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An Egyptian in Wonderland - Daily News Egypt

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An Egyptian in Wonderland

His name is Yasser Hamed. You ve probably never heard of him before, but remember him well, because soon you will. An Egyptian-born Australian citizen, Hamed is a senior visual effects technical director who, in a span of five years, has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Robert Zemeckis (“Back to …

His name is Yasser Hamed. You ve probably never heard of him before, but remember him well, because soon you will.

An Egyptian-born Australian citizen, Hamed is a senior visual effects technical director who, in a span of five years, has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future, “Forrest Gump ) and Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands, “Batman, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ). His latest project, the animated hit “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, has grossed more than $110 million in the US so far.

Born in the Egyptian governorate of Qalyoub, Hamed and his family moved to Australia at the age of 11. He graduated from Newcastle University, majoring in mechanical engineering.

Hamed was always interested in film and animation. In college, he worked part time in advertising agency Digital Motion where he learned some of the basic techniques of animation, editing, and commercials production. He also developed a full software application which included 3D simulations and graphing to study machine wear.

After graduation, Hamed applied to work for Australia’s leading digital effects and post production house Animal Logic. Although the company only hires highly experienced and established artists, Hamed succeeded in landing a job at the Research and Development department after impressing its head, Academy Award winner Guy Griffiths. The first project Hamed got involved in was “Happy Feet, the Academy Award winning blockbuster helmed by “Mad Max director George Miller.

After the success of “Happy Feet, Hamed was offered a position from Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles to work on Zemeckis’s “Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone.

Hamed is currently working on Burton’s big screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter. “This is by far the most exciting film I have worked on to date, Hamed says. “There is so much going for it, in terms of its incredibly unique style and characters, a world famous story, and of course working with director Tim Burton.

Hamed is also trying his hand at directing, co-directing a webepisode/TV pilot entitled “The Other Realm with ex-playboy model Donna Spangler. “Realm is a supernatural thriller about four estranged sisters who must band together to inherit a huge family fortune.

Daily News Egypt interviewed Hamed via e-mail to discuss his beginnings, the Hollywood experience and his future plans.

Daily News Egypt: Mechanical engineering and animation seem to be worlds apart from each other. What drew you to animation?

Yasser Hamed: Surprisingly, they actually are not. Visual Effects and animation have a lot in common with engineering. My job is to research how things work in real life and apply the same techniques in visual effects. These include comprehensive physics and mathematical models.

For example, in order to replicate the look of water in digital effects, one has to understand how it behaves in real life first. We first study how light interacts with water, study its refractive, reflective, and light scattering properties and replicate the same effect computationally. If we want to simulate realistic wave motion, we must first understand the dynamics of waves, how they occur in real life and what properties make them behave the way they do. It is my job to determine how to replicate these phenomena computationally so that the final product looks just like the real thing. There is a lot of mathematics and physics that overlap from Engineering into Digital Effects and without my degree, this job would have been a thousand times more difficult.

Tell us about your experience in “Happy Feet. George Miller has never directed an animation film at that point before; were there any difficulties on set?

“Happy Feet was a fun project but yes you are right. . Animal Logic and George have never done a full animated feature before, so the pipeline had to be built from the ground up. I was responsible for building many of the software tools that artists used in production. Some of these tools include development of lifelike water/wave simulation, realistic procedural wind that can blow fur/feathers, realistic looking snow/ice, digital artificial intelligence on penguin crowds (so they automatically interact with each other without the need of an animator), etc. It was a learning experience for everyone on the team but we had a whole four years to eventually figure it out. The final product is a beautiful academy award winning feature film.

How was working with Animal Logic different from Sony Pictures Imageworks? Were you more comfortable in Australia?

Animal Logic is a very different style of company to Sony Pictures Imageworks. For a start, it was a much smaller company and felt more like you were working with a close family and you got to know everyone. Animal Logic may only have the resources to work on one big feature, however, Sony Imageworks is a much bigger company and when I first started they were working on 13 movies at once. Both companies have their advantages however, and have been great to work for.

I was very comfortable in Australia as the lifestyle was much more relaxed and I had my family near me. In Los Angeles, it’s far more fast-paced and I don’t have my family here, so even after four years of living here, I still find it hard to settle down.

What were your task specifications in “Beowulf ?

My job was to innovate ways to optimize scenes and be able to achieve the look required by the director’s vision. This was a difficult task as technically what we are trying to achieve required us to push beyond the limitations of the current technology, and it was my job to figure out how to do this.

I was also in charge of look development of various elements in the film including working on the characters and developing realistic looking treasure and jewels, design of the dark forest, realistic water/simulation, and various organic elements like grass, rocks, icicles, snow etc.

Many observers believe that motion capture has robbed animation from its soul; that seeking to capture reality in such an accurate fashion is defying the basic purpose of animation, which is to create an alternative universe with its own look and rules. What’s your take on that?

I can see where people are coming from when they suggest this, but the one thing that “performance capture in “Beowulf did demonstrate is that in a digital world, “anything is possible. I don’t think it was the intent of Robert Zemeckis to simply create photo-real animation. I believe his intent was to demonstrate a technology, a technology that can allow for unlimited potential in cinematography. Some of the long camera pans in the movie for example are impossible to achieve in real life and can only be produced digitally. To achieve high-end 3D cinematography as in “Beowulf would also have been incredibly difficult, if not impossible to achieve in real life. So these are situations that can be argued in favor of performance capture.

“Cloudy must’ve been fun to work on.

I had the most fun working on this project as we were shooting for a unique style and story and there was ample opportunity to be creative. On “Cloudy, I was once again in charge of various look development in the film which include work on the characters, food, and the environment. The directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the most down-to-earth and the funniest people I have ever met. Knowing I had an Egyptian background, once they asked me to come down and do a voice scratch and translate in Arabic a line for a character in the film.

Tim Burton is known to be somewhat quirky and unpredictable. How was it working with him? And what can we expect from the movie?

Unfortunately I can’t comment on Mr Burton or an unreleased movie. I do expect, however, that the visuals in “Alice in Wonderland will totally astonish the world and I personally have high expectations and believe in the future success of the film. I’m responsible for shadin
g, color and lighting, and development of various parts of the production pipeline.

Directing is your next step. Why now and why live action rather than animation at a time when directors in the US are struggling to have their films produced?

I have always been interested in filmmaking; that’s the very reason I entered the industry in the first place. I believe I have the credits and the experience to test the waters and to try my own thing for a while. Fortunately being in the industry for as long as I have, I have managed to get to know many very talented people who will be able to help me in my endeavor, some of which are Academy Award winners themselves. This is one advantage I have over the many independent filmmakers that you see in Los Angeles and around the world.

Tell us more about your impression of Hollywood.

For the most part I have had a great experience working in the Hollywood film industry. I’ve met some amazing talented people and I have learned a lot on my way here. It has taught me that life can change very quickly for anyone. It can go from bad to good very quickly and vice versa. It has taught me that being humble is a virtue in itself.

I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint-hearted though. You need to be thick-skinned, tough and truly believe in yourself in order to truly make it in this industry.

Where do you see yourself say 10 years from now?

It’s very hard to say as I try not to think about the future too much and take every day step by step. I don’t set goals 10 years from now, but rather plan the next step, and then follow through to the one after that. I hope that every step I take will propel me more forward where I can eventually reach a point where I believe I have attained a great level of self satisfaction and accomplishment.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is currently showing in local theaters. “Alice in Wonderland is released in the US and Egypt in March 2010.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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