Karachi to Hollywood: Pakistani visual effects artist wins third Oscar

Published: April 13, 2014
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Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali. PHOTO: DISNEY

Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali. PHOTO: DISNEY

Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali. PHOTO: DISNEY Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali is standing with Visual fx supervisor Bill Westenhofer. PHOTO: RHYTHM & HUES Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali (C), fx supervisor Bill Westenhofer (L) and senior animation supervisor Erik De Boer (R). PHOTO: RHYTHM & HUES
KARACHI: 

Richard Parker swims in the Life of Pi ocean. Afterwards, the 10 million hair on the Bengal tiger’s body are wiped down, his fur gradually morphing from dripping wet to dry. In Frozen, we watch the little girl Elsa create snowfall and her enchanting ice world emerge. The line between fantasy and reality blurs, so real are the images. But this much is clear; the artist behind this graphic wizardry deserves the three Oscar awards he has received in six years.

The recognition from the industry for Pakistani visual effects artist, 38-year-old Mir Zafar Ali, has been nothing short of a dream come true. His latest Academy Award, for Frozen, was the first in the animation category for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. The 3D musical fantasy-comedy film is now the highest-grossing animated film in history, beating the Lion King and Toy Story 3. It has also made it to the top 10 biggest films, leaving far behind the likes of Star Wars and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Ali’s first Oscar came for The Golden Compass in 2008. He recalls the moment as being “very, very surreal.” “My wife Tamanna Shah was working at Paramount Studios at the time and we were invited to one of their Oscar parties. So we’re talking to people, having a good time and then the nomination for the best visual effects category came up and I almost dropped my drink when they announced The Golden Compass as the winner,” he said in a telephone interview with The Express Tribune.

It was a tough competition. They had been up against Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. “It took a good few seconds to sink in,” he recalled.

Ali’s forte is to mainly recreate natural phenomena such as water, fire, destruction and snow as well as visually recreate fantasy. This takes hundreds of hours of reference research, watching footage of natural phenomena such as tsunamis and storms and poring over science papers.

His second Academy Award came last year for the Life of Pi, a movie based on Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel. The Bengal tiger named Richard Parker stars in most sequences, although the real 300-pound tiger was only used when Pi and Richard are not in the same shot. The rest of the scenes consist of computer-generated images that give life to an extremely challenging script. It was in Life of Pi that a real animal and a digital one were used interchangeably for the first time. A team of 15 people were dedicated to creating just the fur by placing and combing all 10 million hair on his body.

But in the United States, even Oscar wins don’t promise job security. After the successes of Life of Pi and The Golden Compass, Ali found himself unemployed for some weeks. “After being in business for well over a decade, the company I worked for, Rhythm & Hues, filed for bankruptcy in 2013,” he said. “That was right after we won the Oscar for Life of Pi. There were major layoffs and I ended up on the chopping block after I wrapped up Percy Jackson 2 in April.”

The layoff came as a near blessing though and a couple of weeks later he was offered a job at Disney where he was assigned Frozen, leading to his second consecutive Oscar win. “The timing worked out perfectly for me.”

Ali grew up in Karachi watching a wide range of films and was particularly interested in science-fiction and fantasy movies. Jurassic Park  was his first main inspiration. “It completely blew me away!” he said.

He studied at the BeaconHouse School Systems and always wanted to go to art school. “But back in the day, going to art school wasn’t thought of as a good career move — hell, it’s still not thought of as a good career move,” he admitted. As a result, it took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do.

In A’ Levels, the visual effects artist studied what many students do out of a lack of a better choice – science. After that he enrolled at FAST, Karachi to study computer science. “Studying computer science seemed like the most logical step because I was best at Math and Sciences,” he said. “But in my last year at FAST, I realised I wasn’t fit for regular software engineering.”

Ali veered off into AutoCAD and 3d studio max classes, which “pretty much sealed the deal.” He didn’t bother looking for a regular software engineering job after graduating and instead took a short course in sculpture at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and started looking for jobs in 3d animation. “I was lucky enough to land at Sharp Image — one of the best visual fx and post production houses in Pakistan.”

In the two years that Ali worked in Karachi, he took up countless commercials, from Safeguard to pesticides in farm lands. “I hated spring because most of the commercials we had were for these damn pesticides!”

It was in July 1999 that he took the courage to start again and enrolled in a BFA programme at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). This one step went a long, long way — from Karachi to Hollywood. “My family was very supportive of my decision and that was a huge thing considering that most of my relatives thought this was just a hobby and a waste of time.”

In the last quarter at SCAD, one of his professors, Garman Harigstad, who he says he owes much of his success to, told him about an entry-level visual fx artist position at Digital Domain.

Ali compiled a demo reel of his best work on projects at SCAD and sent it over. Two weeks after, he was on his way to Los Angeles to work on The Day After Tomorrow.

Since he brought a tsunami to New York in The Day After Tomorrow, Ali has given X-men’s Banshee his sonic scream and made monsters rise from the sea in Percy Jackson.

Now when he comes to Karachi he is not known as the crazy kid who wanted to study art but as the crazier man who created fantasy worlds that people back home love to lose themselves in.

Movies Mir Zafar Ali has worked on

2013 Frozen

2013 Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

2012 Life of Pi

2012 The Cabin in the Woods

2011 Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

2011 X-Men: First Class

2011 Hop

2010 Yogi Bear

2009 Aliens in the Attic

2009 Land of the Lost

2008 The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

2008 The Incredible Hulk

2007 The Golden Compass

2007 Surf’s Up

2007 Spider-Man 3

2007 Ghost Rider

2006 Open Season

2006 Monster House

2005 Stealth

2004 The Day After Tomorrow

Source: IMDB

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2014.

Reader Comments (38)

  • Raj Kafir
    Apr 13, 2014 - 9:40AM

    Honestly, it is a good feel moment for me and all art loving people of the sub continent.

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  • Ali S
    Apr 13, 2014 - 10:13AM

    Good on him for not listening to relatives who thought that animation was a waste of time. We need more Pakistanis who follow their own way instead of falling into the engineer-doctor-MBA-CA cliche. Doing good at anything requires 100% effort, and you can’t give 100% effort unless you have an interest in what you’re doing. I’m was ‘shepherded’ into doing taking pre-med subjects and MBBS and quite frankly don’t really have an interest in that field.

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  • Salman
    Apr 13, 2014 - 10:48AM

    Congratulations sir! You have made Pakistan proud!

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  • Waqas
    Apr 13, 2014 - 11:16AM

    Wow! Many Congratulations and Keep up the great work!

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  • A. Khan
    Apr 13, 2014 - 11:40AM

    Sorry to burst the bubble once again but Mir Zafar Ali didn’t win the Oscar. Quoting Wikipedia, it would be correct to say “He is the first Pakistani to have been connected with an Academy Award winning venture, for Best Visual Effects” i.e. he works for a company that worked on the visual effects for a movie.

    Having clarified that, all kudos to him for his achievements in working on industry leading and award winning projects.

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  • Waqar Saleem
    Apr 13, 2014 - 12:27PM

    Here is the official list of awardees for the mentioned movies
    – Frozen (2013): Animated Feature Film: The award went to Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho
    – Life of PI (2012): Visual Effects: The award went to Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott.
    – The Golden Compass (2007): Visual Effects: The award went to Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood

    His name is in none of the awardee lists and a search for Oscar awards under his name yields no results.
    Source: http://awardsdatabase.oscars.org/ampas_awards/BasicSearchInput.jsp

    This is not to take away credit form Mir Zafar Ali but ET should report more responsibly.

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  • muhammad ajaz shafi
    Apr 13, 2014 - 12:48PM

    Dear Ali
    Asslamu Alaiukum
    May Allah grant you more success in life here and hereafter. Amen!

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  • Faisal
    Apr 13, 2014 - 12:51PM

    You are great!!! and yes we are proud of you…

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  • Apr 13, 2014 - 1:21PM

    Way to go!

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  • Sajid
    Apr 13, 2014 - 1:35PM

    This page should have picture of Zafar Ali as well. Can you please update?

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  • Apr 13, 2014 - 1:39PM

    A good interview.

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  • Kamal
    Apr 13, 2014 - 2:27PM

    You make it sound as if the Oscar was given to this guy individually. The Oscar was given to the entire visual effects team for those movies, which at times run into hundreds of visual effects artisits. He was just one of them. Sure, that’s great, but this should have been clarified in the article. Also, he is not the first Pakistani who worked in the visual effects teams of Hollywood blockbusters. Just google Muqeem Khan.

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  • Ahmed
    Apr 13, 2014 - 3:31PM

    It is a victory for all the Muslims!

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  • Apr 13, 2014 - 3:42PM

    As good as anyone!!!!! Modern, secular & progressive Pakistan, Inshallah

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  • Muhammad Zeeshan
    Apr 13, 2014 - 4:15PM

    Really Mind Blowing and Feel Proud after reading this new :) I showed this news to all my Indians and Kuwaiti Colleagues (y)

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  • kala Khan
    Apr 13, 2014 - 4:39PM

    I wish that while writing for a huge ex-pat audience the writer would translate all the Acronyms used …a guy born in Bradford has no clue what SCAD or BFA stands for …Thank you

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  • Pakistani
    Apr 13, 2014 - 4:50PM

    Its great that Mir is a torch bearer for visual effects artists in Pakistan, but saying that he won these oscar is not entirely accurate. ET has few other articles about him with the same misleading headline. If you look in the credits for these movies, you will see dozens of Indians (only mentioning to make a point) and people from all over the world who contributed to the projects. But the winners only are the ones who actually got nominated (i.e. Visual Effects Supervisors). It’s the director’s vision that these supervisors with the help of artists like Mir and rest of crew execute. Saying that Mir won these oscars is taking away the credit and years of experience from the captain of the ship. The right way to put it is that Mir worked on an Academy award winning film. Anyway I am not taking away the hard work that’s taking him to all these amazing places, but stating something that needs to be understood by the author of this article.

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  • Tahir
    Apr 13, 2014 - 4:55PM

    Hey Mir,
    Indeed it was a pleasure working with you, I can imagine your summer fear and songs top of that “Mardala collection” of songs playing back in the loop…… Hahahahaha .. Way to go dude.
    We love you and proud of you! Btw thank you for nice words for Sharp Image :)
    – Tahir Moosa

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  • Ali
    Apr 13, 2014 - 5:34PM

    Why is the picture so badly photoshopped?

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  • Shazia
    Apr 13, 2014 - 5:59PM

    @Pakistani Every individual who has worked on the animation is considered an Oscar winner. Just like when a Hockey team wins a gold medal all players are gold medalists regardless of who the captain is

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  • syed
    Apr 13, 2014 - 7:07PM

    he didnt win any oscar awards ,… he was just that part of the team which worked on creating visual effects… over all it was a team effort and his role was only to create water and snow effects…

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  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Apr 13, 2014 - 7:15PM

    @Waqar Saleem:
    I watch Oscar awards presentations every year and haven’t seen or heard about this gentleman. He could be in a team but surely he is not a sole recipient. Anyway, to be a background support staff of an Oscar winning team is not a small achievement.

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  • Hassan Ahmed
    Apr 13, 2014 - 9:44PM

    Such a shame, Frozen wasn’t even nominated for its visual effects. Express Tribune should recheck what people have been blogging, without any research.

    And secondly, this guy hasn’t even won a single Oscar. He had been involved in some Oscar nominated films like “Life of Pi”, but hasn’t bagged himself an Oscar.

    Shame on the writer on this post for spreading the false news.
    PEACE.

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  • Hira Ahmed
    Apr 13, 2014 - 11:50PM

    AWESOME. a true #proudpakistani moment for us/
    honestly if it werent for ur article express tribute, i wudnt have found out that he worked on big budgets movies.

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  • shah
    Apr 14, 2014 - 9:48AM

    Inspirational story. Americans value and nurture any talent whereas Pakistanis insist on producing doctors and engineers only, mediocre ones at that also.

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  • Kainaat
    Apr 14, 2014 - 6:18PM

    Amazingg stuff

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  • Muhammad Ali Qaimkhani
    Apr 14, 2014 - 6:42PM

    Truly a trailblazer!

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  • aqb
    Apr 15, 2014 - 4:07PM
  • aqb
    Apr 15, 2014 - 4:08PM
  • aqb
    Apr 15, 2014 - 4:10PM

    @Muhammad Zeeshan:
    shukr kro they didnt show this

    http://oscar.go.com/nominees

    Check he didnt win nothing :PRecommend

  • Raana
    Apr 15, 2014 - 9:26PM

    @Hassan Ahmed says frozen was given award in best animation category not best visual. mybe you should read the article before commenting on research. ALso most oscars including this one are group oscars given to a whole team Recommend

  • haris
    Apr 16, 2014 - 6:57PM

    @Ali S:
    Graphics and Animation is also a part of engineering discipline. more towards computer aided engineering and design.

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  • Shaukat khan
    Apr 16, 2014 - 8:55PM

    This is amazing, a success story and love Ali’s work.
    High five from me to Tribune and Ali.

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  • Apr 17, 2014 - 9:07AM

    Congrats Mr ali u have done superb job in movies I watched” the life of pie” the incredible scenes and animations as well in the frozen.
    You r pride of Pakistan and we r proud of you .
    Best of luck.

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  • tania
    Apr 17, 2014 - 12:29PM

    Congratulations Mir. I have watched quite a few of the movies you worked on not knowing you played your part in the visual effects. Awesome job!!! Kudos to you!
    Whether you won an Oscar or not, being a part of such great movies is an achievement in itself. Continue making us proud :)

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  • Umer
    Apr 18, 2014 - 12:47AM

    Hats Off! Congratulations, Mr.Ali. You have ignited the will in me to never give up on what you love!
    Best wishes to you!

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  • Akbar
    Apr 18, 2014 - 11:20AM

    As mentioned earlier by many people, this guy didn’t win any oscars. This shows the level of reporting of our media. Totally baseless article. He was only one of hundreds of people working on the visual effects and the oscars were won by his team leads. Frozen didn’t won any visual effects award it only won for best animated feature film. ET needs to seriously look what is wrong with their editorial team.

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  • abcdz
    Jun 22, 2014 - 3:30PM

    @Shazia:
    No it is not that your analogy is wrong. Every member of the team gets gold /silver or bronze too but not in that Oscars case, only supervisors are awarded that Oscar.

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