Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Karachi to Hollywood: Triple-Oscar Winning Pakistani Engineer

Academy Award winning Hollywood hits Frozen, Life of Pi and The Golden Compass have one thing in common:  Each used extensive computer-generated imagery (CGI) created by Pakistani-American Mir Zafar Ali who won Oscar statuettes for "Best Visual Effects" in each of them.

Pakistani-American Mir Zafar Ali With His Oscar Award For Frozen
Karachi-born technologist Mir Zafar Ali specializes in mixing art and technology to create beautifully realistic visual effects for Hollywood movies. He studied computer science at FAST Institute in Karachi. He then attended sculpture classes at Karachi's Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.

Mir Zafar Ali worked at Karachi production houses Sharp Image and Nucleus Media where he created visual effects used in popular television commercials.  In 1999 he came to the United States to study film arts at Savannah School of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia.

In addition to his Oscar-winning hits, IMDB lists Mir Zafar Ali's other credits as follows: "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" , "The Cabin in the Woods", "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked", "X-Men: First Class", "Hop", "Yogi Bear", "Aliens in the Attic", "Land of the Lost", "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor", "The Incredible Hulk", "Surf’s Up", "Spider-Man 3", "Ghost Rider", "Open Season", "Monster House", "Stealth" and "The Day After Tomorrow".

Mir is on a growing list of Pakistani-Americans making their mark in entertainment and sports. Kumail Nanjiani, a Karachi-born comedian, is currently starring in an HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley". The new Ms Marvel Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American character co-created by another Pakistani-American Sana Amanat. Lahore-born billionaire Shahid Khan has made history by becoming the first non-white owner of an NFL franchise team when he bought Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.

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Riaz Haq said...

Do you remember Angelina Jolie as the fabulous Disney villain in this year’s Maleficent? Do you also remember the three fairies Princess Aurora was sent to live with until her 16th birthday?

Whether you enjoyed the film or not, there is no denying that some groundbreaking animation and visual effects were used in the making of the film – and it was no other than a Pakistani software engineer, Novaira Masood, and her team, who were behind the stunning, innovative production.

Not only this, but Novaira has also worked on visual effects for some popular Hollywood films, like A Christmas Carol, Mars needs Moms, Thor, Transformers 3 and Jack the Giant Slayer.

Novaira studied software engineering from Fast-NU, Islamabad, before she went to the US to pursue her Masters degree from the University of Minnesota.

Following her friends and also her parents’ advice, Novaira entered the field of Computer Science and only developed interest in Computer Graphics in her final year at college.

“I really like writing code that has instant visual feedback and I liked making things look better and more realistic,” said Novaira, who is currently based in Seattle in the US.

Having been in the field for six years, Novaira has worked in multiple areas of visual effects, but her main focus has been on performance capture software, a technique used to capture live human body and facial data to apply onto animated characters in order to make the animations look more lifelike and realistic.

This technology was also used on the fairies in her most recent project, Maleficent.

“I was part of the R&D (Research and Development) software team for Maleficent. I was involved with the team that developed the facial motion capture tools to drive the facial animation of the fairies,” Novaira elucidates. “I also worked on some hair tools that helped generate curly hair for the fairies.”

Novaira also worked on the software that allowed the artists to lay out the feathers on Maleficent’s wings in such a way that they would not intersect with one another. The feather solution, however, was not used on the final character.

“As part of a research team, the goal is to come up with innovative solutions to a problem. Not all the solutions end up being used in the final production,” she admits.

Talking about the team, Novaira said the software team develops the back-end software, and there are usually four to five software developers per software.

“Once we develop the software, the artists use it to achieve the look that the director wants,” explains Novaira.

“This involves multiple disciplines like modelling, layout, rigging, animation, lighting and effects etc. There are many people involved in putting the final images on the screen.”

Riaz Haq said...

This summer, when the audiences see the The Hulk and the Hulkbuster going head-to-head in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, they would be well advised to remember that a Pakistani visual effects artist played an integral part in making that scene a reality.

Originally from Lahore, Wajid Raza has now settled in the United States and is working at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a motion pictures visual effects company and a division of the Lucasfilm, something which would be a source of envy for countless fanboys.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, Raza shared the humbling experience of contributing to films like The Avengers, Rango, Star Trek Into Darkness and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in multiple capacities.

Since getting his first major break as part of ILM’s team for their first feature-length animated film Rango in 2011 he looks back at his career thus far saying, “Working on that project was both very challenging and enjoyable.”

From then onwards Raza has gone onto lending his skillset to even greater franchises like the Avengers and Star Trek as lighting technical director and pipeline technical director respectively.

Despite holding a Master of Fine Arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), digital arts and visual effect was not something straightforward for Raza. The ‘sub-continental culture’ of choosing between engineering and medicine did come into play and he acquired a degree in computer sciences from the Government college of Lahore.

“After I finished my bachelors program, my parents supported me to pursue my passion of studying computer graphics. And one thing led to another, and I was able to land a job at ILM,” recalls Raza.

Though it was not until he saw Lord of the Rings during his second year in undergraduate college that he realised that visual effects may be his ‘true calling.’

“It seemed like the perfect meeting point of my two interests. So I waited two years to finish my undergrad, got accepted for an MFA program at SCAD and used it as a stepping-stone for my career,” told the young VFX artist.

Despite making it to the big leagues in the visual effects industry it has not always been smooth sailing for Raza as he recounted how initially working at ILM with no prior experience was ‘an overwhelming experience’ for him.

But like all things Raza gradually found his feet due to the highly collaborative workplace environment there. “The work culture and values at ILM are still unparalleled in the industry.”

Raza’s career seems to be coinciding with the revival of the Pakistani film industry but he believes that the industry is still in its infancy from a VFX standpoint.

Riaz Haq said...

All of us know that the legendary singer and global icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had composed music for Dead Man Walking, Bone Collector, and Last Temptation of Christ. And we also know that the youth icon Atif Aslam sang for Man Push Cart and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

But do you know of Pakistanis other than Adnan Siddiqui, Faran Tahir and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who made it big in Hollywood? Chances are slim, we bring you 10 unsung heroes who are making Pakistanis across the world proud.

1. Syma Chowdhry

The news reporter in Philadelphia at KYW-TV, initially appeared on MTV’s Rachael Ray Show and Law & Order. She got her big break in 2011 by becoming a news anchor at CBS for the First Forecast Mornings show in Detroit station. She has also participated in a number of beauty pageants and was the 1st runner up in the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant.

2. Kamran Pasha

The Karachi-born popular screenwriter, director and novelist has written and produced the NBC series Kings. Some of his other works include NBC’s Bionic Woman, The CW’s Nikita, Disney’s Tron: Uprising and Sleeper Cell – nominated for the Golden Globe and Emmy Awards in Best Miniseries category in 2005 and 2006.

3. Iqbal Theba

The actor is known as Principal Figgins in Fox series Glee. He has appeared in 58 episodes throughout the six seasons. He rose to fame after appearing in Friends and Nip/Tuck. He was featured in other famous shows including, The George Carlin Show, Married With Children, ER, Two And A Half Men, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. He was also seen in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

4. Ayad Akhtar

The writer and actor is the proud recipient of 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He has written plays for the stage including Disgraced, The Invisible Hand and The Who and The What. He made his debut as a novelist with American Dervesh in 2012.

5. Mir Zafar Ali

If you have seen The Golden Compass, Spiderman 3, X Men: First Class and Life of Pi, you should feel proud to know that the visual effects were created by none other than a Pakistani specialist.
6. Novaira Masood

The credit of portraying Angelina Jolie as the picture-perfect villain in Malificent goes to none other than software engineer Novaira. She worked with her team to create inimitable special effects. She has also worked on other Hollywood films such as A Christmas Carol, Mars needs Moms, Thor, Transformers 3 and Jack the Giant Slayer.

7. Gabe Grey

Syed Fuad Ahmed — now known as Gabe Grey — was born in Karachi. The 32-year-old actor was seen in The Haircut, One Last Shot and Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy. He has also attended the Model and Talent Search Canada in 2005. He will soon be seen in Deepa Mehta’s directorial Beeba Boys alongside Ali Kazmi.

8. Umar Khan

Umar got his big break by playing the lead role of Robert Martinez in Veracious Perception. He was also seen in the films Miami Heat, The Hitman, The Test, Deliver Us From Evil, Captain America: Civil War, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and District Voices. The Lahore-born actor also possesses martial arts skills.

9. Sadia Shephard

The New York City-based filmmaker and author has written The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors and Lost Loves. She has also produced the documentary The September Issue that featured the making of Vogue. It has won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

10. Sameer Asad Gardezi

The screenwriter has written for some of the popular television series such as Aliens in America, Mr. Sunshine, Outsourced, Save Us, then the Whales and Emmy Award-winning series Modern Family. He has also won an award for his short film Equal Opportunity. Sameer is currently working on Fox’s Goodwin Games.

Riaz Haq said...

Meet Sana Amanat, the Shonda Rhimes of #Marvel comics. #Pakistani-#American … via @voxdotcom

As a woman and a Pakistani American, Amanat has made it her mission to redefine what is possible for women and people of color in an industry dominated by white men. Through her work as an editor on comic books like Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel, she has helped reimagine what superheroes can be. Last year, the first issue of Ms. Marvel — a series and character that Amanat co-created with editor Steve Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Adrian Alphona — went into its seventh printing, a level of success that's extremely rare. Earlier this year, Amanat was introduced to National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates — that initial introduction would later develop into a successful deal orchestrated by editor Will Moss, Marvel's VP of Publishing Tom Brevoort, and Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso to bring Coates to Marvel and write the new Black Panther comic book series.

"My long title of director of content and character development — I always forget it," she tells me about four weeks after New York Comic Con. I've caught her on a busy Monday.

"I still double-check my card and ask, 'What am I?'"

"Just call yourself Ms. Marvel," I joke.

"That's what my nephew calls me. He's 5 now. It's super cute. I think he's kind of messing with me."

He's onto something.

Sana Amanat is the Shonda Rhimes of Marvel comics

There's something poetic about the fact that Amanat is a huge fan of Shonda Rhimes, one of the most powerful showrunners in the television industry and the woman who created the hit shows Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. Rhimes has mastered the art of what Amanat calls the "oh no," the gasp-inducing moments that pepper her sudsy, kinetic dramas. And when you think about it, Rhimes's TV shows, with their hyper swerves and hurtling dialogue, are a bit like live-action comic books.

"You need the 'oh nos.' That's the beauty of serialized storytelling. That's what Shonda does so well," Amanat tells me.

But Amanat and Rhimes have more in common than a love of drama and the utmost respect for Scandal star Kerry Washington. What Rhimes has done for ABC — create great, diverse work that's gone on to inspire more diversity in the network's programming — Amanat is doing for Marvel.

Since her promotion, her editing duties have been streamlined to Captain Marvel, Daredevil and Ms. Marvel, three books she's very passionate about, to make time for an endless array of strategy meetings. Amanat's goal is to determine how Marvel can evolve and make its superheroes more representative and diverse, and then to ensure that it happens. By doing less hands-on editing, she's able to work with the company on a grander scale and across multiple titles.

Riaz Haq said...

The #Karachi Whiz Kid And #Pakistan's First Hand Drawn Animated Flick, The Glassworker via @forbes. @usmanriaz1990 …

In 2012, a young, unassuming Pakistani musician from Karachi created waves after being selected as a TEDGlobal Fellow, following the success of his brilliant composition, Fire Fly, which went viral a year before.

Sharing stage space at TEDGlobal – a conference that brings together trailblazers from across the world to deliver inspiring talks – with his idol, the renowned guitarist, Preston Reed, Usman Riaz was quickly propelled into fame.

This year, while still in its initial stages, Riaz’s The Glassworker, Pakistan’s first hand drawn animated production, brings with it the magic and innocence of a Studio Ghibli film.

Judging by the production’s teaser, which was also showcased at TED this year, The Glassworker is an enchanting visual treat.

Little wonder then, the fact that Riaz successfully met his Kickstarter funding goal in just sixteen days, this month.

“I’ve always loved the beauty of glassblowing,” Riaz said, speaking about the production’s concept. “It’s one of those rare art forms where the process of creating it is as beautiful as the finished result.”

Riaz, who stands as the production’s writer, director, and unsurprisingly, composer of The Glassworker’s musical score, began drawing well before his interest in music blossomed. “I’ve always loved art and animation,” the Studio Ghibli fan stated, mentioning that after studying a degree in fine arts, music and film overseas, he felt a strong desire to channel each medium into a work of art.

“What better way than to combine my work in art, music and storytelling than with animation?”