Passion for animation

How Cartoon Network Studios Arabia brought Mansour Series 2 to life
Adam Khwaja
Adam Khwaja

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Then the second season of the popular Emirati cartoon Mansour hit the region’s screens earlier this year, it represented a new pinnacle in local Arabic animation.

Indeed, the series – which ranked number-one in TV ratings for its timeslot on Cartoon Network Arabic and drove its channel’s ratings by 38% – marked a shift in local production by relying heavily on talent based in the UAE. The show also proved a hit on Majid TV, the children’s channel launched by Abu Dhabi Media Group last year.

Mansour Season 2 was the first production from Cartoon Networks Studios Arabia, which was established in 2011 by Turner and operates from twofour54 in Abu Dhabi.

The original idea for Mansour came from Rashed Alharmoodi, vice president of corporate communications and group communications at Mubadala, a UAE investment and development company. Alharmoodi’s aim was to develop a cartoon for children that would reflect local values, customs and traditions while also helping develop the local animation industry.

As general manager and creative director of Cartoon Network Studios Arabia, Adam Khwaja not only oversaw the development of the studio, but also led the team that created Mansour Season 2.

In line with Mubadala’s original plan to help develop an organic animation industry in the UAE, Khwaja spearheaded the launch of the studio around May 2011. “The whole focus of the studio has been to nurture talent in this region, to find those unique creatives to help us produce creative shows that have an authentic Middle Eastern contemporary voice. That is the whole point of the studio,” he says.

The process of setting up the studio took about six months and benefitted from Cartoon Network Studios Arabia’s relationship with Abu Dhabi’s twofour54, where the studio is based. But setting up a physical studio was one thing; the real challenge was developing the skilled creatives to create the animation. “In the very beginning, part of our initial phase was to create the Cartoon Network Academy in Abu Dhabi, which twofour54 ran on our behalf. This was the vehicle that I used to train and nurture potential talent for my studio, and I did manage to develop and hire a lot of talent from those first four years of running that programme.”

Khwaja adds that while the spirit of the project was always to grow organically with local talent, the studio also taps into Turner’s international resources in Europe, Asia and the US, which also helps to give the series the quality that Khwaja and his team were looking for.

The studio took about 15-16 months to produce Mansour Series 2 in conjunction with Creative Generation, the production arm of Mudabala. According to Khwaja, the core team working on the project at the studio in Abu Dhabi consists of about 16 people, strengthened by about 25-30 freelancers specialising various aspects of production.

Many of the key aspects of the production, including character design, scriptwriting and voice over acting was completed in Abu Dhabi. Storyboarding was carried out in part by the team in Abu Dhabi and by a company in Canada. The bulk of the animation was outsourced to a large production company in Pakistan. At the peak time of production, Khwaja says there were up to 50 or 60 animators working on the series.

“This is a truly regionally produced, regionally developed show and it exceeded all expectations on the quality side, so that has been a wonderful experience,” Khwaja says. “Animation is incredibly painstaking work. It involved drawing tonnes of artwork, tonnes of story boards and writing scripts. From a creative perspective it is a daily challenge.”

The scriptwriting team consisted of two Arabic speaking scriptwriters, including one who is fluent in English, and another native English speaking writer. For practical workflow reasons the team developed its initial scripts in English.

This was important owing to the number of non-Arabic speakers around the region and the world who collaborated on the project. The script was completed in Arabic by an experienced comedic Arabic writer closer to the end of the project cycle.

“Our Arabic writer is a natural comedian and put a real flavour into it. It is also written in Khaleeji dialect which is very resonant within the GCC, so knowing how to be humorous and entertaining in that dialect has been one of the key things we strived to do,” Khwaja adds.

In terms of production software, the team at Cartoon Network Studios Arabia, and Ice Animations, one of the largest production companies in Pakistan, mainly used Maya. Meanwhile, Toon Boom Storyboard Pro was used for the pre-production storyboarding and animatics stage.

The postproduction work was done in-house at the studio in Abu Dhabi. “We partner with twofour54’s film and TV services to do that, so we use their facility and I basically oversee all of the final postproduction,” Khwaja says.

The team also used software to aid with the workflow, adopting Shotgun during the animation phase. This allowed members of the teams – working across continents – to seamlessly collaborate. Project schedules were managed using Microsoft Project.

Khwaja says that the main challenge of working on Mansour Season 2 was – like most animation projects - meeting the “brutally demanding deadlines of the schedule” - athough he concedes this is just the nature of the business.

He adds that producing the series was also a large and complex logistical exercise, with large amounts of people, outsourced teams and different phases involved. “It is just managing all of that and trying to be on time whilst working within budget. But we made it, we pulled it off and we felt very good about it, especially as it is our first major production,” Khwaja says.

Judging by the stellar TV ratings confirmed by the UAE’s tview audience measurement company, the effort expended by Khwaja and his team was well worth it. “The reaction surprised me completely,” Khwaja says. “We had the number one performing show in its time slot for the first three months of launch and it continues to be a very popular show. It is one of the top shows in the region.”

And aside from successful ratings, Khwaja and his colleagues were also delighted with the quality and artistry of the series.

“It has a warmth, and these are hard things to set out to achieve in a production but when you create a warm heart, creatively speaking, it is something very perceptible in the audience,” he says. “It’s a matter of different elements coming together – a great script and stories, brilliant animation and a team that gelled. The hours are long and it’s not an easy job, but if it’s passion-driven and the love is there, the end result is generally good.”

And the good news for fans of Mansour is that Season 3 is already in production. Furthermore, Khwaja says that the team is benefiting from the lessons and experience garnered from working on Season 2. This is helping to make the production of Season 3 run even more smoothly and has also helped the team with aspects of production such as storyboarding and injecting humour into the scripts. Production of Season 3 is expected to finish around the end of 2016 or early 2017, with the series due to air in Q1 2017.

On top of this, Cartoon Network Studios Arabia is also working on its next phase of development and is in the very early stages of developing new concepts for another animated project. A new team has been assembled to work on the project and Khwaja says that, depending on the outcome of the development phase, the project could go into production in 2017.

Khwaja is also happy with the burgeoning pool of talent in the region. After working on Mansour Season 2 and 3, he can see how different artists are honing their talents in various ways. “We have begun to know who has got the potential to be these truly visionary creative people with an authentic Middle Eastern voice, but that is a very organic kind of learning curve where over time you begin to see people’s potential.

“This just has to happen over time as you get to know people’s creative integrity. It is all about the artist and now we have got to this point it is truly exciting. This is the point where we will get outstandingly fresh, original things happening that we haven’t really done in the Middle East before.”

Mansour Series 2

The second season of the popular Emirati cartoon Mansour hit screens across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region on Cartoon Network Arabic in January.

Mansour Cartoon returned with its blend of multi-national characters and meaningful storylines revolving around the heritage and values relevant to the region.

Season Two continued to discuss key social topics such as education, health and culture in an engaging manner, while introducing new characters and storylines that will resonate with a wider regional audience, it said.

Mansour was conceptualised in 2011 with the support of Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi investment and development company, in an effort to connect with youth about healthy lifestyles, careers in knowledge-intensive industries and culture.

Making a dream reality

The man who came up with the original concept for Mansour is Rashed Alharmoodi, vice president of corporate communications and group communications at Mubadala. He told Digital Studio that the initial idea came about as he wanted to address three core issues relating to the future of Emiratis. “Broadly, these include the UAE’s economic diversification away from oil and gas, the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and of course, the preservation of our national heritage, culture and language. I also wanted to provide the opportunity to take Mansour’s lessons and experiences about healthy living, culture and friendship to the broader region,” he said.

“Moreover, the creation of Mansour and the inspiration came to me after the birth of my first son; I wanted to be able to communicate with my son in a language he understood. The best method to get through to this age group is cartoons. This medium enables us to create a mind-set at a young age that will contribute positively in the future of the country’s economy.

“It is a great honour to see Mansour Season 2 continue to be an inspiration for children in the United Arab Emirates, and knowing it’ll have the same positive impact on children in the MENA region through Cartoon Network Arabic channel.”

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