A bug’s life

Bozannah, a short animation film, created by Real Image, won the best animation award at the Cairo television and radio broadcasting Festival this year. In an exclusive interview with Digital Studio, creative director, Aiham Ajib shares the challenges of creating this film.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  November 2, 2005

I|~|bug1.jpg|~|Aiham Ajib, creative director of Real Image Productions, reviews images of Bozannah at his office.|~|A bug called Bozannah falls in love with the moon and asks her if she will come down to the earth and live with him. The moon is willing, but her ‘co-stars’ warn her that the earth is polluted and will destroy her. The moon, thus, declines Bozannah’s invitation. Determined to have the moon come down and live with him someday, the little bug — to this day — spends his time cleaning up the earth. Made for the Qatar Foundation as part of a campaign for the conservation of the environment, this five-minute Arabic animation turned heads at the Cairo television and radio broadcasting festival and bagged the Middle East’s best animation award. It is the first animation work from the Middle East to ever make it to Maya’s international demo showreel along with the likes of Star Wars and I, Robot. And one can see why. There is a certain freshness about the bug, Bozannah, and the attention to detail in the creation of his leaf chairs, his pumpkin home and the rest of his environment is truly impressive. “This is the first time an animation from the Middle East has made it to Maya’s demo showreel and it is an honour to have our work displayed beside well-known works such as Star Wars,” says Aiham Ajib, creative director of Real Image Productions. The Dubai-based animation company was responsible for the creation of Bozannah. “We are also proud to have won the best animation award at the Cairo festival and we hope more animated works from the Middle East will receive international recognition,” he adds. What’s different about Bozannah is the fact that the characters in it have been created in 3D while the background itself is in 2D. This is slightly different from the norm, where backgrounds are sometimes created in 3D and characters modelled in 2D. “Within the budget we had, we wanted our work to look sophisticated and yet, also have a child-like appearance, so that it would appeal to children. Of course, this was quite challenging because we had to bring together two different environments but it was also equally exciting,” says Ajib. ||**||II|~|bug2.jpg|~|Ghaydaa Saleem, the main artist who gave Bozannah its shape and form, reviews the animation work on Maya with creative director, Ajib.|~|As a result, the entire background for Bozannah had to be hand drawn and painted frame by frame. This was done by one of Real Image’s animators, Ghaydaa Saleem. “I had to find a new way to draw the background, the trees and so on to ensure that the 2D and 3D elements matched,” says Saleem. This project posed several challenges for Real Image. For one, working in 2D meant that the animation team at Real Image would have to limit camera movement lest they overshot their budget. Ajib explains: “Since 2D [Classical Cel animation] involves physical drawing, it is very time consuming. Each cel [frame] has to be drawn, so any change in a camera angle that you see in the clip means that each change has to be physically drawn as it is two-dimensional. So depending on the kind of complexity you want to achieve in your production, like mixing 3D with 2D and so on, you have to draw that many more complex angles. This requires a huge amount of drawing, and corresponding manpower. And the more time consuming it is, the more expensive it becomes,” he adds. If Real Image decided it wanted a 360-degree shot of a particular 2D scene, each angle would have had to be drawn separately. If there were more characters and backgrounds, these would require further work to show the right perspective, while also keeping in mind that each frame has to look similar in terms of size and scale to ensure smooth movement. With the tight budget and time schedule that Real Image was given, it was wiser to stick to a relatively small space and limit camera movement. Unlike 2D, modelling characters and backgrounds in 3D allows the animator to move the camera as he likes since he is already working in a virtual 3D space. The same character can be used again in different scenes and can be moved in 360 degrees as the model is already made. “Nowadays, 3D animation packages allow animators to output to 2D. This allows the animator to create everything in 3D and then output it as 2D. However, this would not be classical cel animation and the look and feel would not be as human as one would expect of 2D classic cartoons, which rely on humour and human emotions,” explains Ajib. We could have made this work less tedious but it’s a price we were willing to pay to produce a product that we believe can compete with international works.” Real Image has consistently been telling the industry over the last couple of years that it is committed to raising the standard of animation in the Middle East. “We tend to blame our children for always watching Western cartoons, but we have nothing better to offer them. Children are not stupid. If we do not produce quality animation for them, they will prefer animation from outside. Then, we have no one to blame but ourselves. So, apart from time and money, we have also invested heavily in getting good animators to produce quality animation for the Middle East, so that our children can grow up on cartoons that reflect a culture that they can identify with.” ||**||III|~||~||~|Bozannah is one step forward towards achieving this goal. Although only five minutes long, it took Real Image three long months to complete Bozannah with three animators working full-time on this project. Others from the Real Image team also pitched in at various points in time. “Animation requires time, budget and dedication,” says Ajib. “In the UAE, most of the time, we work on very tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. It’s difficult to produce quality work when people are given near-to-impossible budgets and timings. I have already rejected three projects this week, but my aim now is to build a high quality animation studio in the Middle East. We prefer not to take on too many jobs and instead do a good job of the few we take up,” he adds. Bozannah itself ran on a tight deadline and had a very small budget. When the script was sent to Real Image for Bozannah, it was longer and there was no budget for sound. “Although people in the Middle East are more informed now, there is still a certain disregard for audio,” says Ajib. “Audio is just as important as the visuals. Music needs to be composed and we need voice-overs for each of the characters in a film. This is a very creative field and the people who do this need to be paid well to do it. For this project, we actually designed the music and audio from our own budget. We also dubbed the main character again because the script was shortened,” says Ajib. Bozannah was a dream project for the company. For one, the company had complete freedom to work on the script, to design the characters the way they wanted to and to develop the corresponding audio. “There was very little customer interference, so we felt it was like our own project. We thus invested more time and money into it. When people see any work, they don’t ask how much budget was involved in it or how much time it took. All they look at is the finished product and say whether it is good or bad. Our reputation hangs on that,” he adds. ||**||IV|~||~||~|Real Image is gradually winning larger animation projects in the region. Already, the company has done a couple of pilot projects for potential animation programmes in the Middle East, and it is close to signing contracts to do an entire series for both of them. However, details of these projects are under wraps for now. “We are making an animation series for a Dubai-based company but I cannot comment any further,” he says. He also questions the recent claims by Dubai Media City that the UAE’s first animation series is Freej, a project that will be headed by a UAE national but produced in India. “I have seen the script and I think it is a really nice project. I even had the pleasure of meeting Mohammed Saeed Harib, the man behind this series but I don’t think it can be called the first in the UAE — especially since it is being produced in India, while all the projects that Real Image has undertaken have been fully created and produced in the UAE,” says Ajib. “But it is a very ambitious project and we wish them well in it. We are also happy to see the support the Dubai government is extending to him. It is the first formal acknowledgement of respect for animation in the UAE.” The secret behind Real Image’s projects is the use of Maya. “We have used Maya for all our projects. For editing and compositing, we use After Effects,” explains Ajib. And Autodesk’s acquisition of Alias does not worry him. “We have quite a few Maya licences here and we also use Discreet solutions. We hope that when the two of them join, they will release a product that will outperform the previous versions.” ||**||

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