Kent graduate El Suliman has built a highly successful career in animation and his work now plays in cinemas around the world. We caught up with him to discuss his journey from student to Lead Animator.
Have you always known you wanted to work in animation?
I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was about five or six. I used to watch Disney cartoons and then spend all my time drawing, so working in the industry is a dream come true really.
Why did you choose the University of Kent?
When I first visited Kent, it was a sunny day and looking at the view from the hill between Rutherford and Eliot, I thought yes, I can see myself living here for a few years. So originally it had nothing to do with the course.
I initially signed up to do computer science as I wanted to get more into computer animation but the course wasn’t quite tailored to what I wanted to do. My housemate happened to be doing Multimedia Technology and Design and I saw that they were already using Maya software and learning about sound production, website design, storytelling and actual filmmaking, which was more in line with what I wanted, so I transferred. I really enjoyed the course and learnt a lot about different art forms as well as different paths in the film and media industry that I could potentially take. It is a great course, because it gives you a taste of everything.
After my BSc, I moved straight on to a Master’s in Computer Animation. The course was led by David Byers Brown who was one of the original animators on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and I thought it would be an amazing experience to learn more from him. What I liked about it was that although it was a computer animation course we also did life drawing and sculpture work. I gained a real understanding of the field, where it has come from and the skills that were needed then and now.
What happened after your MSc?
I was working at Sega as a games tester when, via a contact of one of the lecturers, I was offered a position as a junior animator on The Tale of Despereaux by Framestore. It was only a one-month contract but I said yes immediately, it was a gamble as I was pretty secure at Sega and could have gone into animation in video games via this route. I knew this was an opportunity that could lead to a future in film, which was what I wanted. Luckily, it was a successful gamble; that one month turned into four and a half years at Framestore.
I worked on films including Clash of the Titans, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gravity and Where the Wild Things Are. In animation, everyone has their own style, their own tips and tricks so you are constantly learning and evolving. Every project is different so it’s never boring, you don’t think, I know this now; I still don’t think that after 11 years.
After Framestore, I moved to the Moving Picture Company (MPC) to work on Maleficent. My next job was at WETA Digital in New Zealand, where I worked on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies. It was fun to work at such a big company; I quite like the pressure of being in a new place. I always feel that I have to prove myself and that is when I think I probably improve the most. It was also a great opportunity to see the other side of the world. New Zealand was amazing. I also spent a year and a half in Singapore working at Industrial Light & Magic. That’s one of the great things about this industry, the opportunity to work in different countries. I then returned to MPC to work on The Jungle Book and that’s where I am working now.
You’ve worked on some very different films; do they all bring unique challenges?
The experience varies from company to company and from film to film. Sometimes you work with other animators on a specific character. Collaboration is key to ensure the character always looks, feels, talks and moves in exactly the same way, and its personality stays constant, so that when the audience watches the film nothing jars. There is usually a lead animator who has developed the character and they keep their team in line.
There are sometimes sessions before the film starts where you talk about a character’s personality and if you know who is voicing the character that can have an impact on those discussions. For instance, in The Jungle Book Baloo was voiced by Bill Murray so we watched a lot of Bill Murray films. He has kind of sleepy eyes and talks out of the side of his mouth so Baloo has those traits too. It has to be subtle because you want the animated character to be believable as the animal first, rather than recognisable as the actor.
In Maleficent, most of the creatures were imaginary, so you have a lot of creative licence but in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because we are all very used to seeing chimpanzees and gorillas, there was a lot of scrutiny so our apes had to be perfect in every detail.
When you animate animals you have to do a lot of research and learn a lot about how they move and interact with each other, their mannerisms, quite in-depth stuff, which is fascinating and also really useful. Once we went to a zoo and met some of the trainers. It was a fantastic opportunity. On every project, you have an experience like that.
There is always pressure, every studio wants to win awards and Oscars and so you are expected to do more high-quality work in the same amount of time. The pressure can help you to improve but the balance has to be right between productive pressure and overloading people.
You have had an amazing career so far, what next?
I’m not sure really. Right now I have no plans to change what I’m doing. I love it so much. I am a Lead Animator, which means making sure my team is producing consistent work and taking responsibility for some of the character development. All of which means I do less animation. Leading is rewarding but it is hard to give up the animating; I really enjoy it, it is incredibly satisfying. Day to day, you might work on the same two seconds of animation for three months, but when you are in a cinema and someone laughs you think, ‘I created that emotion and not just in this cinema but in cinemas all around the world’. It’s a fantastic feeling; there’s nothing better.
What advice would you give to those looking to work in animation?
Speak to people in the industry. You have to be passionate about animation and be happy to keep learning and studying. If you are animating an animal, you need to know all about it, its skeleton, its muscle structure, how it moves and so on. You can be working on one shot for months so you have to be very dedicated to it. It’s hard work but so rewarding.