Meet the Young Animator Channeling Studio Ghibli in Pakistan

Still from 'The Glassworker.' Images courtesy Usman Riaz

Pakistani animator Usman Riaz is too humble to compare himself to Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, animation demigod, hero to cinematic greats like Pixar's John Lasseter and Guillermo del Toro, and peerless practitioner of hand animation. At 25, Riaz doesn't claim the genius that made Miyazaki a giant, but the film he's currently directing and composing, The Glassworker, now raising funds on Kickstarter, is about to rock the indsutry by becoming Pakistan's very first completely hand-animated feature film.

The Glassworker is about two young children, Vincent, a glass smith apprenticed to his father, and a girl named Alliz, a talented violinist who frequently visits his shop. Sound like a Miyazaki film yet? The story follows their relationship over the course of many years, touching on classic Ghiblian themes like the effects of conflict on children, innocence, and coming of age. In order to make the film, Riaz founded Mano Animation Studios, an amalgamation of animators, designers, and producers from Pakistan, Malaysia, the US, and the UK, to pull off the ambitious story. If their Kickstarter is successful, they will release the film in four parts, the first of which will be available in May 2017.

Over the past five years, Riaz became known for an impressive, self-taught style of playing music that landed him the TED stage, on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert, and an affiliation with EMI Pakistan. But rather than tumbling down the rabbit hole of a music career in Pakistan, he's embraced his other love: animation. "I have been drawing longer than I have been playing music," he tells The Creators Project. "When I was a child, I admired the way people made pictures move. I spent long hours watching films by Studio Ghibli before I could fully understand what their messages were. And they helped me see the beauty in the mundane, and the tragedy in the beautiful."

In 2015, Riaz gave another TED talk, this time in Tokyo, dissecting his love and appreciation for animation—in particular Miyazaki's films at Studio Ghibli. He also introduced the world to The Glassworker, then still in storyboard stage. Even then, the strong influence of Miyazaki was evident, as was the distinct Pakistani flavor that makes Riaz's endevour so exciting. We've seen tributes and short films ignite the web, but rarely do we find a Miyazaki-influenced feature film with such personality.

As a result of the talk, he was invited to tour his hero's workplace. "It was just a wonderful moment where everything came together and the right time," he says. "I learned a lot from my short visit to Ghibli. And could not be more grateful that they let me into their 'Kingdom of Dreams and Madness' for a little while."

With 47 days to go, Riaz has already raised over $17,000 of his $50,000 goal to make The Glassblower a reality. We spoke to Riaz about the importance of the internet, his love of Studio Ghibli, and blazing the trail of Pakistani hand animation.

The Creators Project: Before this project you were largely known as a music prodigy. How did you get into animation?

Usman Riaz: I think people have been far too generous by granting me the title of "prodigy." I certainly don’t see myself that way. I've put in a lot of hard work in a lot of different facets of my creativity.

What people view me as isn’t important. I just want to keep making things. I have been drawing longer than I have been playing music. I’ve always loved art and animation. 

When I was a child, I admired the way people made pictures move. I spent long hours watching films by Studio Ghibli before I could fully understand what their messages were. And they helped me see the beauty in the mundane, and the tragedy in the beautiful.

Watching animated features and cartoons encouraged me to pick up a pencil. I went on to study fine arts, music and film—and returning to Pakistan, longed to find a way to combine my love for these mediums.

And what better way than to combine my work in art, music and storytelling than with animation?

Inline image 1Riaz drawing dinosaurs as a child

How long have you been working on The Glassworker? How did you finance the work you have so far?

The Glassworker is a passion project. As you know It will be Pakistan's first fully hand-drawn animated film. I established a small animation studio that I named ‘Mano,’ in order to help make this film a reality. 

Mano has only been active for a few months. But in those few months we have made some incredible strides, I have an amazing team of incredibly talented people and I couldn’t be more grateful. Otherwise I have been working on The Glassworker alone for over a year now, drawing storyboards and writing scores. 

What are your responsibilities at Mano? How do you balance both directing and composing?

We have taken a very eastern approach to making the film. In Japan for instance, the director is responsible for drawing all the storyboards for the film. So my duties are obviously writer, director, composer but also storyboard artist. 

I want each aspect of the film to be beautiful. So I am putting extra care into my storyboards. Even if no one will see them. I want them to be beautiful for myself. 

Regarding the composing side, the music determines the scenes for me. If I have a particular idea or score written down the visuals come automatically. I am so grateful I can draw because as soon as inspiration strikes I am able to quickly sketch out what I want the scene to look like. 

Still from 'The Glassworker'

Still from 'The Glassworker'

How did you bring your team together? Many of them are still in school—how did you come to start a whole animation studio with them?

The question was, 'How does one build a hand-drawn animation studio in a country with no background in it?’ The truth is, because there is no such industry Pakistan, there were no rules. And because there were no rules, I had no restrictions.

I realized there must be many people like me who loved animation but worked on their own. What if I were to bring these artists under one roof? I searched online for likeminded artists, architects, animators and video game designers, and spread the word by holding workshops in art schools about what I wanted to achieve. I managed to gather a small team of incredibly talented professionals (and students) from the UK, South Africa, Malaysia and of course Pakistan, where our headquarters are based.

Inline image 4Storyboards from 'The Glassworker'

You taught yourself to play several instruments with online videos, and now you're funding your first feature through Kickstarter. What other impact has the internet had on your creative practice? How have internet institutions like these impacted the Pakistani art world? 

The internet is the greatest tool a creative person can ask for. I think the reason there has been a renaissance in the arts in Pakistan is because everyone can now expose themselves to the great work being done outside of the country. 

We also now have the choice to guide our own creative journey simply by typing out exactly what we want to see. We have access to everything at our fingertips. Never in the history of the world has knowledge been so readily and easily available to every single person on the planet. Be it smartphones tablets or laptops. You can access anything with the click of a button. Most people don’t appreciate that. 

Why has it taken so long for someone in Pakistan to take up hand-drawn animation? What changed that made it possible for you?

I thought the same thing. I have no idea. Thats why we are trying to change that. 

When you were 21, you met with one of your heroes, Preston Reed, at a TED performance. If you were to meet the hero most relevant  to your animation career, who would it be? What would you ask or talk to them about?

I can safely say I have already seen my heroes of animation. As the result of giving a TEDxTokyo talk about my love for Japanese animation, I was extended a miraculous invitation to Studio Ghibli. 

Inline image 2Riaz in front of Studio Ghibli

Under normal circumstances, one does not get to go inside Studio Ghibli on one’s first-ever trip to Japan. Or ever really…

No one will truly understand how it felt. I had been reading about them since I was a child, I had watched every film obsessively numerous times, I had fought with people when they told me they didn't understand what the films meant. Their work is no near and dear to my heart. 

So when I found myself standing outside the studio in front of the “Studio Ghibli” sign nestled in the bushes, it struck me as an incredibly surreal moment. I couldn’t help but cry as I was about to walk in, I had to move to the side and collect myself as my incredible hosts patiently waited. I was just so grateful. 

But even more precious was the guidance they offered me. I got to share my work with my heroes—and they responded by advising me to graduate beyond my love of Ghibli and make something that was truly my own. I felt as though I had received the studio’s blessing. I felt free to explore. I went back to Pakistan inspired.

With three more parts on the way after you finance the first part through Kickstarter, do you feel Mano Animation Studios will change the Pakistani film industry? Do you want to become the Studio Ghibli of Pakistan?

We can’t be the Studio Ghibli of Pakistan. 

Because nothing can touch Ghibli. 

Hayao Miyazaki—apart form being my hero, is also a genius that only comes around once every generation. And then you have Isao Takahata - another giant of Japanese animation, working under one roof, making his own masterpieces. 

We will never see an animation studio more gifted than Studio Ghibli. Not for a very long time. 

What I hope to achieve with Mano Animation Studios is just to make beautiful work that can complement the works of these incredible artists. Aside from tell beautiful stories we just want to give other people in Pakistan who love animation hope. 

We hope to lay the foundation for artists to come and work on beautiful works of art that they can be proud of. 

Mano Animation Studios means that we can support new work, and seed opportunities to support a new generation of exceptional artists in Pakistan, and beyond.

GIF from 'The Glassworker'

How does The Glassworker deal with contemporary political issues? What more can you tell me about the plot than what is contained in the Kickstarter campaign, TED Talk, and trailer? Is there a message you want to broadcast to the rest of the country?

The film will be a comment on the affects of war on children, and just the bond between the main characters Vincent and Alliz. 

Another thing I want to point out that might not be obvious is that the main character is not just Vincent, our young ’Glassworker.' Rathe,r the main character will be Alliz and how her role in Vincent’s life makes him mature and grow. 

Alliz will be a virtuoso violinist while Vincent will be a struggling glass blower. Both are equally talented but dissatisfied with their situations.

‘People are never happy with what they have.’ They will be complete opposites and their personalities will carry the story. I will be able to pour my own musical experiences into the characters and moments from my childhood that had an impact on me. It will be a very personal story told through these characters. 

Still from 'The Glassworker'

What's the next step for you if you reach your Kickstarter goal? What do the next several years look like for you and Mano? Do you have any other projects you're working on in the meantime?

I am currently preparing for my performances and presentations at TED 2016. If we meet our goal it will be a dream come true and we can work on the film in peace. 

We want to continue to expand. Hire more talent in Pakistan and abroad. The next several years will be the toughest because we are not only making our first animation, we are also making our animation studio along with it. 

But I have a feeling it will all work out for the best. 

Learn more about Usman Riaz on his website. Keep up with Mano Animation Studios on their Facebook page or The Glassworker's Kickstarter.

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