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An Oscar winner of our own

  • Published at 06:14 pm December 6th, 2013
An Oscar winner of our own

If you want to see enthralled film buffs and tech geeks, put them in a room with Nafees Bin Zafar.

The first thing anyone will tell you about Nafees is that he’s an incredibly humble and generous-hearted guy.

And then they’ll mention his Academy Award.

The computer animation wizard won an Oscar in 2008 for co-developing digital fluid effects software, used in movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” Nafees took his parents to the ceremony, and joked that the best part was watching presenter Jessica Alba applaud for him.

Now 36-years-old, a principal engineer at Dreamworks Studios with two US registered patents and a dozen feature film credits under his belt, Nafees is committed to sharing the secrets of his success.

“Technology is the great equaliser,” he said, sparking starry-eyed Hollywood ambition in computer science students. “You have access in Bangladesh to the exact same computers we use in Los Angeles.”

The real key, he said, is an inquiring mind and hard work.

Like a true geek, he is an information sponge. When we met at North End for our interview, he spoke expertly about the type of bike we passed in the stairwell (he rides) and the brand of coffee press used by the cafe (he knows the family who makes it). About everything he sees, he is full of ... “what’s the Bangla word for curiosity?” (koutuhol).

During his short visit to Dhaka, he carved out time to give quite a few talks. He feels a real spiritual affinity with students. “There’s a curiosity exchange there that I find comforting.”

Last Friday he spoke at the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, hosted by North South University.

And the previous Friday, his presentation on “Visual FX for animation and film” was one of Independent University Bangladesh’s most well-attended guest lectures.

The Weekend Tribune covered this talk extensively in yesterday’s article “A virtual world of his own.”

Using film clips, he showed students some exciting Hollywood applications such as virtual pyrotechnics and digital mayhem of mathematical formulas they learn in their classes. “It’s all computational fluid dynamics,” he said.

An advocate for minorities in his field, he praised first-year CSE student Arpana Shanta for being the only woman to raise her hand at the Q&A at his IUB talk prompting high-fives and “You’re a superstar,” from her male classmates after the session.

Nafees, though grateful for his advantages – which include an American education, a family of illustrious artists, and supportive parents – strongly believes that anyone, anywhere, can achieve his kind of success.

Family matters

His parents now live in Long Island, New York, where his father is an accountant with a private consulting firm.

His father Zafar Bin Basher was a lieutenant colonel in the Bangladesh army. The family moved to the US after he retired, when Nafees, an only child, was 11-years-old. His father completed his MBA at Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nafees considers his mother, Nafeesa Zafar, an important artistic influence. She herself comes from a long line of artists, two of whom have received EkusheyPadak awards for their contributions to Bangladesh: his great-grandfather Kobi Golam Mostafa, famed poet of the still-in-print classic tome Bishsho Nobi; and his uncle Syed Mainul Hossain, architect of the national monument Sriti Shoudho. His uncle Mustafa Monowar is a well-known puppeteer and TV personality.

On the move

As an army kid, the family moved often. Still, Nafees has very fond memories of growing up in Bangladesh, particularly of his father’s posting in Khagrachari, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. He had exotic pets, including a monkey, deer, ducks, and moina birds. There was also a “snake moat” dug out around the house that had to be emptied every morning, inspiring a deep-seated, lifelong fear of the slithering creatures.

I asked Nafees if he would be able to animate snakes for work. “I would definitely punt that assignment to someone else!”

He attended Comilla Ispahani School, Shahid Anwar in Dhaka Cantonment, and Manarat International School in Dhaka, until grade 6.

After moving to the US, he got to skip one year ahead, which was followed by a double promotion later on.

He was obviously a bright student, but he shuddered when I called him a “prodigy,” and refused to admit to being anything but “maybe above the average.”

What should I do with my life?

Nafees graduated from the College of Charleston at 19, three years earlier than most, but still felt lost about what to do with his life.

His parents had, in classical South Asian form, wanted him to be a doctor. With that and inspiration from a charismatic high school chemistry teacher, he had been majoring in biochemistry. But he began bunking classes and writing computer programmes for fun. Then, at the last minute, he switched his major to computer science.

“My parents were worried that I was wandering. And so was I, frankly,” he said. “But I figured, at least I would be employable.”

He tried different industries, working for a few years as a programmer for a defence contractor, then a medical university.

Then something finally clicked.

Finding a calling

Purely out of interest, Nafees attended a SIGGRAPH conference (Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques). And in computer animation, that “marriage of physics and art,” Nafees found his calling.

These days, when speaking to deshi parents, Nafees encourages them to let their children explore jobs beyond the usual doctor-engineer route. “One of the great stories to be told is the story of the Bangali diaspora in the US, which can only be told by storytellers: journalists and writers and artists and painters. Because our community has a really great tale to tell. There’s a lot of success, and a lot of – to use an overused phrase overcoming adversity.”

For a man who makes his living setting things on fire and blowing up buildings for Hollywood, Nafees is remarkably down to earth.

 

Q&A with NAFEES BIN ZAFAR

Your filmography includes: Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Flags of Our Fathers, 2012, Shrek Forever After and Kung Fu Panda 2. What are you working on now?

How to Train Your Dragon 2, Mr Peabody and Sherman, Kung Fu Panda 3.

Was Dreamworks the dream job?

Any job in this industry for me is the dream job!

You’re very grounded. How do you maintain that in glitzy LA?

I think LA gets a bad rap. Everyone is very serious and focused. People come from all over the world to work in the film industry. It’s a lifelong passion for most of us. That said … I never give up an opportunity to wear my tux.

Who was your favorite director to work with?

Definitely Clint Eastwood. He knows exactly what he wants. He’s also probably my favorite living director. He tells amazing stories like no one else.

“Flags of Our Fathers” was one of the best movies of the last ten years, and definitely the best movie I’ve ever worked on. It was like a textbook on how to make visual effects films: well-organised and all planned out. 

Did you get to hang out with Clint?

(Laughs) He was there while we were working, but no we didn’t “hang out.” I’d probably go all fanboy on him. 

Do you watch Bangla or Hindi films?

Not the current ones, but whenever I get a chance I’ll watch old Uttam Kumar movies. That era of Bangali film is just stunning. The storytelling is great, the cinematography, the sets, the whole bit. That’s what movies are about. I would love to see that culture revitalised. 

And I will honestly say Satyajit Ray is one of my favourite, favourite directors. I grew up watching those movies in Bangladesh and rewatching the tapes my parents brought with them to the US, some of which I didn’t understand until I was older. 

Satyajit Ray – that’s interesting, because he used a lot of great visual effects. Have you seen his children’s films?

I’ve seen all his films! I recently re-watched “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.” It’s really fun and clever. The film is in black and white, but at the end of the movie – when poor Goopy and Bagha have finally made it, and they’re about to marry the princesses, they do a clap and say: “Dress us like princes” – and then the movie turns to colour. I thought that was a super clever use of effects to tell a story. 

And he’s a fellow Bangali Academy Award winner. 

Actually, the Academy recently restored 19 of his films. When they gave him his Oscar [in 1992 for lifetime achievement], they realised they didn’t have enough footage for a 30 second montage at the Oscars. 

There’s a degradation problem with old film called acetate stress. Over the last 20 years, they had to cut together bits and pieces gathered literally from all over the world. 

Watch this and tell me what you think of it. [I showed him a video of “What is Love,” from Ananta Jalil’s recent Dhallywood hit “Nishartho Bhalobasha,” which features some rudimentary visual effects.]

“I think it’s great! Because they’re trying out lots of neat visuals, like that sand tornado in the back. They didn’t have to do that.

It’s really not a matter of special technique or artistic know-how. It’s about putting in the time, and time means money. When these kinds of things generate enough revenue, they’ll be able to invest that back in and make the films look better. Once you get into that cycle, you get improvement. 

You’ve got to start with someone saying: “I’m gonna be walking in the Sahara, and I’m gonna kick a tire and the tire is gonna spin.” That’s exactly what you need. 

The worst is when a director says: “I don’t really have any ideas, just put in whatever.” Then you want to say: “Why are we wasting our time? You don’t care what this thing looks one bit! Why are you in movies?” 

Let’s close our interview Hollywood-style, with a version of the famous Proustian questions James Lipton asks on his show “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” What is your favorite Bangla word?

Kelenkari. I use it mostly for comedic effect.

What is your least favorite Bangla word?

I’m sure I represent many Bangalis when I say: hartal. 

What turns you on? 

Intelligence. Speaking to my baser nature: short, dark hair.

What turns you off? 

Uncleanliness.

What sound or noise do you love? 

Running water (like in nature, not in the shower).

What sound or noise do you hate? 

Noisy motorcycles, like Harley Davidsons.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Astronaut.

What profession would you not like? 

You already know this one. Snake charmer!

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? 

“Look after these baby pandas.”

Ha! Did you get to hang out with any while working on Kung Fu Panda?

I didn’t unfortunately. But one day I’m going to go the Wolong Giant Panda Research Station in China, and hug some pandas!