It was a momentous achievement when one of Karachi’s celebrated percussive guitarists Usman Riaz managed to get full funding on Kickstarter for a passion project – Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animated film titled The Glassworker.
Months later, the artist/composer himself took the liberty to speak to fans and the media about his new venture, Mano Animation Studios, his upcoming film and how it all happened.
On Sunday, Riaz walked on the stage of the Arts Council to an almost packed hall, but this time he wasn’t accompanied by his guitar or a conductor stick but a remote for his presentation on his entire journey so far for his film. He flashed an awkward smile at the audience and in a meek and humble tone he began talking about his introduction to animated films by Disney and Studio Ghibli during his his childhood.
The Glassworker is a coming-of-age story of two children from different walks of life, Vincent the glassworker and Alliz, a prodigious violinist who frequents his shop. The film revolves around the two characters as life grows to become more complicated and affects their relationship.
“Not only will The Glassworker be Pakistan’s first fully hand drawn animated film but it will also have a fully realized orchestral score that harkens back to the more romantic era of animation with sweeping orchestral scores and memorable themes,” Riaz shared.
He went on to announce that The Glassworker, or rather Sheeshagar, will be entirely in Urdu with a Pakistani cast and will be released in Pakistan. The reason why it was promoted on Kickstarter as The Glassworker was so that the international community can understand the project.
“The film will be set within a landscape of political unrest, I will be drawing from my own experiences and other people’s experiences growing up in Pakistan,” Riaz revealed. Only, what’s unique in this case is that the film won’t actually be set in Pakistan but rather in a European setting that animation audiences are familiar with; those European landscapes will be injected with Pakistani values and themes.
“The west so often takes characters from the east and westernizes them, I just thought it would be cool to take western characters and make the landscape and living situation like Pakistan and make these characters speak in Urdu,” he added.
The first part of the film is set to be 30 minutes long, however the final aim is to make a 90-minute feature. When it comes to the visual feel of the film, Riaz was adamant on having a vibrant colour palette inspired by Disney while at the same time incorporating a simplistic animation style like Japanese anime. Fine art and music are not this 25-year-old’s only achievements; he the youngest senior fellow at TED Global and TED 2015 was his fourth TED event.
“I was walking around the Vancouver convention centre with an overflowing portfolio filled with drawings, sketches and story boards; showing people my ideas for a hand-drawn animated film that had the potential to be the first of its kind in Pakistan,” revealed Riaz.
“I had my TED conference app open and I was desperately messaging studio representatives at the conference about my ideas for the animation and how I would like to meet them in person and discuss what I had in mind. All I wanted was some guidance, none of them responded. Why would they? They must receive messages like this all the time.”
It was disheartening but he didn’t lose hope, trying his luck with one of the TED X organisers from Japan, Mr. Patrick Newell. While his previous TED experiences involve him being invited to speak, this was the one time Riaz asked the organizer to attend the conference in Japan.
“This was the first time I literally begged an organizer to attend their conference,” he added. He went on to share that he expressed his sentiments to Patrick about how Japan is the only place that will understand his ideas for what he wants to do for this animated film. “There was uncomfortable silence, he was a little taken aback but he smiled. ‘Sure!’ he said, a few months later I found myself in Tokyo.”
It was a big deal for Riaz to be in the very country that produced award-winning anime films, the country where his Studio Ghibli hero Hayao Miyazaki is from. “We will never see an animation studio more gifted than Studio Ghibli, not for a very long time,” he added. Most of Riaz’s TED talks in the past revolved around the use of technology to further creative processes but this time at TED x Tokyo his talk was about animation, right in the heart of the place known for its mind-blowing animation techniques.
Usman wondered how his talk on animation for a Pakistani film would be received by the some of the most respected and elite Japanese present at the conference. He talked about how Japanese animation inspired him since he was a child and his longing for bringing hand-drawn animation to Pakistan.
“There is something incredibly beautiful about hand-drawn animation it never looks obsolete, the beauty of the lines drawn and painted by the human hand cannot be replicated in today’s obsession with computer-generated detail,” Riaz explained.
He added that after his talk, the audience was still and he left the stage with a mind full of questions. “Did they translate the talk properly? Did the audience understand? Did I come off as rude?” Eventually, he was congratulated by Patrick backstage and as he left the greenroom to enter the main hall where the organisers, speakers and some audience members were gathered, Usman learned that his talk was trending on Twitter in Japan.
Usman started getting invitations to various animation studios in Tokyo. “A few moments later I was taken to the side of the room and was greeted by a man who gave me his card and told me: ‘We’ll be seeing you tomorrow’. I thanked him and looked down at the card as he walked away, I’ll never forget this moment; I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was Studio Ghibli.”
The visit to Studio Ghibli
People don’t normally get invited to Studio Ghibli, let alone go inside. It is a place with signs that say ‘no visitors, no tours’. “Of all the places in the world I ever wanted to visit, this was on top of the list. I was getting teary eyed, I had to step aside and collect my thoughts while my hosts smiled,” Riaz shared.
This feeling was only heightened further as Riaz sat in the cafeteria and saw “a silver-haired man walked in, very grumpily, wiping his glasses on his apron: It was Hayao Miyazaki. There he was in work-mode, supremely focused even though he announced his retirement two years prior to this, he was still at the studio working on something,” Riaz added.
“How often do you get to share your work with your heroes,” Riaz said with a faint smile.
He continued to discuss the guidance he was offered there. The more time he spent at the studio, the more he realized that this can be done in Pakistan. He visited more studios in Japan that were eager to see his work to the extent that some offered to help him make his film but Riaz wanted it to be entirely produced in Pakistan, even though his team includes artists from around the world.
The work process and birth of Mano Animation Studios
In the west, when it comes to animations, the work behind it is a collaborative effort including the writer, the director, the story board artist and a character designer. The team works together to create the characters and story for the film.
“In the east, it is much more personal,” Riaz explained. “It is expected of the director to draw their own story boards and really guide the rest of the team towards the completed film. Since I was working alone during this time I had no choice but to take this approach.”
Riaz shared his story-board drawings with the audience, explaining how each shot for drawn and how it eventually led to the creation of characters, a script and even the composition of the music for the film. While Usman is interested in exploring the intricacy of glass-blowing through this animation, one thing he lacked at that point was a studio.
“The problem in Pakistan is that there is no hand-drawn animation industry and having long been a student of art and animation, I knew there was no way I could make something like this on my own and survive. Art students, if you think your thesis is difficult, wait till you start on your passion projects,” Riaz said.
Eventually, out of necessity, Riaz began forming Pakistan’s very first hand-drawn animation studio ‘Mano Animation Studios’ – named after his cat ‘Mano’ as he wanted the name to be in Urdu and loved the simplicity of this word.
“Pakistan is full of so many gifted artists, what if I were to bring these artists under one roof? I searched online for like-minded artists, architects, animators and we spread the work by holding workshops in colleges and art schools about what we wanted to achieve.”
Eventually, Riaz managed to form a team of talented artists from not only Pakistan but UK, South Africa and Malaysia as well and since the past year Riaz and his team managed to make this film a reality. The core team includes: lead animator Aamir Riffat, character designer and assistant lead animator, Sofia Abdullah, architectural designer Nida Ali, environment designer Rachel Wan, producer and project manager, Alliz Espi, producer Khizer Riaz, art director and assistant writer, Mariam Riaz Paracha and Usman Riaz himself as director, writer and music composer.
Kickstarter kicks in
In anticipation of TED 2016 which was scheduled in February, Riaz and his team decided to announce the film on Kickstarter and set a funding goal for $50,000. It was a difficult decision mainly because Riaz was skeptical about why anybody would want to fund his film. This funding was needed to create just fifteen minutes of the film, to showcase to the world through TED what the project is all about.
“We had 50 days to make $50,000; needless to say I was very tense,” Riaz shared. A campaign video was made to ensure that this project could stand against more high-profile projects on Kickstarter. Riaz also wanted to create a short teaser to present at TED 2016 which was made possible by his team.
Each frame is drawn meticulously by hand and the frame rate ranges from 8 to 24 seconds, depending on the intricacy of the scene. Even for a minute long teaser, two weeks was not sufficient time considering the hand-drawn frames had to be animated, there was experimentation, colouring as well as sound design and titles.
The team slaved away in order to be able to debut the teaser at TED 2016 and Kickstarter played an integral role in helping them achieve that by earning them $10,000 in just four days after the campaign went live.
Riaz found himself at TED 2016 and like the previous year all he wanted was some guidance, only this time everyone responded. So much so, that Riaz had the most magnificent 20 minutes he’s ever had at TED: “I pulled out my iPad pro to show Steven Spielberg how we were working on The Glassworker,” Riaz revealed.
“We talked about our love for hand-drawn animation, Hayao Miyazaki, story-boarding and film techniques and just how fascinating animation is. He was fascinated by the characters and the emotions he saw in their eyes, I was floored.”
A whole new world: Disney reaches out
Following his incredible meeting with Speilberg, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development Inc. the design and development side of Disney and their representatives at TED arranged a trip for Riaz to Hollywood.
Riaz got to meet and share his work with Disney’s most renowned lead animators Andreas Deja known for his work on films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Lion King and more. Riaz slowly began to realize this project now meant more than just the creation of a mere animation studio in Pakistan, it’s about changing the image of Pakistan internationally.
Milestone after milestone, the project hit the fully-funded status on Kickstarter right after TED and then some. Since there were still 40 days left, the team added stretch goals which in the end left them with a funding of $116,000, allowing them to invest in an orchestral score for the film and more.
“I want to show that we are just as capable as any country in making beautiful hand-drawn animation. We want children in Pakistan to know that if they grow up to enjoy art and animation there is a place where they can come and work where they will be appreciated and encouraged,” Riaz shared.
This project which is entirely a labour of love now holds more meaning for the team involved. It’s about laying the foundation for hand-drawn animation in Pakistan, about instilling art appreciation in Pakistan and about creating a new image for Pakistan internationally in a unique way.