Samy Fecih is an incredible animator. He started as self-taught and worked as a VFX animator as well as on cartoon productions while traveling around the world. Avatar, Harry Potter and The Penguins of Madagascar are amongst the most famous works he has worked on. Alongside his work as an animator, Samy has also been teaching animation in several schools, including renown animation school Les Gobelins. During his stay in London Samy started the Bring Your Own Animation event, where animators can meet-up and get feedback by professionals. You may take a look at Samy’s various works through his Demo Reels – we particularly like his development of the Octopus Henchmen.
Samy was kind enough to sit with us and talk about his career and experience as an animator and a teacher, sharing some valuable advice for aspiring animators.
Full Frontal: For starters, could you tell us how you’ve learned to animate? How did you start in the industry?
Samy Fecih: I love animation, I have been interested in special effects since I was little. The first VHS I got was Clash of the Titans in the ’80s. I have always been fond of monsters, and I was thinking about how I’d want to work in the cinema industry. When Bugs Life came out, I was convinced it was what I wanted to do. What year was it? 97? 98? I used to draw a lot back then. I fell in love with animation I decided to start learning 3D because it was the medium that I liked. I began to learn by myself using 3DS Max 2 or 2.5. Back then only Maya 1.0 had just been published. It may not even have existed yet when I started. It came out around 99. On the Internet, there weren’t many resources for learning, so I went to a library in Paris called Librairie Eyrolles which had books to learn Art. They had one book that taught how to use 3DS Max with some tutorials.
That is how it all started. I then proceeded to go to Hornu in Belgium to training by Jean-Yves Ardoit, who was the first person to post online tutorials in French to learn how to do 3D animation on a site called 3DVF. It taught you how to do a candle. There were also tutorials by MR02, Michel Roger who was a modeler. He did the first tutorial teaching modeling. The most famous one was Jeanne d’Arc. There were two of them, Jeanne d’Arc and Crash Bandicoot. So I did that, I had fun with my friends, we modeled some Game Boy Advances. I used to work at a theater at that time. I was tearing tickets for three years. I had a colleague who drew pretty well, so I had fun to model his characters. I tried myself at everything. I did some NURBS, some poly. Then in 2005 Animation Mentor appeared. In 2004 they had announced there would be an online school. I wanted to go to Gobelins but didn’t know how to draw, Supinfocom was too expensive, and I didn’t have any money. So I kept learning by myself, I had bought Richard Williams’ book, which confirmed that I wanted to become an animator. I had done some modeling, some rendering.
When Animation Mentor started, I applied to their very first class in March 2005. I was at Animation Mentor for one and a half year and got kicked out three weeks before graduation because I stopped giving my assignments. For the first six months, I was working at the theater while studying, but for the following year, I traveled to Australia. I applied for a working holiday visa, took my backpack and just went there. I did a bit of every job. The most tiring day of work I had in my life I worked from 4 am to 7 am in the kitchen, from 7 am to noon I was a cleaning man, at 4 pm I had to clean the pool, at 7 pm I worked as a waiter and at 11 pm I washed dishes. It went on for several days. It was quite intense. I think I worked 40 hours in three days. And I was still working on my assignments and watching the video conferences in the evening.
Did you ever get any sleep?
Very little. When I was harvesting grape, there was no internet at the campground where I stayed. It was in 2005. Wifi wasn’t as widespread. I had a PSP which I used to find unprotected networks around 3 am. When I saw one, I would take out my laptop which had autonomy of one and a half hour. If the conference lasted longer, I had to find a power outlet in the street. It was pretty fun even though it was freezing. At 4 am my friends would pick me up to go to work. Once done at noon, I would go to the library or in the campground’s kitchen which was the only places I could find some power to do my homework. At the end of my trip, I came back to France and contacted many companies, that’s how I got my first job at TeamTO.
You have traveled a lot and worked overseas, in London, India, Spain, and Luxemburg. Can you tell us how working methods change depending on the country?
Overseas each culture has its codes. They differ from one to another. In France people tend to be cash about feedback, often focusing too much on the negative aspect. In England, you need to be more delicate about how you say things. They have a method called the Compliment Sandwich. It consists in saying something positive, then pointing out what does not work and end on a positive note. This way, by giving positive feedback first people tend to be much more open to criticism, this way they won’t be on their defenses when you explain to them what needs to be corrected. And by finishing on a positive note, they are not downcast and can start improving their work.
I like this state of mind. What I don’t like about France is that we always point out what doesn’t work but never what was done right. People tend to think poorly of themselves and their work as a result. Or they may think there is a lot more wrong than what was pointed out, and I’ve seen people who did their animation all over again on small retakes, and they had changed everything, even the stuff that felt right. That’s why I always use the Compliment Sandwich now but in an honest way. What I’ll do is that I’ll start by sharing my feeling I have about the work, I talk about the good parts I feel. In any animation, even the worst ones, there’s always something good to take out of it, and it’s important to point it out. It may be the timing, maybe the rhythm is engaging, or is it the posing? The acting? Perhaps composition? I like starting with what I felt was interesting. I may say “You have a good rhythm, it gives off a nice impression which makes the animation pleasing to watch.” I will then talk about what doesn’t work in the cut, for example, “There’s a good mood, it’s pleasing, but you may notice your poses aren’t strong enough. They lack appeal. You must put more emphasis on the silhouettes.” I will conclude on something positive I will have noticed, something more precise, maybe a particular facial expression I liked. That’s a method I learned in England which I like.
When I moved to India, I felt that Indians were susceptible. The Indians which I interacted with obviously, I don’t want to generalize. But that’s the feeling I got from my coworkers. They were proud people. You had to be very careful about the words you would use and about the criticism you would make. There I learned that my standards of what a good animation was weren’t a truth set in stone. It is all about interpretation. While I was there, I tried understanding what they tried to convey. I was much more empathic. Codes about what is right or wrong here, they may be upside down there. There are some behaviors you have here which are seen as a courtesy which is considered rude there. In some regions, if you stand up to give your seat to an old person, they may take it as an insult. They think you don’t believe them to be strong enough to stand, you are lowkey telling them they are weak. People are less fond of assistantship there. They thought it is more of an insult than genuine kindness. You don’t keep the door open for people. My colleagues never did, because we are all grown-ups, we can hold the door for ourselves. There’s no bad intention. They don’t have those reflexes. They have a different education. I had to question my beliefs while I stayed there. Every time I thought “Ok, now I understand how it is” I realized there were still things that I thought where truths about India which were not, even on the very last day.
The advice I will give to people going abroad is not to judge. Don’t try to associate people’s actions with codes from your society but instead try to understand the intention behind it. Sometimes what you may perceive as aggression, as injustice or intolerance are just misinterpretations. Try to be a spectator rather than an actor — myself I tend to intervene a lot, sometimes even when I’m not needed. I may be invasive for some people. I take a lot of space. While I worked there, I had to learn to step back. It was hard, and I don’t think I did it as I should have. Now when I join a company I try to be less of a talker and more of a listener for the first few weeks. I try to understand how everything works, get a grasp on the coworkers before I start intervening.
That’s a piece of advice that can be applied to all fields, not only animation.
Obviously. It’s not always easy. I went to work for an advertising company, and I carried out this principle. I worked with them for a month, and my integration went much smoother than in other companies where I was hyperactive from the beginning. Some people there might have misinterpreted my behavior. They may have thought I was trying to show I was better than them, or that I was trying to enforce my views. At Brunch Studio, I wanted to adapt myself rather than to bring my identity.
When you join a company nowadays, do you seek positions with more responsibilities?
It depends on the situation. I have been a Lead Animator for seven years now. When I worked at Mikros on Captain Underpants, I started as a Senior Animator and was promoted to Lead because they needed one and I already had experience. At Fortiche Productions I began as a Lead however on the latest Asterix movie I worked as a Senior. It depends on the movie.
I favor Lead Animator positions because you have a more meaningful impact on the production. You can suggest your ideas, your solutions in some companies, not all of them. However, in some firms, you are given less credit when you’re a simple animator, whatever your experience. They rely too much on hierarchy, and if you’re not a Lead, you should shut up. In my opinion, listening to everyone ends up in more compelling results.
That’s something I experienced at Fortiche. I have been working in this industry for 12 years now, I’ve seen a lot of disappointing practices which made me lose hope regarding open-mindedness. Something I appreciated at Fortiche has been that everyone had his right to speak. The director, the Animation Director, even the American customer. You were asked for your opinion, and they would listen to everyone. The quality of animation is incredible, one of the most advanced I have worked on. We were always welcoming to each other, everyone’s word mattered.
Could you feel an influence on the creativity of the staff because of it?
Yes, an immense influence. There is a Ted Talk -I’m a huge fan of Ted Talks. There is one by a guy, Daniel Pink, where he explains what motivates a creative mind. Money is the worst motivation. There are three critical aspects of driving an artist. First, there is trust. The more confidence you put in an artist, the more he’ll try ambitious ideas. The second key point is freedom. If you give it to an artist, he’ll be able to push himself further, to create some groundbreaking art. If you don’t provide him with trust and freedom, he will only do his work. The ultimate motivator is mastery. Most artists want to progress. They want to become better at their craft. If you give them the tools to get better together with trust and freedom the result can only be good. Even if they end up taking a wrong direction, because they may have misinterpreted the intention, you may redirect them on the right path. Since you gave them your trust, they will be able to accept feedback. As long as you don’t force people to animate what is in your head everybody, there will be something in it for everyone. That’s the mentality I found at Fortiche, and it’s a trend that I noticed more and more, sadly not everywhere.
In France for example?
It lacks a lot in France. Since I have worked in many American studios, I was blamed because I behaved too much like an American. I was trying to plan Master Classes, to always look on the bright side. Colleagues in France reproached me the Compliment Sandwich several times, saying it was hypocritic. But it isn’t as long as what I mean is genuine. In France, people are in a constant state of rivalry. There’s this idea of “The production against the artists.” The production is here to help us, to work alongside us. Too many people see it as “they’re putting up obstacles and impede us of working as we want.” It’s a shame to put it like that. I was once told “Samy you have to choose your side. You’re either with the Production team or with us.” I can’t agree with such statement. I try to find a compromise, to help the production team. If production asks for a cut to be due in six days but I know it needs ten days to be done; rather than telling them that I don’t care and do it in ten days nonetheless I’ll try to ask for eight days. This way we’re closer to what the animator wants but also trying to not put us too much behind schedule. There’s always a right place in the middle.
Sometimes limitation can help with creativity.
People tend to see limitations as constraints. I instead look at those limitations as a path we are given. When I was working on N°9, we couldn’t change the shape of the eyes. They were lenses that closed and opened themselves just as those of a camera. We were afraid about it because the eyes’ form can be very expressive. The eyelids go up when you smile, or you may squint your eyes if you have trouble understanding something. Our Animation Director Joe Ksander told us not to see it as a constraint but as a challenge. If I can’t express what I want through the shape of the eyes, what is there left for me to show it? He told us that on The Incredibles animators were afraid too. Since the characters were wearing masks, you couldn’t show their eyebrows. One could deform the mask, but you don’t have the same freedom. They tried distorting the mask and changing the shape of the eyes, and they were able to express a lot more than they thought. The limitation helped them exploring ways they never had before. I believe that one learns a lot more from such experiences.
In The Incredibles, you can feel that the mask is a body part on its own.
It’s fascinating, too bad people see it as a restriction.
Have you ever thought about working in Japan? They used to be ahead of their time with 3D animation, especially for video games cinematics.
The first Final Fantasy movie was bluffing.
Square had some cutting-edge 3D animation. Lately, 3D animation in Japan has been a bit lackluster.
Indeed, it has been stagnating.
They try too hard to resemble 2D animation in my opinion. Anyway, have you ever wanted to work there?
Honestly, not at all. As I told you earlier, my personal life is what matters most to me. I love my job. It’s my passion. But being able to live, to travel, to have some spare time is what’s most important. The problem with Japan, and don’t get me wrong I love the country on so many levels, it is culturally interesting and enriching. I’d like to live there, but everyone I know who lived there told me you work crazy hours there.
It’s for the same reasons I quit working in VFX. VFX is hard. You often work overtime. You also have to do the same cut several times. On Harry Potter, there’s this 28 frames cut on which I worked for three months. I must have done it more than a hundred times. I sometimes had to redo it thrice in a day because the director didn’t know what he wanted. I didn’t feel fulfilled, which also had an impact on my personal life. I was quickly getting angry for any reason. It was getting in the way of my relationship. I quit my job and immediately started feeling better. From that point onwards I decided, whatever the position, I would only work on projects I am interested in, and I would not work at the expense of my personal life. Even though I love my job, that I often spend more than 40 hours each week on it, I don’t want it to have a negative impact on myself.
You told us you couldn’t help yourself to help others. You also have been teaching animation for several years. Where does this need to educate and help others grow come from? Also, what advice would you have for students?
I am currently soul-searching with the goal to understand myself better, to know why I am as I am. I have some leads, but I don’t have answers yet. I am empathetic, sometimes too much. That’s why when I see someone having trouble, I feel like I have to help them, even if they don’t need my help. It’s a flaw I have. When I was a lead animator one of my most prominent defects was that I tended to treat everyone as they were my students. I would have senior animators in my team to whom I’d start explaining concepts which they know, but because I saw an error, I would think they don’t know about it. Most of them would feel irritated and tell me “Samy I know a Squash and Stretch is.” But I can’t help it. I feel like I have to help people. I have seen many who needed help and didn’t get any.
I started thinking about how could I help people without always going towards people in an uncalled way, and without hurting people feelings because my intentions get misinterpreted. What way could I be helping people? At first, I did it at work. I started teaching a bit. Around 2009 or 2010 a friend of mine, Alexis Casas, wanted to organize Bring Your Own Animation, the event I arrange every month. Alexis was working with the SIGGRAPH, and the New York SIGGRAPH held a Bring Your Own Animation in 2006. They suggested many professional animators working with the SIGGRAPH to come to a bar and give feedback to people about their animations. We started implementing it, me in London and my friend in Paris. We began in February of 2010, and it’s been held every month ever since. It’s a great feeling when you see people coming with their work and how happy they are to be getting feedback. There was a girl in Paris who used to go from Bruxelles to get feedbacks. She ended up getting a job at MPC. When I was in London people came from Cambridge, they took the train for two to three hours to attend the meet-up. And when you see people achieving their dream, getting a job in the industry, the gratitude they express, there’s immense satisfaction to it. You feel glad to have been part of it.
The second reason for which I teach might seem selfish. You learn a lot by teaching. Within the industry people are formatted, everyone’s style looks the same, the directing is similar from one director to another. Students are much more personal in their works. They dare to do stuff you seldom ever see. When I teach, I see works from people who haven’t been formatted yet, people who have a different approach towards animation. When I give them feedback, I have to think differently from when I am working in the industry. Also, you have to be able to explain concepts when you teach. This asks for rationalization and to put words on our feelings. Not only do you help other people by teaching, but you also learn a lot. There is humility in teaching. If you stop trying to enforce your views on students but instead make the effort of understanding their approach to helping them grow in regards to themselves and not to you who have already been formatted. Try to understand what was their procedure, what didn’t work in the formulation of their ideas. This way the teaching becomes more rewarding for everyone this way.
Since we’re talking about the industry, you said there are a lot of productions which look alike. Do you think the direction movies take lately hinder people to fully feel the passion that is poured into the works by the animators? That the intention of the animators has trouble to reach the mainstream audience? Do you think there is a way to better the situation?
I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’d want everyone to understand. On the other side, I’ve been doing this job for twelve years, and my mom still doesn’t get how I do my job. She thinks I draw, even though I yet don’t know how to draw. She thinks I did everything on my own when working on the dragon in Harry Potter or the robots in Avatar. She doesn’t understand my role. This convinced me that there always will be people who won’t be able to understand. We all look down upon certain jobs, not recognizing the investment people put in it.
In the same way, we look down on other people’s hobbies. For common sense, it’s reasonable to like football, but loving Magic cards is stupid. I don’t care too much about not being understood, because that’s something the audience has to do on its own. Although, I think people are becoming more and more receptive. There are more and more grown-ups who watch animation movies in theaters. They were able to go beyond the prejudice of animation being exclusively for kids. People like animation and they dare to say that they cried watching a Pixar movie or Grave of the Fireflies. People recognize they are sensitive to what we do. If you talk to anyone about animation today, they know it’s a job done by passionate people, they feel what we are trying to convey. When people cry at the end of Toy Story 3 or while watching Up!, it means we did it. We were able to communicate the emotions we intended. Sometimes we are left misunderstood, a lot of people didn’t understand the environmental scope of Wall-E even though it is obvious. But it doesn’t matter. They’ll get it later on.
Some people tend to consider Pixar or Ghibli like being in another league. They say: “Pixar and Ghibli movies are beautiful, they aren’t simple cartoons.”- Some people tend to consider Pixar or Ghibli like being in another league. They say: “Pixar and Ghibli movies are beautiful, they aren’t simple cartoons.”
In the same way, people say football is better than Magic cards. That’s just a human thing. Depending on education, on our passions, on our likes, we favor certain things, we evaluate them according to our scale of what we think is good and bad. If people decide to believe that only Pixar is worthwhile, or Japanese animation alone is beautiful, all we can do is showing works that may change their mind. Watch The Red Turtle or Fuunan which are splendid movies. Parvana tackles some serious problematics. It shows that animation isn’t just for kids. Some people are stubborn, and you can’t change their mind. It’s frustrating, but you have to accept it.
It can be quite derogatory though. Some people think that realistic imagery with motion capture has to be requiring more work, so it has to be of better quality.
That’s a common misconception. It’s the same about drawing. People think a drawing with lots of detail is a good drawing. When actually, people who spend a lot of time on details often do it because they don’t master the essentials. There are some simple drawings, like Calvin & Hobbes for example, which are hard to do. The picture in itself looks simple, but it’s hard to have the proportions work this well. A lot of illustrators tend to do clean drawings. Within animation, you have people like Glen Keane who draw some drafts with only two or three lines which are super expressive.
Some people will look at it and think it’s garbage and they will praise artists who have no notion of perspective or who can’t draw appealing characters, but the hair or their dress has a lot of detail. Among artists illustrating cards for Magic the Gathering, many of them are appreciated for their excellent art, and there’s this artist, I won’t say his name, he always draws his characters from the front or the side. He can’t draw them in three quarters. The arms are facing front every time. Everybody praises him saying there’s a lot of detail, but the pose is always the same because he doesn’t know how to use perspective. In my opinion, that someone does not know how to draw. Knowing how to draw that means being able to draw any position from any angle of any character.
As long as you have limitations, you do not master the art in itself. It’s not about learning everything neither. It’s about knowing the fundamentals. The foundation of drawing lies in perspective, in the volumes. You do not draw the nude before knowing to draw volumes. It’s the first thing you learn. There’s a lot of people who find it too difficult, so they skip it. They please themselves with their drawings without volumes. They progress, they start getting good with proportions but never learned perspective so they’ll never be able to draw a character’s turn. Those people who don’t want to get out from their comfort zone are limiting themselves. By a lack of mastery, they will never be able to express themselves as freely as they think they can fully. Many people lie to themselves. Myself as an animator I am pretty good at realistic animation, but I struggle with cartoon animation. My first instinct when I understood it was to distance myself from it. I thought that cartoon animation wasn’t compelling, that it was garbage. Nothing could beat realistic animation.
There are no rules in cartoons since you draw whatever you want, I thought. As I started to works on my first cartoons, especially at Dreamworks on The Penguins from Madagascar, that’s when I discovered cartoon animation and understood that it was hard. You can’t do whatever, you break the rules to set up new rules, and you need to stick to them to keep the world consistent. It was way harder than what I had imagined, it asks for some incredible knowledge and skill. That’s why the work of Gendy Tartakowsky on Hotel Transylvania is godly. He pushed 3D animation even further, breaking some of its rules. There’s a rule saying you should never have a character standing still. But he had characters not move at all, and it works great. It takes inspiration from traditional animation, and as such, it becomes 3D animation as we’ve never seen it before.
As a teacher, is it essential for you to help students not to reject art forms or animation styles they do not like?
Totally. Part of my pedagogy is to help remember people that what they think is their own opinion, it’s not a universal truth. And everything that I will tell them during my class isn’t the truth either. It’s an opinion. The more people will think “This is garbage, that’s good” the more they will restrict themselves, the less they will learn anything. When I discovered the power behind cartoon animation, that’s when I understood of all the years I had limited myself. I kept myself from growing as an artist because I thought nothing was interesting behind those doors. I used to be proud of not knowing how to draw. Proud of working on large productions and saying I had worked on Harry Potter or Avatar not knowing how to draw.
When I started working at Dreamworks, where I was taught to draw my poses in 3D, I understood that not knowing how to draw wasn’t something to be proud of, so I started to take drawing classes. I thought to myself “I’m an idiot, all my life I was proud of restricting myself.” That’s why I tell people, stop limiting yourself, stop thinking there can only be one truth.
Realism isn’t better than cartoons, they’re different. You won’t be able to animate good cartoons if you don’t understand body mechanism and realistic animation. The same way, you won’t be able to animate realistic scenes if you don’t know how to exaggerate a little as you can learn from cartoons. It’s complementary. You don’ need to know how to draw to know how to paint and the other way around. Some abstract painters do not know how to draw. If you know how to do both, you can go much further and create something stronger. Why was Picasso so skilled? Because he knew how to do anything! The more time passed by, the more he took his distances from the realistic drawing. But to know how to deform reality you first need to understand it. To know how to exaggerate you need to understand what is realistic and what is cartoony. That’s why I recommend people to try everything.
Learn to play an instrument. It’ll teach you about rhythm. Learn photography it’ll help you with your composition, your lighting, and your colors. Work on your drawing, it’ll help you with posing. Try yourself at sculpting it’ll help you with volumes and modeling. You need to learn a bit of everything. Myself, I do some close-up magic. When you learn close-up, you learn how to direct people’s attention. That helps me a lot in my work when I animate a cut with several characters I know how to grasp their attention towards I want to show them. I don’t like to put it this way but to sum it all up, to be an artist you first need to be a Life Artist. Glen Keane said: “You can’t create life if you don’t have any.” That’s why I said my life is mattering to me because I take inspiration from it every day. When I walk in the street, I look at how people walk. When I’m at a pub and talk with people, I ask them about their passions. Through their passions, I learn a lot which may help me in my animation or even feel more fulfilled. When I became accomplished through sports or traveling it also helped me in my art. Everyone who has preconceptions is kidding themselves.
That’s a philosophy close to Albert Camus’. That one should try as many things as he can.
That’s why I tell people to be curious. Eat of everything, even dishes you don’t like if they’re cooked in a different way you may like them. Try as many activities as you can because you’ll feel emotions and sensations you may never have thought you could feel. I push my students to think differently, to leave their comfort zone.
When I teach Body Mechanics, I tell them not to study in terms of shapes or drawings like they teach you in school. Think in terms of energy, of movement, try to understand where it comes from. Try to understand the nature of the movement itself.
Film people in the street. Don’t look at their pose but at the details. Do they pronate or supinate? Do they walk on the inside of their feet or the outside? Do they spread their feet? Do they swing on the sides or do they walk in a straight line? How does all of this work together? If you are swinging on the sides, you usually have to open your feet like those of a duck. Someone who walks straight usually walks on the inside of the foot. But if you walk straight, your hips will also move differently. Try to see all the connections there are in the movement. Since I can’t draw, my approach to movement comes from sports. I see it as energy coming from the inside rather than an expression visible from the outside. That’s how I express movement.
Since we talked about not knowing how to draw and animating 3D, there’s this fantastic 2D animator, Peter Chung, who gave a panel about animation where he seemed to have some regrets about his career. As he was talking with 3D animators and looking at their work, he said that it is a cleaner form of animation than 2D. In traditional animation, you are limited by your drawing skills whereas in 3D animation you can fully dedicate yourself on the movement and treat the animation as a choreography. That animation resembled dancing.
I couldn’t agree more. A professor befriended with Kristof Serrand told me a similar story. Kristof Serrand loves animation. He’s a stunning 2D and 3D animator. What I was told was that when Serrand discovered 3D, he immediately fell in love with it because you could go much further in the movement, within the animation itself because you didn’t have the constraints of drawing and volumes. Since you can continuously change your animation, you can correct it without needing to start over. You can dedicate yourself on the animation of a pinkie. In my opinion, 3D animation allows oneself to go further in the sheer movement, the sheer animation. I agree with him, although I don’t think he should have any regrets, it’s never too late to get started.
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