There is a small space, ensconced near Karachi’s I.I. Chundrigar road where a group of young people are working hard to make a dream come true.
Day in and out, they are sketching characters with minute details, liaising with experts from around the world, perfecting backgrounds, creating three-dimensional architectural archetypes and improvising with a detailed storyboard. At a painstakingly slow pace, Pakistan’s first-ever hand-drawn animated feature film, The Glassworker, is coming to vivid, remarkable life.
My trip to the headquarters of Mano Animations is an eye-opener. My guide is Usman Riaz, the studio’s founder and overall boy wonder who, at 26, has a number of achievements to his credit. These include being associated with the illustrious TED platform for the past five years and playing music on Coke Studio. He is now on a mission to make waves in local animation.
Also with us is Khizer Riaz, who shares Usman’s passion for animation, is producing The Glassworker and has a great head for business. Together they talk about their labour of love, their under-production film. Watching the film’s trailer, I appreciated the finesse of the drawings, unaware of how arduous the entire process was.
“We have to be satisfied with every single feature before we approve a scene,” explains Usman. “A single hand movement can take up to dozens of sketches and every detail has to be consistent. Sometimes it can take up to a week to create a three-second scene.”
Mano Animations’ animation director Aamir Riffat proceeds to lead me through the process, flipping through a number of rough sketches on a flat screen. In the background, there is a beautiful play of light and shadow in meticulously shaded color.
Tacked up on the walls are sketches of noses, eyes and hair ruffled by the wind. Splayed out on another wall are architectural details of the seaport town in which The Glassworker is based. There are spires, bridges, snow-laden windows and a trains chugging past in the background. There are also a number of post-it notes where Usman has scribbled details, newspaper cuttings focusing on their work, a picture of Usman with Steven Spielberg and — Usman’s pride and joy — a letter of encouragement and support from Shin Hashida from Studio Ghibli.
“I am a Senior TED Fellow. In 2015, I gave a talk at TEDx Tokyo where I showed my storyboard and artwork,” recounts Usman, referring to his association with the prestigious TED organisation that handpicks some of the brightest people in the world and makes it possible for them to discuss ideas on their platform. “Suddenly, I was being whisked away to Studio Ghibli. It was a dream come true.”
His trip to the studio also provided him with perspective on how to follow his ‘other’ dream — introducing hand-drawn animation in Pakistan. “Studio Ghibli, despite doing phenomenal work, operates from a very small space. It made me realise that we could try to do the same in Pakistan.”
Returning home, Usman reached out to his circle of like-minded friends. Khizer handled the economic side, Aamir Riffat had a passion for animation and Mariam Riaz Paracha became assistant director. “We started off very small and managed to gain momentum when we raised 116,000 dollars via a Kickstarter campaign,” explains Usman.
How did that work? “I raised some awareness about my work via the platform provided to me by TED but, more importantly, it was Kickstarter where I presented my concept and about a thousand people decided to put their faith in us and become our very first investors,” says Usman.
“We have managed to stretch that money, which may seem unbelievable, but we’re able to do it because costs are low in Pakistan,” adds Khizar. “We now have a team of about 30 people including local artists as well as experts in Malaysia, UK, the USA, Canada and the Philippines to whom we outsource our work.”
Why don’t they outsource work to budding animators in Pakistan? “We hope to, but this is a new concept that we have brought to the country and, initially, we met with a lot of skepticism,” says Usman. “It was easier to reach out to individuals who were better acquainted with hand-drawn animation.”
“One of the earliest animators to come on board with us was Rachel Wan from Malaysia who, as our environment director, has worked with me and [architect] Nida Ali in setting the background for The Glassworker. Fortunately, we also now get e-mails and queries on our website from young people in Pakistan who would like to work with us and some of them are a part of our team now.”
"There are people who feel that hand-drawn animation is far too arduous, especially when a faster option is available via computer-generated imagery (CGI). But we have a personal preference for the hand-drawn. We also feel that it is more timeless. CGI technology changes every few years, making earlier films look outdated compared to newer ones," says producer Khizar Riaz
Have they also managed to generate enough interest to attract side projects that could help move funds along? “We have gotten offers but we haven’t taken them on because it would distract us from The Glassworker. People have invested into us via Kickstarter and the onus is upon us to deliver,” says Usman.
“We also have to prove our critics wrong,” points out Khizar. “There are people who feel that hand-drawn animation is far too arduous, especially when a faster option is available via computer-generated imagery (CGI). In our case, we have a personal preference for the hand-drawn. We also feel that it is more timeless. CGI technology changes every few years, making earlier films look outdated compared to newer ones. We also have to fight a mindset in the international animation world that a movie such as this can’t be made on a restricted budget such as ours.”
“Our aim is to open the avenue for hand-drawn animation in Pakistan,” says Usman. “Animation students aspire to one day join an organisation like Disney. But the way I see it, should they beat the odds and manage to do so, they’ll only be a small cog in a very large machine. On the other hand, should they choose to build the animation industry in Pakistan, they will be recognised as pioneers and their work will be well-known. In a small way, we also hope to set precedents in the international animation industry by being very quality-conscious and following a strict budget.”
I wonder out loud how they hope to gain international attention given that The Glassworker’s characters speak Urdu. Why didn’t they opt for universal, all-pervasive English? “It’s our way of taking ownership of the movie,” explains Usman. “We want people in our country to understand it and we have made an effort for the Urdu to be crisp and easy to understand. Also, we hope that people around the world will watch and appreciate it and acknowledge that it is from Pakistan.”
And yet, The Glassworker doesn’t seem to have a very Pakistani storyline. Based on the trailer, it’s a coming-of-age film about a boy, Vincent, who is learning the art of glassblowing from his father, and his developing friendship with a frequent visitor to the shop, a young violinist called Alliz. The characters have anglicised names and live in a very Western locale — why did they not opt for a more localised setting? “Many of the world’s best animation studios opt to do the same,” says Usman. “Studio Ghibli is based in Japan and yet a lot of their anime has Western characters. The Glassworker narrates a story that takes place in war-torn times and Pakistani audiences will be able to relate to it easily.”
"Animation students aspire to one day join an organisation like Disney but they’ll only be a small cog in a very large machine. On the other hand, should they choose to build the animation industry in Pakistan, they will be recognised as pioneers and their work will be well-known," says Usman Riaz
Do they think that the local audience will take to The Glassworker as easily as they have to the CGI-generated Burka Avenger and 3 Bahadur? “Some people prefer hand-drawn and others like computer graphics. It’s completely subjective,” says Khizar. “We believe that some people out there will enjoy our genre. We are indebted to the inroads that have been made in animation so far by people such as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Haroon. It’s opened the way for us.”
There’s still a long way to go, though. The team assesses that it will take about four years for The Glassworker to be completed. In the meantime they’re planning to satiate us with occasional glimpses through short trailers. That’s something to look forward to.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 29th, 2017