It’s a breezy Islamabad evening as I head out to visit the office of the peculiarly named 3rd World Studio. Though one can never go wrong with directions in the compact capital, the industrial zone does tend to baffle you somewhat.
Getting past the black gate, I’m warmly greeted by Uzair Zaheer Khan, who is the founder of the studio and the brain behind the upcoming computer-animated feature film, Allahyar & the Legend of Markhor. For those who still don’t know, the upcoming animated film, scheduled to release this fall, is set against the backdrop of the panoramic northern-region of Pakistan and follows the story of Allahyar and his journey of self-discovery with his animal buddies.
The film is spearheaded by Khan, who has worked as a CG artist for over a decade and previously lent his expertise to international projects such as high-end TVCs and visual effects’ assignments for clients such as the Discovery Channel.
“When you get such variation, you obviously grow and develop,” begins Khan as we sit down to chat in the common room of the studio.
Khan’s other accomplishments include setting up musician and producer Haroon Rashid’s studio, Unicorn Black, also in the capital city. He also ended up directing (and producing) the first season of Rashid’s acclaimed, award-winning animated television series, Burka Avenger.
Continuing his pursuit of bringing superior content for children to Pakistan, Uzair’s 3rd World Studio aims at producing only feature-length animated films, beginning their expedition with Allahyar.
“For a CG artist like me, the alchemy of profession, or the highest point in my career would be to work on a film. So we decided that we’re going to do a feature film. Obviously, we don’t have a lot of animation, we don’t have enough screens; only the big cities have multiplexes so the turnover is low and that adversely affects the revenue,” notes Khan.
“It’s not about our skill-set or talent, if we’re given a hundred and fifty million to work on a film for three years with the best animators, I’m sure we’ll also create something at par with international standards.”
Khan, who grew up watching PTV, went on to say that the one condition with which he approached the project was to make sure that it had a Made in Pakistan identity.
“I’ve specialized in animation from Vancouver and I know that a lot of people would’ve loved to come here and work with us but I wanted to draw that line myself. I wanted to show people what ‘Made in Pakistan’ truly means.”
Exploring 3rd World Studio, Khan walks me through the corridors where the walls on both sides are adorned with sketches and print-outs that explain the development of the characters and the script. The team, meanwhile, consists of sixty odd people who work six days a week and put in 12 hours per day. It may sound punishing, but every member of the team is enthusiastic about putting together a substantial feature.
“If the duration of the film or the team increases, the cost naturally goes up and not following the conventional route of animation hardware may also have intensive drawbacks,” explains Khan. “We spent a year and a half on processes and techniques that would allow us to produce the film that hits a relative benchmark, and within a budget.”
As we walk through the space, I notice a group of animators working on their respective desks, sculpting the characters, their movement and putting together untreated scenes. Director of last year’s Janaan and Hareem Farooq’s upcoming Parchi, Azfar Jafri is heading the animation department while Usman Iqbal (in the atrium opposite to this) is leading a team of artisans who refine and render the raw version of the film or what one may call post-production in live-action.
The quality of animation and attention to detail, from the glimpses I saw, as the crew worked on them, were laudable. Only Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Waadi Animations has been able to release two animated films in the post-revival age of Pakistani cinema. With Allahyar, the bar will be raised further and a glimpse of this vision can be seen in the recently released teaser of the film.
What is most remarkable about Allahyar is how localized the narrative seems to be. Though Khan was tight-lipped when asked about the plot, he did speak of having a tale that hits closer to home.
Describing the film as an “adventure that has strong conservation”, the caricatured animals that feature in the film are the Chukar, which happens to be Pakistan’s National Bird, the National Animal, the very elegant Markhor and of course, the Snow Leopard, the country’s National Heritage Animal. Khan sees himself as a responsible filmmaker and hopes to create socially relevant cinema.
“We all have kids, and we all feel there’s not enough content for them that promotes our culture. Now that kids have such variety in content, it’s important to teach them values and ethics that are lacking in our society today. Animation is a very powerful tool and when done intelligently, it can not only entertain, but also provide viewers with some valuable lessons. It’s definitely a part of our agenda to teach only good things through our films.”
Khan is also clear that the film doesn’t rely on fantasy and fiction alone. “Whatever power or ability Allahyar has, it is not what saves the day. We draw the line where a certain supernatural ability is what helps fight evil,” says Khan, pointing out Pixar’s Frozen that concluded with principals of sisterhood and not the protagonist’s snow mastery. “Allahyar’s powers are very unconventional. In fact, he sees them as being almost useless initially. Look at Western animated films, powers become redundant during the climax sequences.”
The casting gambit
Allahyar, the film, is also unique in the way it’s made casting calls. While the characters are animated, the artists providing the voice-overs include names like Ali Noor, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Anam Zaidi, amongst others. Speaking to Instep, Ali Noor explained his reasons for saying yes to voicing the chief antagonist, Mani.
“I met Uzair almost a year before the project began, at a wedding. We’re distantly related. When he told me about venturing into animation, I thought what he was doing was very interesting and told him that I’d love to help out in any way possible,” began Noor. “I just got a very good vibe from him, and as I got to know him, I realized that we have a very similar philosophy. He is driven by certain principals, and I myself have always wanted to look inwards, so there was this instant connection between us.”
Noor, who has little acting experience, and remains one of the most active musicians in the country, stepped out of his comfort zone for the film.
“It was very different from what I’ve done and seen. I had never experienced voiceovers, and I really enjoyed it. Initially, I was trying to find my ground, but I adapted to it in no time at all,” he added.
Focused on bringing innovative original content to children, Khan reveals on a parting note that he is currently developing four more scripts. “They’re better films actually. Some of them are really good,” he says, ecstatically. “There was another script we wanted to pursue first, but that was a very challenging film. We decided to take a small bite first. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but even Allahyar is amazing.”