Ali’s first Oscar came for The Golden Compass in 2008. He recalls the moment as being “very, very surreal.” “My wife Tamanna Shah was working at Paramount Studios at the time and we were invited to one of their Oscar parties. So we’re talking to people, having a good time and then the nomination for the best visual effects category came up and I almost dropped my drink when they announced The Golden Compass as the winner,” he said in a telephone interview with The Express Tribune.
It was a tough competition. They had been up against Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. “It took a good few seconds to sink in,” he recalled.
Ali’s forte is to mainly recreate natural phenomena such as water, fire, destruction and snow as well as visually recreate fantasy. This takes hundreds of hours of reference research, watching footage of natural phenomena such as tsunamis and storms and poring over science papers.
His second Academy Award came last year for the Life of Pi, a movie based on Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel. The Bengal tiger named Richard Parker stars in most sequences, although the real 300-pound tiger was only used when Pi and Richard are not in the same shot. The rest of the scenes consist of computer-generated images that give life to an extremely challenging script. It was in Life of Pi that a real animal and a digital one were used interchangeably for the first time. A team of 15 people were dedicated to creating just the fur by placing and combing all 10 million hair on his body.
But in the United States, even Oscar wins don’t promise job security. After the successes of Life of Pi and The Golden Compass, Ali found himself unemployed for some weeks. “After being in business for well over a decade, the company I worked for, Rhythm & Hues, filed for bankruptcy in 2013,” he said. “That was right after we won the Oscar for Life of Pi. There were major layoffs and I ended up on the chopping block after I wrapped up Percy Jackson 2 in April.”
The layoff came as a near blessing though and a couple of weeks later he was offered a job at Disney where he was assigned Frozen, leading to his second consecutive Oscar win. “The timing worked out perfectly for me.”
Ali grew up in Karachi watching a wide range of films and was particularly interested in science-fiction and fantasy movies. Jurassic Park was his first main inspiration. “It completely blew me away!” he said.
It was in July 1999 that he took the courage to start again and enrolled in a BFA programme at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). This one step went a long, long way — from Karachi to Hollywood. “My family was very supportive of my decision and that was a huge thing considering that most of my relatives thought this was just a hobby and a waste of time.”
In the last quarter at SCAD, one of his professors, Garman Harigstad, who he says he owes much of his success to, told him about an entry-level visual fx artist position at Digital Domain.
Ali compiled a demo reel of his best work on projects at SCAD and sent it over. Two weeks after, he was on his way to Los Angeles to work on The Day After Tomorrow. Since he brought a tsunami to New York in The Day After Tomorrow, Ali has given X-men’s Banshee his sonic scream and made monsters rise from the sea in Percy Jackson.
Now when he comes to Karachi he is not known as the crazy kid who wanted to study art but as the crazier man who created fantasy worlds that people back home love to lose themselves in.