x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cyborg hero forged in the heart of Dubai

It is hoped a computer generated sci-fi thriller will inspire the creation of a new UAE animation industry.

The character XE7 in the film Xero Error.
The character XE7 in the film Xero Error.

Step aside, Terminator: a new time-travelling cyborg out of Dubai Media City is due to burst on to cinema screens in the UAE's first computer-generated film. The home-grown hero is XE7, an explorer of early life on Earth that his creator, Ashraf Ghori, hopes will show the way forward for computer-animated film in the country. If all goes to plan, XE7 will make his debut in Xero Error, a 20-minute short, at the Dubai International Film Festival in December. "We've spoken to the organisers and we have the green light from them, so it's just a matter of whether we can get it done in time," said Mr Ghori, who co-wrote and is directing the film. Despite a lack of funding, Mr Ghori, a Dubai-based artist of Indian descent, hopes to be able to present the US$600,000 (Dh2.2m) movie not only at the Dubai festival but also at Cannes and the Middle East International Film Festival next year. "It's a slick sci-fi thriller but it's the thinking man's sci-fi movie," Mr Ghori said, careful not to disclose too much of the plot but citing Japanese manga and the film Minority Report as stylistic influences. The 35-year-old former comic book illustrator, who studied graphic design in Houston, said there were few options in the UAE for anyone who wanted to pursue animation through computer-generated imagery (CGI). He hopes Xero Error and the success of Freej, the Gulf's first CGI television series, will encourage more local talent to produce animated features, too. "When I came back over here I was frustrated because I realised there was really no outlet for what I wanted to do with artistic media - fantasy art, comic books, science-fiction stuff. It's like there was no market for that, maybe because people here don't have the exposure that people in the US do to those things." So, two years ago Mr Ghori decided to start his own animation studio, Xpanse CGI, in Dubai Media City. He said Xero Error was designed to appeal specifically to UAE audiences - part of the hero's adventures even take him to a future vision of Dubai transformed by a century of urban development. "We wanted to develop a kind of superhero character who has elements of the UAE and Arab culture," Mr Ghori said. The project has already attracted the attention from the trailblazer of CGI animation in the UAE, Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of the beloved Freej. "I met [Mr Ghori] at the Dubai film festival last year and he told me about the movie," said Mr Harib. "It looks cool, like a Terminator kind of thing, and they were working on a trailer. So that's really good for them." Mr Harib believes that more quality CGI films showcasing locally-based talent will help the UAE make its mark in digital animation. "To be honest with you, there is no computer animation industry in the UAE now," he said. "There are certain experiments, some projects and some tries, and I think this is how the industry gets born - once you get one or two, three big success stories that actually get the public interest into this field." Mr Harib said CGI production required years of training, besides developing good concepts, organising funding and assembling teams of animators, storyboard artists, scriptwriters and art directors. He said that if all went well, "we might start seeing the animation industry develop here in the next 10 years". But the groundwork is being laid already. Dubai opened an animation training school at the Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics in 2007, and the Emirates College of Media Arts & Sciences also offers a degree programme in digital animation and visual effects. Last year, the SpaceToon Media Group announced plans to set up an animation production facility in Dubai Studio City that would offer courses in 3D animation. However, Mr Ghori noted that most of the CGI work produced in the region is commercial. He plans to conduct workshops in local colleges to inspire aspiring animators to break into the film industry. In the meantime, anyone without formal training in CGI can still make their mark on Xero Error. As part of an art contest in partnership with Virgin music stores, visitors to the film's website, www.xero-error.com, are being asked to check out the design for XE7 and then create their own interpretation of the character for use in the finished movie. "It could be a henna design, you could make him out of Lego blocks or stitch him on a shirt, it could be anything," Mr Ghori said. Xero Error is already drawing interest from around the world. The film's website has logged visitors from 88 countries including the US, Canada, the UK, France, Australia, India and Pakistan, and XE7 has 500 fans on Facebook. The film is set one century in the future, when the cyborg protagonist is sent by scientists through time on a mission to record Earth's history. Upon discovering that supernatural elements such as magic and spirits do in fact exist, XE7 gets ensnared in a cyberterrorism plot. Although the script has been completed, the dialogue recorded and 30 per cent of the environments completed, there is a lot of work still to be done on the film, which has been tentatively scheduled for premiere on Jan 10 next year in Dubai. Mr Ghori said he also still needs to raise about 75 per cent of the film's budget. Among several potential sponsors is Arab Media Group, which is already a media partner. Meanwhile Red Bull, Emirates Post and Dubai Studio City are backing the project with support in publicity and promotion activities. "I'm very excited," Mr Ghori said. "Maybe it's not going to be the next Terminator, but it's a first step towards coming up with proper animated productions." mkwong@thenational.ae