C++ to Celluloid — The Journey and Learnings!
As young kids in the early 90s who grew with the technology boom, many of us started programming with “Hello World” in C and C++. We all fondly remember when we wrote our first program and seeing it work felt like magic. On April 19, 2019, we embark on our first “Hello world” into the world of cinema with our first venture — VellaiPookal and we are again delighted all over again with the magic of our first creation in the celluloid world. Hello world!
It all started in 2005 — a bunch of young 20 somethings originally from South India, joining our dream jobs at Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies and starting to make the PNW our home. To balance out our hectic work schedules bunch of us were looking for a hobby to decompress. Along with that two questions remained in the back of our heads: Are we contributing enough to the community– in both the new community that has embraced us as their own and back in the community of our childhood? And, are we giving back to help those less fortunate than us? Well, the seeds of creativity had been planted among us passionate folks looking for a serious hobby — we decided to form Indus Creations — a theatre group in 2005. The name INDUS came from wordplay on the words INDia + USa. We chose the mighty theatre, and zeroed in on Tamil language plays because we loved bringing this age-old art form to life in our community and revive the engaging experience for future generations.
Over the next few years, the theater group staged one play every year. With every production, the cast and crew learned about several elements of theater like directing, acting, producing, and writing a script. We learned through practice that to understand every story, we had to dive deep and figure out what made it important and why we were telling it. Our stories got deeper, the plots richer, the sets even more vibrant and real-life, the acting got serious, and the direction got more intense. We were growing organically. We also learned that as with software it was all about delivering a stellar customer experience and on the set deadline. We took the plays to places all around the US.
We had a simple goal — stage one play every year and own it end-to-end — story, direction, casting, sets, staging, logistics and such. We spent hundreds of hours perfecting every minute detail, collecting feedback, learning all along the way, forming tighter bonds with each other and with the community at large. Our work was being received with ever-growing enthusiasm from our neighbors and co-workers, our friends and families.
The nascent concept of making a movie came around 2010. Just after our 5th play, a bunch of us did an offsite (very similar to a tech offsite) to think big and see where we can be in the next 5–10 years. We did the classic sticky board brainstorming exercise and aggregated a few key themes of where we would like to be.
We discussed a lot of things but one thing we vividly today remember was a one of the sticky notes had a comment saying “What about a movie?!”. At that time it sounded crazy. We briefly talked about it and just put it off the hopper.
Fast forward another 5 years and Chidamabara Ragasiyam, our special 10th year production was in full swing in 2015. We wanted to go grand. We wanted to enthrall the audience with a “Movie on Stage” experience and nothing less would do. We did our marquee production Chidambara Ragasiyam. This play was set in the 5th century BC and revolves around politics in kingdom at that time vs contemporary politics in India. The play was a tremendous success. But after the curtains fell, the last standing ovation done, and the final bow taken, we still had a fire burning in our cores. There was no turning our backs to increasingly loud and incessant allure of making a movie. A few of the crew started dabbing with short films. This led to us producing and creating a bunch of short films like “Odam” and “Navam” that won many International Film Festival awards.
Empowered by the successes and warm reception that Navam and Odam gave us, we made a leap of faith — our moonshot in 2016–17. After 2+ years of work from more than 200 folks, we are releasing our first full length movie to worldwide audience on April 19th.
Throughout this endeavor, it also brought us great joy and pride in supporting various non-profit efforts. Indus has raised over $300,000 for various organizations focusing on welfare initiatives in India. Over the last 14 years the Indus family has had more than 500 members contributes to its various efforts, simultaneously working full-time in the tech industry and our raising families. A huge thanks to everyone who have supported us in the past 14 years. The team has produced more than 11 major theatre shows (performed live over 25 times) and numerous short films. By working in the tech industry and doing theatre in parallel for these years, we learnt quite a few lessons — not just for careers, but also for life.
“Art makes one a better human”
Association with any art form makes you a more complete human being. We learn so much from the creative process and we are better engineers and better human beings with this. Creating complex large plays and performing live brings a decisive moment that has to be experienced. After months of effort, when a packed auditorium of hundreds of people are sitting and the screen opens for the first scene — the goosebumps that results is what makes us human. Here are some ways we learnt to be better engineers, leaders and human being through Theatre and movie making. We try to bring analogies from theatre to technology/Software teams since those two are our passions.
Collective Creative process and Idea generation:
It all starts with ideation, story writing and getting the themes of the plays/movie. A strong story brings a strong foundation to launch other disciplines to excel. This is true in work as well. A strong charter, a strong purpose is the foundation over which you build strong teams.
To make a strong story into a reality — a diverse set of talent needs to be involved — directors, assistant directors, cast, actors, acting coaches, set builders, costume designers, dialog writers, background music and so on. Hiring the right talent makes the story a reality. This is very analogous to putting together teams across multiple disciplines to launch a product. Hire the right talent and your job is more half done.
Planning, Coordination, Project Management:
A play or a movie has so many disciplines involves tons of planning, coordination and project management. Directors, producers, set coordinators etc., usually do these. The timeliness of communication across teams, managing dependencies, asking for help when needed and escalating — these are very analogous to Technical Program Management of complex products in Software companies. These folks get things done across teams and connect the dots.
Creative artists tend to be diverse, quirky at times and may be perfectionists. They usually also come from different backgrounds/cultures. Understanding where they come from and what motivates them and getting everyone aligned is very similar to global software development across different countries. You build existential skills to survive in multicultural environments through theatre.
In a theatre group where people are working unpaid, after hours with their families supporting them through, you build a lot of empathy as you see how everyday life is about juggling different aspects. There are so many instances where you see people working for plays while managing infants. You really understand human beings and their passion during these moments and it builds a sense of empathy and kindness while still aspiring for big dreams and high standards. This is invariably useful in software/tech companies.
It’s rare that a theatrical/media production goes exactly as planned. Stumbled lines, misplaced props, mistakes in blocking and movement, all of these can skew a production and require the cast/crew to think on their feet and come up with a solution on the fly. It’s not hard to see how adaptability skills like these can be helpful in daily situations. When you’re in the office and something doesn’t go as planned, improvisational training will enable you to think outside the box to solve tough problems fast.
Explore, Fail, Learn — Not all those who wander are lost
The theatre process involves a lot of experimentation, explorations, failures, tweaks, pivoting the direction as you go from inception to completion. Also, our group gives a safe setting for folks to explore different disciplines, experiment with areas without heavy commitment and the risk of failing is very low. Essentially explorers, wanderers, creators and builders are encouraged. This same thing applies to software/tech firms. Tinkering, inventing on behalf of customers, taking bets that might fail — are key aspects of a good organization.
Perfection vs releasing a very good product
Don’t let perfection stop you from releasing something that is good enough. Yes, we can tinker infinitely with a software or a play or a movie to make it ‘perfect’. But the worst art or software ever made was one that never got released and stayed inside you as a dream or concept. There is a saying that you need two people to finish a painting — one to paint and one to say when it’s done. That’s why the painter still calls it “Painting” not “Painted”. Knowing when to release and when to make it better over time and building that judgement muscle critical for Art and Software production.
Teamwork and Collaboration
Finally, teamwork comes heavily into play in the theatre and media work. Everyone needs to step up to do whatever needs to be done to shepherd the project towards its eventual end. This is vital to performance in the workplace. Teamwork means nobody gets left behind, and nobody is unwilling to help. Through our experiences in the theater/media world,we learnt how to grab up on whatever task needs to be completed, and see it through!
Our dream in 2010 to make a worldwide movie is coming to reality this Friday, April 19th. We are launching our bilingual movie –VellaiPookal — (in Tamil and some English, with subtitles) in 250+ theatres around the world and in 30 countries. In the last 2+ years we learnt tremendously about what it takes build something from scratch — something akin to a startup. Right from fundraising, execution challenges, sales, customer sat, marketing et.al. It has been one heck of a ride! Its our turn to get our first “Hello world” in the cinema space and we are as thrilled as our first C++ Hello world program. Its compiled and all set to run this Friday. See you all on April 19th, 2019 in a big screen theatre near you with our latest Creation. Enjoy. We are savoring every moment of this. It’s exciting to see where we head from here. The future is yet to be written.