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From Illumination to Pixar: interview with Eddy Okba

This article is available in: French

French animator Eddy Okba has been working in the animation industry since 2009. At Illumination Mac Guff, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Bron Animation, Animal Logic and Pixar, he had the opportunity to work on movie franchises such as Despicable Me, Sing, Spider-Man and the upcoming Lightyear.

In this interview, he tells us about his work on these movies and his experience in these studios. We also ask him about his take on the future of animation.

3DVF: Hello Eddy, and thanks for this interview! First of all, could you tell us about your background, and why did you choose to become an animator?

Hi, thanks for having me. I’m from Paris, France and as a kid I’ve always been fascinated by animated movies and comic books, especially manga. I grew up with tons of them, trying to reproduce the drawings I fell in love with, going frame by frame on Disney VHSes to draw The Lion King or Aladdin characters. I knew early that I wanted to draw, to tell stories as a living. Comic books felt natural for me as you only need a piece of paper and a pen. Animation seemed out of reach as a kid, so many people involved, cameras, computers, it was something I couldn’t imagine even if I spent thousands of hours watching animated features. So after high school, I attended an art school to become an illustrator or a comic book artist. We had many classes including clay modeling, character design, anatomy and also 2D animation. I was blown away by it, it was amazing to see my drawings moving. I enjoyed that so much that I switched gears to make animation and joined a CG school in Paris.

3DVF: You spent 8 years at Illumination Mac Guff, as a crowd animator then as a senior animator. A few words about this part of your career? Which films/shots were the most memorable as an artist, and why?

Working at Illumination Mac Guff was amazing! I joined the studio right after my graduation and even though the studio existed for many years (as Mac Guff Ligne), it was the very beginning with the Illumination partnership. I got lucky to be part of it as it became bigger and bigger

My first role there was crowd animator, I was in the team in charge of the background characters to populate the movie. Originally the crowd team was created on Despicable Me to handle the minions. They were supposed to be a few first, then dozens and quickly hundreds. I learned a lot there because you have to create believable and natural animation but not distracted one. You don’t want to steal the show to the ‘main’ characters so you have to play subtlety. You also learn how to pay attention to details that nobody would see but that the audience will feel. And I think it’s one of the skills to have to be a good animator (or an artist in general). We also had fun creating many little stories and dramas in the background.

The Lorax was my very first animated movie I worked on, so I have a soft spot for it. One of my first big challenging shots was on Despicable Me 2, when I had to animate about 50 minions being kidnapped by an ice-cream food truck. It was technically difficult with all of those elements but also complicated to choreograph all the minions, to give each one of them different performances and personalities. It was quite overwhelming at some point but I ended up getting the shot approved with the support of the animation supervisors.

After that, I joined the main characters animation department on Minions. I had a blast working on it, it was really a team effort to make the movie funny. The supervisors and the director were always asking for ideas and input from the team. It was not an easy task because there were a lot of expectations for it.

Some of the shots I’m the most proud of are on Sing with Johnny singing ‘Still Standing’ at the final show. I really love this movie and I learned a lot working on it. Everybody was so into it and the team brought their A-game. And when I got cast those shots, I was so happy because I related to Johnny a lot and I really wanted to feel him and express him fully during his performance.

Thumbnails for Johnny in Sing, inspired by Elton John and Freddy Mercury. Credit: Eddy Okba for Illumination

3DVF: During the summer of 2017, you moved to Sony Pictures Imageworks. This was your first experience outside France: was it difficult to adapt to this new environment? How different are Sony and Illumination?

I was contacted by Sony to work on an animated Spider-Man project. I always wanted to see outside of France, especially North America where the major studios are. I didn’t know that much about the project and it was difficult to leave Illumination, where I learned so much and knew everybody. But it was exciting to discover another culture, another way to make movies and Sony impressed many times with their movies (Surf’s Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Hotel Transylvania).

It was not easy in the way I only knew Illumination so far, so I have my 8 year-old habits, but it was easy because people were really nice and they have an amazing pipeline and tools. The difference between Illumination and Sony, well, I stayed 8 years at Illumination and every project was different one from another and I only worked on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse at Sony. But Illumination is an animated feature studio that makes its own shows. Sony is really big and they have many projects at the same time: VFX movies, features for other clients, their own shows. You feel part of a studio at Illumination, you feel part of the industry at Sony.

3DVF: You worked as a Senior Character Animator on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Was it a challenge to work on a movie with such a stylized approach? And how did you feel when the movie received an academy award?

And how did you feel when the movie received an academy award? The animation supervisor Josh Beveridge told me during the interview that it will be tough and challenging because it was something different. And it was! I joined the show pretty early and we struggled to find the style and the animation performance. But everybody knew that we were creating something special and everybody was so motivated. And they developed crazy good tools to support the animation department that they actually used for other shows now. I loved Spider-Man as a kid and being able to animate him, especially Mile Morales, was so great.

Thumbnails for Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, study of the 3-point superhero landing but the directors wanted Miles to land differently, he’s not a superhero at this point of the movie and he freaks out about his power. Credit: Eddy Okba for Sony Pictures ImageWorks / Sony Pictures Entertainment
Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Reading the comments on the first teaser was awesome for the team, we could feel the excitement around the movie and when the movie came out with all those positive and enthusiastic critics, we started to believe in the Academy-Award. It was surreal to win over The Incredibles 2. I worked on Despicable Me 2 who was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the Oscars 2014, but it felt impossible to win over Pixar and Disney. I was so happy and proud of the team.

3DVF: You spent around a year at Bron Animation, where you worked on The Willoughbys. This studio is quite smaller than Sony or Illumination: how did this affect your work? What are your thoughts about step animation, both as an animator working on a movie using it, and as an animation lover?

I was in touch with Bron Animation to work on The Willoughbys and I was seduced by the studio and the people there. It was quite refreshing to work with a smaller team, to get to know each other very well. And the movie is so different and unique, it was great to be part of it.

Step animation or animating on 2s (we usually animate 24 frames per second (fps), and animating on 2s means keeping the same pose for 2 frames, so it gives the impression of 12 fps, very stop-motion) is really charming and gives the craft look. We used that on Spider-Verse as well to give the unique comic book/anime style and on The Willoughbys it was more to give the impression of stop-motion. In both cases, it supports the stories perfectly. As an animator, it’s faster to animate because in theory, we’re creating ‘less’ frames to make a second, but it requires strong poses and great silhouettes. Some animators worked from the smooth 24 fps and then ‘baked’ their animation on 2s, and some others animated directly in stepped mode. There are pros and cons, but both work for sure. I animated in spline most of the time and then dropped down one frame out of two. It was a little bit longer this way but I felt more comfortable this way, it gave me an impression of better control.

3DVF: More recently, you worked on DC League of Super-Pets at Animal Logic. Of course, it is too early to discuss the movie itself, but can you tell us about your experience over there as a Lead Animator? A few words on the way you managed to adapt to this new position after years working as a Senior Animator? Were there any surprises?

I can’t wait for people to watch it. It was my first experience as a lead and Dave Burgess, the animation supervisor, trusted me with it. He’s a veteran animator with a crazy experience, coming from Disney and DreamWorks! He animated on The Lion King, Aladdin and other movies I used to watch again and again as a kid. It’s magical to work with somebody that inspired you to become an animator.

Being a lead was great, I really enjoyed it. I was in charge of sequences of the movie and managed the animators casted on those sequences. I was also here to help them with technical support and discussion with other departments. It was really nice to share and talk with the artists, to push them to do the best shots possible and to see what they created. It was also interesting to be on the other side of the production and to deal with schedule and budget. I had less time to animate on my own but I ended up working on a few shots eventually. When you’re an animator, you’re working on your shots and communicating with your circle of friends/colleagues. When you’re a lead you have to talk to everybody at some point and everybody is different. It was interesting to deal with different personalities and levels, from the eager-to-learn junior to the confident senior. I’m a soccer fan so I felt like a coach trying to put every single player on the field with their best aptitude.

3DVF: Last, but not least, you are now working remotely for Pixar, on their upcoming movie Lightyear. Once again, it is too early to discuss the movie itself, but can you tell us about the way remote animators work at Pixar? In particular, how do you handle communication with the rest of the team?

I think it’s very similar to other studios actually. Meetings and reviews are on video call, we keep connected with the communication platform. People are really nice and friendly so they’re willing to share and to chat at any moment. We also have several social online events and they’re really good at communicating with the team. On a personal side, I wish I could discover the campus for real, we had a virtual tour and it looks amazing.

3DVF: Over the span of your career, the tools used by animators changed a lot. In the last few years, studios have been using game engines, AI to improve their workflows. What are your thoughts on this?

I truly believe in craftsmanship but if I could create animation just by thinking of it, or making it faster and better, I’m all in. Many tools that we’re using are here to help the animators to be more efficient or to do tasks easily. But they’re still tools, sharper maybe, but tools. They’re not changing the way character animation is done for now. It’s not like CG was a revolution compared to hand-drawn animation. I see game engines used in the cinema industry the same way, they help the artists day-to-day to visualize, mock up and build the virtual world faster. For video games, it’s a game-changer because you have to create a 360° world, but for cinema we’re still creating single frames.

3DVF: Where do you see yourself in a few years? And what would be your dream project, the kind of movie you would love to work on?

I’m literally living my dream right now working on Lightyear!!! I always dreamed of working on a Toy Story movie, and animating Buzz it’s like playing with the toy as a kid. I wish I could work on more Pixar movies in the future but I’m enjoying every moment on Lightyear right now.

3DVF: Any advice for the aspiring artists & students who read ?

It’s an amazing job with amazing people but it’s also tough and competitive. You have to love it! You will struggle, you will fail but because you love it, you will continue and become great.

3DVF: One last question: is there a movie, or an animated show you watched recently that blew you away?

Luca was a big emotional hit for me this year. The summit of the gods was a very nice surprise too.

For more Information

  • Eddy Okba’s profile on LinkedIn.
  • DC League of Super-Pets is scheduled to be theatrically released in the United States on May 20, 2022.
  • Lightyear is scheduled to be theatrically released in the United States on June 17, 2022.

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