A behind-the-scenes look at building Bilal

A peek inside Barajoun Entertainment's studios in Dubai, where hundreds of animators and CGI specialists are working to complete the upcoming animated film Bilal by the end of the year.

A character designer grooms the beard of one of the characters. Hair is the most difficult feature to animate – Bilal’s alone took 960 hours. Courtesy Barajoun
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Khurram Alavi, who has previously worked on character design for animation giants including Marvel, is making his directorial debut on the movie Bilal.

Alavi took time out from the director’s chair to play tour guide around the 8,000-square-foot Barajoun Entertainment studio in Dubai where the ­magic is happening, with up to 250 animators and CGI specialists grafting away during peak periods. The studio itself could almost be any other office, aside for black walls guarding against glare or reflection from rows of computer screens, making the place slightly reminiscent of a hi-tech sales floor housed in a nightclub.

Alavi says of the process: “It all starts when we get the script, then we’ll start developing sketches. We sketch the ­character out then start sculpting them with 3-D software to make sure they work in 3-D.

“This is all before production even starts. It takes about six months to do all this planning, get the faces right, think about the costumes and so on.

“You can’t just sketch the characters and animate from there. You have to be absolutely sure that everything works before it goes into animation; it’s no good if the arms are too short or something, once you start animating, so all that happens in pre-production, then it goes into the pipeline, to the concept-art department and the modelling department and then the animation department.

“The animators get the characters moving and they can spend hours just perfecting the slightest movement. We have daily sessions every morning to review what we’ve done. The hardest part, by far, is the hair. If you watch animated movies you’ll notice the characters nearly always have closed hair, but here we have characters with flowing hair.

“It’s very time-consuming and difficult, but it’ll be worth it in the finished product. It’s one of the biggest, most unique features of our movie, so we’ll be getting that hair to move properly.”

Alavi moves on to the section where the backgrounds are made. A team of artists sits meticulously crafting landscapes, onto which the characters will be placed once the animation is locked down and approved.

More banks of artists take shots of scenes from various angles, to make sure the perspectives and lenses are correct, before the scenes eventually move on to what both Alavi and Jamal say is the toughest part of the process – lighting.

Entering a room that somehow seems even darker than the rest of the studio, with blacked-out windows, Alavi says, laughing: “I call this the dark side. The lighting specialists get all the information they need from our art department, and the experts here make sure all the lighting is correct, and that the continuity of the lighting flows correctly through scenes. It’s a huge task, but essential to the final look and feel of the movie.”

Alavi says: “I’m really excited to be working here. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in this region on this scale. Most of the animation studios here work on a commercial level.

“This is the first feature, and it’s coming along really well, looking at the edits.

“In the West, it would take four or five years to make a movie like this, but we’re doing it in three. We’re having to really compress everything, but so far it’s going really well. The flow of the movie is very nice and I think it will keep audiences glued to their seats.”

cnewbould@thenational.ae