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City boy ups the Game with Emmy for effects

Remember the magnificent scene where Bran, Meera, Jojen and Hodor are attacked by the wights in the final episode of Game of Thrones (GoT) Season 5?

One of the people behind the stunning visuals effects created by the brilliant contrast between the ghastly skeletal warriors and the stark white background, which won GoT this year’s Emmy Award for Outstanding Special and Visual Effects, is Calcutta boy Neil Safeer Ghaznavi.

The name might not ring an instant bell but it has featured in the credit titles of Captain America 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Hangover III, X-Men, Karate Kid and many more Hollywood productions packed with visual delights.

This 39-year-old based in Vancouver is a senior compositor, whose task it is to integrate visual elements from real life with computer-generated graphics and other sources to create the illusion of a single composite scene. “There are so many people, sources and shots involved. A compositor comes in at the end of the process and puts the live-action shots and computer-generated images altogether seamlessly,” Neil told Metro, still groggy from late-night celebrations at Scanline VFX, where he has been working for a year.

Neil did his schooling at St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling, before returning to Calcutta and joining advertising. “I had always been fascinated with art in school. Wanted to do something that would be closest to art and advertising seemed like a really good option,” recalled Neil, who began his career at Clarion, now Bates, at 19. “I joined as what they called a ‘pupil’ while pursuing a bachelors in history at City College at night.”

Six years in advertising and Neil went on to become a senior art director, the youngest in the country at that time.

His fascination with VFX began while working on an ad film for a cigarette brand. “It was the time when cigarette ads were still allowed in India. We went to London for the shoot and that was the first time I saw some amazing stuff being done on the computer which I’d never seen before.”

It was the 90s and computer graphics was still in its early stages. “Jurassic Park had just released and the whole technology of doing something on the computer to make a scene visually superior really got me hooked,” Neil said.

Back from the London shoot, the boy from Jodhpur Park decided to head to San Francisco for a formal degree in what went on to become his passion, career and claim to fame. “After graduating from the Academy of Art University I started working in boutique houses as a Flame artist for high-end commercials.”

Neil set food in Hollywood with the 2007 Disney film The Game Plan starring Dwayne Johnson after moving to Vancouver in 2006. He went on to work as one of the prime VFX artistes in films like Vantage Point, Zombieland, Karate Kid, Dark Shadows, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Lone Ranger, Divergent and more.

Environment activist Pradeep Kakkar, who was Neil’s executive director at Clarion, remembers seeing a “spark in him that was promising”.

“Neil always had this attitude of ‘I can do this better’ whenever he was shown a piece of work. He was always looking for something a little cutting edge and his attitude also percolated down to the way he dressed especially at a time when Clarion was quite stodgy,” said Kakkar. “Neil with his sweater tied around his waist was seen as an upstart and offensive but no one could rattle him much. I’m delighted that he’s a part of a team that has done so well.”

Looking back, Neil observes how India today has emerged as a huge outsourcing area for VFX artists while a handful like him have managed to find a place in the industry there. “But it wasn’t an easy start. Starting off as a junior I had to do everything from baking cookies to answering calls and taking the clients’ dog on a walk but it all pays off well when you learn so much and also get to do that much.”

The last time Neil was in Calcutta was five years ago when he got married. Neil now lives with wife Caroline and their two children in Vancouver but misses “shorshe bata diye maach and chingri malai curry”. “It’s the food that I miss the most about Calcutta and catching up with friends and family at Tolly Club or Mocambo.”

The next we may get to see Neil in Calcutta is not before a year or two but with good reason. “I’m working on a Ron Howard film, but can’t say more!”