Life of Mir -- Fast University Graduate, the 1st Pakistani to win an Oscar

The 1st Pakistani to win an Oscar and the man who continues to provide technical expertise for leading Hollywood movies.

Mir Zafar Ali is graduate of Fast National University, Pakistan. Mir Zafar Ali talks to Instep about working on movies like X-Men: First Class and The Golden Compass, Pakistani cinema and making it in Hollywood as a technical expert.

Imagine creating something that the whole world - millions of people at least - will see. It may come and go in the blink of an eye, but it's a piece of a bigger picture that inspires wonder. How do you carry the weight of something like that? If you're Mir Zafar Ali, you tend to forget, because then it was just one of the many, many things you did as part of the job. This is how we will assume he forgets he was part of the technical effects crew (effects technical director, in IMDb speak), on X-Men: First Class.

“That was last year,” he says after self-deprecatingly blaming his brain for running out on him. “I dealt with a character called Banshee. The banshee is a bird - with a shrill voice, so this character, he had to be shrill, and to shout. And when he does, you should see sonic barriers being broken. You see these rings going through space - I did the entire look for that.”

Anyone who's seen First Class remembers Banshee, of course, and the final showdown between Sebastian Shaw and Professor X's men. This is where the smaller pieces that Mir has created, fall into place within intricate puzzle. “I did smaller things [for First Class],” he says, “Smoke columns for instance - there's a whole sequence with the bad side and good side clashing, and I did stuff like the sparks emanating from where a body was hit.”

It's incredible, it seems incredible, that someone from our own country, who's maybe lived in the same city as yourself, or gone to the same school, is part of one of the most glamourous industries in the world. It seems incredible because to put it really blandly, what Mir has is a cool job. And he's managed to make a real career out of it so it must mean he's good at it. Plus, a movie whose effects team he was on won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 2008.

For Mir, The Golden Compass' Oscar win had been a total surprise. “We were up against Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean,” he says, “My wife worked at Paramount back then, and I was at the Paramount Oscar party with friends that I had worked on the film with. We were just hanging out and laughing about it, because we didn't think there was a chance in hell we'd win.”

When they were announcing the award, Mir's wife turned to him and joked about this being the moment. To their shock, it did indeed turn out to be the big one, as their team picked an Oscar. “I dropped my drink,” Mir remembers.

The Golden Compass had been one of the projects that Mir had been very excited about. “I worked on the animals; there are a bunch of animals in the film, mostly CGI. Our job was to generate the interaction between the animals and the ground they ran on. If they're running really fast, they should leave behind a trail of dust and pebbles, if they step on snow, there should be a footprint.”

There was more to The Golden Compass, for instance, a final scene where everything crumbles, bringing a shelf of ice down. “But they had to cut the movie,” says Mir. “They had a controversial thing on their hands; the movie was from an atheist point of view and there was a huge lobby against it. With the Narnia series, [which has strong Christian connotations] they're making movie upon movie. The Golden Compass’ ending had to be chopped because it hinted at a sequel, so ultimately it had to look like the story had been wrapped up.”
But no matter. Mir took the cut and Oscar in his stride, or so it seems. As with any job, there are compromises to be made with his too, sometimes logistical, sometimes intellectual.

“Before X-Men, I'd been working on Yogi Bear, which was along the lines of the Chipmunks movies, or Garfield,” says Mir. X-Men was definitely more his kind of project, though how he goes from doing that to Chipwrecked is an absolutely fascinating mystery. But there are perks, of course. To simulate shattering glass in The Incredible Hulk, Mir and his team at Rhythm & Hues got to watch Edward Norton pretend to smash things so they could get a measure of how the glass should shatter.

A big fan of horror, and cheese, [“Snakes on a Plane was awesome!”], Mir also worked on Cabin in the Woods, which had been shelved for a couple years and released recently. His team's bit was to create a wraith, a misty apparition that appears in the movie. And then there was the last project he worked on, Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, which was right up his alley. Firstly, he worked with the water effects in the film. The film features a character called Pi Patel who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger, hyena, orangutan and zebra. “We did the beads of water the animals would shake off, and the way their fur moved while swimming,” he says. Water has kind of become Mir's baby as far as his work goes, as his very first project as a digital effects artist was Roland Emmerich's Day After Tomorrow, where he had to create the tidal waves that sweep New York. Secondly, in Mir's own words, the film is “trippy and surreal”.

With that come the tougher aspects of being in the profession. “My job does get boring,” Mir admits. “You're working on one show for a long time, and in the beginning they try not to burn you out too much as with the project's progression, you have work faster and faster, and longer.”

“It's give and take though,” he continues. “If it's something you like, you don't mind working on it, making it look good. If it's something you don't feel much for, then you're just going through the motions.”

Life of Pi, though apparently one of Mir's favourite gigs, did take a lot out of him. “It was intense,” he says. “There were lots of ups and downs - by the end of it I was forgetting things, regular stuff, like people's names. When you're that involved with work, your mind keeps spinning, looking for better solutions. You tend to party harder, just to inject some fun back into your life. I'd even dream about the director not liking my shot. Once something like that is done, it takes a while to slap that monkey off your back.”

Somewhere between all of that, Mir found the time to fall in love and get married. His wife Tamanna Shah is a fellow SCAD graduate, with a major in film, and a masters in production from American Film Institute. Shah has worked as production coordinator and line producer on several films, as well as producer on Embrace, a short by Ghalib Shiraz which was immensely received at the recent New York Indian Film Festival. It's probably fortunate for someone who works the crazy hours Mir does that his partner is part of the same industry. So with the great portfolio he has built, and the great support he has at home, perhaps Mir could think about championing the cause of bringing Hollywood to Pakistan, or vice versa.

Sadly, Mir states what we already know - “nobody really wants to come to Pakistan,” he says. With all the instability in the country, plus the recession, “Pakistan is not seen as a favourable place to invest money in.” Quick to point out the bright spot in anything though, he says: “They won't actively pursue anything here, but they appreciate the work that's coming out of here, and the talent.”

“There are still people investing here, back in the day Post Amazers did some work on Exorcist: The Beginning, and Mask 2.” Visibly enthused, Mir describes the “awesome” designated title sequence for Mask 2 that featured a green sperm racing for a green egg and latching onto it to become the Mask. The censor board chopped the scene though as it was meant to be a children’s movie. “You can show kids people being shot, but not this?” Mir shakes his head. The censor boards, he says, are equally ridiculous all over.

This of course leads to the big question: how do you view the Pakistani film industry, or whatever still stands of it?

Mir has the same soft spot it can be assumed all Pakistanis do for Lollywood. “We'd catch Pakistani films on TV on Eid or something,” he says. “Not to really watch them, but they're so bad they're good. I love cheesy movies! But our films leave me wondering 'how did someone even come up with this idea'?”

But we've had a tiny revival of cinema; surely Mir must have noticed it. “Khuda Kay Liye looked decent,” he says politely. “It seemed melodramatic.” He hasn't really seen the whole film though. “A friend showed me the courtroom scene, and it was like, this is not how you argue a case in court! A scene depicted more realistically would be more intriguing to me. As far as I could tell, Khuda Kay Liye dealt with a sensitive subject, with enough inherent drama, why do you need to add your touch to it? By being cheesy about something serious, you trivialize it.”

Mir Zafar Ali sees a bit of hope should the right people try involving themselves with Pakistan's non-existent film industry. “Asim Reza, Jami - they're great people, who've done amazing work. They've tried and even they've failed. It's not their fault, it's the environment that's not conducive to work.” Part of the problem is, according to Mir, that Pakistanis like resting on their laurels. There has been one Commander Safeguard, in about six years, he says, but what's been in done in animation otherwise that we could appreciate? Another is, if someone does succeed at something, we'll just try to pick their success apart. Mir Zafar Ali's name came up almost as often as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's post her Oscar win. “Why drag my name out just to bring someone down? She won an Oscar, props to her,” he says. “There are arguments that she won the award because the film was funded by US dollars - do these people even know how films are made? And saying that her win came from showing a bad side of Pakistan, well, it was a documentary, not a happy-go-lucky film.”
With all this work, and even a spot of controversy behind him, Mir still isn't done. He's recently been dabbling in realtime graphics which he finds a fun thing to play around with in clubs and at raves, and videomapping, with which last year he rendered visuals to be projected on a site in Lisbon for a film depicting the history of the city. And there's more films to be worked on, hopefully with Tim Burton, whose work Mir finds crazy-fantastic, and “others - but I will have to work for them in some other capacity than CGI effects, because that's not the kind of films they do,” he muses. “Let's see.”


Anyone who's seen X-Men: First Class remembers Banshee, of course, and the final showdown between Sebastian Shaw and Professor X's men. This is where the smaller pieces that Mir has created, fall into place within an intricate puzzle


Ang Lee’s Life of Pi has been one of Mir Zafar Ali’s favourite projects, as he find the director’s vision ‘trippy and surreal’. At the same time, it highlighted the flipside of the job; the intense hard work that can leave one dreaming about work long after the day is done

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