Friday August 31, 2012
By ALLAN KOAY
Animation pioneer Hassan Muthalib taught his sons very early on to appreciate art and imagination.
A LIFE of colours and imagination is what brothers Samad Hassan and Ahmad Hassan had when growing up, simply because they grew up with a father who pioneered Malaysian animation. There were always drawing and colouring activities when they were young, even though they never knew exactly how important their father’s work was until later in their lives.
“Of course, I thought my father was just doing his job and it was nothing special,” Samad recalls.
“My primary school teacher at the beginning of every year would ask us, ‘What does your father do?’ And I would reply, Lukis-lukis. Only when I was in college did I realise that someone like him is really, really rare.”
Adds Ahmad: “It was only after I started working and met a lot of people that I realised that everything he did was so important. He was a pioneer in many things.”
Today, both Ahmad, 31, and Samad, 29, continue to be involved in animation. Samad is working in visual effects for movies and Ahmad works in motion graphics. Both fields are logical extensions of animation.
Their father, Hassan Muthalib, joined Filem Negara Malaysia (FNM) in 1968 where he started working in animation in 1972. Those old enough to remember the early days of television would recall those public service announcement ads on TV warning about the dangers of dengue fever and drugs. The anti-dadah ad was surely one of the most memorable, with its scary images and music, depicting an emaciated man crawling up a flight of stairs before turning into a skeleton.
“We were given an opportunity by the then-new director-general (John Nettleton) to try out animation,” says Hassan, 67.
“He left it to us to do everything, from idea to story to storyboards to even directing. But we didn’t know what it was all about. But I was crazy and said ‘Let’s do it!’”
Hassan never had any formal training in animation. He is completely self-taught, reading art and photography books even during his secondary school days. He used to borrow books about famous artists and photographers such as Norman Rockwell and Ansel Adams. He was also into geology and astronomy.
“Today, I realise I was learning from the masters,” says Hassan.
“So how could I go wrong?
“I caught the animation bug and I thought I would be an animator for the rest of my life. I used my own money to travel overseas to festivals, meet famous animators and bring back books on the subject. I was also experimenting a lot.”
As Hassan remembers, no one at the time knew anything about animation. They all learned on the job. However, the equipment at FNM was the standard of their time. They included an animation disc, which was a circular glass with a light source from below; and also a Bell & Howell animation camera from Sri Lanka. Later, they purchased an Oxberry camera worth RM70,000, which was a lot of money in those days.
“A cameraman named Liew Chan Fatt was my first mentor,” says Hassan.
“He had experience shooting commercials and title sequences, so he knew how to use the animation camera. I learned a lot from him.”
Apart from checking out animated films from the National Film Board of Canada in the FNM library, Hassan and his colleagues also had opportunities to learn from visiting animators, such as Australian Frank Smith who came by in 1972.
However, there was an animated film called Hikayat Sang Kancil, based on the famous tales of a cheeky mousedeer, that was made between 1963 and 1978. It took so long to make it, says Hassan, because it was a one-man job. It was created by Anandam Xavier, who was a set designer. Hassan had seen him working on the film during his time in FNM. Hikayat Sang Kancil is recognised as the very first locally made animated film.
When FNM director-general Datuk Aziz Wok, saw it, he proposed a 13-episode series based on the Sang Kancil stories to then-Information Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Adib Adam. What resulted was a bunch of short films by Hassan and his team based on the Sang Kancil stories and Aesop’s Fables – Sang Kancil dan Buaya, Sang Kancil dan Monyet, Gagak yang Bijak, Arnab yang Sombong and Singa yang Haloba.
In the 80s, the government pushed for the use of digital technology.
Before Hassan left FNM on optional retirement at the age of 49, digital animation had just been introduced. In 1994, he suggested to FNM to acquire computers for animation work. He was working on Bangau Oh Bangau, based on the popular song, After he left, the work on the film was carried on by others using computers. The film went on to win a prize at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Jakarta in 2000.
Hassan later worked on the first local film to use both live action and animation, 1990s Mat Gelap, which starred cartoonist and comedian Imuda.
The government’s call for more use of digital technology also resulted in the private sector producing the first local animated TV series, Usop Sontorian, which began airing in 1995. In 1998, Hassan wrote and directed Malaysia’s first full-length animated feature, Silat Lagenda, which used a combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation.
From the early days of FNM to today, where animation has grown from strength to strength, resulting in movies such as SeeFood and the upcoming stereoscopic 3D movie, War of the Worlds: Goliath, Hassan has seen it all. He also had the foresight of preparing his sons for their careers.
He used to bring home his old drawings from his animation work and gave them to his young sons so they could play at colouring.
“I trained them from the age of one,” he says.
“For them, it was all fun and play, but they were actually also learning. I used to give them old calendars and they would draw and colour the calendars and add things using their creativity.
“One of the newspapers used to have a join-the-dots game and when my sons were old enough to recognise numbers, I got them to complete those drawings. It was progressive for them.”
“There was never a formal session where our father would sit with us and ask us to do this and that,” says Samad.
“But there were always elements of art all around us, from storybooks to paintings on the walls.”
They used to go to rivers and bring back leaves and stones and then build their own little forest at home.
What Samad remembers most was bringing home interesting-looking stones and painting on them. They would paint them as spaceships or animals, or anything that their minds imagined the stones to be.
“I once brought Ahmad to my workplace, and of course, he didn’t understand what was going on,” says Hassan.
“It was only later, when I was working on Silat Lagenda after I retired, that I took both of them to the studio, and I also brought home some artwork. They were more or less beginning to understand. They were already in secondary school at the time.”
Samad has worked on the visual effects for films such as Nur Kasih, Misteri Jalan Lama and Janin. Ahmad was involved in creating the opening title sequence for Saladin the TV series, and also worked with his father and some of his former students to come up with the 3D animated globe for the World Film Festival.
It is Hassan’s dream to one day see our local animated works be as good as any other country’s.
“And for that, we have to delve deep into our own rich reservoir of myths, legends and folklore,” he says.
“Tell those stories using the visual and aural language that Hollywood has used for more than 100 years to conquer the world. Now that digital technology can make the impossible happen on screen, it is all the more reason we should inculcate in the young, at school level, the art of storytelling.”