Mano Animation Studios makes history, again

December 29, 2019

International chief of Studio Ponoc, Geoffrey Wexler - who also worked for the iconic Studio Ghibli – brought two films from Ponoc to Pakistan this October, with Usman Riaz’s Mano Animation Studios spearheading the effort.

Geoffrey Wexler and Usman Riaz onstage, discussing the future of animation.

The theme for this year’s Pakistan International Film Festival (PIFF), in collaboration with Karachi Film Society, was ‘animation’.

So, while a series of Pakistani CGI-based animated films were screened, the surprisingly packed sessions, where people had to be turned away, were the ones featuring Geoffrey Wexler of Studio Ponoc and the films he brought: Mary and the Witch’s Flower and Modest Heroes.

If studios like Pixar are favoured in America and adored by fans now globally, in Japan it is Studio Ghibli and Studio Ponoc whose work is appreciated and has its own global following. And as the lines blur with content from one country going international and so on, there are also people like Usman Riaz and his entire team who have been watching Hayao Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) anime from a time before Mano came into existence. It makes sense that Riaz’s stories are inspired by Ghibli, Ponoc and not necessarily Disney, which can regurgitate its best projects into sequels for box office returns; Frozen II being the latest example.

To talk more, I visited Mano Animation Studios in Karachi to meet Usman Riaz; I was eager to know how he had managed to get someone as iconic as Geoff Wexler to Pakistan.

“In April of 2019, Mr. Geoffrey Wexler, the chief international of Studio Ponoc - who (was) also chief international of Studio Ghibli – and mentoring me in animation, came up with the idea of tying in one of his visits to the studio to also showcase Studio Ponoc’s latest films: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) and Modest Heroes (2019), which they had just released,” recalls Usman.

Mr. Wexler was interested in screening the films in Pakistan and Usman was thinking of screenings of some sort, knowing fully well it wasn’t going to be a commercial screening.

Instead of just two-three odd screenings, Usman and co. (Assistant Director, Maryam-Riaz Paracha and producer Khizer Riaz) thought it would be better to connect the screenings with a film festival. Pakistan International Film Festival was coming up and Usman convinced them to host PIFF: ‘Animation’ because so many films CGI films were coming out of Pakistan as well.

“You have Sharmeen Obaid’s work; you have The Donkey King, and Third World Studios who made Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor and so on and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to showcase those films as well as Studio Ponoc’s film(s) and show a sneak peek of The Glassworker’s footage?”

Once the thought had planted seed in Mano team’s crew, the ball started rolling and Usman made a small animation video, which blew up because no one in Pakistan had brought Studio Ghibli and Studio Ponoc talent to Pakistan.

“We were very excited to show our association with these people, mainly Mr. Wexler on our film, and we showed a sneak peak of The Glassworker as well, which is about three minutes of footage that we had previously showcased in Tokyo and New Zealand just to show the kind of work that is happening here; Geoff has come to Pakistan many times and it was cool to not just do an update on the work we’re doing here also but showcase their work, which is a historic milestone. And we’re so proud that we brought these films here.”

Each screening of Studio Ponoc’s work was followed by a discussion between Geoff Wexler and Usman Riaz during which they talked about, among other things, the future of animation, what Mano is trying to do, the hopes for Mano Animation Studios. “Geoff also did a workshop the following day where he spoke about his work, how he handles animation, distribution, and everything else.”

From left to right: Khizer Riaz, producer and Maryam-Riaz Paracha, assistant director at Mano Animation Studios.

Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower and Modest Heroes attracted the most crowd and people were fighting to get into the hall (at Nueplex) where the post-screening Q/A was scheduled.

“These films are so loved by the animation community here; we had a lot of people from Waadi (Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s animation studio) in attendance; we had people from Third World Studios (Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor) and all the people who work in the animation industry here.”

Why did getting Geoff Wexler’s work in there, along with Q &A sessions, mean so much to team Mano, I wondered.

“I really wanted to push this because not everybody has access to these amazing people and these amazing contacts in the world of animation. I wanted to share it with the animation community here, properly in a cinema and not just on a projector at a film festival specifically designed to showcase animation.”

“The second day was overflowing because everyone who watches these films on their phones or laptops wants to experience it in the cinema.”

I tell Usman Riaz the battle in Hollywood post-Netflix has begun. And he is keeping abreast with what’s happening as is producer Khizer Riaz.

“Cinema is an immersive process,” says Maryam, assistant director and adds, “If you watch it on the phone with a million things happening around you, then it negates the effort that goes into a film.”

“Yes, that kills it,” agrees Usman.

Notes Maryam: “As for Netflix, yes, so many of these films are available on Netflix but people still showed up to watch it (Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower and Modest Heroes); half of them had seen it already but it was a big deal because it was in a cinema. And that has a completely different affect.”

Even though Pakistani cinemas are sans Bollywood releases, Usman gives an educated answer to whether bringing Japanese films would work. “For exhibitions and for festivals it’s within the realm of possibility…”

“But these films can’t have a commercial run,” Maryam completes Usman’s thoughts. “It couldn’t have a run of a few weeks in a cinema; I just feel people aren’t as exposed to it and there are just select people for now. One day, hopefully, the number will increase.”

“Who knows what can happen in a decade,” says Usman Riaz. “And that’s exciting. Maybe we can work on something in the future.”

But then if Usman Riaz can make a historic move like – not only being mentored by Studio Ponoc chief international who also worked for the iconic Studio Ghibli before – but bring his films and the man himself to Pakistan and expose the animation industry of Pakistan to him, who knows what other history he is going to make.

The Glassworker, Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animated made film, currently in the works, directed by Usman, with Maryam as assistant director and Khizer as producer with a full-fledged studio, is already being made. History has been made once again by Mr. Geofrey Wexler’s visit tied to a festival, an authentic Japanese talent from Studio Ponoc and formerly of Studio Ghibli.

Filmmakers in Pakistan learned from him, via Q and A sessions – at least those who got in during Ponoc screenings as well as learned from him during workshops and made a new contact. For Pakistan’s growing entertainment industry, this should mean a great deal as it should for Pakistan.

As for Usman, he’s grateful to Karachi Film Society and PIFF. Rest assured, his next will be just as dynamic.

Mano Animation Studios makes history, again