Usman Riaz is certainly a man of many talents. The young Pakistani musician and composer first took the world by storm five years ago after Firefly, a video of his impressive guitar percussive skills, went viral on social media.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide watched his video: one of them was Chris Anderson, curator of the popular TED conferences. Usman was soon invited to 2012’s TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh (where he performed alongside his hero, percussive guitar progenitor Preston Reed) and was later named the youngest ever TED senior fellow.
Now, the young man is in the spotlight again, for a completely different reason: Usman will be writing and directing The Glassworker, Pakistan’s first fully hand-drawn animated film.
“I’ve loved hand-drawn animation ever since I was small. There is no animation industry here in my country. But we have a lot of people who do animation, who are commissioned to do it by people from abroad, or do it as a hobby. So I thought, why not bring everyone together in one group and start on something?” said Usman, 25, speaking from Pakistan via Skype.
Malaysians will get a chance to see and hear the young Pakistani prodigy himself this weekend, as Usman is visiting Kuala Lumpur as one of the presenters of this year’s TEDxKL. His segment also will premiere a brand new trailer for The Glassworker.
“I visited Malaysia once, when I was on holiday with my family. I thought it was a very beautiful place, and I can’t wait to come back,” said Usman.
The young virtuoso, who is now studying music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, grew up in a very artistic family. Both his parents were stage performers, while his grandmother was an Eastern classical musician. He learnt classical piano at the age of six, and later picked up playing the guitar as well.
Usman was introduced to percussive guitar (arguably the music style he is most known for), however, through a more global source: YouTube. According to an interview with arts magazine Emaho, Usman became enraptured by the enthusiasm and fervour of percussive musicians such as Preston Reed and Kaki King.
“The videos made me want to learn that style as well. It combined everything I love about percussion with music. I was so used to playing piano on my own I thought that this style would also let me perform alone and play with a rhythm section without it actually being there. So that made it a lot of fun,” Usman told Emaho.
His experiences learning percussive guitar prompted him to make Firefly, which he wrote when he was 17; looking back, Usman said he was still surprised at the big reaction it got.
“I actually didn’t expect anything from it. I just made it because I felt it was the right thing to do, and I enjoyed the process that went into it. I just wanted to make something that I could be proud of when I looked back,” he said.
“Obviously when I look back at Firefly, I see a lot of mistakes and errors. But I’m happy with it. Being that age, it’s a snapshot into where I was in my mind at that point in life. I’m happy I was true to myself, and I made something for the sake of art.”
Mistakes or not, the video certainly led to huge things. Apart from the TED fellowship, Usman was invited to do the score for the award-winning Pakistani movie Seedlings, and was signed by record label EMI Pakistan, among other things.
While he definitely has the talent for music, Usman is also passionate about art and animation. The two fields may seem quite different but to Usman, they are interconnected; he did, after all, do the artwork for his debut album, 2012’s Circus In The Sky.
“Music is very visual for me. I always imagine a particular scene of what I want a piece to be about, and the music just comes. And sometimes it’s the other way around, I hear some music, and I imagine a scene in my head,” explained Usman.
“Music is very important to me, but its not the main thing I see myself doing. Which is why I started the animation work. I’ve been drawing and doing animation before I was doing music. I went to an art school before going to Berklee.”
In 2015, Usman gave a talk during TEDxTokyo, where he spoke passionately about his love for Japanese animation. There, he was invited to tour the legendary Studio Ghibli; it was an amazing opportunity for him, as he had long been a fan of their films.
“Studio Ghibli films defined my childhood. I watched more of them than I watched Disney, although I love Disney films as well. Studio Ghibli just had this true-to-life experiences in them that Disney didn’t have. Even though they are set in fantastical worlds, with beautiful landscapes that could never exist in real life, they felt real to me as a child,” said Usman, whose favorite Studio Ghibli film (for now!) is The Wind Rises.
Inspired by this trip, Usman formed Mano Animation Studios (the studio is named after his cat!) and assembled a team of animators from around the world. Around half the people working on his film are Malaysian; these include character designer and assistant lead animator Sofia Abdullah and environment designer Rachel Wan.
To finance his film, Usman put his project on Kickstarter in February this year, hoping to raise US$50,000 (RM20,130) for it. It achieved its goal in 16 days.
To date, over 1,000 backers have pledged US$116,000 (RM467,038), which is enough for Usman to finish The Glassworker, as well as an exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary on how he put his animation studio together.
“I can’t even say this is a dream come true, because we didn’t even dream that we could be able to do it. I’m just very grateful,” enthused Usman.
The movie, which is set in an imaginary European city, tells the story of Vincent, a glass smith apprenticed to his father, and a girl named Alliz, a talented violinist who frequently visits his shop. The film revolves around the two characters as life grows to become more complicated and affects their relationship. Usman’s wife, Mariam Paracha, will be providing the voice of Alliz.
According to Usman, much of the film’s story was based on his experiences growing up in a conflict-ridden country.
“Pakistan is my home and can be politically unstable, with riots and conflicts and people fighting. I grew up experiencing that very often. But I wasn’t disturbed by all that, it proved so normal, it was just what happened. It’s strange to think about it, now that I am older,” he said.
“I thought it would be interesting to set the film in this sort of environment. Just show two children having a normal childhood through it.”
Usman is going to have his hands full for the foreseeable future: The Glassworker is expected to take about four years to create. Asked his advice for people who were also trying to achieve their impossible dreams, he stressed the importance of perseverance and passion.
“The sentiment behind your work needs to be correct. You shouldn’t be working for fame or fortune or anything like that. You should be doing something because you love doing it. And when you do it with that mentality, I think other people will recognise that and help you,” Usman said.
“You need to be true to yourself and never give up.”
Usman is one of the presenters at TEDxKL 2016, which will take place at Calvary Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur on Aug 20.