Sci Fi Spy
by Anusha Abishegam
Meet Ejen Ali, the newest kid wonder on the block- clumsy dork, spy trainee, and good intentions all wrapped into one. Ejen Ali has recently taken the Malaysian animation fanbase by storm, and proof of this can be found in fanart scattered all around the Internet. To be fair, the clean lines and detailed look of the visuals, coupled with a well-thought-out storyline, does tend to grab one’s attention.
We had a chat with Usamah Zaid bin Yasin – Director of Ejen Ali & CEO of WAU Animation, and Mohd Faiz bin Mohd Hanafiah – Art Director of Ejen Ali & COO of WAU Animation, to find out how this latest animated venture came about.
What is ‘Ejen Ali’ about?
‘Ejen Ali’ is about a regular twelve-year-old kid named Ali, who’s an underachiever and occasionally gets bullied at school. One day, he stumbles across an Intelligence device called IRIS- Infinity Retinal Intelligence System, that was stolen by a couple of villains- and he accidentally activates it, binding it to himself in the process. When the agency MATA (Meta Advance Tactical Agency) retrieves the device, they find that it has been synced to Ali, and he’s stuck with it.
So, whenever MATA wants to use IRIS, they send Ali- a very unlikely child candidate- on a mission, and he brings his clumsiness and unpredictability with him into the spy world. He’s like an accidental kid spy, basically.
How does your character deal with this sudden transition in his life?
U: Well, we have a whole character development arc for him throughout the series. At first, he’s excited about everything and has to get used to it, but as he gets deeper into the spy world he’ll realize things start getting more challenging. He will get disheartened from time to time, but he has Bakar- his mentor- to give him guidance and advice, not to mention a few other agents that he’ll work with. In the long run, Ali will find the courage to change himself, rather than just depending on IRIS.
F: It’s a full series arc- we have thirteen episodes per season- and the story has a zero-to-hero journey as a theme.
What inspired the concept of the show?
U: Tons and tons of brainstorming sessions! (laughs) We set up the (WAU) studio and we spent our first couple of weeks, just-
F: Finding a concept.
U: Yeah, just brainstorming for a concept of what show we’re gonna do, and what to name the company- the early days. We were looking at over thirty different concepts- “what if we do this kinda show, or this kinda show?” At some point we just sat down and went, “what’s different?” because the big names in animation then were ‘Upin and Ipin’ and ‘Boboiboy’. We figured, let’s not steer towards the directions of the former’s very Malaysian daily-life-of-village-kids-thing, or the latter’s boy-action thing.
So we thought about it, and went “why don’t we come up with something that seems-“
U: We looked at the list of concepts, and one of it was the “spy and espionage” theme. We thought “that’ll be interesting” because tackling that subject with animation, you can do action, you can do comedy, you can add the whole “detective-puzzle-solving” elements to it. After a lot of discussions, a lot of redoing initial ideas, it evolved to what ‘Ejen Ali’ is now.
“We hadn’t seen anything that was smart, stylish and silly all at once.”
Tell me about the settings of the plot- are they all based on real locations and events?
F: The place (where Ali lives) is called Cyber Raya- it’s kinda close to Cyberjaya.
U: In that world, it’s an innovation capital, where all the great minds are brought together to spearhead technological advancement. While the city is the “place to be” for research and all that, it also becomes a target for villains- it’s the place where you can get access to the best technology. It can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
So the agency MATA was created in secrecy, and operates discreetly because if people knew there were so many threats in the city, then everyone would be living in fear. MATA is the secret protector of Cyber Raya.
What is your target audience- is it mainly children? What are you trying to get across to your audience?
U: We want to reach audiences across the board. Some people say it’s difficult, not possible- but we find that if we do shows that are wholly catered to children, it’ll be-
F: Not very appealing to adults.
U: Yeah, and for some of us, we wouldn’t enjoy it too much. There’d be less room for storytelling. If you watch certain American cartoons, every episode is very similar, there’s the same pattern of enemies and out of twenty-six episodes you get about three actual episodes with plot progression or character development. I feel that while that’s sufficient for a kid’s show, it’s not great for storytelling. Growing up, many of us watched cartoons and we have our heroes- figures that actually inspire and shape us. I think it’d be amazing if we could do something like that for the audience; so while the action is being kept family-friendly, the plot is actually targeted more towards teenagers and young adults, or the people who would watch animation and appreciate the storytelling side of things.
How do you get this show across to the right people, marketing-wise?
F: We are currently partnering up with Media Prima; they’re our marketing arms. This is a co-owned thing, they have fifty percent of the rights- and they can use all platforms to market the show.
U: Media Prima owns TV3, one of the most-watched channels in Malaysia.
F: They have all sorts of different media platforms covered, like press, radio, digital, and ground events.
U: It happened to be that Media Prima was looking to invest in an IP (Intellectual Property) during the time we were developing ‘Ejen Ali’; they looked at a few projects and ended up selecting ‘Ejen Ali’ to invest in. They come in as investors and co-owners, as well as the broadcasters; to answer your question about reaching the right people, we leave most of it to them.
F: They even had our character Ali appear briefly to present an award during the Anugerah Bintang Popular event. We’re also on mobile apps and games- Media Prima Labs (MPLabs), formerly known as Media Prima Digital- hosted a Game Jam in October using ‘Ejen Ali’ as the IP for the competition.
U: Basically the Game Jam is when we call out to game developers, and they spend thirty-six hours straight developing a playable demo. We picked two winners, one from the ‘Student Category’ and another from the ‘Open Category’, and they were awarded prize money for the game development.
F: The first app (from the ‘Student Category’) has been launched on Google Play and App Store, in March.
U: It’s doing really well, more than two hundred thousand downloads to date. We have another one in development, which is slightly more complicated. Hopefully, it’ll launch in September this year.
F: This is an initiative to promote ‘Ejen Ali’, the apps are free of charge.
[I couldn’t help but notice your show has already got it’s own fanbase on the net- fanart and fanfictions all over the place.]
U: Yeah! We didn’t expect that- some of those people should come and work for us!
F: Even we don’t draw that well. There are some really good ones!
U: We’re happy and amazed to have such fans. Fans these days are really different from what they used to be- they’re very engaged with the media, very active with fanfiction. They come up with their own stories and analyze into what is going to happen- and we don’t really go into the romances in the story, but they’re like, “this character should be with this character”.
They look into details, even notice the continuity errors or things that we, as the makers, didn’t notice.
[That’s a tough crowd!]
It is, but to have them as your fans- for a tough crowd to be able to appreciate your show, it says something about it.
Was this whole production done locally?
U: Yes, everything was done in-house, from script to completion. It’s a lot of work, but you have more control doing everything on your own. Our timelines and costs might not be appealing enough for collaborating with other people, and it might be too much to ask for- giving them a certain amount of time or quality, it’s kinda unrealistic.
How did you get the people for this project? Did you already know who you wanted working on this?
F: We posted recruitment ads on Facebook, then we picked people out for interviewing based on their portfolios and reviews.
U: When we founded the company, there were eight of us. Half of us were directors, the rest were seniors, and the first hire started with a couple of seniors and a few interns in 2013. The hires that came after that were fresh graduates, and after our first teaser we got a few more seniors.
F: Currently we have fifty people- forty-one staff and nine interns.
How do you think your show is relevant to the audience, compared to other shows?
U: We wanted to do something that is different, and for the Malaysian animation scene, it(the show’s theme)’s really fresh. We are quite confident with our 3D animation abilities, the quality of the animation is what first attracts people; people who want to join us or people who want to invest, like MDEC (who gives us grants). As investors and stakeholders come in, most people are confident that the quality can take the show international. Most of the initial concerns were over the story, but after we screened the first three episodes, the response has been really good.
F: At the beginning, we planned on making a movie. That’s why we focused so much on the quality; then we changed to doing a series first, to see how it goes the first season. We still plan to do a movie, that’s the dream.
U: It was difficult convincing the investors to put in money (for a movie), and while it could be very well received, it could also flunk and the damage from that would be irreversible. It’d be a high-risk, high-income project, risking so much.
F: That’s why we chose to do a series first.
U: After looking at the scene, the finances and interested partners available, we made the decision; and the IP was being developed in such details- once you come up with the characters, gadgets-
F: That whole world.
U: -you kinda feel like it’d be a shame to just use all that for ninety minutes.
F: Now we can expand the usage of all that. But we still hope to do a movie, maybe after the second season.
Did the project turn out how the initial conception was planned? What changes were made?
U: The story we had on day one, compared to now, has evolved tremendously; and this is actually the third revision of the character (Ali). I think it’s only natural for a show to have changes as we go along.
What was the character design process like?
F: We have concept artists- people who draw and paint the characters- and 3D artists who improve the design in 3D. We kinda do back-and-forth work for the main characters quite a lot, because the main characters have a lot of focus.
U: We also respond to feedback. When we came up with the first look, we put it out and got feedback, then we’d go make new improvements. Once you have the benchmark for the main character, you can gauge what it’s going to be like for the secondary characters and the minor ones.
Would you say you’ve created a specific look for this animation?
F: We start by finding a lot of references, and looking at what’s already out there- like Pixar, or Disney or the latest stuff- and we try to find our own style that’s set apart from them.
U: When we created the first look, a common response was that it feels like ‘Upin and Ipin’, and we were like, “that’s not what we want to hear”.
F: We’d been there for seven years, so it wasn’t that easy to change that (style) but now we definitely don’t get that sort of feedback anymore. Our style is stemmed from studying and finding references based on the background of the character, and building it up from there.
Is there a lot of symbolism in your designs?
U: We try to put in unique elements- Ali’s outfit is shaped to look like a triangle, or an “A”, and the colours were chosen to be mostly primary colours because he’s the main character. For the technology or devices in the story, it evolves as we go along. For example, his shades have changed several times over the course of development.
F: Ali has a base silhouette that’s shaped like a triangle, but Bakar has an upside-down triangle as his base shape. Our heroes have more shapes or curves, while our villains are more jagged and sharp edges. That’s in the most basic part of our designs.
U: It’s loosely something we follow, but we try to have as much justification possible for all the designs.
F: As long as it looks good enough, we go ahead.
How is it that the animation in this show looks so clean and sharp? Was it a tedious process; are you doing something differently?
U: It’s a combination of a lot of processes; we try to implement the best we can on every aspect. I think the main thing that makes the visuals so appealing is the renderer that we use, and the surfacing. That’s what gives it the detailed look it has, the skin, the outfit, the hair- that’s mostly the visual department. In animation, the character movement is no different from other keyframe animation- but if you compare it to Pixar or Disney, it’s still got a long way to go. We don’t have the same amount of time or people, or maybe we need more practice to be able to achieve that. But I think we’re ahead in Malaysia, because generally, less emphasis is placed on animation in a series. We actually define the movements, the fighting styles, the quirks of our characters, so I guess it’s more detailed than most series around here.
F: Every character has their own movement, so we have different walk cycles- how they walk define what the characters are like.
U: Ali’s movements are not that precise or polished, he’s always stumbling around here and there accidentally, Bakar is the more refined martial artist, Alicia is the embodiment of what Ali should be.
[Putting in so much attention to these details is probably what makes it so different?]
F: Probably. That’s what we love to do.
How much research went into the characters?
U: I wouldn’t say it’s research as much as imagination. When you create a show, you want to create archetypes- heroes need to be a certain way, supporting characters need to be a certain way. We do study for these characters, but we try not to conform to this formula. When I watch animated shows, I feel like too many of the shows go with the usual template of what character archetypes should be.
F: We do like ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’.
U: Yeah, that one’s good. There was a point, after presenting ‘Ejen Ali’ to Disney and a few other broadcasters; we were told “this show doesn’t look like a show for kids”. People were giving pointers and I spoke to other writers, but when they described what animation for kids should be like, it seemed unexciting to me. But after watching ‘A:TLA’, we were amazed; the characters were so friendly to kids, heartwarming and cute, but at the same time the story was elaborate and portrayed so well-
F: It was so engaging.
U: Yeah, even adults who watched it went, “wow”. It’s one of the best series out there, not just for animation, but the best series, period. We started talking about it and started thinking, “hey, we can actually create this kind of show (that isn’t purely kids-focused)”. ‘A:TLA’ inspired us to believe we could come up with something for kids but also really engaging for adults.
Back to the characters in the story, we just dive into a lot of other shows, books and online articles on spies and technology- what’s going to be around for another ten to fifteen years, what’s new. When you want to fashion a weapon for the villain to use, you can’t just come up with something that doesn’t completely exist or doesn’t make sense physically; so we go online and start looking into what would be suitable for the character.
We don’t actually interview real spies- wouldn’t know where to find one.
What was the inspiration for the character names?
U: Funny thing is, when I first wanted to name the show ‘Ejen Ali’, even internally I went, “that’s so lame”. It took a while for people to catch on; ‘Ali’, to me, was basically the ‘John’ of Malaysia. When you watch a spy show, they would have names like ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ or ‘John Smith’, the most average aliases that spies take on to achieve anonymity. So what was the most regular name in Malaysia? ‘Ali’ has a nice ring to it, and it’s also the name of one of the four great Khalifs (in Islamic history). ‘Bakar’ is also another funny name, because the initial concept for him was to be a guy selling burgers at the roadside (burger bakar!), and there was a link because Bakar is also one of the great four. He’s also a bumbling character despite his skill, and ‘baka’ in Japanese means ‘dumb’. As for the cat, we just wanted to go “A, B, C”, so we got ‘Ali’, ‘Bakar’, and ‘Comot’.
Some of the characters’ names start off as placeholders, when I’m writing I just use something like ‘General Rama’ (for the time being) and when people start listening to the ideas, they go, “it has a nice ring to it”. It’s not intended to be the final choice, but many of them stick.
F: (laughingly to Usamah) Maybe because you’re the director!
How did voice casting and music direction/soundtrack production for this show go?
U: That was a very long and taxing process!
F: We tried to have as many in-house voice actors as we could manage, but we did host audition sessions.
U: Over two hundred people came in, and we actually went through over two hundred voices- and initially, we wanted to get a kid actor to be ‘Ali’, but after screening all the voices that came for auditioning, we didn’t find one that really captured our attention. One of our founders became one of our main voices, she was also the voice of one of the characters in the ‘Upin and Ipin’ series. She was just a stand-in for ‘Ali’ during our proof of concept, but it ended up being the best voice, so we stayed with that.
But during the screenings, we did like a few other voices, so if you look at the lineup we have several in-house voices, but at least half are external. The music was also not easy; finding the right people, but since the beginning we wanted something modern. I wanted something electronic and dancey for ‘Ejen Ali’, because it fits the show and it’s in-trend. A lot of people making animated shows grew up in the eighties and they tend to go for a more eighties-kind-of- rock sound, like the theme songs of ‘Boboiboy’ and ‘Rimba Racer’. I wanted to break into new direction, set the show apart; but it was difficult finding a musician who could come up with good EDM sounds. We went through quite a few.
F: Even when we started production, we were still looking for a musician. When we were done with our first episode-
U: Yeah, we were still not sure if the music was working out with our stuff. But in the end, we found a guy, and we had to really talk him into getting on board.
F: Yeah, and he’s really good. Just to add on to that… when we did voice casting, we looked for two major things- one, whether the voice was suitable for the characters, and two, whether he or she could act. It was like we needed that(creative acting) the most, when we were looking for a voice.
“It’s a show that puts importance on storytelling, we can’t just have someone with a nice voice who can’t convey the emotion.”
How long does animating an episode take?
U: The first episode took us about three months per department- we have eight departments in total- and the second episode moved at two months per department, third episode at seven weeks per department, and episode four took five weeks per departments.
F: Yeah, so we’re improving on our speed.
U: Right now, we’re working on episode five and targeting to get to four weeks per department. The reason why we haven’t set a constant yet is that it’s a new theme. When we first set up to do the first episode, the structure we planned for was very different, and we didn’t expect to run into so many challenges. As we go along, we improve on the workflow.
Where was funding for this production found?
U: Half was from Primeworks Studio, the content subsidiary for Media Prima, and then there’s MDEC. MDEC has been supporting WAU Animation from day one. We received a MaC3 development fund for ‘Ejen Ali’ in the beginning, and once it was completed and we were able to secure investment from private parties, they basically welcomed us to apply for the next funding (MaC3 production fund). People sometimes tend to question the government’s role in digital business, but in animation, I think we’re really lucky.
What were the challenges you faced during this production? What are the challenges you’re facing now?
U: The biggest thing is to deliver great quality, with the resources we have, that’s probably the main thing. One other challenge, I think, is that we can’t promise something big that’s meant to be carried out by a more mature team than we have now; we’ve got a fresh company with such a high benchmark for the product. So it’s really challenging for everyone- for us to train them, for us to get enough people in.
As any other new business, cash flow is not always easy, so we try our best to survive from time to time, but we have gone through bad periods. One of the most ironic challenges we had is when we got our data servers breached by ransomware; that’s some sort of virus sent to encrypt data in your server, and they lock it up so you can’t access them.
F: They kidnap your information, and you need to pay to get it back.
U: Which is funny, because in our show, we were working on one of the villains to be a hacker, so it was pretty spot-on.
F: They jeopardized our production for a few weeks, it took us a month to recover.
U: We had to close down for over a week. We sent people home to clean up the network.
F: Luckily we had some backups, but they were a few months old.
U: Yeah, but we lost quite a lot of work. It has not been easy, but I imagine it could have gone way worse if we were not as careful as we are. Back to your question, I think what we need now is just enough time for us to finish the season, and enough time for the team to grow and be able to produce at a certain level and speed. Until that day comes, the fans are going to be quite pissed off, waiting for new episodes.
F: Luckily, we have a good team here. They don’t question the sacrifice required for this.
U: They believe in the project.
F: That’s why we like working with them.
U: They feel happy about it, they feel like it’s their own. When the show comes out and people write about the show and draw the characters, the people behind the scenes know that these are things not everyone can experience in their lifetime. Some people will never know what it’s like to see a kid wearing a shirt bearing the picture of something you’ve worked so hard on. For artists like ourselves, that’s incredibly rewarding.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t need the money, we still do! It’s just amazing, knowing that you’ve created something that touches people, that’s pretty amazing.
What are your goals?
U: The dream for us, as a company, is to be able to create shows that “wow” the audience, not just by the quality of the visuals, but also by the values and meaning that the story carries. As a company, we dream to build a place for artists to feel at home. A creative haven for artists, where people wake up in the morning and are eager to go to, knowing they are creating something awesome.
What would you have done differently, in hindsight of the production process?
U: Yes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret anything because I don’t believe in living with regrets; but if we got to do things over, I think a lot of things could’ve been done better. Better preparations, better planning; I think there were points in time where we went on without good enough planning, or weren’t urgent enough with certain things that needed it. Going through what we have, we’ve learnt and experienced a lot. It’s not easy trying to correct your footing, but I believe if we get through this, it’s gonna be a really huge thing for each and every one of us.
F: A lot of the past choices we made were the best decisions that we could’ve made, so no regrets.
Catch Ejen Ali on Fridays at 5.30pm, TV3, or at tonton.com.my
WAU Animation Sdn Bhd is a CG animation studio formed 18th March 2013 by a group of creative talents possessing up to 10 years of experience in producing multiple award-‐winning CG animated series and feature film.
You can learn more about WAU Animation through their website.