Text by Ko Ricker
Usman Riaz, founder of the Karachi-based Mano Animation Studios, is currently in the process of producing Pakistan’s first hand-drawn animated feature, the highly anticipated The Glassworker.
Riaz will be the first to tell you that his primary inspiration for the project is the work of Japanese animation greats. As a child, Riaz stumbled across his first-ever anime series, Yamazaki Koji and Kanda Takeyuki’s 1978 adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, by complete accident. “When I was four or five years old, I rented this old video tape. It was a Disney film, but then when the video ended, this animation started playing, and it was the Japanese animated series [The Adventures of] the Little Prince”, Riaz explains. “For some reason, the storytelling and the way it was drawn just clicked with me. I just remember being like, ‘I want to watch more things that are animated like this.’”
As Riaz got older, he began to familiarise himself with more masters — Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata Isao, Otomo Katsuhiro. He fell in love with the works of Studio Ghibli in particular, and films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Only Yesterday inspired him to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. In 2010, Riaz enrolled at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, where he studied illustration for two years. But it wasn’t until he saw Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises that Riaz seriously thought he might be able to follow in the footsteps of his heroes. “[The Wind Rises] is what made me realize, ‘We can do this in Pakistan.’ I could see Jiro Horikoshi’s journey, how he would take English magazines about aeronautical engineering and he would sit with a dictionary and translate it into Japanese and just look at the pictures”, says Riaz.
“I remember seeing myself in that. I have all of the Ghibli storyboard books and they’re all in Japanese. I’m just looking at all the pictures and looking at how [Miyazaki] is making everything.”
In 2013, Riaz was selected to become a TED Senior Fellow — the youngest ever at 22 — because of his exceptional musical skill. As a result, he then studied for a few years at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Riaz characterizes this time as a slightly ridiculous, if happy, detour from his true goal of becoming an animator. Still, he’s grateful; after all, if it weren’t for his experiences with TED, Riaz says he never would have been able to start Pakistan’s first hand-drawnanimation studio. It was because of a TED connection, in fact, that Riaz was able to visit Studio Ghibli and the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo in 2015.
“It was a dream come true, that whole trip”, says Riaz.
“And to see how intimate the space was, to see Ghibli and just see the craftsman mentality there, that was the inspiring part. We’re so used to seeing the Pixar and Disney documentaries where they have these gigantic, stadium-sized studios with thousands of computers and people working.”