Fragile yet beautiful

Usman Riaz on creating animated magic in The Glassworker

by Paul Risker

The Glassworker
The Glassworker

Pakistani animator Usman Riaz's The Glassworker is a seminal hand-drawn animation feature, ten years in the making. Usman and his collaborators at Mano Animation Studios had to build the infrastructure from scratch to create Pakistan's first animated film, which premiered at the prestigious 2024 Annecy International Film Festival.

Directed and written by Riaz and co-writer Moya O'Shea, the story revolves around Vincent (Sacha Dhawan) and his father Tomas (Art Malik), whose peaceful life running a glasswork shop in a small town is disturbed by conflict sweeping down from the north. The father and son's relationship is tested when Vincent falls in love with Alliz (Anjli Mohindra), a talented violinist who is the daughter of the newly stationed colonel (Tony Jayaward). Their desire for one another and their creative souls are an affront to a harsher sensibility fuelled by patriotism, where tradition would deny Vincent and Alliz's love.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Riaz discussed going to the ends of the earth to achieve his dream of contributing to the heritage of animation in cinema.

Paul Risker: Why animation as a means of creative expression?

Usman Riaz
Usman Riaz

Usman Riaz: I've been obsessed with animation since I was a child - there's just something incredible about hand drawn animation. In 2012, at the age of twenty, I spoke on the TED stage. I went as a performer and musician because animation seemed like a distant dream. When I saw The Amazing Pioneers, I realised maybe animation in Pakistan was possible. And when I say animation, I'm talking specifically about traditional 2D, frame-by-frame animation, which there was no infrastructure for in Pakistan. We had to build it ourselves in order to make this movie, which was a huge undertaking.

The journey to make this film took ten years. I started when I was twenty-three years old, and I'm thirty-three now. The actual film production took four and a half years, from 2019 until the end of 2023. It's an amazing medium, and I'm very grateful that we're a part of it now. It was a dream of mine to contribute to this incredible world of filmmaking and animation.

PR: We live in a world of economic and political boundaries, and the precious thing about film is that it's a shared language that connects us all.

UR: I grew up watching films from Japan, not thinking they were made in Japan. I fell in love with the visual medium through the drawings, the storytelling and the pacing. Who would have thought while they were making those films, that they would inspire someone from Pakistan to take up the mantel and say, "I want to do this too."

The movie that changed everything for me was A Wind Rises. Jiro and Caproni's journey in the movie, and how they connect through their love for aeronautical engineering, made me ask myself why I wasn't doing this? I thought, 'I love animation, and no one has started a hand-drawn animation studio in Pakistan, but that doesn't matter because we'll make our own.'

I've said many times that I'm willing to go to the ends of the earth to achieve it. I didn't think it would take ten years, but I feel like I went to the ends of the earth, and now we're here. It's a surreal experience, but it's exactly that - it connects everybody, and it's such an incredible medium for storytelling.

PR: The Glassworker is a sensitive, fragile and beautiful story surrounded by encroaching darkness. What compelled you to believe in this film and decide to tell this story at this particular point in time?

UR: There are multiple things I wanted to explore in this film. The first one was just the appreciation of the glass craftspeople. I went to Venice when I was 16, and I saw the Murano glassblowers and I fell in love with the craft. I always wondered why nobody had made a film about this because the process of making these glass sculptures is as beautiful and interesting as the end result.

I put it away in the back of my mind. I didn't think I'd make a movie about it, but I just kept thinking about it, and then, I remember a movie called Perfume came out. It's based on the book, and they showcased how perfume is made, but it had a darker tone, and it explored different things while showing the process. When I watched that, I thought they'd made something so interesting about how perfume is made, and again, why has no one made a movie about glassblowing? So, when the opportunity came to make my own film, it was the first idea I went to.

In terms of the themes, I felt it was important to show in my own way the experience of growing up in Pakistan and how the world changed after 9/11. I was just a child at the time, but I was aware of this latent anxiety and tension building up and the surrounding conflict. Thankfully, nothing ever happened in Pakistan, but you'd hear things happening around you. Looking back on it now, I can look back on it more objectively and see that it was a strange way to grow up. But when you're a child, you don't experience that. You become aware of the world as you grow older. There's an innocence and naïveté in youth that I wanted to mirror in the journey of Vincent and Alliz. From childhood to adolescence, they realise the world is crumbling around them, and it's about how that affects their relationship. But you still find reasons to keep living and to keep moving forward, and that's something I learned from the films that I love.

A key motif in Hayao Miyazaki's films is how to keep finding reasons to live, and so that's something I wanted to include in our film. Then, of course, there's the devastation of war that approaches their small town from the north. The military presence increases in the build up of the film and when the war suddenly hits them, it's about how it affects their lives. These things don't knock on the door, and wait for you to let them in. They crash into your life, and you're left trying to pick up the pieces of everything you once held dear.

I wanted to explore all of these things and the relationships of the characters, not just Vincent and Alliz, but father and son, father and daughter. Then, there's the visual metaphor of a glass shop - one of the most fragile substances in existence during wartime. Life is fragile, but life can also be beautiful. How do you manage in those circumstances? These were all the technical aspects I wanted to try and capture and when I was drawing the film, I just let the ideas flow organically.

PR: Could you elaborate on your approach to letting the ideas flow organically?

UR: I have all the Studio Ghibli storyboard books, which are stunning. I drew in great detail, but the more I kept working, the more it felt manufactured. You have to plan in the beginning and then let it flow, and I essentially drew the movie as it came to me. Miyazaki famously doesn't have scripts; he free flows between the storyboard process and making the film. I didn't do that. I had a script that gave me a solid foundation. I could refer to the script and see the movie in my head and then draw it. Sometimes it would go off on these tangents and organically become something else, while still maintaining the core of the story. I thought that was a very interesting part of making this film.

So, it was a very stressful but enjoyable and rewarding experience. That's the main thing that I was discussing here at Annecy - I've dedicated one third of my life to making this movie and I just want to jump back into imagining something else again.

PR: After you've completed a film, you transition from being the centre of attention, fielding all these questions, to what could be described as a quiet void. Speaking with filmmakers, they've said it's a buzz they miss. How are you finding this transition?

UR: When I went up on the TED stage, for example, people would ask me, "Are you nervous? Are you scared?" I'd say, "Of course not." This is what all the work leads to and when you're on stage presenting your work, even though there's pressure, I find that the world goes quiet, and you can truly focus, because where else would you rather be than at that moment?

When I was making the film, it was exactly that. Yes, there was the pressure of making the movie, and all of those intangible things around it, but the world went quiet. Then, when there's actual silence, it's just you and the intrusive thoughts in your head. So, there's no place I'd rather be than working with all that noise around me.

PR: Stop motion is plasticine models and even in live action we know what we're seeing is contrived. Yet, we connect with the characters, and we emotionally respond to the story. The Glassworker's hand-drawn form is filled with loneliness, longing and regret and difficult relationships between children and their parents. As long as the characters have a soul and the audience are given reason to care or be interested in them, it's remarkably easy to suspend one's disbelief.

UR: The most important thing is the story - it allows everyone to connect with the characters. Animation is just a vehicle for storytelling. So, I kept telling the team that yes, I want the animation to look a certain way, and I'm very particular about it, but at the end of the day, if the story is not impactful, then we'll have just created a bunch of pretty pictures.

We worked hard to make bold choices and some people were a little taken aback by them. I felt it needed to be bold, especially the physical consequences of some of the characters' actions. It needed to go in that direction because otherwise the story is just superficial and metaphorical. The physical ramifications for the characters were an important aspect to show the devastation was not just cerebral, but physical as well, and that's the comment on war. There are some wounds that will never heal, and you have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

I wanted the characters to have those desires and express those emotions throughout the story. Any filmmaker just wants that to resonate, and I think that comes from my personal experiences. I put a lot of how I feel about the world into the characters of Vincent and Alliz.

PR: In what ways did you draw on your personal experiences and are there any reservations in having shared your vulnerability?

UR: For instance, when I wrote my first musical composition, that's when I truly felt free in the world of music, because I grew up playing classical music which is repertoire-based. You learn a certain number of compositions by people like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt on the piano, and that becomes your repertoire. It's your interpretation that makes you unique, and I never felt free until I wrote my own composition.

When you play your own compositions, you are the vehicle to get your own pieces out there. So, that's why Alliz is offended when Vincent says that she's not an artist. That's a harsh and awful thing to say, but when you only interpret what someone else has written, you do not create. That's how I felt as a teenager, with all these emotions and feelings about art - what am I making? As much as I studied fine arts, painting and drawing from life models and still life, it was still the question, what am I making? It was always something that I felt and so animation and illustration were a wonderful antithesis.

There's the technical approach, but then you're creating from your imagination. I tried to imbue that in the characters, and it's strange because you feel a little naked when you do that, but I'm giving people an insight into the way I think about the world. That adds to the believability of the characters' intentions because it stems from an actual feeling I felt.

A documentary chronicling the making of The Glassworker is available on YouTube.

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