Directed by Usman Riaz, the fully hand-drawn animation movie took a decade to make; it will premiere at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France next month

When Usman Riaz and Khizer Riaz set out to make an animated feature film, it suddenly dawned on them that there were no animators or animation studios in their country to produce it. “We had to first create an animation studio and train animators before thinking about making an animation film,” says the cousins from Karachi, Pakistan. Once the animation studio was in place, their long-awaited project finally began to roll.

A decade later, Pakistan’s first-ever 2D animation feature film is ready for world premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, the world’s top destination for animated movies, which will be held from June 9 to 15. The Glassworker, which is directed by Usman and produced by Khizer, is a fully hand-drawn and hand-painted feature film inspired by Japanese animation.

A dream, fulfilled

Filmed in separate Urdu and English language versions, it will hit the screens in Pakistan on July 26, following the world premiere in Annecy, a picturesque French city in the foothills of the Mont Blanc mountain. The 90-minute film, created in the Mano Animation Studios founded by Usman and Khizer, tells the story of a father and son running a glass workshop who find their lives upended by the outbreak of a civil war.

“The infrastructure for cinema is poor in Pakistan, especially for animated movies,” says Usman, a prolific artist who wrote the original story and drew the entire storyboard and animation for the The Glassworker. “There was no animation film industry in Pakistan and an animated feature film was a distant dream for the country,” he adds. “Making The Glassworker was like building the rail while the train was moving,” says Khizer, who along with Usman, grew up watching movies together by renting DVDs in Karachi.

Filmed in separate Urdu and English language versions, the film will hit the screens in Pakistan on July 26.

The journey for The Glassworker began a decade ago when Usman was in Tokyo to deliver a TedX lecture. “I was a bundle of nerves being in the land of animation,” he says. “Then someone from the Studio Ghibli (the famous Japanese animation company received an Honorary Palme d'Or at the 77th Cannes Film Festival earlier this week) and handed me a business card,” adds Usman, who studied Graphic Design at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi.

A visit to Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio co-founded by the legendary Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who created a host of cult characters to unleash a fresh wind of animated films over the past four decades, set the foundation for Usman’s cinematic career and Pakistan’s animation film industry.

The film, directed by Usman Riaz (centre), is produced by Khizer Riaz (left) with production design by Mariam Riaz Paracha (right)

The long road to success

Returning from Japan and with Khizer in tow, Usman set up the Mano Animation Studios in Karachi. The next step was training animators and artists by scouting students from art schools in the country. A consultant from Studio Ghibli was at hand to support their dream of making the first 2D animated feature film in Pakistan.

Soon Usman began drawing for the movie. “There were 2,500 drawings and 1,477 individual shots on the storyboard,” he recalls. “No one had ever done this before in Pakistan. Apple founder Steve Jobs once said that it takes years of work to be an overnight success.”

In 2018, the Karachi cousins made an eight-minute pilot animation for The Glassworker and took it to Studio Ghibli for consultation. A nod from the famous studio soon set the film production on track. In the next four years, a 500-member production team toiled away every day to make the movie.

“We had a two-hour-long movie, but edited it to 90 minutes,” says Usman, who received a full scholarship to study music composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States. “The film is a collaboration of South Asian talent,” says Khizer.

The 90-minute film tells the story of a father and son running a glass workshop who find their lives upended by the outbreak of a civil war

The cast for the English version includes British-Pakistani actor Art Malik (A Passage to India, City of Joy, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, The Little Mermaid) and British-Indian actor Sacha Dhawan (Line of Duty, Sherlock, The Lady in the Van).

Malik lends his voice for Tomas Oliver, the father, and Dhawan plays the role of the son, Vincent. The cast also has British-Sri Lankan actor Tony Jayawardena (A Street Car Named Bob and Tower Block).

Born from a shared dream

At the Marché du Film, the world’s largest film market at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, which concluded recently, Usman and Khizer joined the film’s production team to unveil the trailer of The Glassworker at the American Pavilion.

“The Cannes festival event allows us to bring our unique story to the global audience before the film’s world premiere at Annecy in June,” says Khizer. “I spent ten years of my life making this film. And while it wasn’t easy, it was a journey that taught me a lot. And I’m excited to share that journey with others who want to pursue their dreams,” adds Usman.

The film's cast includes British-Pakistani actor Art Malik and British-Indian actor Sacha Dhawan

“From box-office sensations like The Legend of Maula Jatt to festival favourites like Joyland and In Flames, our films are breaking barriers and narrating our own stories, in a world where stories from the global south are marginalised and rampant Islamophobia still persists,” says Mohammed Ali Naqvi, Chairman, Pakistani Academy Selection Committee that champions new voices in South Asia.

Agrees International Emmy Award-winning producer Apoorva Bakshi (Delhi Crime, The Hunt for Veerappan), who has executive-produced The Glassworker. “Creating The Glassworker was a journey of weaving intricate threads of emotion, artistry, and cultural resonance,” says Bakshi. “It’s a testament to the power of collaboration and the endeavour to achieve excellence born from a shared dream,” she adds.

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