Visual effects specialist Mir Zafar Ali started his career by creating the immaculate sheet of hair that cascades around a shampoo model’s face. Since then, the Beaconhouse and FAST graduate from Karachi has scooped up an Oscar for the brilliant sequences in The Golden Compass in 2007 that beat those in The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Transformers. The world can also thank him for bringing the villain ‘Venom’ to life in Spider-Man III. Now, he’s basking in the aftermath of another success, X-Men: First Class – the debuted at No. 1 in the box office in its opening weekend. If any young artist in Karachi thinks it can’t be done, they just need to follow Mir Zafar Ali’s career.
Ali began with doing what a lot of people in the visual effects field do – something unrelated. Having studied to be a software engineer in college, he quickly realised it wasn’t nearly exciting enough. He spent some time trying his hand at the trade with local organisations such as Sharp Image and Nucleus Studios, always working primarily with computer graphics. Eventually, he took off to the US to specialise in visual effects at Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia.
A few years later he found himself working on his first movie with Digital Domain, a Los Angeles-based company. Ali’s first movie was The Day After Tomorrow in which he worked on wrapping colossal waves around buildings – and making it believable. His forte is replicating natural phenomena. “It’s actually easier working with natural effects than the effects in X-men for which you have no reference,” he explained in an interview with The Express Tribune while on a personal visit to Karachi this week. “You have to come up with things from scratch.”
In the latest X-Men movie, that has been attracting crowds at cinemas in Karachi and internationally, Ali was primarily in charge of the character Banshee as effects technical director with company Rhythm and Hues (R&H). The mutant’s voice scream shatters solid objects, kills, and allows him to fly. “I created a basic tool for the sound waves. Unlike the Hulk’s single thunderclap, the Banshee’s audio waves are continuous, so we had to find a way to show the ripples without making it look like they’d been slapped on afterwards. Then we could adjust the speed and magnitude of the Banshee’s scream according to the director’s needs.”
Ali spoke of certain projects with the same look on his face as a child who’s embarrassed by his parents. However, in the end it was all good fun for him, regardless of whether he was creating water waves for Yogi Bear’s skiing scenes or the gigantic footprints and craters for The Incredible Hulk’s walking scenes. “I really enjoyed Monster House, it was a really dark and interesting movie,” he remarked.
Work like Ali’s negates many old-school methods. “The stunt men really don’t like us,” he laughed with a trace of guilt. “It’s just cheaper, faster and more feasible to have a CG [computer graphics] double than a stunt man.”
Nonetheless, he admitted that people “always needed”. This was his advice for aspiring animators and effects specialists. “There is a lot of demand, maybe not here because Pakistan’s film industry hasn’t made much headway in that direction, but the work is available.” He has personally moved a little further from the slightly mundane work of basic shot production after seven years in the field and focuses more on research and development.
“If I were to make a movie about Karachi, it would be a horror movie. I just love those,” he grinned. “Or better yet, I’d just shoot the city as-is and that’d be my movie. Everything you would ever need in a movie is already going on right here in the city.”
Ali’s next project is based on the acclaimed book Life of Pi. The movie is about a boy stranded on a raft in the middle of the sea. Ali gets to work with endless expanses of water — his bread and butter. “Sure, there’ll be a time when I’m pulling my hair out and am entirely sick of water, but I’m really looking forward to it, specially working with Ang Lee [director].”
“There will be a lot of big splashes and whales jumping in and out of the water, it should be good,” he said.
All things considered, Ali has more than made amends for provoking unrealistic expectations from a shampoo.
Mir Zafar Ali’s hall of fame
2011 The Cabin in the Woods
2011 X-Men: First Class
2010 Yogi Bear
2009 Aliens in the Attic
2009 I Land of the Lost
2008 The Mummy
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
2004 The Day After Tomorrow
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2011.
Correction: June 14, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated FAST as FUUAST. The correction has been made.