Bilal is the regions first attempt at a full-fledged animation film for theatrical release. Vibhuti Arora speaks to Ayman Jamal, the man behind Dubai-based animation studio Barajoun, to find out more about what the making of the film entails The Barajoun studio in Dubai Media City is abuzz with activity as its full-length animated film Bilal […]
Bilal is the regions first attempt at a full-fledged animation film for theatrical release. Vibhuti Arora speaks to Ayman Jamal, the man behind Dubai-based animation studio Barajoun, to find out more about what the making of the film entails
The Barajoun studio in Dubai Media City is abuzz with activity as its full-length animated film Bilal approaches release. Just a few months away from seeing the light of day, there is heightened excitement around the film, which has been in the making for three years, with parts of it in post-production and almost ready. It is due for international release in Q1 2016, beginning with North America and followed by Europe, MENA and other territories.
Ayman Jamal, Founder and Managing Partner of Barajoun Entertainment and the man behind Bilal, says its exciting to see the character he conjured up in his head come to life. Jamal, originally from Saudi Arabia, moved to Dubai a few years ago.
It has been an extremely rewarding experience to see Bilal take shape. Animation is a genre that comes with a lot of flexibility, yet it has its own set of challenges, he explains.
Barajoun, claims Jamal, is the first attempt to start an animation studio in the MENA region. The company was part of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) last year and exhibited at the Dubai Film Market. Bilal was officially announced at DIFF 2014.
We are the only full-fledged animation studio in the region that can handle a complete production right from conceptualisation to final rendering. The closest animation studio to us is in India.
Jamal stumbled upon the idea of creating a character and then a film around it when he first read the story of Bilal.
It is the true story of an African slave who lived in the region 1,400 years ago. The film encapsulates Bilals journey from despair to hope, as he grows from a child into a young man, and how he frees himself from the clutches of slavery.
I thought to myself that this was a story that needs to be shared with the youth of the world. They should know more about this character. I had the choice to make a feature or an animation and I decided to go with the latter, although I had never done animation before. I was making short films, commercials and documentaries at that time. The idea of doing an animation was to deliver the message to teens and to make it more universal. The film is entirely in English, he explains.
However, this meant setting up a studio as well, because the studios in the region did not have the wherewithal to create a feature-length animation film of the scale that Jamal had in mind.
There is a gap in animation in the region that needs to be filled. Thats how the idea of setting up Barajoun took root.
Fascinated by the story of Bilal, Jamal began to flesh out his character in the script. He started the pre-development stage with the story, character design and environment, and created an entire ecosystem around the protagonist. He then had some sketches made based on the script and took the idea to potential funders in the GCC.
Funding films is a big challenge, especially in this region where there are no equity funds or non-governmental organsations to support film production. I took the basic draft to investors and set up Barajoun when we had about 30-40% of what we needed. And there was no question of any other place but Dubai. I thought of Dubai as the best place for this venture.
The idea was to create a studio on the lines of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, the major names in animation that are known worldwide.
More than 220 people are working on the 110-minute film, which has more than 92 locations and 10 main characters, as well as more than 80 secondary characters.
Our animators are from 24 different countries and they bring a lot of experience, exposure and depth to the project. This is important to us, as we are addressing a global audience. About 90% of our artists were recruited from outside Dubai. Studios usually run on 15% human capital; the rest are recruited on the basis of the production requirements of each individual project, says Jamal.
Jamal explains that each job in animation is very specialised.
People wrongly believe that any person that works in animation can do everything. Thats not the case. A concept artist, for instance, can only do concept, cannot do modelling or 3D. A modeller, on the other hand, cannot do hair and clothes; an animator cannot do lighting or environment modelling, to name a few. Each section has a specific pipeline that calls for specialised skills. At Barajoun, we have all the required pipelines, be it for modelling, 3D environment, lighting or hair and clothes, and we can do everything in-house.
Many of the animators working on Bilal have previously worked on international projects such as Finding Nemo, The Matrix and 300.
The infrastructure at Barajoun was designed and executed by HP, EMC and other local partners. The studio boasts 85 HP high-performance workstations, Dream Colour software, IPS monitors and Cintiq tablets. The HP remote graphics software allows seamless collaboration for artists split across multiple locations, HP networking with 10G supports the studios scalable WAN/LAN infrastructure and HP BladeSystem servers handle rendering. The studio equipment also includes SAN (storage area networks) and EMC Isilon NAS (network attached storage) with a combined one petabyte of storage, state-of-the-art perimeter security appliances and redundant backup power UPS.
Barajoun runs its production environment on various operating systems ranging from Linux and Windows to Mac. The film is using 600 render nodes with a combined power of 20,000 processor cores, created both in-house and outsourced. At the time of going to press, the film had already completed 150,000 frames using about three million render hours.
In movie-making, everything stems from a good script, which defines how the story will take shape. At the script stage itself, each character has to be properly defined. Character development in animation is a key component of the script; one has to keep in mind how the character looks and how it will be perceived by the audience.
Jamal gives the example of a battle scene involving a lot of detailing that features several different elements in the same screen space, including men, horses, camels, sand and rocks. One of the more complicated and amazing special effects is sand, which is created by generating lots of points inside the computer, called particles. As many as a billion particles may be needed to create sand for one scene.
Such scenes take more time and effort, but each character adds a new dimension to the scene. In feature films, if the script is good, you can let go of the quality. In animation, there is no room for that. The benchmarks are high. Quality in animation is paramount and we have tools to ensure that too, Jamal points out.
The film has been created with Autodesk Maya as the main pipeline, with several other secondary pipelines working in tandem.
Jamal calls the style of Bilal stylised realism.
There are two distinct styles of theatrical animation the Dreamworks Disney style of colourful, talking animals and objects, and the game cinematic style where the characters look real something you would see in a game-based animation such as Destiny.
We didnt want to limit ourselves to any of these, hence created our own original style. Bilal has a distinct characterisation and falls somewhere in between the two styles. Having an identity was very important to us. Its not a Shrek, nor is it entirely real. Our target audience includes video gamers and teens.
Speaking about the pipeline for the project, Jamal explains that the films pipeline is non-linear, which means we can always go back and change something in any asset and the changes will reflect throughout the linked departments. Weve adapted the latest technology with our custom builds to streamline the process further.
The process starts by making concept arts for characters and environments. Storyboards are drawn, and the first draft is locked based on these storyboards. While the character and environment departments create the assets based on the designs approved by directors, the animation department works on the animatics, animated storyboards of the scene. These animatics are later used by animators to start the blocking phase of animation, where the timing and staging is locked. This is the process that most animation films follow.
Once a shot is animated, it is handed over to different departments. This happens through TACTIC, a digital asset delivery solution, which is used to move files between various departments. In the Barajoun studio, TACTIC is linked to all its software through custom tools and plug-ins written exclusively for Bilal.
The simulation department then takes over to create hair/fur sim, cloth sim, particle sim and fluid sim. The results are then cached to disks to pass on to the lighting department, which assembles the shots. Assembling is needed because a shot is broken into many dependencies for different departments, to allow them to work on it simultaneously. The shot is assembled through Barajouns in-house plug-in, which reads the data from the TACTIC database and brings all the assets back into Maya.
The lighting department takes into account the mood-boards created by the art department. All shots are presented to the director and VFX supervisor twice a day, where they also comment on lighting and look-dev. The look-dev artist ensures that the final rendered look of environments, props and characters achieves the artistic vision of the art director.
The shots are rendered in Dubai and at off-shore render farms in China and passed to compositors, who colour balance them and add optical and visual effects, such as lens distortions and dust hits. The final render output is then sent to the edit department, where the director previews the sequences with music, sound and Foley (reproduction of everyday sound) effects in a final cut.
Speaking about some of the challenges, Jamal, says: Developing the thick hair of characters was quite a task. Despite this stylisation, in textures, for example, the hair and clothes of characters are realistic and display a great level of detail. This combination of realistic textures and stylised features is very rare in animation, explains Jamal.
This film has among the most characters in an animation movie, adding to the complexity of the project. Bilal also features characters and pet animals for symbolic purposes. The pet animals are an artistic way to represent the nature of each owners personality. The team goes the extra mile to develop the fur and feathers for animals. The stylisation of the characters in a realistic environment and props is what makes Bilal special, points out Jamal.
Bilal is currently in post production, which is being carried out at Parkroad, New Zealand, part of Peter Jacksons group specialising in DI and sound design services for Hollywood blockbusters such as Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Adventures of Tintin.
While he does not divulge the cost of the project, Jamal does say that animations require bigger budgets.
The budgets will be revealed by our distributors at the time of the release. While a non-animation action feature movie takes about 12-16 weeks, an animation film of the same direction may take up to 150 weeks. Thats for the big studios that work with several pipelines distributed globally. The average time it takes for Dreamworks or Pixar to produce a film from start to finish is about two years.
As Bilal’s production team prepares to enter the final stages of the film, research and development for Barajouns next project has begun, with the story development already underway.