Welcome to our three-part series on DIVERSION, where we examine the idea of ‘flow’ and how it shifts from one place to the other. Not just on the mat, but in our lives, our minds and in our cultures. For EPISODE 1, we spoke with professional Digital Artist and Set Extension Supervisor Adil Mustafabekov, a brown belt in BJJ who trains at Legacy Los Angeles. Professionally, Adil helps create the vibrant visual worlds of your favorite Disney films. Read along as we discuss the topic of DIVERSION, as understood by a seasoned visual thinker.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Outsid/In: Let's start at the beginning. What's your name and what do you do?
Adil: My name is Adil Mustafabekov, I go by AD but people usually call me AD or Adil. I am currently an artist at Disney Animation. Right now I'm an Extension Supervisor, working on a feature film for Disney Animation.
Outsid/In: So, for people who don't know, can you explain what ‘set extension’ is?
Adil: Set extension is a new word, and it's something derived from matte painting, which is an old school traditional method where artists used to paint on glass. Star Wars is very famous for matte painting on glass along with other old school films, where you paint environments that you don't have locations for, or it's too expensive to go there. It's basically extending the set.
When it comes to feature animated films, it's a little bit different because environments are different, and it's more effort. There's a lot of stuff that does not exist in the real world, so you mix different types of mediums to create a world. We kind of build environments and then we paint on top of it. At the end you’re providing an image of what your Directors and Art Directors envisioned for that environment to look like. Hopefully makes a little bit of sense!
Outsid/In: That makes a lot of sense! How has Jiu Jitsu helped you physically when it comes to your job? I imagine you're at a computer a lot of the time, right?
Adil: Yeah. Probably 12 hours a day if not more. Honestly, the biggest help is it gave me confidence. It's the biggest confidence booster. It assures me that I’m able to tackle any task that is handed to me. And like you said, having a desk job, you're kind of sitting on your butt the whole day. I remember before I got into martial arts, we had a free Coke machine at work, and I drank like 10 to 11 Coke cans a day. It was not healthy. I mean, I was out of college. I was like, wow, free Coke!
And then I started boxing and just got hooked. Then I've noticed my health, the way I was feeling changed. I was getting up early in the morning and I didn't feel groggy or tired. It allowed me to feel more comfortable at work and to not let go. Sometimes you see people that go once and then just give up. Well it just pushed me like, okay, I need to stop drinking Coke because when it comes to sparring, that's a disadvantage right away. Somebody will be like a second quicker or millisecond quicker. So I removed a few things here and there and implemented new things into my way of life. Mixed martial arts or Jiu Jitsu is a way of life, and I’m not able to live without it.
Outsid/In: It seems like Jiu Jitsu is complementary to the rest of your life, too. It's not like it's a total separate thing. You kind of have to have it in order to be successful in other areas of your life.
Adil: It's funny you say that. I'll tell you why it's so complimentary, at least recently. Just like in Jiu Jitsu, I was going through this dry spell where I would go into work, create cool stuff. Most of the stuff that we create is a vision of the studio, vision of our directors. It's something that they decide to greenlight, and we make this movie. And with anything, I put in 100%, especially when it comes to art. I really care about what I produce. And same thing on the mat. I try to put in 100%. But I got to a point where I would come home, and I just stopped drawing and just kind of lost interest in art. And my wife bought me a birthday gift, an iPad Pro. And she was like, well, since you don't draw on paper anymore, you could start sketching on this iPad. It's easy. You could take it anywhere. And so I kind of challenged myself like, I need to do a drawing today. And in our community, we have this thing called Inktober. I don't know if you heard of it.
Outsid/In: I have actually!
Adil: So a ton of illustrators participate in this. In Inktober, every day you get a new theme, and you have to do a drawing a day based on that theme. I decided to do something different. And this is how I actually met Arvie [founder, Albino & Preto] and became Instagram friends with a lot of athletes, which was really cool. I started doing sketches of my friends on a daily basis, just submit a picture of Jiu Jitsu or MMA. And if your pic gets chosen, I'll sketch it. And it snowballed into this effect of people just reposting it and new athletes submit their photos. It doesn't have to be like you have to have however many followers. I didn't really care about that as much. I would draw their name out of a hat or my wife would pick and that's how I gained that fire back to just draw and continue practicing my skill outside of my nine to five.
Outsid/In: Let's switch a little and talk about our theme of ‘diversion’. Can you tell me what the word diversion means to you when it comes to Jiu Jitsu?
Adil: I feel like diversion means setting up traps, and people thinking that it's a trap, but really, it's a diversion to a different trap. It's chain linking, chain linking moves, whether it be passes, submissions, whatever it is, and it's making a person look one way and thinking that they're doing the right thing, but you're actually setting up a trap where they may get caught in a triangle or whatever it may be. I really never thought about it like I'm setting up traps but when I look back and watch videos when I compete, it's definitely setting up traps and I think it just came naturally. It's a very common thing in Jiu Jitsu, and especially once you grow in the Jiu Jitsu game. I think the more you practice the more you'll start understanding it. And it could be from a white belt to black belt really. Anybody could set up traps, it’s just how many times you drill it and how you do it, how you understand it.
Outsid/In: How many steps ahead you can be.
Adil: In boxing for me it was diverting a person to flinch when you throw a jab and sometimes, my coaches would say, not all your jabs need to connect, it’s just a feint. I think it pertains to every field and also to art. Because you could, you could divert people from looking where you want them to look.
Outsid/In: Well, you've already anticipated my next question. When it comes to art and your work, what does that idea of ‘diversion’ mean to you?
Adil: I think it's focusing on the most important thing in the shot. Films have around 1300 shots. Each cut is a shot. But how do you get somebody to focus on what you want them to focus on? Let's say you're in a forest, and there are trees, and let's say this person is lost. How do I create that background painting to make sure that the people are not overwhelmed by so many trees. How do I get those people to focus on not only the person that is lost in the forest but also where that person needs to go?
So, you start off painting trees that are slowly slanted toward the direction you want to guide your viewer. You could also add a vignette, you could dim things in certain areas where it will divert that person's eye towards what they need to focus on. And for the most part in films, we need to make sure that the key is the actors, the people that are talking, acting and so on. But there are times where, especially in children's films, when it's hard for them to understand. So, you have to help them visually, like contrast or darkening things down so they don't really focus on that area, moving their eye to the brighter area. Like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. So, you'll definitely focus on that light at the end of the tunnel.
Outsid/In: Would you say that your job is actually to not attract attention? To highlight the actor and the plot. Is that fair to say?
Adil: Yeah. Sometimes it kind of sucks because you put so much effort into it. But at the end of the day, we're working with multiple departments. We're working with 500, if not more, people and you don't realize it. It’s a huge crew so you can't be selfish.
Outsid/In: I think time is really kind to what you do though. I'm thinking about how when I see a film made in the 70s or 80s, like one of my favorite films ever is Alien. And the matte paintings in that film are amazing, so when I watch, I’m now focused on the matte painting. Because of the artistry involved. Which is kind of the inverse of I think what they intended.
Adil: Yes. There are art books where you could pause on an image and enjoy it, but when you're watching a film, the whole point is actually following the story. Yes there are cool environments in the background but like you said, if you really enjoyed a movie you want to study more about it.
Outsid/In: Good point.
Adil: This is the biggest problem I struggle with. When I go watch films that I didn't work on that my friends worked on, or just as a fan, I always look at the backgrounds and I don't pay attention to the story.
Outsid/In: So my final question is: What does “diversion” mean to you personally? When you leave the mat or when you leave work.
Adil: Another thing that I really like to do is I'm obsessed with sketching. Sketching Jiu Jitsu, sketching athletes. Jiu Jitsu art, it's my pastime. And what I like about it is because certain things that I do sketch are matches. Like a picture of somebody throwing a basic triangle, but I'm actually learning the submission and seeing the tweaks in that photo.
So, in a way when I am sketching, I also I feel like I'm practicing Jiu Jitsu. Like I'm still on the mats. It really did help me to finesse a lot of things that I'm doing wrong on the mat. And just by sketching it and looking at the same picture for hours, you see what mistakes you're making when you do it in the library. So for me, that's one of my favorite ways of chilling and just creating cool Jiu Jitsu art and just enjoying that time, and my wife, family, cats.
Outsid/In: I really like that. You have this eye that can break things down into layers and you can perceive things structurally. I could definitely see the value in that. That is super cool and super inspiring. So I know we have limited time, but I could talk to you for hours. So I'll just end it here and say thank you.
Adil: Thank you so much, man. Really good to meet you. Nice talking to you.
Outsid/In: You too. Thank you for the time.
Adil: Alright brother.