Between my last visit, a year ago to be accurate, to the Karachi head office of Mano Animation Studios – home to Pakistan’s first fully hand drawn animated Urdu film, The Glassworker (Sheeshahgar) – and this present one, a great deal of metamorphosis has occurred. The most obvious, however, is the space that the studio inhabits. Unlike the last time, where it was limited to a few rooms and a team of ten people, this present office, is designed to incorporate a lot more people as well as natural sunlight.
While the building, located in a congested lane near Civil Lines and PIDC is the same, the office has shifted within the complex to a different room.
As we settle in one of the internal offices after passing through a spacious, clutter-free space laden with rows of desks, echoing a minimal aesthetic and many young people working on various elements, drawing on computers with hand with great care, founder Usman Riaz elaborates on the development that has occurred.
As he explains it, the Pakistan team now includes 22 people; the Malaysia team has eight people while the United States team comprises three people. The core team that makes all the decision(s) that goes into an intricate project like this, remains the same and includes Usman alongside assistant director Mariam Riaz, producer Khizer Riaz, animation director Aamir Riffat and an additional two people from Malaysia.
“There are no shortcuts and all of us make sure that we approve everything. We decide what elements will remain static in a scene and which animator is doing what and that the work is beautiful, up to international standards,” notes Mariam.
The expansion, as Usman clarifies, also had strong reasons behind it. While Usman and Mariam were taking meetings in Los Angeles and Boston earlier this year, work on the new studio space had diligently been started by Khizer. “When we came back,” begins Usman, “it was 20 to 30 per cent complete, this space and we worked on finishing it throughout Ramazan. Obviously, the initial team – that wasn’t enough to make the kind of work we want to make.”
Told in rewind, the story of Mano Animation Studios and its first major project, The Glassworker, is about more than just animation. While the film tells the story of 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” and their relationship, it has many layers and has a number of specific goals.
The main one is to create beautiful work of international standard and to not compromise on the aesthetics no matter how many hours of painstaking drawings it requires. “Hundreds of drawings are needed for six-seven shots, seconds of footage,” shares Usman. “We have the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before and doing it right is the most important thing.”
The second goal, and one that holds enormous importance to this group of artists and storytellers, is to send out an image of Pakistan that helps in negating the perception of negativity and gloom.
“The perception of Pakistan in general is always negative abroad,” says Mariam, who is also the voice of Alliz, one of the main characters in The Glassworker. “So, part of the reason why we actually wanted to make something like this, was to show that Pakistan can be known for making beautiful things and making good art and maybe that could become synonymous with Pakistan later as compared to terrorism.”
A third purpose is to nurture talent and help create a community of animators, illustrators and storytellers who are willing to embrace the ethos of Mano Animation Studios and learn about the art of hand drawn animation.
“When people grow up, their minds are set in their ways; we want to hire young talent we can mold and teach our techniques to,” says Usman.
Adding to the discussion, Aamir explains that MAS has expanded but on its own terms and there is a strict selection process. “Applicants send us their work. We send them questions and they send us their answers. If we like their answers and their work, then we invite them for an interview. This is followed by a drawing test. After all that, we decide whether to select them or not. You have to be a good illustrator. We’re teaching the animation part.
My job starts when someone fresh is hired in the studio and it’s up to me to show them the ropes, get them familiar with the process, show them how we work, how we animate and guide them.”
Adds Khizer: “The main goal is to produce a film that is of international quality. We don’t believe in frills – for example getting someone as animator and paying a double salary. If you are onboard with the project, you are onboard with the ethos and everything else, which is why the extensive search for animators and people who can come onboard is a hard one.
We’ve gone through the process over the last one year setting this up. We have said no to some people, very amicably and you have to do it because it affects the work, if not directly then indirectly. Everyone you see working here loves what they do and are in line with the fact that what we’re making is of international quality and the aesthetic is not something that is easy to get. Most people don’t get it.”
Having picked up over 100,000 dollars through a Kickstarter campaign, the first mission is to create the first ten minutes of the film. Fortunately, there is a production plan already in place. “We owe it to to our Kickstarter backers to first and foremost ensure that the first ten minutes of the film is delivered to them since our Kickstarter backers basically allowed us to do this without any other intervention,” explains Khizer. “But we’re not going to stop after that. We need to have the next thing set so hopefully we’ll attract some sort of investment and then start submitting to film festivals. We’ve charted out the amount of shots we need to do every month, every year so we have a trajectory of when we want the film to finish.”
Apart from the work, both Usman Riaz and Mariam Riaz have taken meetings in Japan, Los Angeles and Boston, to showcase their work and the response with which they were greeted echoes a promising outcome.
“We met a lot of people in Los Angeles, when Mariam and I went to show our work to some key people,” recalls Usman. “I’m not allowed to talk about it but good things are happening. I’m very grateful to God that we’ve come this far.”
Mariam adds: “Just getting the word out, for them to know that Pakistan is doing this kind of stuff is a big deal and part of the reason why we keep having these meetings, even if we don’t get something out of it, is so that they know that Pakistan is creating this kind of work.”
Japan is another destination, the home to the iconic and revered Studio Ghibli, where Usman and Mariam have taken meetings and have been appreciated by people who are real-life heroes to them.
“The presenting experience is great,” recalls Usman. “I have a checklist of what to show people. It’s what happens afterwards that always surprises Mariam and me. They have so much, especially in Japan, appreciation. They feel very proud to be Japanese but also inspired that their work is inspiring others (like us) to make beautiful work.”
Adding to the Japan tales, Khizer says with introspection, “When the Japanese feel proud of what we’re doing it’s because they know what we’re going through because they as a country went through it when they started it copying the West. The challenges and the criticism that you face there, we’ll probably face some of that too. When they appreciate it they appreciate it knowing all of this.”
Making a film like The Glassworker also means doing things for the first time as the animation seen in Pakistan is a result of 3D and CGI.
“Pakistan never had a history in animation when it comes to hand drawn,” says Aamir. “We made the jump straight to 3D without ever having the understanding or evolution or learning process so that’s why our CGI – and I’m not saying it doesn’t look beautiful – is not as refined and as evolved and as resolved as say Disney. So for us this project is really about going back to the basics and getting a foothold into an industry that has never existed.”
Another point of concern is making sure that the project evokes subtlety. “The emphasis is on subtlety,” says
Usman, “The subtlety of people walking, subtle lighting. Everything is so in-your-face these days that I wanted to make it soft, melancholic and thoughtful.”
As we come to a conclusion of this interview, Usman recaps it for me. “Animation is capturing the beauty of movement. It is a non-existent art-form here. We’re trying to create a paradigm shift and make a disruptive film while building an industry.”
A great many things remain a question mark in Pakistan’s film world. The revival, punctuated by some terrible films, feels as if it is in desperate need of some serious examination. But fortunately for us, if there is one future we can count on, it is the future of hand-drawn industry. With Mano Animation Studios leading it from the front, it is simply a matter of time before they are embraced on a much larger scale, by people within the country and beyond.
–Photos by Nida Shahid Mansoor