By Sonya Rehman
Pakistan’s rolling-with-the-punches media industry is still young, yet it thankfully isn’t as juvenile as it once was. However, it still has a long way to go vis-à-vis establishing a solid foundation for itself. Given the industry’s standing, animation in Pakistan has only just begun to unfurl its little buds. The spark is there. And there’s a hell of a lot of potential to boot, too.
Asim Fida Khan, a young animator and a Pakistani success story in his own right, graduated from NCA with a degree in architecture in the 90s. From his days at NCA, Khan has come a long way. His portfolio of work as an animator boasts of Hollywood flicks such as ‘I Robot,’ ‘The Tale of Despereaux,’ ‘G.I Joe,’ ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ (parts I and II), and more recently – ‘SnowWhite and the Huntsman,’ and the re-make of ‘Total Recall,’ among others.
For Khan, it was through architecture that he developed a love for animation. However, initially, Khan was “so bad at computers” and a software called ‘3dstudio 4’ (that the architecture students were instructed to use at NCA), that he “flunked” two semesters in a row. But with the help of a friend, Khan soon became hooked – the software “intrigued” him. Around the same time, the animated movie, Pixar’s popular; ‘A Bug’s Life’ was released. After watching the production, Khan was inspired: he suddenly knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
With the culmination of his degree at NCA, Khan applied for a Masters at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the United States and graduated in 2003 majoring in Character Animation & FX for Films. Soon after grad school, Khan began sending his demo reels to well-known studios such as Disney and Dreamworks, in addition to Digital Domain Productions (which was owned by James Cameron at the time). And as luck would have it, three weeks after applying to Digital Domain, Khan was offered a 3-month internship to work with the team on the movie, ‘I Robot,’ which was under production at the time.
If satisfied with Khan’s output, the company would offer Khan a permanent position. Which it did.
Currently working at Baseblack, a well-known Visual FX studio in London, Khan thinks that it’s “very easy” for an animator to make a name for himself/herself in Pakistan.
This, he states, is because; “There is so much room for growth in Pakistan at the moment, that if anyone does anything that is out of the ordinary, it’ll get highlighted very, very quickly. It’s an untapped market that people should take advantage of.”
And this is exactly what Numair Abbas, a young animator in Islamabad, is setting out to do. A Fulbright scholar who studied animation at UCLA Film School, Abbas, under the banner of his studio, ‘Numairical Studios,’ is currently in the process of putting together Pakistan’s first animated series, ‘The Apartment Complex,’ that is expected to be broadcast on a local television channel soon.
“‘The Apartment Complex’ is my first large-scale venture and is a pretty big experiment to see if Pakistan is ready for this kind of thing yet,” Abbas states.
“The show is based around tenants living in an illegally half-constructed, half falling apart apartment complex,” states Abbas, “The building is a metaphor for our country and what we do in it. So we’ve got some really crazy characters and they’re all actually personifications of stereotypes of our people.”
“I’m keeping the humour and stories subtle for now so that people can enjoy the characters and the show first and then begin to realize they’re actually laughing at things they do themselves.”
Currently in talks with “a lot of TV channels and sponsors,” Abbas states that given the interest shown by certain well-know Pakistani TV channels, a decision will soon be made regarding where ‘The Apartment Complex’ is to be aired.
“We want the characters to become an identity for Pakistan and then promote them in countries outside of Pakistan too. These guys are going to be our ambassadors,” Abbas states.
With Pakistan-centric themes, ‘The Apartment Complex’ will feature “silly, fun things” such as; “Power outages, the fluctuation between political apathy and political extremism, gender realizations by role changing, dirty cricket, fatwa’s, and medicine vs. home-remedy totkas.”
Just like Khan, animator Syed Shaharyar Jabbar, graduated from NCA with a degree in architecture. Currently living in Canada and studying Computer Animation from Sheridan College, Jabbar taught at Beaconhouse National University (BNU) for three years at the School of visual Arts till he became Creative Head (Media & Broadcast) at Wateen Telecom in Lahore in 2007.
One must also mention the fact that Jabbar was once part of the popular percussion band – Overload, and in 2006 made a 2D animated music video for the band’s number, ‘Storm,’ standing as Pakistan’s first animated music video which was extremely well-received immediately following its release.
Presently, Jabbar is working on ‘SpaceCow,’ his very own, 3D animated short about an extraordinary little farm cow whose “mission in life is to go outer space – to boldly go where no cow has gone before.”
Jabbar aspires to release ‘SpaceCow’ – currently in its production phase – this summer.
“I believe an artist is secular when it comes to working in the animation industry. It’s a passion-driven art form and requires artistic talent and technical skills,” states Jabbar when asked whether or not an animator from Pakistan can find employment in Disney or Pixar, for example. “The CG industry in the west is open to artists from any part of the world. It’s just a question of meeting the standards that these big companies have set. Anybody whose work is up to that mark is in. Pakistani’s trained abroad are doing well in the industry, obtaining good positions and working on some great projects just as Asim Fida Khan and many others. But in Pakistan we lack formal training in animation which is imperative to work in an industrial production pipeline.”
For Jabbar, the Pakistani animation industry seems to be developing rather slowly. “The force behind the current industry is a few passion and technology driven people who, without any support and formal education available in Pakistan, are running the show.”
Stating that most of the country’s animators are either self-taught or were trained in studios, Jabbar thinks that there seems to be an utter lack of formal training in the field of animation in Pakistan.
“Countries like Malaysia, Korea, Singapore and India have not only managed to develop content for the international market but also for their local market. Pakistan can definitely join this club and generate serious revenues,” states Jabbar, “But there is a lack of investment in this sector and demand from Pakistani TV channels for animation, coupled with the fact that animation outsourcing is not possible until studios manage to build reputations for themselves by showing their films abroad – and that itself a long and arduous process.”
Interestingly, Khan states that when he joined Digital Domain he was stumped. “I realized that whatever I had learnt in school in two years was far less than what I would learn here [at Digital Domain] in three months.”
“It was whole new world to me and it definitely was challenging,” Khan says, “But the culture there is so inviting and helpful that no one would expect you to know anything even after knowing that you’ve just come out of school, having learnt animation for two years. I guess also when you are put in such competitive environment it really does stretch your learning curve.”
Currently Khan has his hands full working on ‘Total Recall’ – as a Generalist Technical Director – given the movie’s impending release.
“Contrary to a popular belief (and it happens to me all the time), when I tell someone that I do animation for films, they go: ‘Oh wow, what a dream job, you go to work every day and make cartoons! How amazingggg!’ I’m like really? I wish people knew how stressful a job like this can get during crunch period – and after the delivery of the film you don’t want to go near the computer for the longest time, not even to check Facebook!”
For aspiring Pakistani animators hoping to make a name for themselves, Khan advises local animators to “create their own short animation, or music video, or whatever they want to do and send it to the countless film festivals taking place all over the globe.”
And to break into Pixar or Disney, for example? “What counts is your talent and experience,” he says, “If you manage to get the visa, of course.”
But locally, does the field of animation have a chance to flourish in Pakistan?
Abbas remains hopeful: “If Pakistani animators work on their drawing, their art and their aesthetics, they can blow the current Pixar and Disney animators out of the water.”
The Friday Times