Maldivian 3D Character Artist Ahmed Afazil sits down with The Edition to discuss his journey to the field of work and his future plans in the industry.
Braving the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur, I set out to catch up with Maldivian animator extraordinaire, Ahmed Afazil who currently lives and works in the city. While only having seen his work online, I hoped to learn more about his work, his process and the artist himself.
With most of his career being based outside the Maldives, Afazil’s well-practiced mastery of animation was yet to be discovered by curious fans awaiting to follow such a unique and artistic career. While some of his work is readily available on popular websites online, his story remained unsung for eager “netizens”. I set out to provide them a tale worth marvelling.
While KL traffic was no joke, incompetent GrabCar drivers were as serious as a heart attack. Ran late I might have but, even through the thick of Protons and getting rerouted a few times, I managed to reach the Starbucks where Afazil and I were scheduled to meet.
I greeted Afazil with an unpunctual smile and a sheepish handshake as I sat across the table at the tawdry corporate cafeteria. Promptly apologising for the tardiness, I proceeded with our little chat - learning more about Afazil.
Tell me a little about yourself. Who is Afazil?
“About myself? How I got into the industry? I don't usually talk about myself, but I can talk about work and who I am through my work.”
Perhaps a little ice breaking was required, I thought to myself. But before I could say anything else Afazil continued.
“When I was younger, I wanted to become a doctor. So I went to my mom and told her that, to which she replied with a strict “NO”. She told me that I had to pursue a life in fine arts. So here I am.”
Imminently breaking into laughter he told me, “That actually didn't happen. I didn't want to be a doctor. I thought that would be a good ice breaker. But that's such a bad joke.”
This made way for a good chuckle on both our parts and set a friendly tone for our entire conversation.
“Actually, I have always been interested in this field. Even when I was younger, I remember watching cartoons that were on television. It was a completely different world for me. I hadn't ever seen anything like that before.”
“I still watch some of the cartoons. Especially a Japanese anime named Akira, as well as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It's still a definite favourite. From the very first sequence of music in its opening till the end, I find it really nice. Then there are stop motion films like The Dark Crystal of which I’m still a big fan.”
“Additionally, my brother used to paint. He once had an art teacher who came to our house and taught him how to paint. I would hang around observing and found that I really enjoyed the lessons. Even then I remember thinking, "Okay, I’m gonna do something in art."”
Afazil explained further how this love for cartoons and art influenced his wish to become an animator and that growing up, he always wanted to be one. But like many of us in the Maldives, pursuing a career in art was almost unheard of, even for Afazil. He delved into how dubious he felt about it being a “good enough” career choice.
“When I was in Secondary school, wanting to pursue my interests at the time, I opted to study Arts. Unfortunately, during those years in the Maldives, students opting for Arts were treated almost like rejects.”
“Because of things like this, I did not expect to be doing anything unconventional for a living. I just didn't see it happening.”
So when did you first begin to feel that a career in arts and animation might be possible?
“Well, it took me some time and it's kind of a long story” he said tittering uncontrollably.
“After school, I joined The National Library where I came to learn of ‘Library Sciences’. I found it really fascinating and it kept me working there for a while. I also worked at the famous Asrafee Bookshop, doing most anything. At one point I believe I even worked as a van driver for the bookshop. Maybe it all had something to do with my love for books.”
“Nevertheless, I still couldn't make up my mind. I briefly pursued a course in journalism. I also had some interest in pursuing a career in the Information Technology field. There was even a phase when I pursued a career in tourism as well. I worked at a resort hotel for a while.”
“But that didn't seem to pique my interest either. Eventually, I felt like I wanted to pursue a career in marketing. But studying marketing was very different from what I expected it to be. It was a lot of theory and not at all interactive. So I decided to discontinue that as well.”
Apologizing for the many stories he had to tell about his journey to his current work, Afazil continued to explain the process of actualizing his love for art, animation and design.
“Finally, I came across The One Academy - one of the best Art and Design colleges in Malaysia, and their courses really interested me. So I enrolled myself to the Academy hoping it would be something that I would want to pursue without any further turn-arounds.”
“Admittedly, I slacked off for a few years during my time there, but I started paying more attention during my final year and took my work extremely seriously.”
“I worked extensively, six days a week. I was at school working from morning until night and even after I came home, I continued to work on my own projects. There's a program called Zbrush that I used to practice on, basically it allows users to digitally sculpt in clay.
“I found myself just sitting and sculpting for hours and hours and hours. It was something that made me very happy. I still practice sculpting with Zbrush. It’s one of the more widely used software in the industry today.”
How long after you graduated did you start working for the industry that you fell in love with?
“Fortunately, while I was still attending college, I had gotten the chance to work at a Studio called LemonSky Games and Animation here in Malaysia. Lemon Sky is an outsourcing studio, so they have a lot of clients like Microsoft, Sony, Square Enix etc. I went for an interview and got the job before I graduated.”
"Within the first year of joining, I worked as an “Environment Artist”. After about a year, I switched to being a “Character Artist."
“So that's what I do right now, it's a mouthful: I am what you would call a “3D Character Artist”. But sculptor or 3D artist would do as well. I’ve been at it for the past four years. There's a lot of nuanced jobs in the industry. You can become anything you're good at or pursue whatever you wish to”.
I stood corrected. Afazil was not an animator but a 3D character artist.
In fact “animating”, according to him, was not something he felt particularly passionate about. For an untrained eye, like mine, the industry was a conglomerate of all things animation albeit the specifics. Thankfully, Afazil was more than happy to clarify what is what and explain further the kinds of work that really brought him joy. (Ching!).
“During my first year at LemonSky, I got to work on a game called Gears of War. It's a game by Epic Games and it was kind of a big deal for me. The company also had a few ongoing animation projects.”
“There's a category in the industry called “Game Cinematics”, which refer to the cutscenes that start before the game, depicting a story relating to the game to be played. It looks more refined than the game, almost an introduction before the game begins.”
“This category includes videos for games produced by different companies, so all of a sudden I became very interested in this area. By this time I had narrowed down my scope of work from curating environments to working on characters and further, working on cinematic characters.”
Tell me about your experience in Game Cinematics. How have your skills improved as you pursue this type of work?
“Since I first started doing work for cinematic characters, I have always wanted to do work for film. I’ve always had a love for films, and Game cinematics would be a step forward towards working in film.”
“There's a company in New Zealand called Weta Digital, they worked on all the Computer Generated Imagery (CGIs) for the The Lord of the Rings franchise as well as Planet of the Apes. I mean - it blows you away. Now I am gearing my portfolio towards trying to work at a company like that.”
“But it is difficult to get into the film industry, especially these types of studios, because for one thing there aren't too many in existence. And also, one needs a rivaling portfolio. I imagine there are hundreds of people applying every year and only a fraction getting call backs.”
Still on the topic of his hope of working for the movie industry, Afazil described having early morning practice sessions by himself in order to improve his skill set; up to almost three hours everyday, a practice he continued for over a year. He credited this extra effort as being the factor that contributed most towards landing his current job.
“The current studio I work at, focuses deeply on films and I'm really enjoying it. Mostly because they work on their own IPs (Intellectual Property). So there's a lot of creative freedom that naturally contributes to how happy I am working there.”
Curious about his views on the longevity of the industry, I enquired whether Afazil believed it was a good industry for young Maldivians to aspire to be in.
“Yes, if you enjoy the work it is a good industry to be in. If I'm not mistaken, even last year, the game industry made a lot more money than the film industry. It's fast becoming an industry reality that top studios are no longer going to be the only architects capable of creating successful games.”
“Now, even a group of talented friends can simply make an indie game and release it. When I started out, I didn't have anybody telling me I could ‘be a 3D character artist in the film or game industry’. These days however, there’s more awareness about it being possible.”
“I know, it's easier said than done. I mean, even if you work your hardest it doesn't guarantee that you’ll achieve what you want. There are other factors involved as well. There's luck, who you meet and who you talk to, and more things like that.”
“What's most important is having the willingness to try things out. You can try one thing you have an interest in at the time, and if you don't like it then you can always try something else out. In a way, it’s an elimination process.”
In an attempt to further the conversation to animation and its future in the Maldives, I nudged Afazil about whether a demand for 3D character artists exists within the country and how it could be achieved.
“Nowadays, one doesn't necessarily need to go to school to learn everything. The softwares being used right now are a lot cheaper than it was before. If one is motivated to do so, they can always learn these on their own. There are enough resources available online.”
“With enough practice, I do believe one’s skills can be refined. However, I also believe there is room to offer more scholarship opportunities for art and animation related majors, because graduate degrees in the field are mandatory to seek work overseas, where there are more opportunities to grow and apply skills.”
“A great way to better one’s skills is to partake in workshops. They really help. Two years ago, I took an eight week online workshop which covered all aspects of creating a 3D character. The eight weeks of very condensed learning really improved my work. So I feel workshops can really help, whether online or otherwise.”
On that note, do you have any plans to organizing your own workshops back home?
“No plans as of yet but I would like to - Because I love teaching, I have always wanted to teach and I know I have the patience to do it well. I have always wished for an art school in the Maldives. It's something I have thought about but for now, I am focused on reaching the best that I can with my 3D work and figuring out exactly what I want to do right now. So, the idea of an art school is shelved, at least temporarily.”
Drawing our chat to a close, and avoiding a second order of a 'mocha-chocalata-ya-ya', I wanted to find out where the enthusiasts and mildly intrigued alike, could view his body of work.
“Well they can have a look at my instagram @Afaziill. There's also a place called “ArtStation” which is a portfolio website - artstation.com/afazil that they can always check out as well.”
With that, I thanked Afazil for the time he took to relay his story to me, praising him for his incredible work. I exited the café with a good-spirited “cheers” to a determined Afazil, with hopes of seeing him working in film not too long from now.