary visions into a plain yellow notebook. And then I put it away. I have not peeked into that yellow notebook more than two times, in all these decades since. Too many unpleasant memories.

There was nothing else I could do, after that eventful summer of 1991. The academic year had started, and all my buddies had started graduate studies. There were just a handful of ‘losers’ that could not get into any program of repute. Rejects of the brutal academic rat-race of India. I realized that I too had officially joined their ranks now as another loser.

The months that followed were crushing to my self-esteem. Sitting around at home as a reject of the academic life of India, and my dreams crushed was unbearable to me only slightly less than it was to my father. He used this opportunity to point me to life lessons – that we do not always achieve what we aim for; that one’s own actions aren’t of too much consequence; that luck really is the main governor of life; and some other gems that I rejected outright as soon as it entered my ears. I was too proud to admit failure. What was happening to me was simply not the way things were supposed to go. I had to find some other way into my chosen field of animation.

My family has always been very supportive of me, the eldest son. My mother continued to be fiercely protective of me, and my goals. My sister and brother agonized with me silently. And my father continued to give me life advice, most of which grated against my own world views. But I marveled at his patience with me, the son who had thrown away the great middle-class Indian student playbook, and got thoroughly crushed in the process.

My big battle to break open the doors of animation was just beginning. But I needed help to confront the challenge.

My Mentors

Besides my supportive family, I had a marvelous group of mentors, advisors and well-wishers. At the head of them stood three key individuals: My dear JK uncle (bless his departed soul), my wonderful Indu aunty, and my amazing math Sir (bless his departed soul).

The next two years of my life was all about this august group of mentors’ influences on me, lifting me up from the demoralized wreck that I was, to ultimately making it into one of the world’s top universities to study animation.

JK uncle descended on me like a whirlwind, whipping me into shape for what he believed was a grand future in animation that was awaiting me. He sincerely believed that I had something special to give to the world. I was amazed at this conviction, when the evidence was scant. He wanted me to meet as many accomplished people in the arts as possible, to open my mind. Or to gain an entry into animation. In 1991, animation was nearly non-existent in India, save for TV ads with cartoon characters, flying logos, and the occasional high-brow 2D animated film made by NID and its graduates. So, I was not quite sure what meeting many accomplished people in the arts in the southern state of Kerala would bring. Prudently, I kept all these doubts to myself. One did not argue with JK uncle. JK uncle was a force of nature, who could crush any counterpoint effortlessly. The only person I ever knew who could hold JK uncle down in a debate was my father. But even my father had relented a little to allow JK uncle to help his son in this moment of crisis. So, I meekly followed JK uncle, like an obedient student following his guru.

‘You have to keep pounding on several doors. One of them is fated for you, to open, Sunil’ he used to say. ‘But it is up to you to find that fated door. And for that you will have to keep pounding doors relentlessly.’ I liked JK uncle’s outlook on how fate intersects with the actions we need to take to meet it. It was more inspiring than my father’s cold view of luck in life.

So, pound dozens of doors, we did. JK uncle took me up and down the state of Kerala, introducing me to great artists, performers, university professors, university presidents, bank officers, film directors. And he supplied me with books – some of which he Xeroxed and bound himself – to aid my development. Where I could see no future for myself, JK uncle saw plenty.

The door that I was fated to open was pointed to me by my college buddy Naresh. He told me one day that, ‘surely there has to be universities in the US that taught cartooning. Why not look into it’?

That was the fresh point of view I needed. I shall stop brooding over my fate at NID, and look into the US to study animation. These were the days before the world wide web. One had to rely on libraries for this sort of information. The best library that had information regarding schools and universities in the US was housed inside the US embassy in Chennai. So, I took an overnight train to the city of Chennai, stayed in a hotel, and spent the next two days scouring the neatly organized United States – India Educational Foundation library. There were catalogs of universities that taught engineering, architecture, ship-building, fashion design, medicine, and computer science. Each of these areas were sub-divided into its dozens of categories. There was no mention of animation anywhere. In the early 90’s, animation was not much of an industry to warrant entry into the catalogs of the USIEF library.

I caught the train back home, wondering what more I could do in my mad quest to study animation.

The Book

Help came from unexpected quarters. In Eloor Lending library of Kochi, of which I had been a member for several years, I came upon a wonderful book, ‘Animation: From Script to Screen’, by Shamus Culhane. In it was a chapter called, ‘Schools’. And in that chapter was listed all the premier schools and universities taught animation in the US, Canada, and Europe.

Like a deer frozen by a beam of bright light, I stared at the list wide eyed unable to move for several minutes. I was unable to take any action for several days, still mesmerized by the beauty of that elegant list of animation schools.

After a week, I went into frenzied action. I applied to two schools in that list that looked promising: The graduate program of the Animation Workshop of UCLA, and CAL Arts. With all my work in newspapers and magazines as the creator of cartoon strips, I had a very solid portfolio, for that time.

I do not recall what happened to the CAL Arts application, but I do remember the small white envelope that arrived from UCLA. I had been accepted to the fabled Animation Workshop, which is part of the School of Theater, Film & Television.


Did all my ordeals end, and I finally get to live happily ever after?


As my JK uncle would say later, “You will be made to suffer through all the gates of hell, one at a time, before you drag yourself to your destination. That seems to be your fate.”

I realized quickly that getting accepted to a US university is one part of the challenge. The second is, raising the funds necessary to pay for tuition, and the living expenses.

Raising the funds

The financial wall that separated costs of living in India, and the US was very wide. Though my family was well off, the wall was such that it cost approximately 12 times the yearly scientists salary of my father to live and study for one year in the US.

The acceptance letter from Professor Dan McLaughlin, inviting me to the Animation Workshop of UCLA, had cast its magic however. My entire family went into overdrive trying to think of creative ways to raise the funds necessary to send its eldest son to the US to study animation.

We approached a few wealthy relatives. We approached a few wealthy friends. And we approached bank loan officers. They all asked the basic question: ‘What is animation?’

I spent more time educating bank officers about animation, talking at great lengths about the magic of 3D graphics that made possible Jurassic Park that year, than I ever have since spent in bank queues to date. After all my grand and desperate presentations, the answer was always: Sorry, no.

With not enough funding to show, I was denied the US visa that year. It was a sad and gloomy trip my brother and I took back home in the train from the US embassy in Chennai after the rejection.

My math sir kept trying to find ways to raise my spirits. He encouraged me to read more books on positive thinking. He taught me to use hypnotism to relax. His big message to me has always been that anxiety kills motivation, and creativity. Hence, learn to relax under duress.

It was now the turn of the wonderful Indu aunty to work her magic. She had come into our lives around the time I was recovering from typhoid. She had been observing my well-intentioned actions but subsequent failures for more than a year and a half now.

Indu aunty brought in a spiritual dimension to my quest. She being a great devotee of Lord Krishna, she insisted on taking me to various temples around town, and placing my application forms in the sanctum sanctorum of our local Krishna temple. Nothing is possible without the grace of the Lord, she assured me.

The forces of Luck, fate, actions, and now grace. How much more can a well-intentioned student of animation endure, I wondered.

Things started to turn around.

The Scholar

A few months later, my father pointed me to a small but significant advertisement in the Indian Express. The Rotary Club International was inviting applications for the 1993-94 Ambassadorial Scholarships. The scholarship pays for one full year of tuition and living expenses in any good US university.

With renewed vigor, apply I did. I found the interviews to this extraordinary scholarship a real pleasure. I noticed the fluidity and assuredness with which I answered all the questions posed to me. “Prove that you are the one we should select”, was one of the questions posed by the 6 or so panel of judges. I felt completely peaceful as I laid out my points.

Riding home on my motorbike from that Rotary interview was one of the most joyful trips I have ever taken on a motorbike. As I hoisted the Suzuki bike to its stands in front of my home, my brother and sister rushed to meet me. The news was out. Out of hundreds of candidates that had applied from various states of south India for this incredible scholarship, I had been selected as the sole candidate to represent Rotary District 3201 of India as the Ambassadorial Scholar to Rotary District 5280 in the USA.

The newspapers announced the story of a Sunil from Kadavanthra, Kochi, who was going to ‘Hollywood’, to learn the new and magical field of animation.

The days after this looked brighter. Though I could no longer understand bird-talk, bird songs felt magical to me. Food tasted great again. My mother’s fish curry in particular was terrific. I ate, I rested, slept a lot, and I talked in soft assured tones to friends and family with a gentle smile that would not go away,..

A few months later, my dad pointed me to yet another small but significant advertisement in The Hindu, another English newspaper we read. INLAKS Foundation, was inviting applications for the ten students it was looking to fund. INLAKS is a very special institution in that, they fund only unusual subjects. Subjects that strayed off the tried-and-true path. A subject like animation was new even for them.

Some months later, after 2 rounds of interviews, each one whittling down the thousands of applications that came to INLAKS from all over India now to less than a hundred, I found myself in New Delhi, sitting before a panel of about 9 judges. “Prove that you deserve this scholarship to study animation”, they posed. The question was quite simple, for the right candidate.

My parents knew that I was among one of ten students chosen from all over India for the prestigious INLAKS scholarship even before I did. The morning newspapers had made sure of that.

Food tasted particularly good that week. In New Delhi that week, I tasted my first hamburger to my great delight. Years later I would learn that it was actually a goat-burger. We don’t kill cows for burgers.

Seven months later, I touched down in Los Angeles to go to UCLA, to study animation. As I was received by Melody and Paul St.John, of the host Rotary Club, I had a feeling that a new series of adventures were just about to start for Sunil.

Los Angeles, USA


The Adventure Continues..