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The art of being ‘Mano’

Usman Riaz and the team of Mano Animation Studios talk to Instep about the recently released prelude of The Glassworker, Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animated film.

The art of being ‘Mano’

The story so far

It was nearly two years ago when the prodigious Usman Riaz, presently picking up fantastic international press for the recently released ‘prelude’ of Mano Animation Studio’s The Glassworker, realized that the drawings he was sketching in his notebook should be animated. The realization, Usman tells Instep, was not originally his but came from Mariam Riaz Paracha, his partner in life and who is, as things developed, the voice of Alliz, the co-founder of Mano and the assistant director of the film.

Between then and now, I’ve met Usman (writer and director of the film, founder of MAS) and the core team (assistant director Mariam Riaz, producer Khizer Riaz and animation director Aamir Riffat) on a number of occasions with the most recent visit having taken place earlier this year.

A lot has happened between those early visits and the present one. They changed offices to one that could accommodate more people. They have gone from a small team to one that consisted of 10 people to one that currently stands at 25 people and will go up to 30 people by the end of this year. They found funding from Kickstarter of 116,000 dollars, which propelled them to take things to this level. In return, they have released the entire Glassworker prelude exclusively to Kickstarter backers.

Amidst the growth, they have built skills of those they hired including teaching how to animate and in doing so have created a new industry in Pakistan – one that so many of the young people who work for them didn’t know could possibly exist. It is about team work than individual glory.

In between all this, they have visited studios abroad including the iconic Studio Ghibli.  They have not only met with the disciples of Studio Ghibli but also shared their work with them and received strong positive response and a great deal of interest. Of course, both Usman and his team still have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

The compelling promise with which the studio was founded – to create beautiful work – not only remains in place but with the release of The Glassworker prelude (which is the opening of the full feature and contains nearly four minutes of footage and a behind-the-scene documentary), we know that it is being fulfilled.

The Glassworker (Sheeshahgar), according to its creators, is the coming-of-age story about a boy called Vincent “who learns the art of glassblowing at his father’s shop and his friendship with a young violin virtuoso named Alliz”.

Apart from being Pakistan’s first fully hand drawn animated film, The Glassworker is a subtle exploration of the effects of war on children and is inspired by the famed Studio Ghibli.

Having seen the prelude footage that was released officially last month, it can be said with certainty that every frame, every character feels beautiful and worthy of our time. Opening with the shots of glassblowing to Vincent and his father, accompanied by an equally enchanting background score, it is everything a film should be. Intriguing, beautiful, empathic and above all, inspiring. From little things like sweat dripping on the face of a glassworker to the art of glassblowing itself, the bond(s) of friendship and kin and the curiosity that lives in every child, it’s created with heart and is so striking that you can’t take your eyes away from it. And that was exactly the goal.

In these excessively hectic and myopic times, a film like this that forces us to slow-down and get lost in the ideas being explored onscreen while fascinating us with the visuals, is definitely needed.

The behind the scene documentary that follows the prelude explores not only what happens afterwards in the film through sketches and a voiceover by Usman but also follows the journey of the entire team and how Mano Animation has allowed so many to pursue their dreams.

Understanding the ideas

“The prelude is the introduction; you get familiar with the characters,” says Usman as we sit down in the conference room of Mano Animation Studios once again, this time to discuss the most recent footage.

“The YouTube cut is the first four minutes and it’s just a way to show people our proof of concept and the animation quality.”

Joined by Mariam and Khizer, Usman explains some of the things we see in the new footage. “The Glass Shop is meant to be a metaphor for life,” he states. “When we did Kickstarter, I was working with the line ‘life is beautiful but fragile’. It is the same thing. Every moment in life is so delicate that it could shatter and be completely destroyed but you don’t live like that. You live to your fullest and enjoy each moment. And that’s what life is like in Karachi; it can all get destroyed in a second with these horror stories that everybody has gone through but its unpredictable and you still find reason to keep on living and that’s something we wanted to touch upon with this film.”

As for the look of the film, the waterfront town, the architecture and the costumes and the fact that it doesn’t look Pakistani, is by design.

“It’s not something new; Japan has been doing it for years where they take European settings and heavily easternise them and make the characters speak in Japanese and behave like Japanese people,” says Usman. “And we thought it would be cool to do the same thing and have the characters speak in Urdu. That and the anime audience in the world is so vast that we wanted to have an aesthetic that they could immediately latch onto. To touch on what the West does (with films like Mulan and Aladdin) where they behave like American teenagers living in New York as opposed to what someone from China and the Middle East would behave like. In Mulan, the character is from rural China and is a Chinese teenager but behaves and has ideals that are Western and speaks in English so they’ve taken Eastern settings and Westernized them. We’ve taken Western setting and Easternized them. That’s the thinking behind it and that’s why it’s not based in Pakistan even though it is still very much about life in Pakistan.”

Why have children as protagonists, I ask.

“We want them, Vincent and Alliz, to grow up in front of the audience and see them in different phases of their lives. It is inspired by what I, Khizer and Mariam went through in Karachi, the life here and to show it in different aspects and end it when the characters are around our age because we can’t speak for what it’ll be like when we’re 50 but we can say what it’s like to be 26 in Karachi.”

The great thing about The Glassworker is that so many of the details in it are inspired by the real lives of its creators and those who inspire them. For instance, the reason why Alliz is a violin virtuoso. “Aside from animation, violin is the one instrument that I’ve been obsessed with since I was small and the one instrument that I never really learned how to play,” confesses Usman. “I have just started to learn how to play it while developing the idea for the animation. When I was younger I had a choice between learning the piano and the violin and my teacher said learn the piano, it’ll be better for you if you ever want to compose and I was eight years old so I thought why not. But I kept thinking why didn’t I learn the violin,” he laughs. “That’s why this character plays the violin, I’m putting all my frustrations about the violin into this character and she will be a violinist who will perform in the film.”

As for the voices behind the characters, Usman and co want to collaborate with artists from Pakistan.

“Alliz is Mariam. For the rest of the cast, we want to find good name actors hopefully who can be a part of this and take it forward with us. For the main characters, I want to introduce new talent so Mariam for Alliz and maybe one day we will find our Vincent. Everybody else, we’d like to work with the industry in Pakistan.”

Another intriguing aspect of the film is the art of glassblowing. Where did the idea come from?

“I went to Italy in 2007 and in Venice I saw the glassblowers there and I was fascinated and thought it was a beautiful art-form. When I was thinking of something I haven’t seen in animation, it’s the first thing that came to mind because it’s so colourful and so intricate, I thought it would be fun to showcase that in animation form.”

The fact that this footage has been finished is an achievement, one that has made this young team of creators, artists, animators and storytellers, very excited. “It’s exciting. Hand-drawn animation is a reality now in Pakistan. We’re very grateful we’ve achieved this milestone,” says Usman.

As I press him if the process can be frustrating, Khizer notes, “If somebody chose the hardest thing to do, it’d be hand-drawn animation but since we’re all fans of it we’d much rather do this than anything else. It is much more fulfilling. The reason it takes time is because there is no labour market for this. We’re not tapping into a supply chain. A lot of the shots we did were experiments we learned from.”

Adds Mariam: “It’s about starting an industry that doesn’t exist. Of course it’s difficult because it’s not about finding people but about finding the right people and then training them to do the work we’re doing in the studio. The people who come in are always so eager to learn and help and they’re excited by the fact that this exists in the first place and it’s an option for them. That always makes it rewarding.”

Says Usman: “We have a lot to learn and we’ll keep learning but we’re on the right path.”

As for the future, when it comes to Mano Animation Studios and The Glassworker, nothing but sky is the limit.

“We’re looking into collaborating with studios who want the same things we do, which is to make beautiful work we can all be proud of and we want to do this right. Since The Glassworker is the first time hand drawn animation is being done in Pakistan, rather than just have the title of ‘first hand drawn film in Pakistan’ we want it to be the first and best,” says Usman conclusively.


The core team of Mano Animation Studios: Mariam Riaz (assistant director), Usman Riaz (writer/director) and Khizer Riaz (producer). –Photo by Nida Shahid Mansoor

Maheen Sabeeh

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