Novaira Masood – The Software Genius Earning Her Wings in Hollywood
By Mahjabeen Mankani
Do you remember Angelina Jolie as the fabulous Disney villain in this year’s Maleficent? Do you also remember the three fairies Princess Aurora was sent to live with until her 16th birthday?
Whether you enjoyed the film or not, there is no denying that some groundbreaking animation and visual effects were used in the making of the film – and it was no other than a Pakistani software engineer, Novaira Masood, and her team, who were behind the stunning, innovative production.
Not only this, but Novaira has also worked on visual effects for some popular Hollywood films, like A Christmas Carol, Mars needs Moms, Thor, Transformers 3 and Jack the Giant Slayer.
Novaira studied software engineering from Fast-NU, Islamabad, before she went to the US to pursue her Master's degree from the University of Minnesota.
Following her friends and also her parents’ advice, Novaira entered the field of Computer Science and only developed interest in Computer Graphics in her final year at college.
“I really like writing code that has instant visual feedback and I liked making things look better and more realistic,” said Novaira, who is currently based in Seattle in the US.
Having been in the field for six years, Novaira has worked in multiple areas of visual effects, but her main focus has been on performance capture software, a technique used to capture live human body and facial data to apply onto animated characters in order to make the animations look more lifelike and realistic.
This technology was also used on the fairies in her most recent project, Maleficent.
“I was part of the R&D (Research and Development) software team for Maleficent. I was involved with the team that developed the facial motion capture tools to drive the facial animation of the fairies,” Novaira elucidates. “I also worked on some hair tools that helped generate curly hair for the fairies.”
Novaira also worked on the software that allowed the artists to lay out the feathers on Maleficent’s wings in such a way that they would not intersect with one another. The feather solution, however, was not used on the final character.
“As part of a research team, the goal is to come up with innovative solutions to a problem. Not all the solutions end up being used in the final production,” she admits.
Talking about the team, Novaira said the software team develops the back-end software, and there are usually four to five software developers per software.
“Once we develop the software, the artists use it to achieve the look that the director wants,” explains Novaira.
“This involves multiple disciplines like modeling, layout, rigging, animation, lighting and effects etc. There are many people involved in putting the final images on the screen.”
Novaira states that the process was a great experience and that she learnt a lot of new things that she did not have experience with before.
But of course, every project comes with a number of challenges.
For the facial animation, Novaira shares that the team had to iterate and improve their existing facial system that they had previously developed for other movies like Tron and Jack the Giant Slayer.
“The goal was to make the fairies look like real miniature versions of the actors that were portraying them, so we had to go back and forth a lot with the art department to get the facial expressions right.”
Elaborating on the process and its duration, Novaira said usually visual effects on a movie take about eight months to a year to complete, depending on the number of shots and the complexity of the project.
“The software development process is usually done at the beginning of the cycle,” said Novaira. “The production team works closely with software; they tell the effects that they are trying to achieve in the movie and we come up with solutions that work for them. There is a lot of back and forth iteration before a software is finalized and used in production.”
How does it feel to see a film you’ve worked on?
“I feel very proud. I still like seeing my name in the credits and I usually force all my friends to go see the movies I've worked on and ask them to stay till the end to see my name in the credits!”
In Novaira’s opinion, institutions in Pakistan are equipped to produce competitive software developers, but she adds that there is room for improvement in areas like career counseling and exposure to opportunities, which would help guide recent graduates and have more communication between the industry and academia.
The scale of Maleficent was huge, and even if the education sector improves, there aren’t any companies in Pakistan that can currently support a project of such scope.
“We have smaller companies working on commercials, games and TV shows and that's a great start,” said the optimistic software developer.
“Once we start creating small-scale content, that will generate interest in the field, we can start training artists and software developers to create more of this type of work.”
Novaira explains that having a market that can drive the development is the first step that could really help in the growth of software development for films in Pakistan.
“Children's shows are a great way to start. Shows like Burka Avenger are really setting a great example of how we can create a market and a following for animated content. Once that takes off, I am sure films will also start using special effects.”
She adds that colleges in Pakistan can also offer specialized degrees to get people interested in fields like animation, 3D modeling, computer graphics etc.
Having worked in a male-dominated industry for so many years, Novaira feels people are now gradually becoming aware of the problem.
“Even in the US majority of the people working in the software industry are men. It is an industry-wide problem and everyone is now becoming aware of it and working to attract more females into this field.”
The biggest challenge for Novaira, however, was to get into the industry. Even though she had graphics software experience and degree, having prior contacts is also essential.
“I had no prior contacts in the industry so finding out about the companies that worked on visual effects and how I could contribute as a software developer in those companies took some time,” shares Novaira and adds: “Once in the industry, it becomes a lot easier to move around and find opportunities.”
Even though Novaira worked in the industry for six years and added that she “enjoyed every bit of it”, the industry’s instability required her to switch fields.
“The film industry is quite unstable and companies go out of business all the time. I decided that I still want to work on cutting edge technology, but in a more stable environment.”
With a lot of research now happening in various companies, Novaira feels that the scope of graphics development is no longer limited to games and movies.
She now works for Microsoft in Seattle in their XBox division on an “unannounced project”.
“I felt like I would get the opportunity to work on some really exciting technologies at Microsoft and have access to world-class research here.”
However, she admits that she does miss working on films and the thrill of seeing her name in the credits: “So who knows, maybe after a few years I might switch back to movies.” - Courtesy Dawn