IGN PK: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your journey.
I was born in Sialkot, which is also the birth city of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, something I’ve come to appreciate too late in life. Anyway, when I was about 5, my uncle gifted me a copy of the illustrated storybook for ‘The Lion King’. I have core memories of the whole family huddled together for readings from the book. Amma Abba would read to us, and translate bits we didn’t understand from English to Urdu, and my siblings and I would just sit there having the time of our lives. Only later, upon randomly spotting the VCR cassette for ‘The Lion King’ at our local cantonment grocery store, did we realize the storybook we had was a film adaptation. We collectively lost our minds and immediately brought it home with us for a family viewing. These screenings of ‘The Lion King’ became a recurring event and were followed by my siblings. I reenacted scenes from the film, drew the many characters, and sought out and watched other Disney films (shoutout to ‘Mulan’ which was also dearly loved in the Mir household)—all that left a mark.
The drawing stuck with me from there. Drawing and watching tons of animation. In high school, I would also make these live-action shorts with some friends. We’d get together to write the stories, plan out the shots, record, edit… the whole deal! They weren’t great and can no longer be found on the interwebs, haha! But we were really into it. Video games were also a constant. I’ve spent hundreds of hours trading and battling Pokemon through cables attached to Gameboys with friends and siblings. Looking back now, I see that I’ve always associated story art and animation with the community and the relationships I’ve built through it. Art, especially video games, are extremely collaborative endeavors and I love that.
So yeah, I say all this now but I never considered art as a viable career trajectory growing up. It was always present in one form or another but only as a hobby. I’d never met a Pakistani artist animator or game developer and that was a major reason why this mental barrier existed for me. I realized it was possible only when Mano Animation Studios became visible and started to build a space for traditional animation in Pakistan. I interned for them during my final year of undergrad and that experience sealed it. I must also note here, however, that a lot of class and gender privilege allowed me to pack up my bags and move to Karachi from Lahore to pursue this “exuberant” day job of making cartoons over the more “practical” and “stable” opportunities available to me at the time as a CS major.
IGN PK: How long have you been doing this? And what has been your formal training in your area of expertise?
About 5 years at this point.
I graduated from LUMS in 2017 having majored in Computer Science but put that on hold to work at Mano Animation Studios as a Traditional Animator. At Mano, I found insanely talented peer mentors, people I continue to admire and look up to. I was introduced to the fundamentals of drawing and animation and fell even more in love with the medium. I also got my first taste of working in a studio environment on a production and became intimately familiar with the Traditional Animation pipeline. Eventually, after about a year at Mano, I moved to the US to pursue a graduate degree in Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University in hopes of bringing together my seemingly disparate technical and artistic skills. This program welcomes people from multiple disciplines like art, programming, sound design, writing, etc., and prepares them for roles in the highly collaborative, multi-disciplinary entertainment industry. Here, I chose to focus on Technical Art.
Technical Art is a pretty wide spectrum and responsibilities vary between studios and even departments. From my experiences in the industry, I roughly group technical artists into the following categories:
Character Technical Artist: Character models need to be “rigged” before they can be animated. To rig a static 3D character model means to first, design and build a skeleton for it and then controls on top of that skeleton that allow Animators to easily manipulate said skeleton. Character Technical Artists must have a strong understanding of anatomy so they can ensure character models deform in pleasing, believable ways and follow art direction. Character Technical Artists also write tools and software to automate processes of creating character rigs.
Shader Technical Artist: The simplest way to explain shaders would be to say they’re visual effects. If you want your character’s skin, for example, to be made of fire or rock or water, or you want a flowing water body in your game to exhibit certain visual properties, you’d ask a Shader TA to build you a shader that you can apply to your character. Shaders are programs you run on GPU hardware; they require a lot of parallel evaluation.
Tools/Pipeline Technical Artist: You develop and maintain proprietary software used within studios to cater to the artists’ workflows. This requires that you be intimately familiar with current workflows employed throughout the studio’s art pipelines.
So yeah, lots of student projects and courses catered to building the skills and portfolio for Technical Art at CMU. I decided early on I’d focus on Character Technical Art but honestly, it’s all pretty intertwined. You’re bound to write proprietary software, figure out optimal pipelines for artists, and do all sorts of problem-solving solving whatever denomination of Technical Art you choose. I took this Technical Animation course at CMU that deserves a mention here. It introduced me to a lot of the math that drives all sorts of hair and cloth simulations you see in 3D films and games. It further solidified my convictions. Also, lots of textbooks! This is a habit I built near the end of my undergraduate degree where I started finding a lot of joy in textbooks, haha! At Mano, I doubled down. I had a lot of catching up to do art-wise and would constantly read Andrew Loomis’ ‘Drawing the Head and Hands’ and of course, Richard Williams’ ‘Animator’s Tool Kit’ which I can’t recommend enough.
IGN PK: How did you end up at Naughty Dog?
The first ‘The Last of Us’ game had a massive impact on me. After playing it in 2013, I began to engage with games as more than just a consumer. I watched the behind-the-scenes documentary for the game several times (it’s called “Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us” and it’s up on Youtube), looked up all sorts of keynotes and talks by devs from the studio, just became more interested in development overall. I applied for a position at the studio in 2019 during graduate school and landed an art test which I immediately realized I wasn’t ready for at the time. I got my first job in games after CMU at Oxide Games where I grew immensely as a Technical Animator and gained confidence in my ability to understand and add to proprietary studio art pipelines. All the while, I also just kept a casual eye on openings at Naughty Dog.
About 2 years at Oxide, I saw an opening at Naughty Dog that just felt like a match for my then-skillset. I applied; the interview process went on for a couple of months after which I joined the studio as an Animation Technical Director (not that kind of Director). The first thing I found out after arriving was that we were working on the PS5 remake of ‘The Last of Us’ and I had my tiny ‘full-circle’ moment, Alhamdulillah. My work at Naughty Dog, for the most part, involves understanding the animation pipeline, identifying bottlenecks, and building software to improve the pipeline and animators’ workflows.
IGN PK: Where do you operate out of?
I’m based in Los Angeles right now, close to work. I work from home most days and go into the office sometimes. Tech and games have embraced hybrid work for the most part, the flexibility is undeniably a massive quality-of-life improvement for workers.
IGN PK: What are some of the key games or IPs you have worked on? Which one of these are you most proud of in terms of your contribution?
I started my career at Mano Animation in Karachi and contributed to The Glassworker during my short time there.
At Oxide Games, I built a giant chunk of the character pipeline for ‘Ara: History Untold’. It’s set to release sometime this year, you can check out the trailer here:
And as I mentioned earlier, I helped ship ‘The Last of Us: Part I’ at Naughty Dog. The project was in its final stages when I joined so my contributions were limited to supporting the existing animation pipeline and tools. I’ve been spending most of my energies building animation workflows and pipelines for the recently announced The Last of Us Multiplayer game.
I’m extremely lucky and privileged to have always found work in very creative and driven settings. It’s always provided me opportunities to learn and grow and solve problems so it’s all been deeply rewarding, Alhamdulillah. I’m equally grateful for all these experiences.
IGN PK: What made you interested in game development/Animation? Did someone motivate or inspire you? And where did you learn the initial skills necessary?
So early on, The Lion King. And I was obsessed with several other Disney features too. I played many, MANY video games. And after a point, I started to follow up all this consumption of content with questions about how it was made. I started watching a lot of behind-the-scenes/making-of documentaries, and interviews from creators. I was lacking that one example of a local animation studio to push me off the edge. That came with Mano.
When I saw the quality of work they were producing, I knew instantly in my heart of hearts it was special and I just had to be part. I sent them what little art portfolio I had at the time and expressed my interest in joining them for an internship. They loved my enthusiasm and brought me on. All my peers at Mano inspired me a lot too, and taught me that you can learn to be good at art and drawing the same way you learn to be good at mathematics or science; there are fundamentals you can practice, core principles for the discipline you need to master, resources already exist, people have written books! At that time, I still had a bit of “Oh, artistic talent is something you’re born with” and unlearning this was a massive takeaway.
When I transitioned to Technical Art, my background in CS came back into play. The understanding of human anatomy and deformation I’d built up at Mano was also crucially important.
IGN PK: How has your support been from family, friends, and the network?
I would be nowhere without the love and support of my family and friends. I’m a product of the community and land that’s nurtured me. My family placed a lot of trust in me when I initially expressed the desire to leave behind CS, move to Karachi, and pursue Traditional Animation. They were extremely scared, just as I was, but trusted me to carve some path on my own.
My friends always met me with excitement and support. This was important and affirming, you know, because I was terrified and unsure about leaving behind the familiar and safe CS path.
I remember fretting over not accepting a better-salaried job at some bank over the Mano gig. As I mentioned earlier, massive amounts of financial and class privilege allowed me to pursue this path of relative uncertainty.
There were also definitely nay-sayers, people who thought I was wasting my time drawing cartoons, and made sure they were heard, haha! It took me some time (and practice) to completely tune out these negative voices. It helped immensely that my family and close friends believed in me.
IGN PK: What in your view can Pakistan do to produce more interest in animation/game dev? How can IGN Pakistan help?
I think GameJams (GameDev Hackathons) at educational institutions are a good place to start. Low barrier of entry, don’t take up a lot of time and are sure to spark a longer-lasting interest in at least a few participants.
It’s also important to highlight and share stories of Pakistanis already working in the arts. This visibility helps overcome a lot of mental barriers children who want to pursue animation or art are likely to have. IGN can play a giant role here. Mano, Puffball and so many other studios in Pakistan are filled with talented animators and artists all of whom are already making great animation in Pakistan. Schools should reach out to these individuals for workshops and talks.
There’s also just a lot of great behind-the-scenes content about game development and animation accessible for free! Double Fine Studios, for example, recently put out a 32-episode documentary series about the development of Psychonauts 2 on YouTube. I saw the whole thing, there’s so much to take away from it. But of course, it’s in English, like most content of this nature so there’s that barrier. I hope our studios start sharing more of their pipelines too, in any of the local languages.
CS students already possess most of the technical tools required for GameDev. What they’re lacking mostly, in my view, is an understanding and familiarity with the development pipeline and how their skills can be applied to that context.
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