Egyptian animator behind Spider-Man: Homecoming on how to create believable characters

Meena Ibrahim says everything boils down to good storytelling in the end

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From talking animals, fantastical beasts and aliens from outer space to hybrid human creatures and fantasy epics, the weird and wonderful ideas of writers and directors would never come to life without the tireless work and imagination of animators.

“I call animators shy actors,” Meena Ibrahim tells The National.

“We are the actors behind the camera, we don't want to be in front of the camera, we don't like the red carpets and the spotlight. We know how to perform because performance is a big factor in animation. To be a good animator you have to be a good performer.”

Ibrahim was at the Sharjah Animation Conference last week where he led a masterclass on Animation Workflow. As an award-winning animator, he has worked on some of the most commercially and critically acclaimed films and TV shows of recent years; Spider-Man: Homecoming, Hotel Transylvania, Thor: Ragnarok, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and HBO's His Dark Materials.

He currently works as an animation supervisor at the Bafta and Oscar award-winning creative and visual effects studio Framestore.

Ibrahim’s impressive portfolio shows a wide range of characters and film genres, all of which he believes are connected by an underlying passion for creating characters that audiences will connect with.

“Like an actor working on a film, animators need to know something about their character,” he says.

“We have to read the whole story, where it starts, where it ends and how it develops, so we can see what kind of characteristics we can add, little details that matter.”

Creating realistic and likeable characters is a long process that requires a lot of collaboration with the director, he adds.

“At the end, the most important thing is to achieve the vision of director and to also make the character as good as it can be. We always observe [creatures] from real life to see how we can make our characters as close as possible to them, to make them believable and make people get attached to them as characters and not feel as though they are animated, CG, or that they are fake.”

Ibrahim initially studied interior design in Cairo, but became interested in animation while learning to use 3D software. He then moved to Canada and earned a BA in Fine Arts and a Diploma in Digital Character Animation from the Vancouver Film School.

After returning to the Middle East and working in the region for some time, Ibrahim moved to Sony Pictures Imageworks as a junior animator and then worked as lead animator in feature films and movies. Visual effects were his real passion, he says — still animation but within a live action film or feature.

But the animation and visual effects industry in the early 2010s was a difficult sphere for Ibrahim to break into.

“It was a lot of working on myself, to improve, because the better I got, the more I could convince the studios to put that extra effort and sponsor my work permit and bring me on and hire me,” he says.

“It was very challenging, a lot of thinking I'll never make it and a lot of ups and downs, but, eventually, I made it.”

Ibrahim was twice nominated for an Annie Award, the Oscars equivalent in the world of animation, for his work on The Suicide Squad where he supervised and developed full CG characters such as King Shark, Weasel and Rat Sebastien.

In 2020, he won his first Annie, for his work on HBO's His Dark Materials, season 1.

Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed series of novels, in the alternative universe of the story, every person has their soul living outside of them as a talking animal companion.

Ibrahim emphasises the importance of “good acting” to create memorable characters that audiences can feel a connection with.

“It’s not just about moving right or moving realistically but there also has to be acting in a very believable way that people can relate to and understand,” he says.

But in the end it all comes down to the story.

“If the story is good and well written, the characters are well developed, and relatable, this is the start, the base of everything,” Ibrahim says.

“If that's not there, everything's going to fall apart. But if there a good story, then the visuals will come from passionate creative artists who pour their souls into the work.”

Updated: May 10, 2023, 4:27 AM