When Commander Safeguard proclaimed victory over Dirtu and Kachra Rani, the dingy germ villains out to afflict children across Pakistan, the makers of the 3D animated series had a victory celebration of their own. Children would pound their fists in the air and pretend to be Commander Safeguard. Faithful to their hero, they would rush to wash their hands every now and then. One could even occasionally spot a Commander Safeguard outfit among Spiderman and Superman getups in costume parties. Most importantly for the creators, Commander Safeguard was now a household name.
Soon enough, the off-the-wall success of Commander Safeguard prompted other multinationals and fast-moving-consumer-goods companies to jump onto the animation bandwagon. The Lifebuoy Germ Busters and Dettol Warriors arrived to wash away nasty germs with messages of hygiene and subliminal placement of their products. The Milkateers were on a mission to get children to drink milk to make them strong and active. While the Jam-e-Shirin team sought to discredit ‘black’ drinks to replace these with their own herbal concoction.
Pakistan’s animation industry — even in its fledgling state — has produced impressive content over the past few years. Their entertaining plots and slick production values, with well-developed graphics, attractive colour palette and entertaining voice dubbing and musical scores, have earned them laurels internationally as well. Different episodes from the Milkateer series, developed by Sharp Images for Tetra Pak Pakistan, won The Animation Society of India’s Viewer’s Choice Award 2008 in the Best Commissioned Short Film category, the Bronze Award for Animation at Phoenix Film Awards 2009 in Singapore, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Industry and Commerce-Best Animated Frames’s 2011 award in the Animated TV Episode category.
It’s a measure of Commander Safeguard’s success, says a proud Imtisal Abbasi, Chief Operating Officer of Saatchi and Saatchi,that the series is now being introduced in Africa, Latin America and China. Even though the characters are being molded according to the specific societal mores of different countries, Pakistani creators are still helping in developing localised versions of the cartoon.
But given the plethora of sponsored animated series on television and the Internet, one wonders if this is all we can look forward to. When will we see animated motion pictures and television series based entirely on entertainment values and not on product marketing ploys?
It may not be fair to compare Pakistan’s animation scene to that of India’s, which has been around for a longer time and is well on its way to being an established industry. It has delivered hits like Ramayana: The Epic (2010) and Arjun — The Warrior Prince (2012), and animated television series like ‘Chhota Bheem.’ Foreign production houses like Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers Inc. are also investing in content produced and released solely in India.
So is it the fate of Pakistani animators to just look across the border in envy?
Certainly not. A few budding developers are working to launch purely entertainment-based animated products in the market. One such enthusiast is Daniyal Noorani, originally a musician and writer, who started off producing animations for his music videos. He has begun work on an ambitious project, an animated television series called ‘Chhota Jatt’, which is a reinterpretation of the popular Jatt movies from the ‘70s.
“I wanted to to give young viewers a character they could relate to,” says Noorani. “This led to the creation of Chhota Jatt. I figured we could use Chhota to explore new stories and form new narratives, and then we could use the older Jatt, his mentor, to explore the rich history of the Jatt films,” says Noorani as he explains the influences behind the project.
Noorani laments that despite his efforts to get viewers interested, he could not garner an adequate following. “People enjoyed the concept, but the sound production was lacking and people weren’t truly absorbed by it,” he says.
But in spite of the lukewarm response, Noorani kept his head up and continued working on Chhota Jatt. “Being a very expensive process, animation really needs a large following to make it feasible. Generating a return on your production is also very difficult. You really need to have something that resonates strongly with viewers and hope that you can generate revenues from beyond TV, as that will only cover a fraction of your costs,” Noorani adds.
Yet, he is optimistic that animation in Pakistan will thrive if it has an inspiration to follow. “There is a great grassroots comic book movement currently going on in Pakistan, and I hope that this will translate to animators creating more local content as well. What we need is one success story in the animation industry and then other people will follow,” he says with conficence.
Numair Abbas is another animator working towards a similar goal. A graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore and a Fulbright Scholar with a degree in filmmaking from University of California, Los Angeles, he never thought that making cartoons would become his career.
But now he is all set to introduce the first ever fully animated Pakistani sitcom, titled: ‘The Apartment Complex.’ after being in the pipeline for two years now. He proudly says that the venture, launched under the banner of his production house Numairicals Studios, is purely indigenous with all animations designed by local animators. After being in the pipeline for two years, the show is now in negotiations with several TV channels, and is expected to broadcast by the end of the year.
“It is meant to be a reflection of ourselves as Pakistanis,” he says. “Deep down, everyone from our target audiences should be able to relate to the crazy characters in the show as people abroad can relate with the characters of ‘Family Guy’ or ‘Simpsons’, to which we cannot. It’s full of things we say, like ‘only happens in Pakistan,’ but without pointing fingers at particular people.”
Even more promising for the Pakistani animation industry is that Asim Fida Khan, an animator with international experience, is looking to launch some projects locally. He has worked as an animator on Hollywood flicks such as I Robot (2004), The Tale of Despereaux (2008), G.I Joe (2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts I and II, (2010 and 2011) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). “The experience so far has been a lot of fun and madness when it comes to deadlines,” he says. “I have been working for almost 8 years now and have worked on 11 films so far.”
He is in the planning stages of implementing a concept for local audiences in Pakistan. “I have quite a few ideas on paper that I want to bring to the screen. Whenever that happens, I will make sure that it comes with ‘quality.’”
The use of animation is growing worldwide, in films and television, to gaming broadcasts and smart phones apps. With a serious pool of talent emerging from Pakistan, could animation then be the next outsourcing wave to hit us?
“You never know,” says Khan. “In fact, I should say it is just a matter of time.
People in Pakistan know their art, and they just need guidance. We have a good example across the border. They started off in the same fashion and you can see where they are at the moment.”
Noorani, on the other hand, confirms that many animators in Pakistan are already working for companies catering to a foreign market.
But what is it that is stunting the growth of the local industry in Pakistan causing animators to look for work abroad?
Khan feels that mainstream media in Pakistan is either not ready to accept animation as an established art form or feels it is still too expensive a medium.
“What they [animators] lack is a proper support system and an infrastructure to channel their efforts in the right directions,” Khan says. “Infrastructure doesn’t only include the money. I know a lot of people in Pakistan who are willing to inject a lot of capital to set up this kind of business. The problem comes in when they don’t have the right people sitting on top who can guide them to get the results they need.”
Ironically, another reason for the slow progress in animation could be the deluge of television channels in Pakistan. Khan thinks that channels, in their ravenous appetite for content, demand little quality and settle for mediocre content instead. Their deadlines are also unrealistic, which puts undue pressure on animators and affects their productivity.
Abbas feels that animators need professional managers who can liaise with media outlets with realistic timeframes in mind to ensure that animators can work at their optimum. “They want an animated ad to be done in two to three days, which is not possible for quality content. Animation takes a long time to perfect,” he says. “Hence there is always something lacking in the final product and the artists’ productivity suffers. It all comes down to production Management,” he says.
“We need, at the moment, people who know exactly how animation production works and what kind of timelines are required to get the job well,” he adds.
Agreeing with the need for professional management, Khan suggests that animation companies need to invest in their human resources and chalk out a production plan by hiring specialized people and allocating jobs to artists according to their skill set.
This way the animation industry can sidestep the mediocrity that prevails in our media culture.
Pakistani animators may not be short on talent, evident from the excellent productions of the ‘commercial’ animated series. But if the animators get the required financial support and an environment in which they can flourish, it may not be long before the Chhota Jatts can give the Commanders a run for their money.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 22nd, 2012.