Instep Today

Touching the sky with Mano Animation Studios

Instep Today
By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 09, 22

Usman Riaz, Mariam Riaz and Khizer Riaz discuss the experience of Annecy, the Mano Animation Studios ethos, and creating an industry while doing so

From left to right: Khizer Riaz, Mariam Riaz, Usman Riaz and Manuel Cristobal at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, circa 2022.
From left to right: Khizer Riaz, Mariam Riaz, Usman Riaz and Manuel Cristobal at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, circa 2022.

“You’ve been so kind and generous/I don’t know how you keep on giving.”
– ‘Kind & Generous’ by Natalie Merchant

Meeting Mariam, Usman and Khi-zer could mean inflated egos. But as I replay the post-Annecy interview, what is most obvious is the humility of the people in this room.

The core team is so generous with gratitude that it has led to a domino effect where everyone from Mano Animation Studios considers themselves blessed.

Another thing I picked up is how important it was and still is for Usman’s core team and the people who work at the studio to be acknowledged.

This gratitude is just as palpable in Mariam (artistic director) and Khizer (producer, line producer). The latter, even when probed about the series of average Pakistani films, is cautiously optimistic. His encouraging attitude towards the present and the future, noting how far we’ve come from an industry that was pretty much dead for decades except Lollywood Shaan-type films is clear.

Mariam is like the fairy godmother and is so approachable and relatable that various individual members of team approach her as I sit watching the view through glass doors that allow a kind of connection instead of a chasm between the core team and the people who have found their dream job and have left behind their previous careers.

This isn’t hyperbole. Usman Riaz as well as Mariam Riaz and Khizer Riaz have accomplished more than your average filmmaking studio.

Getting covered by Variety (earlier this year) was simply one accomplishment in a long list that also includes getting international chief of Studio Ponoc, Geoffrey Wexler (who also worked for the iconic Studio Ghibli), to Pakistan in 2019.

Meanwhile, the core team that originated with Mariam, Usman and Khizer got two substantial additions: Aamir Riffat and Sofia Abdullah.

Among latest accomplishments, Mano Animation Studio, with its upcoming feature film, The Glassworker, impressed prominent Spanish producer Manuel Cristobal (Wrinkles, Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles) to come onboard as executive producer. This was followed by going to France’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival, said to be the Cannes of animation films.

In its competitive work-in-progress (WIP) section, films from all over the world aim to make the cut but only a handful do. In 2022, out of the many films before them, Annecy chose Mano’s The Glassworker along with a handful of others.

Mano’s presentation not only made the cut but received a standing ovation afterwards. It impressed various publications outside Pakistan to follow its development as a possibly meaningful and beautiful hand-drawn animated film coming out of the dangerous (hyperbole) Karachi, Pakistan. It’s just the world around us sees us as that.

Speaking about Annecy, Mariam Riaz explained why it matters in the short and long runs. “People were finally aware of what we’re doing and how we’re still alive and making something important. It wasn’t about putting some Instagram post but something legitimate.”

Producer Khizer adds to the conversation (as we look towards a screen showcasing the universe from a certain angle beyond the earth on one end and the rest of the office from another angle and the outside Karachi skyline): “I mean, yeah, it was an achievement with respect to Annecy,” where he, too, was a part of the panel.

Khizer explains how keeping the news to themselves until it went became public was less like a burden but exciting. “Also, the guidance we’ve been receiving about the project was don’t overmarket because there are so many productions that we have never even heard of that have gone to the publicity route verses the actual work route.

It kind of muddles the message of the project.”

As Khizer reminds us, what the Mano team is always looking at is the next step. “So, this is one thing we had to take to create buzz for the project and then – at the end of the day – sell it.”

For Khizer, pressure, as he notes, is still about making the film, selling it and hopefully someone buying it and the world – however much – have access and interest to see it.

To him, Annecy is one step in the right direction.

Mariam, also present in the room, refers to the nexus between Mano as the first hand-drawn studio in the country, the CGI-based animation film industry, creating jobs and how all of it is connected.

“We’re creating an industry,” she says, but with a refreshing take on the animation industry where CGI has been the go-to medium, even seen across films. “People don’t know how it works; there are so many steps to cover to be able to finish the film. So, even getting into a festival is big deal.”

She describes how the question ‘oh, you’re not done yet’ is not the point. “There are number of concepts that you need to be clear about,” before adding, “This was pertinent to put across.”

Mariam is alluding to the process of selling the film and what plans do you have ahead of the release.

While speaking of movies, as much as Khizer and even Mariam support the gradual revival of cinema, they, too, agree that prominent producers and directors and that whole jazz cannot hide behind the spiel of “support local cinema”. Mariam, astutely notes, that some films do look like they’re made for profitable reasons while the content suffers. However, they maintain films should be made. It is crucial for the survival of cinema and the culture of watching films at a cinema.

“And I/Want to thank you/For giving me the best day/Of my life.” – ‘Thank You’ by Dido

Apart from talking about the Pakistan film industry and its revival, the room is buzzing with energy as the subject of Annecy Festival in France comes up. What Mano Animation Studios has accomplished and the kind of positive response they got from the festival has left an

indelible mark on them. It

also provided Usman, Mariam, Khizer and Manuel a chance to show the work that has been done to a larger animation community and network during the trip.

As Variety articles first released with a string of stories relating to Mano Animation Studios, Usman started getting messages from many people including his TED contacts, but for him, the presentation didn’t cause any pressure.

The presentation at Annecy - not only put Usman, Mariam, Khizer and Manuel front and center in front of the animation industry, the presentation showcased that it wasn’t prepared at the eleventh hour.

As Usman explains, he knew what he had to do. “I prepare a lot and I know what I have to do. Only eight films were selected in the WIP section of

Annecy. Our presentation ran between 75 to 80 minutes. It included talking about your project from start to finish, your milestones and your difficulties, your perseverance, all leading up to where you are.”

The Glassworker has a deadline, but Usman isn’t worried.

“The deadline is out there but the pressure comes from within.”

The years of being a TED fellow armed him to be comfortable onstage. He admits he isn’t someone who gets flustered on stage by anyone or anything.

For Usman, who is now well-versed in designing presentations since his longtime association with TED, the selection and appreciation at Annecy is nothing short of a blessing.

Mariam, who understands the ethos of Mano - like the core unit - doesn’t lack the empathy that the studio works with each individual with distinct personalities. She was also on the panel of Annecy presentation and understands the larger context of a Pakistani film receiving standing ovation and how it will reflect realities such as human fragility, invulnerable and the vulnerable.

In the end, The Glassworker, the story and the animation has won applause everywhere it has gone because it is worthy of it. Annecy was a strategic step in a direction and many remain before its release (in 2023). What we can count on is that Usman, Mariam, Khizer, Sofia, and Aamir – along with the happy faces at Mano – will make it, but like them, employing patience would be best for this kind of work, which is new to Pakistan and is winning acclaim wherever it has gone and whomever has seen pieces.