Donkey King
Donkey King

Between October 25-28, the Pakistan International Film Festival (PIFF) held a seemingly impromptu film festival celebrating animation.

It was niche event with six movies, a handful of shorts, a preview of a film that would still take two years to complete (Usman Riaz’s anime-inspired Glassworker) and a workshop by an international filmmaker — Geoffrey Wexler, the producer at Studio Ponoc, makers of the critically and commercially celebrated titles Modest Heroes and Mary and the Witches’ Flower.

The highlight of the event though happened on the first day: a seminar on the challenges and opportunities faced by the Pakistani animation industry. Interestingly PIFF, and this seminar in particular, had impeccable timing.

The animation industry in Pakistan — if we can even call it an industry — is nearly at its wits end, despite nearly living it large last year. Readers of Icon may remember that the year 2018 can easily be called “the year of Pakistani animation” with four prominent animated film releases: Tick Tock, Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor, 3 Bahadur: Rise of Warriors and Donkey King. The last title, unsurprisingly, broke box-office records as far as animated films in Pakistan go and even gave most live-action films a run for their money.

While Donkey King did go on to become the sixth highest grossing film in Pakistan’s history, the rest were no slouches either. If one looks back, from 2013, only one animated film — Tick Tock — bombed at the box-office.

Domestically produced animated films have a far better batting average than live action feature films. Why then are there no Pakistani animated films releasing in 2019?

Domestically produced animated films have a far better batting average than feature films. In fact, they have a better financial — and culturally significant — afterlife as well.

3 Bahadur: Rise of Warriors
3 Bahadur: Rise of Warriors

Allahyar is continually promoted at foreign film festivals (once or twice by the government itself) as the face of Pakistani animation, primarily because of its pristine-ish, glittery, ‘look’ (I’m sure aesthetics, filmmaking and storytelling qualities don’t matter in this particular scenario).

Donkey King, meanwhile, is out and about in the world, securing theatrical releases in South Korea and Spain, dubbed into the respective languages of these countries.

Meanwhile, a brand had all but taken over 3 Bahadur’s last cinematic outing — an unabashed case of corporate sellout that unfortunately killed off the future of the series.

At least in term of financials, animated films seem to be in a win-win situation.

Still, Pakistani animated films have difficulty finding investors.

Danyal Noorani, the CEO of Wakhra Studio and the creator of Quaid Sey Baatein (QSB), tells me he was raising finances for an animated film continuation of his idea but that it was turning out to be a taxing endeavour. QSB is a popular short-form animated series that runs on a prominent news network every now and then. In it, a girl’s consciousness dreams up Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who teachers her — and the audience — the difference between right and wrong.

By conventional standards, it should be an easy sell. It is, after all, an established Intellectual Property (IP) with a proven following and, as Noorani tells me, the story he has envisioned is brimming with action and adventure, inspired by the grandeur of popular Hollywood titles.

So, why aren’t people interested — and more precisely, why aren’t people investing in animation, when it has strong, eye-catching potential in both cinema and beyond.

“Many of the big challenges for animated films are the same as the ones live action films face — the story, screenplay and financial viability,” Aziz Jindani, the writer, producer and director of Donkey King (DK) tells Icon.

“[But] unlike live action films, animated films can take up to two years to produce, so it requires financiers to be patient, which is difficult.”

Jindani’s animation company, Talisman Productions, is keeping a low profile after DK, currently lining up projects and associations, but not actively producing.

At the end of the day, it’s about storytelling and appeal. As people closely associated with the medium worldwide often point out, animation is perhaps more dependent on talent than other media and graphic lines of work.

Jindani, himself a former marketing executive, has recently rejoined a prominent media agency at a key position after DK’s release. He had to make a living, he says, and animation, right now, isn’t really paying the bills.

Cinema, and media in general, is experiencing a severe crunch. Salaries in the industry are being aggressively cut down. One owner of a media conglomerate tells me that he had pondered slashing 70 percent from employees’ salaries to keep afloat.

In testing times like these, is talking about — let alone making animated films — sensible?

Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor
Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor

Jindani says yes.

“As a career brand builder, I can vouch there is no bad time to launch a good product, and vice versa. The fact is that the product eventually sells only if it delights the audiences.”

Jindani continues, “DK was deliberately designed as a film for all ages with a story that resonated with children and children at heart. This unlocks a higher box-office potential then past local animated film benchmarks. Timing the film right, like many do at Eid, can guarantee a good opening weekend, but no further. In the case of DK, collections from over 25 weeks were more than six times the revenue of its first weekend. This shows that the film didn’t rely on any so-called ‘right timing’, but grew by word-of-mouth publicity.”

At the end of the day, it’s about storytelling and appeal. As people closely associated with the medium worldwide often point out, animation — whether it’s traditional (hand drawn) or 3D — is perhaps more dependent on talent than other media and graphic lines of work.

“We do have the talent. The problem lies in crafting stories and storytelling on screen,” says Imran Ali Dina. A visiting faculty member at Iqra University, where he teaches illustration, digital painting and motion graphics, Dina also has a popular YouTube channel called GFX Mentor, where he uploads easy-to-follow software tutorials in Urdu.

Dina says that it is fundamental for animators to learn storytelling — in particularly screenwriting — skills. It helps build creativity. For comparison, one simply has to search YouTube and Vimeo for international student portfolios and a wealth of imaginative, skilled short films pop up. The portfolios most Pakistani students produce are embarrassing.

Dina, despite teaching at institutions, has problems with university curricula, arguing that very few things can be taught if the student only gets to spend 12 to 13 days in learning a craft. Any one aspect of filmmaking and art, he clarifies, takes months, if not years, to learn and master. A few days just don’t cut it.

The degrees most students get are, as he puts it, “only good for getting people married.” Practically, in the field, the education one gets from universities, offer little — if any — edge.

As an oft-invited juror at universities, I agree with Dina. But it is not just a problem with the curriculum. Of the many student thesis I’ve judged, nine out of ten students in a class are either non-serious or unaware of what they have to learn. Their teachers, including some former students of mine, are themselves lacking in education. One administrator of a university was only interested in creating space-filler modules, so that students could qualify for the degree. Specialists, he argued at the time, were very sparse and professionals had little time to seriously teach students.

A better — and perhaps eventual — option, especially for people willing to learn animation, is to rely on courses from well-known sites Gnomon, Pluralsite (formerly Digital Tutors). Skillshare or even YouTube. These sites offer specialised courses in art, animation and graphics — which, according to Dina, is a necessity. One cannot just be a general animator, because the medium is technically intricate and deep.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has to make do with general animators — people who know enough about the animation software to get things done.

‘Generalists’, as they are called, were largely responsible for the entire production of the first 3 Bahadur film, its animation director, Kamran Khan tells me on the phone.

Khan, who has also been teaching at universities, explains that his company, Waadi Animations — owned by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy — hires and trains people specifically for the job. Many of them, he and others in the industry attest to, leave for greener pastures once they complete a few projects.

Tick Tock
Tick Tock

Not that I blame them. Low salaries, of course, is a major factor in animation professionals seeking employment outside the country.

But if the industry is in such a dire circumstances, why don’t producers just share work opportunities? Internationally, big motion picture studios often outsource select VFX work to small ‘boutique’ animation and VFX studios. One can simply play the credits of any international production to see a list of studios working together. Sometimes multiple studios often divide the shots of a single sequence.

Khan reminds me that there are studios like this working in Pakistan. The now-defunct ICE animations and Post Amazers used to do exactly that: work on outsourced international projects (they did not share projects). But that’s not the case for domestic animation projects. An industry this small tends to be insecure, he explains.

In a long conversation, Khan tries to explain why the industry does not entertain cutting edge technologies such as Motion Capture and fast hardware rendering using graphic cards (called GPU rendering) in their production processes.

Motion Capture, which cuts down animation time, and has been successfully used in feature films such as The Adventures of Tin Tin, Beowulf and The Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn’t yield that ‘cartoony’ look, he argues. GPU rendering, which may seem affordable but isn’t, he reasons, doesn’t support all niche features for animation. Rendering software such as Red Shift, he says, aren’t yet production ready, and can only be used successfully on short-form projects like commercials and short films.

Of course, I can justifiably argue with technical merit against both opinions, but it seems the industry shares the same general mindset.

“Personally, I think breaking new grounds in technology is the job of countries with bigger animated film markets,” Jindani argues. “For Pakistan, I trust traditional animation pipelines to be more reliable and think it hits the right sweet spot between cost and quality.

“I’d rather be a follower once any technology is scaled up successfully, versus being a guinea pig and risk my output to save some money via pipeline change.”

Embracing change is often difficult. Making people believers, more so.

In a way, this reasoning sounds strikingly similar to opinions I’ve heard when people are asked to invest in the animation industry. To them, this is a small market, where serious investment would only make sense if there is a proven business model in place.

The year 2019 is a year with no locally produced animated titles in release. This is quite damaging, especially after 2018. With so many factors — from stories, to storytelling, to technology, to talent — standing against the industry, how is one expected to succeed?

If local cinema is dead, why not go online then?

Netflix (which will release Obaid-Chinoy’s animated film Sitara), and other options, sound far better. Especially because animated films can transcend borders far quicker than regular motion pictures — if, that is, they are made with the will and intelligence to succeed.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 3rd, 2019