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How video games and the rise and fall of civilisations inspired ‘Schirkoa’

The animated feature ‘Schirkoa’ has shades of ‘1984’ and other dystopian fiction, a wild sci-fi palette and an eclectic voice cast

A still from 'Schirkoa'
A still from 'Schirkoa'

This week, Ishan Shukla’s Schirkoa premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It’s not often you get Indian animated features on the global festival circuit—and this one is a unique creation: Orwellian gloom with a cyberpunk edge and contributions by Golshifteh Farahani, Asia Argento and Gaspar Noé. Shukla, who lives in Vadodara, made a 2016 short, also titled Schirkoa (it’s free on Vimeo), which he then expanded into a full-blown vision. In a highly regulated dystopian future society, everyone wears paper bags over the heads. But rumours of a free world circulate, and an encounter with a mysterious girl sends the film’s central character, a rule-following everyman, on a journey of discovery. We spoke to Shukla over Zoom about his inspirations and his heady, shape-shifting animation style. Edited excerpts from the interview:

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How did ‘Schirkoa’ originate?

I started my career in Singapore. Around 2010, I started working on this universe called Schirkoa. At the time it was a graphic novel. I was drawing in my diary on the commute to office everyday. I was inspired by the people on the commute—I saw my reflection and thought, I am one of the faceless people going to office.

When the Schirkoa world became very big, I took a long sabbatical and came to India. I worked on the short film myself for two-three years. Once it did very well on the festival circuit, I pitched it as a feature. In my head it was always a big universe; I just realised it in a short film first.

Is the animation process different in the short and the feature?

I always work in a 3D space, creating animation inside the software. Nothing is hand-drawn, but in both films I have mixed the 2D hand-drawn style and the 3D realistic style. I have more prominent outlines in the short and a more painterly technique in the feature, where there’s a smudging of the background, like watercolours.

Could you elaborate on the techniques used in the feature?

When I finished the short film, on which I worked solo, one thing I was certain of was that I would either need a lot more money to make the feature or I would have to change my work flow substantially. I chose the latter. I explored several techniques and one thing that stuck with me was Unreal Engine (a 3D creation tool).

On 3D animated films, when you are done with everything inside the software and click on compile, it takes a very long time to generate a single image. I am an avid gamer. These games are rendering things in real time; what you see on the screen is what you get in the final frame. I started to mould this to my purpose, which was to create a feature film, not a video game. The most important aspect was, my whole set wasn’t just images but a living, moving thing. That means I can move the camera around, I can change things last minute. So I cut millions of dollars from the budget.

The film is extremely acting-oriented. I thought we should have real people acting. I started exploring motion capture, which I had a bit of experience with. We chose this French studio, where we went for two-three weeks and rehearsed with actors. For each character in the film, we had a real person acting. When we were ready, I walked on set and directed it like a stage play.

When did the voice work happen?

In animation, voice work is always the first step, usually even before the storyboarding. So once you have the script locked, you try to cast people. We did script readings with actors via Zoom, recorded their voices in different parts of the world. Once all the voices were recorded, we did a long edit of the film. After that was locked, we moved on to motion capture and real time animation.

You have an eclectic cast of actors, singers, directors.

Schirkoa is like a sandbox, not particular to one culture, ethnicity, language. Each voice has a story. Piyush Mishra and I met at a Ted Talk; I told him I wanted him to recite a specific poem of his. I think he was the first voice to join. Gaspar Noé came on board for a small character. We sent the pitch to Golshifteh Farahani, whose character is really the anchor of the film. With Asia Argento, we knew she would be (the DJ messiah) Lies; she’s a great DJ in real life. Later, for small characters, we approached Anurag Kashyap, Karan Johar, Shekhar Kapur. We got a yes from nearly everyone we asked.

How was the recording done?

We had to record separately. It was quite a challenge: we had these people from a sound studio in Los Angeles, who are interacting with someone who’s in Spain, and my sound design is in France, and I am directing them from India. We got actors to play proxy voices. We tried to do it like a stage play, so you are not doing lines in a silo. We would rehearse with each actor, and only when we found the right tone, we’d set up a final Zoom call for the recording.

Was the film inspired by real-world politics?

I have been an avid reader since childhood and I love history, the rise and fall of civilisations. Schirkoa is about how a civilisation can dig its own grave by allowing too much oppression. Definitely the events around me were reinforcing these themes. When I started in 2010, it was Arab Spring. Lot of things were happening all over the world—Trump, Somalia, Syria, Hong Kong, Iran. It’s happening in so many countries—including ours—that things are changing so dramatically we don’t even realise it’s not the same place anymore. Before we know it, we are wearing a bag on our heads.

Besides ‘1984’, what were some of the cultural touchstones while making this?

My inspiration when I started was a dystopian video game, BioShock. There were shades of (the 1985 film) Brazil by Terry Gilliam. Jodorowsky is a huge inspiration, not just the shock factor but how much the tableau he puts on screen affects you. Fellini, I was fascinated by way he frames things. Thematically it would be BioShock, and some of the Tolstoy and Gorky books I read as a child.

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