Epic animation

Ayman Jamal on bringing 'Bilal' to life in an epic animated adventure
Ayman Jamal, founder, producer and director at Barajoun Entertainment.
Ayman Jamal, founder, producer and director at Barajoun Entertainment.

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Bilal, a full-length animated feature film that had its international premiere at the Animation Day at Cannes last month, has come a long way since it crystalised as a concept in the mind of its creator, Saudi Arabian producer Ayman Jamal, just three years ago.

The initial idea for the film – which is slated for release in cinemas in September – came to Jamal when he heard his son say that he wanted to be Superman. This simple conversation led Jamal to ponder the idea of heroes. “Basically I am a movie lover and I was inspired by so many movies like Ghandi, Malcolm X and Braveheart when I was studying in the US. What was in the back of my mind was: Why didn’t we watch such inspiring movies when we were younger? One day I watched my son who was five years old and he told me he wanted to grow up and be Superman. I started reading many history books and it hit me that there are so many great real-life heroes that kids don’t know about today because they are not featured in movies.”

Jamal then realised the potential power of telling stories – using the medium of film – about heroes that history has forgotten, in the same way that Hollywood has brought the lives of people such as Ghandi to millions of viewers.

Jamal’s research and reading led him to the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a slave boy who fought injustice and became one of the earliest and most respected converts to Islam.

So, how did the concept move so swiftly from a concept to a completed animation jostling for position alongside Hollywood productions at Cannes? The simple answer is that Jamal threw himself into the project. He did a TEDx speech about the idea in 2011 and then set up his own production company, Barajoun, in 2013 to start work on the film.

Jamal, who at the time ran his own advertising agency and production company, was able to secure private equity funding for the project from two GCC-based investors.

Jamal wanted to produce the film almost entirely in Dubai and so hired all of the people he needed, with the team reaching over 320 people at its peak. The total number of people who worked on the film is about 360.

Jamal started work on the research and storyboard with a small team consisting of about five people in 2013. The team then worked on the script, which took about 9 months to write.

When it came to deciding where to actually produce the animation, Jamal decided to do everything in Dubai in a bid to help develop an industry for animation. “We opted for Dubai not just for animation but for the complete CGI phase, because CGI is used today in so much postproduction, whether for live action movies or animation, so we wanted to create that and develop a studio in the UAE.”

Work on the animation started in mid-2014 with more than 320 working on the animation for 18-20 months. The team used more than 16 different software programmes, although the main “backbone” was Maya.

Project pipeline

Since completing Bilal, Barajoun Entertainment is embarking on new projects, including some commercial work. “We were focused 80% on Bilal but now we have started doing some commercial work. We have started doing a project with Dubai Parks and we did some projects with Private Aviation at the airport. It is small work, but 80% is to create our own products and movies.

Barajoun has also been developing some Virtual Reality content, for an upcoming theme park development in Dubai. Virtual Reality is an area where Jamal sees plenty of potential for the production industry. “We have done a couple of VR projects for education in the private sector. We are seeing more interest in VR but less investment.

“The interest is there but still people are hesitant to go into this heavily, but I think it will take place very soon, especially in the edutainment sector,” he added.

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With a budget of around $30 million, Bilal was produced on a far lower budget than the type of feature-length animations that come out of Hollywood. For this reason, Barajoun developed its own work pipeline to reduce costs. “To achieve a 105 minutes animation movie like Bilal with our budget we had to create our own shortcuts in our pipeline to accomplish this quality within our budget.”

In terms of the rendering time, Bilal was also an epic production. The film took about 2.2 million hours of rendering, which Jamal admits is a “huge rendering consumption”. “So many people in this industry get surprised when we tell them the render time because they are used to 40,000 or 30,000 hours of rendering and to them that is like a large number!” Jamal says.

The production also taught Jamal a lot about the nature of CGI as an art and made him realise the importance of technology to the artistic process. “Great artists cannot produce a great animation movie today without extremely great technology people. So much effort and timing is spent on R&D and technology rather than art. You can have the best artists but if you don’t have the best technical directors and people who know how to make software communicate together to give the best performance, you cannot produce an animation movie. So technology plays a great part,” he says.

The animation was the most challenging part of the whole project, according to Jamal. “Many people don’t realise this but it is 10 times harder to develop an animated movie than shooting a live action movie. With an animation, each second is being fully created, from the sets to the environment, characters, clothes and lighting. It’s like you start with nothing. It takes a lot of people a lot of effort and time to develop an animation.

Bilal was made more challenging because of the sheer number of characters, especially in certain scenes. Indeed, Jamal believes that Bilal may have set a record for the longest animated battle scene at 11 minutes 40 seconds. “To create a battle scene that long is hugely challenging: Full animation with armies from both sides, with around 300 horses, around 100 camels and 3000 soldiers. This is one of the main super-scenes in the movie,” Jamal says.

The postproduction phase took about six months and was carried out by the renowned Park Road Post Production Studios in New Zealand. The film was mixed by Academy Award winning Michael Hedges, who also worked on films including Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Some scenes were edited to shorten the film slightly. Jamal admits that it was sometimes difficult editing scenes that had entailed much hard work and creativity. “Distributors tend to favour shorter movies and as a movie maker or story teller you are so attached to your movie that you don’t want to take anything out! But then sales and distribution plays a role. They tell you, ‘We need to trim this a little bit just to make it faster’.”

Colour grading and texturing were carried out at the same time as the editing. Jamal said that texturing was probably a bigger focus than colour grading. This gives the animation a less childish feel than some of the animations being produced in Hollywood which have a large emphasis on very bright, vibrant colours. “In Bilal we took a different approach where we spent more time and therefore money on the textures and the little details.”

Since the film was first aired at Dubai International Film Festival in December 2015, and particularly after the film premiere at the Animation Day at Cannes last month, the reaction to Bilal has been phenomenal, according to Jamal. However, Jamal and his team were so immersed in the production that they rarely contemplated the way the film would be received. The first indications of the film’s potential popularity and impact came when some of the celebrity actors came on board. Indeed, Ian McShane, Ed Willie, China McAllen and others all “loved the script”, according to Jamal, and saw it as a story worth bringing to a wider global audience. Speaking from Cannes, Jamal said that the film had generated a lot of interest and positive feedback. “We have a good line-up of buyers for territories all over the world,” he said.

Barajoun is also working on deals with linear and OTT broadcasters to bring Bilal to a wider audience once it has completed its run on the big screen.

Now that Bilal is completed, Barajoun has slimmed down its workforce to about 50 people and is already working on the early planning stage of its next animated feature film. While Jamal does not want to give too much away, he reveals that it is based on an epic true story set during the Andalusian era in Spain. “We have a vision. Our direction is heroes that history has forgotten. These heroes could be artists, musicians, scientists – but they must be someone who inspires you,” he says. 

Inspired by heroes

Produced by Barajoun Studios and wholly funded in the Gulf, Dubai’s first entirely produced animated feature film is a grand spectacle indeed. Inspired by the real-life figure Bilal Ibn Rabah, the film follows the story of ‘Bilal’, as he and his sister are abducted as children and are raised as slaves under a ruthless merchant. Bilal will eventually find the courage to break free of his slavery and transform into a warrior fighting for equality and freedom not just for himself but for humanity as well.

The voice cast earned praise and also helped draw international attention to the film Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Bilal) and Ian McShane (Umayya) honing their roles respectively and Jacob Latimore as Bilal (teen).

The film was directed by Khurram H. Alavi, a graduate of Indus Valley School of Art of Architecture. The film due to be released in September.

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