By Alemayehu Seife-Selassie
For a city that is blossoming with an escalating number of Ethiopian films, there is a substantial deficiency of one genre of film making; animation.
With the exception of the curtailed and amateurish 3D animated dancing boy Sinziro, whose debut wowed audiences but disappeared from the scene quickly, the Ethiopian film industry has lacked a professionally produced animated film. Since then the yearning animation fans have been crying out to see an animation film that tells an Ethiopian story.
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Thanks to the gifted Ethiopian animator from Canada, Birhan Mulatu Desta, 35, a hilarious animation character by the name Aleka Abebe has just popped up in Youtube videos. The two short films Doro (Chicken) and Karate Keyet Meta? (Where did karate came from?) show Aleka Abebe (Chief Abebe) learning Amharic letters, and telling a young boy how Karate has its root in Ethiopia. Birhan is the mastermind behind the character Aleka Abebe. When this gifted designer came to Addis for a short stay, The Reporter caught up with him.
“I have always been in love with animation films. Looking at Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo, I grew up wishing that the character would speak in Amharic and we would understand what they were saying,” says Birhan.
Currently working at To Prez Production, a feature length animation production company in Toronto Canada as character animator, Birhan has done a number of advertisement pieces and short films on video/DVDs.
The biggest project Birhan took was the character animation he did for the film ‘Little Spirit’ featuring the renowned actor Danny DeVito. The project has given Birhan an opportunity to work on ‘Ramona’, the father character of the little boy acted by Danny DeVito.
In the same film Birhan also worked on an NBC journalist’s character. “I have nine shots animated in that film.”
The fruits of the project however did not come easily for he had to toil hard. The Little Spirit took two years to complete. “I was working for a week to produce a 10-second acting. It was detail oriented and demanded a high precision work. So we had to spend a lot of time.”
A graduate of graphic designing at DAAT College in Israel, Birhan got his hands on print graphics in the year 1999. But on his graduation year he was introduced to the world of computer animation. Growing up drawing pictures, the animator did not know how he could make a career out of drawing. “I was very excited by what I found out when I started learning graphic designing. But right before graduation, I saw computer animation, and I was fascinated by it,” he explains.
Birhan’s change of heart led him to another direction, a world of 3D animation. The recognition of animation movies at the Oscars was really inspirational for his change of heart. The one thing that made Birhan fall in love with the world of animation is the freedom it provides. The freedom to create a character where viewers will empathise with is something that he found overwhelming.
After he was introduced to the world of animation at DAAT in Israel, Birhan took his dream of working on the animation further by joining the Ottawa School of Art Animation in Toronto, Canada. His journey to 3D animation took another turn when he started working on drawing and classical flip animation. Later he joined Seneca College to study computer animation and special effect arts.
The first work that Birhan did, the Amharic ‘Yedagi Yegenna Tiyake’ (Dagi’s Christmas Question), was released in 2001. The work dealt with talking fish. “Six months after the release of my film, ‘Finding Nemo’ was released. That was a coincidence.” Having a very appreciative audience, particularly in North America, Birhan says that the video sales were fantastic. Working for a sister company of the renowned Christian Animation Company of Vegtel, the animator started working on biblical stories.
His biblical animations, however, were in English. “When you start working without much experience you have to work hard to show your potentials. You are not working for the money at the beginning. That is why I had to do video productions,” Birhan points out. Working to develop a portfolio, Birhan did a few pieces. For this animator, the work experience that he developed in progress has been more educational than the actual academics.
Looking back at his first animations he reminisces, “The animations I was doing at the beginning and the ones I am doing now are completely different. The more you work on characters the more you learn to bring the T pause models [3D working models] to life.”
In the working set up Birhan is used to, the animator is given a mirror to see himself act as the character and work on bringing those real life emotions to life on the planning board. “Computer is the last thing we touch. When you get to the computer it means that you have gone over 80 percent of the work.”
Working on his trademark character Aleka Abebe, Birhan has taken more tasks than the usual. As opposed to the regular task [character animation] he has taken script writing, character design (painting), character modeling (digital sculpting), texture artist (skin hair and costume designer), and rigging artist (skeleton insertions and movement introduction).
It took Birhan a month and a half to come up with the one-minute first Aleka Abebe Amharic letter study animation Doro. After the piece got a wide reception on Youtube, he decided to do another one in which he makes the episode a bit longer. The second piece has a three-minute duration. The storyline, which has a beginning, a middle and an end, has made the second episode more entertaining.
The comments that he received included inquiries on why he has taken such a long time to produce the pieces. But he responds that it takes a long time to produce such pieces. The animator takes pride for being the first Ethiopian to have his animation works featured on Youtube. If one searches for Aleka Abebe on Youtube, the results will bring the featured videos on the right hand side. Resembling the two dimensional Ethiopian circular shaped paintings and its traditional Tibeb decoration on the chest, the character distinctly depicts Aleka Abebe as an Ethiopian.
Speaking of how he came with the storyline for the second episode, Birhan says, “My grandmom used to tell me stories, and somehow all the stories roll back to the time of the Italian invasion.” The animator says that by making this film, he wanted to teach kids the history of the earlier times in a charming manner. “I want Ethiopian kids to be proud of their history,” he adds.
Running his animation company BiraAnimation Birhan hopes to do more series but he wants to have a wider audience as internet access is difficult for many Ethiopians to access his www.biranimation.com website.
Birhan is currently looking for opportunities to work with Ethiopian filmmakers and the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency. “We will be very happy if ETV and Ethiopian filmmakers would like to use our knowledge. Some of the comments that we have received include remarks that we should work together with ETV and do more episodes.”
Birhan has prepared over 20 episodes that include an episode where Aleka Abebe gets abducted by aliens. He is also working on making a feature length film of Karate Keyet Meta? Working in Canada, the animator has found it difficult to develop his network with Ethiopian filmmakers. And in his two-week stay he wants to develop that before he goes back in a couple of weeks.
Aleka Abebe- Karate keyet meta
Source: The Reporter