April issue 2010
Interview: Muqeem Khan, Animator
“Computer graphics is a platform through which
I seek to sort out my thoughts”
– Muqeem Khan
Computer graphics designer and animator
Muqeem Khan, a leading computer graphics designer and animator, has worked as a visual effects artist on famed titles such as Flubber, George of the Jungle, Armageddon and Final Fantasy. He graduated from Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, in 1996, where he received his Master of Arts in Industrial Design, with specialisation in computer graphics and animation. Khan has taught, worked and been affiliated with a number of institutions in the Middle East, Europe and North America — and for three years, Hawaii. Currently, he is working as an assistant professor of graphic and interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.
Khan speaks to Newsline about his participation in Hollywood films, the future of computer graphics in Pakistan and beyond, his sources of inspiration and his outlook on life.
Q: What drew you towards a career in computer graphics and 3D animation? How long has the desire to pursue work in animation been with you?
A: Art, design and calligraphy has been in my family. My uncles were artists, designers and calligraphers and my father, who was a herbalist, was also a very polished calligrapher. Since childhood, I had been exploring different materials — I would draw a lot, design and explore different media. I don’t think that I found computer graphics and then began to express myself. Rather, the expression was there; in computer graphics I found another medium or platform for that expression.
Q: Would you say that your decision to pursue computer graphics and animation was related to an ‘all for the money’ ideology?
A: If you desire money and hope that this platform will get it for you, then that’s just a bad attitude. You should enjoy your work; having fun with your activity is the most important thing. It is what brings you happiness and satisfaction. Money is just one of the variables that come with your work.
Q: What are your views on computer graphics?
A: Computer design [or graphics], like arts, music and poetry, is an organised way of looking at the world. They all try to give meaning to our lives and become a source of happiness for us.
Q: Do you see potential for the arts or computer graphics industry to flourish in Pakistan?
A: I am very optimistic of our arts and design. We have inherited a strong visual culture from the Hindus and Persians. If we can integrate these influences in our work, amazing things can happen. But at the moment, we just seem to be importing our thoughts. We are not leaders; to be leaders we need guts, which calls for giving others direction rather than following them.
Q: As an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, how do you teach your material to students?
A: The most important thing in my classroom is motivation and curiosity. Once you create curiosity, enthusiasm follows, and then comes motivation. Motivation automatically heads in the direction of creating something tangible. When you design methodology to create curiosity, you teach one how to learn rather than what to learn, and this creates satisfaction.
Q: It seems then that you are touched by philosophical messages. On your website, you have listed several poems for comprehending existence and life in general. How influenced are you by poetry, or a philosophical outlook on life?
A: Poetry is a really interesting area where you collect different words and try to compose and say in very short sentences something bold and interesting. Computer graphics is a platform, like poetry, through which I seek to sort out my thoughts. I don’t try to find answers to my confusion. I think it’s better to be in a state of confusion for your own personal development — it’s very healthy. Poetry is a manifestation of my confusion, or the output of my confusion.
Q: Is there a message you want to spread through your work?
A: My ‘7 planets’ animation on my website is all about the destruction of our planet Earth. It’s about global warming and interaction with mother Earth. It’s another platform on which I like to craft these messages, and if we gear our social structure in some direction, good things will come from it.
Q: Moving on to your participation in film production, what was your role in the films you worked in?
A: Basically, I was responsible for dust, debris, clouds, fire, body defamation, and for creating those sorts of things.
Q: Were you at all concerned with the content of the script, or the philosophical messages of the films? I ask this because each of the movies you worked on contained very deep philosophical messages and analysis of society.
A: You have to know the plot and script because even if you are working on one shot, you have another shot to link it with, so you have to be really familiar with the content. Hollywood movies are very structured, every shot is structured. When it comes to artists like me, we know exactly what we need to be doing — which is to put effort into showing our creativity in a tangible manner. For instance, when I was working on Final Fantasy, I was touched by how important it was for Sakaguchi-san, [to give] reality to his dream. And when working on it, I was more focused on the representation of those things.
My concern was not to change the script, my job was to portray the concept in the best way I could.
Q: Which film was your favourite, or the most rewarding one to work on?
A: Final Fantasy was a very interesting project where for three years all us artists worked together and collaborated on the project, constantly challenging ourselves in the process. I learnt a lot being a part of the production house. Collective effort is the most important thing in any production house.
Q: Did you draw from the environment in Hawaii and elsewhere?
A: Yes, there were several shots for which I had to. For George of the Jungle, I played in the mud and debris to see how they would interact with my feet, because that is how it would be depicted in my work.
Q: Have you gotten any other offers to work with films produced for Hollywood?
A: Final Fantasy was my last offer. I am currently working on a project for my website called ‘Masks.’ Also, I am researching with a research club to detect facial expressions and face actions of early autistic individuals. We are trying to come up with an application to detect early autism. This is something I am heavily involved in at the moment.
Q: Is there any likelihood of you pursuing independent film projects, perhaps those native to or based in Pakistan?
A: Yes, but rather than an independent project, I would like to do some collaborative work.
Q: What advice can you give to those aspiring for a career in computer graphics and animation?
A: Curiosity is the most important thing. The essence of everything is curiosity, and you have to have fun with your work. Create tangible and pragmatic goals for yourself. Ghalib said something, which is pretty hard to translate, but the gist of it is: it is not the wood of the flute, but rather the heart of the flute player that creates the sound. You constantly evaluate from your mind, but your work should come from your heart, and you have this tangible push and pull between those two. You have to learn how to attach to and detach from your work, and that is important. When you detach, you can start thinking pragmatically, and when you attach, you can place your emotions in your work.
Amazing things are happening, not only in graphic design but also in filmmaking, animation and computer graphics. If you can sit and work for long hours in front of a rectangular screen and enjoy it, you might as well try it.