Bahraini Brilliance, VFX, Computer Generated Images
When 38-year-old Bahraini CG artist Khalid Al Muharraqi released a series of computer-generated (CG) images of camels on the CGI user group last month, accolades poured in from the international CG community. His images were so unique that they were featured on the NewTek stand at Siggraph 2010 in Los Angeles last month and created a stir among visitors.
There are many reasons why Al Muharraqi is the toast of Bahrain today. The artist is more the exception than the rule in a country that does not have a talent pool of post production experts or filmmakers, unlike most other parts of the Arab world. Unlike most other VFX experts who mostly use either Maya or 3ds Max, Al Muharraqi’s tools of the trade are Lightwave, Modo and Z-Brush – applications that are seldom used in this part of the world. The CG artist is also one of the elite few from the Arab world, if not the only one, who is often roped in to beta test different software applications and plug-ins before they come into the international market. He was also among the finalists who submitted their designs for the FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium that is to be held in Qatar.
The camels are the latest in a series of works created by Al Muharraqi and are inspired by a desert wildlife project that he recently undertook for a private client in Bahrain.
“This project required me to create wildlife in the desert. Essentially, I had to create creatures from my back yard. The camel was one of many animals that will be scattered about in the environments that I am designing so I was inspired to do a collection of my own camel renders. This series may have been born out of that project but is independent of it,” clarifies Al Muharraqi.
“I think it’s unique because people are always interested in the Middle East and whenever they see something of a different temperature from what they are used to looking at, I guess it tends to appeal to them. Plus, there are not many people from the 3D arena here who represent our wildlife,” he adds.
The camels were created using three applications – Modo, Z Brush and Lightwave.
“I’ve been using these tools ever since I began work in 3D animation and have been able to do everything I have wanted with them,” says Al Muharraqi, who is incidentally a self-taught 3D artist.
“I’m originally a painter like my father,” says Al Muharraqi, referring to his father, well-known Bahraini artist Abdullah Al Muharraqi.
“I completed my studies in visual communications from the University of Houston and moved into advertising. But I used to spend several hours after work creating images on a free version of Modo. Back then, I never thought I would become a CG artist one day or beta test products. But we’ve come a long way since then,” says Al Muharraqi, who presently runs a premier CG art studio in Bahrain.
Being a painter, Al Muharraqi did not bother with sketches for the camel series.
“I modeled and textured the whole thing in Modo and then sculpted the details in Z Brush, after which I set up my scenes and lights and did my renderings on Lightwave. Most artists tend to use one application, while I prefer to use different applications to do different parts of the workflow,” explains Al Muharraqi.
He is quick to add though that the tools are not more important than the artist.
“All animation applications work well. What matters is the creativity of the person who is using that tool. People usually tend to work with what they are most comfortable with. It’s a bit like choosing a vehicle. Preferences and comfort levels in terms of the seats or the steering wheel differ from one person to the other. Modo feels better under my fingers than Maya, for instance,” he says.
In the past, Al Muharraqi has often been roped in to create futuristic designs for Bahrain. Infact, he is one of the leading architectural visualisers in the region.
However, last year, the artist was also presented with a new challenge – to go back in time and recreate an architectural heritage that had disintegrated over time.
“Last Ramadan, I was asked to create the sequences for the call to prayer (Athan) for Bahrain TV. I did not want to do some basic 3D stuff. Instead, I decided to rebuild one of the Kingdom’s most recognisable historical sights, the Khamis Mosque, in 3D and to give viewers a sense of what it would be like to go through the mosque when it was at the height of grandeur,” explains Al Muharraqi.
“This mosque is about 1500 years old and almost 90% of it has disintegrated.
Besides a lot of research, I sat with people that specialised in old Islamic construction and recreated everything based on available facts. Sometimes, it takes years to work on something like this. I’m used to doing futuristic visualisations so having to recreate something from the past was a big challenge. I added about 20 to 30 layers of texture to the mosque’s walls to recreate the old look,” he explains.
The CG artist, however, is miles ahead of the rest of the Arab world in terms of 3D concepts. He is already steeped in game engine development plans.
“We’re setting up a team of international experts to work with us. The idea is to move away from actual animation to offer viewers a more immersive experience. We are not creating games; just a game-like environment to provide the viewer with a bit of a personal experience. It would be ideal for museums and training.”
The artist, who has also been involved in designing coins, emblems and stamps for the Bahraini government, is currently working on an animation film as well.
“This will be a joint effort with some of my friends in the US who are involved in some Hollywood projects. We’ve been working on this for the last two years. The story was put together by my brother and we are working to create the right environment for the characters. It’s a futuristic film that relates to this part of the world but I can’t say more,” he adds.
Although Al Muharraqi shines out in the Arab world, he also stands alone in his quest for artistic quality. However, the CG animator has, thus far, resisted the temptation to move to international shores.
“Bahrain is home for me and while there is little room to meet people with similar objectives, this country has also given me opportunities to develop as an artist,” he says.