Informative interview with Abu Dhabi-based arts and culture magazine The National, which sheds some additional light on this project I alerted you to in February, but didn’t have enough information on at the time, and my email to the production company went unanswered…
First, a quick recap…
Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has partnered up with Barajoun Entertainment, a Dubai-based animation and visual effects studio, to produce and star in its first feature film production.
“The movie tells the story of a real superhero, an African slave who was brought to Arabia 1,000 years ago and fought for his freedom,” the actor said earlier in the year. “He became an inspiration to generations and we’re retelling his story 1,000 years later.”
The short synopsis reads: A thousand years ago, one boy with a dream of becoming a great warrior is abducted with his sister and taken to a land far away from home. Thrown into a world where greed and injustice rule all, Bilal finds the courage to raise his voice and make a change. Inspired by true events, this is a story of a real hero who earned his remembrance in time and history.
As I noted at the time, based on the research I did, the story is based on the true story of Bilal Ibn Rabah, a freed slave of Ethiopian origin who converted to Islam and became a trusted companion of the Prophet Muhammad after he gained his freedom.
In the interview with The National, published just yesterday, we learn further that a team of about 250 animation professionals (including some who have worked on movies such as “Shrek,” “Life of Pi,” “Star Wars” and “The Avengers”) are working on the project.
“My inspiration was my kid, and myself,” says Ayman Jamal, the screenwriter and founder and managing partner of Barajoun Entertainment, the company backing the movie. “When I watched movies like ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Malcolm X’ when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I was inspired. Why wasn’t I inspired when I was 10, I asked myself? I asked my 5-year-old son what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said: ‘Superman’. I love Superman, but I wish he’d said something possible, and I wanted to create this. To inspire kids with a real human superhero that they can aspire to.”
He adds: “Superman is the reason I did this. I had to save my kid.”
“This is the first studio of this quality in the Middle East. Initially we wanted to acquire one, but there was simply nothing on this level. There was nothing that was able to fulfil the pipeline to produce a full animation movie. A typical animated TV series would normally take a maximum of 20,000 hours to render. A movie like ‘Bilal’ will take four to five million hours. To put it in perspective, ‘Frozen’ took 60 million hours to render. Likewise, a full TV series will take 20 to 25 team members to work on. ‘Bilal’ has more than 250. This complexity just didn’t exist in the region until now.”
Jamal further explains: “We’ve paid serious attention to detail. We hired 11 researchers, including doctors from universities, to research the history of the story, and we’ve taken all the characters’ descriptions from at least 17 different historical sources. We hired two forensic scientists to model the characters based on these descriptions and what we know about the tribes of the time. It took six months to design each character and we’re really proud of it. We’re showing the characters exactly as described in historical texts, not just using our imagination. We’ve spent 5,000 hours of research to develop clothes and props too.”
He continues: “… But it’s a misconception to think animation is a cheaper option. A feature film with Brad Pitt or Denzil Washington will take 16 weeks to shoot and put through post. For animation, you’re talking about 150 weeks. Shrek cost US$120 million. A typical live blockbuster costs 20 or 30 million dollars.“Bilal’s hair alone took 960 hours to execute. That’s one character. The most difficult part of animation or CGI is hair and clothes because of the way they move. When my studio manager came here from LA, he said he expected to stay for three months. He had developed 56 characters in the movies he’d worked on in 15 years. In ‘Bilal’ there are 92 characters, not to mention one of biggest battle scenes in CGI history.”
The project has been in development for 8 years and counting, and is nearing completion, according to the passionate producer, who hopes to have the movie completed by this November, for an early 2016 release. Although distribution is already secured in the Middle East, no USA distributor has stepped up and outright claimed the film yet, but the producer says in the interview that negotiations with USA and European distributors are “at an advance stage with at least three distributors.”
“We want to help develop the regional industry step by step. We’re speaking to government entities about the possibility of opening an institute to graduate CGI artists so they can train and hopefully find a job. I always give the example of New Zealand, where Weta Digital has created a whole industry from nothing post-‘Lord of the Rings,’ and now New Zealand handles half of the US post-production. Everyone is watching us. People doubted we could develop this quality at the start, but after trailer went online they’re taking us seriously. Everyone else in the region does TV, but we’re the first here to be crazy enough to say: ‘Let’s do a movie’, and not just for the region, but one for the world.”
And there’s much more, which you can read here.
The 105-minute feature, currently in post-production, sounds like quite an epic undertaking, one that I’m looking forward to eventually checking out.
This is certainly a project to keep track of.
In the meantime, check out an early trailer for the upcoming film below: