Studio Ghibli Inspired This Gorgeous Hand-Drawn Film from Pakistan

'The Glassworker,' the debut film from Mano Animation Studios, looks incredible.

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Feb 22 2018, 9:55am

Images courtesy of Mano Animation Studios

Nearly 7,000 miles from the workshop where Hayao Miyazaki is wrapping up a 40-year-long career, an up-and-coming animator is injecting new life into the industry by starting Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animation studio. Below is an exclusive first look at Mano Animation Studios’ debut film, The Glassworker. It follows poor apprentice Vincent’s friendship with aristocratic glass-lover Alliz through war and political conflict.

The first four minutes of the film deliver serious Studio Ghibli vibes, which makes sense if you ask Mano founder Usman Riaz. He’s fantastically enthusiastic about making cartoons, intuitively dropping references to films by Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Takeyuki Kanda, and Disney. He talks about setting his film in a fictional, vaguely European city (with airships!), as Miyazaki did in Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky. “I love what Japan does with Western settings and characters, making them speak and behave Japanese,” he told me over Skype. "In The Glassworker, I thought it would be cool for Europeans to behave like Pakistanis and speak Urdu.”

In a 2016 Kickstarter campaign, Riaz promised an authentic, hand-animated feature imbued with Pakistani culture. He raised $116,000, more than double his $50,000 goal. If all goes according to schedule, he'll complete his first feature in 2020, the same year Miyazaki projected he would finish his final one, Boro the Caterpillar. Take a sneak peek at The Glassworker below (a special eight-minute version is also available to Kickstarter backers).

Before founding Mano, Riaz had another life entirely. At 21, he gained viral acclaim for his percussive-guitar performances on YouTube. He was the youngest-ever Senior TED Fellow, and rode the influence of a 3.8 million-view talk to move to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. He shrugs off titles like “guitar prodigy” and “whiz kid”—judge his talks and Tiny Desk Concert for yourself—but studying in the US helped him realize that animation was his true passion. “I was at music school for three years constantly wondering, Why am I here?” he said.

Riaz used his TED connections to visit Tokyo and give a talk about his love for animation, then lucked into a rare tour of Studio Ghibli. “I started crying at the entrance,” Riaz said. The Wind Rises, then thought to be Miyazaki’s last movie, had already been released, so he saw the machine behind My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away in a moment of idleness. “Nobody was there,” said Riaz. “Miyazaki had a small team working with him, but the rest of it was empty.” Nevertheless, he wanted what he witnessed. Riaz stopped wondering why he was in music school, and summarily dropped out.

Back in Karachi, he had to create a hand-drawn animation industry from the ground up. He learned the basics before coming to America, studying graphic design and illustration at the Indus Valley School of Art. Before that, he had taught himself to make flipbooks with his father’s copy of the Looney Tunes tome, Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Gray Hare.

There's no CalArts in Pakistan. No Pixar, Disney, or Studio Ghibli. There are a few animation houses, most of which make commercials, 3D shorts, or computer graphics for live-action movies. Riaz took The Glassworker to an existing company first, but the artists “burst out laughing and said I must be crazy,” he told me. “When I say there is no industry in Pakistan for professional hand-drawn animation, I mean there really is nothing.”

He showed the artists old Disney films and Japanese animations, but they didn’t understand the appeal. Another studio was interested in his story, he explained, but demanded the film be done with CGI. “I said, ‘Forget it, I’ll do it myself. I’ll find people to be a part of this. It has to be hand-animated.'”

Making The Glassworker was a trudge at first. The final film will have between 900 and 1,000 shots, and in the first two years, Riaz has only finished about 85. But Mano began as a duo consisting of himself and his wife, Mariam Riaz Paracha. It has since blossomed into a team of 20 animators, storyboarders, producers, character and environment designers, background artists, and sound mixers. Many of them were personally taught by Riaz. The delays were largely due to the steep learning curve, but now Mano is in its groove.

Despite the enormous challenges ahead, Riaz remains cautiously optimistic. “It all feels like smoke and mirrors,” he said of the experience. “It will only be once I finish this film that I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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