An Interview with Eddy Okba

For over more than 10 years now, Eddy Okba is a Senior Character Animator. He started at Illumination, working on box office hits including Despicable Me 2The LoraxMinionsThe Secret Life of PetsSing and Despicable Me 3. Then he joined Sony Pictures Imageworks to work on the Academy-Award winner Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Eddy strives to add passion, charm and humor to all of his work. He is now an animation Lead at Animal Logic, working on DC Super Pets.

Hi Eddy, could you talk a bit about yourself and your background?

Hello, I’m from Paris, France and I grew up reading and drawing comic books and manga, I’m a real nerd actually. I was so passionate about that my whole childhood, taking drawing classes after school and trying to reproduce my favorite artists. I was crazy about animated movies as well and one of my greatest memories was watching The Lion King in theaters, it was amazing. Once I got the VHS, I spent my weekends reproducing frames by hitting the play/pause button. After that Toy Story came out and I was amazed by it. How could they make me feel so many emotions with computer-generated imagery. After my high-school graduation, I went to an art school to study drawing and illustration and there were 2D animation classes as well, and I felt in love with it. It was cool and magical to see my drawings moving and I loved the process of making it. I decided to study CGI then, knowing that I wanted to be an animator. Modeling, rigging, lighting and compositing were part of the curriculum as well and it was great to study all those disciplines in addition to art history, scriptwriting and film studying. I also have an acting background thanks to my mom who signed me up for an acting class when I was a kid, it was meant to give me self-confidence and I enjoyed it. I even got credited as an actor in a movie in France. Animation is finally the best combination for me, the acting and the drawing.

So how did your professional career start?

I had an offer at Mac Guff Ligne (before it became Illumination Mac Guff) right after my graduation and I worked on commercials while the studio was working on Despicable Me with Illumination Entertainment. It was great to work with all of those talented people around and thanks to their support I became an animator on their next feature The Lorax.

Could you tell us a bit of your career path?

I started as a Crowd Animator on The Lorax and Despicable Me 2. My Supervisor at this time, Elisabeth Patte (now Commercial Director at Illumination) always pushed me to create stories in the background, not just populate the shots. That taught me a lot as I had to be creative and work on animations that weren’t meant to be seen. That’s something that still drives me today, looking for the additional creative plus and working hard on things that we won’t see. We are craftsmen, working a lot on details.

I became a ‘main’ character animator on Minions then. It was amazing. My role was to provide high-quality performance and give credibility to those yellow creatures. They weren’t sidekick characters anymore and we had to find a way to give them purposes and deeper personality, to each one of them. And of course, adding a lot of fun and gags. The director, Pierre Coffin, relied on animation to make the scenes hilarious. Some of his briefings on a scene were simply « Make it fun. » or « Make me laugh ».

On The Secret Life of Pets, we studied a lot of animals’ attitudes as well as their anatomy. It was about making the characters move and act like animals but perform believably as actors.

Sing was all about the performance, the subtle acting and the inner emotions of the characters. Each character has something inside to say out loud by singing and performing, it was really interesting to work on this movie.

Each project made me grow and improve my skills in a different way and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to work on such great movies.

What was your biggest challenge in your career?

I would say working on features with high expectations forces you to be up to it. Minions and Despicable Me 3 were like that. We have to create something new enough to be interesting without being that different that you betray the character for the audience.

On the creative side, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the most challenging project I’ve worked on. It was something that has never been done, and way different from what I’ve learned all those years. We knew we were creating something special but the road to get there was long and bumpy. Everything was new, the acting, performance, appealing style, animating on 2s, even technically it was a challenge with the cloth simulation, the smears, the duplicate drawings. It was very exciting and challenging at the same time.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on DC Super Pets at Animal Logic, I can’t say more about the project but I can talk about my animation lead role. I’m supervising sequences and I’m in charge of an animator’s team. In the early phase, the pre-production, I’m helping the Supervisor to define the look, the style and the way the characters would move and act. It’s a very interesting process as you translate and develop the character’s personalities based on the design and the script into animation. During the production, I’m following up with the artists and helping them to provide high-quality animation. It’s great to work with talented people and to talk about animation, ideas and how we could push the emotional performance or the fun parts with them. I’m also working on my own comic book and children’s book in my spare time.

Do you have any advice for an aspiring animation student?

You have to love it! It’s a very long and hard path so you have to be passionate. Observe the life around you, drawing is a good way to do it, you could also be inspired by any type of art (painting, music, cinema, comic book, etc.). It’s a long process to create animation, spending hours to make a few seconds but at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it.

To see more of Eddy’s work, stop by his Vimeo page. Thanks Eddy!

Director Kris Pearn on Crafting the Wonderful World of ‘The Willoughby’s’

Instead of running away from home, frustrated siblings Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and the Barnabys (Seán Cullen) use their ingenuity to achieve independence in, The Willoughby’s. Director, co-writer and executive producer Kris Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) was instantly intrigued by the tone of Lois Lowry ’s 2008 children’s novel. We got a chance to catch up with Kris and talk about his latest film.

Make sure to watch The Willoughby’s when it premieres on Netflix on April 22nd.

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You’ve worn many hats over the course of your career. Most notably in storyboarding, which is a natural progression to directing. Can you tell us a bit about your transition from story to writing/directing?

Anyone that’s worked in the industry understands there’s a lot of different jobs and a lot of different skill sets that go into making a movie. I’ve always been at that sort of front end. I came into the business when it was still being drawn on paper. I was always a drawer, so when the industry made that switch from 2D to 3D, I didn’t make that transition right away. That’s how I got into storyboarding because I could draw, and I could draw fast because I was training to be an animator. So the storyboarding came organically from my animation experience at the time. I had to learn a lot about the blank page.

When you talk about the next transition, which is storyboarding into writing or being a director, one of the things that you start to get is the culture of that writing room. You have eight or nine people on a movie and you kind of beat up ideas over and over again to get 85 minutes of material to sit in that film. So between working with editors and the access to really great directors and some amazing story artists, I got to learn that voice, that “what if?” voice, and how to handle the politics of that kind of space. I think also being in that room where you’re pitching to executives, you start to see how that evolution of an idea from your head to the page, through the timeline of editorial all the way to marketing… just how many people are involved with it.

I think the biggest difference between being a story artist and a director is that one is about providing ideas for the blank page and the other is about knowing what ideas to let in and how to keep that flow of ideas going. So there’s a bit of that learning, how to debate and argue, which was the next step. But every phase of the job allowed me to gain experience. I did layout for years and location design. All that kind of stuff adds to your understanding. And while I’m not great at all of those jobs, it’s sort of important to understand what all those people go through, so that you can help them realize your ideas.

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Rumor has it you are the hardest worker in the room, you seem happy under pressure, and nothing ever phases you in the production environment. Would you say these are prerequisites for jumping into the director’s chair?

It’s a strange job because there’s a certain amount of ego necessary to assume that position, but the position demands humility. In a lot of ways, there’s no glory in being an animation director. You’re really just trying to figure out how to tell your story and you’re wrong a lot of the time. You have to be open to the reality of being wrong. If you don’t get kicked in the head while you’re making the movie, you will when you’re done. So at some point that tenacity of good work ethic or whatever tools you have… If you have the mechanics that you can rely on no matter what happens you can kind of go back to those mechanics. Sometimes when I’d have a bad day on a movie, and there’s always something that happens, I’ve made a lot of mistakes…you don’t predict a note or a turn of the business cycle. There are things that you can’t control, and there’s a lot of pressure that goes with that. So being able to sit down and storyboard or put my head down and just design, I’m going back to those mechanics, and that’s really helpful. I do think having that kind of work ethic is necessary

What attracted you to this book? How did you get started turning this into a film?

The book was introduced to me by a Producer from Vancouver Island, Luke Carroll. I was working on the Han Solo Star Wars project with Lord and Miller at the time, and I met Luke in L.A. He gave me the book and I gave it a read, and then I did the pitch. One of the things that immediately attracted me to what Lois Lowry had in the novel was this subversive story. A kind of coming-of-age story where the kids, instead of running away from home, trick their parents into running away from home. So it felt funny at its core. It was a fairly organic thing to stream into working on the script (originally I was just drafted to write the first pass). You know one thing led to another. I wanted to have a studio back in Ontario because that’s where my farm is, and Bron was supportive of that, so we figured out all of the logistics and it just started to happen.


This is not your average animated film. The story is both quirky and sinister. Was there a temptation to lean into that more than the source material?

When I first read the book, I had this immediate reaction to not go for a Tim Burton look. It’s not that I don’t like Tim Burton, it’s that he does it so well. I also felt that I would lose interest in the story if it was heavy on effects. What I find funny, and where I find joy in comedy, is earnest characters. Foolish characters or ones that have optimistic goals that are impossible. I think that translates into what I like to do tonally. So if you look at the films that I’ve worked on…look at Flint Lockwood in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, he was optimistic. So I want to take the story which could be dark and bend it towards a more comedic platform. Everybody is earnest. Even if they’re not necessarily the nicest people in the world, there’s a motivation for what they want.

I really love the idea of a story that’s nonlinear. One of the things that really appealed to me was this idea of independence with kids. I grew up in the 80s. Movies were all about kids going off and having their own adventures. So this is a bit of a response to that kind of helicopter parenting. I really wanted to look at a difficult situation and find a way for these kids to get out of it in a way that was hopeful. So all of that was part of the beginning of the story.

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There are quite a few differences between the book and the film. Can you talk about some of the decisions to tweak the story and characters and what goes behind that?

A big part of it is the medium. When you read a book there’s a different kind of consumption rhythm as that material comes in. To ask an audience to sit in a dark room for 85 minutes, you’re really challenged to create that kind of cause and effect in a way that a book can be more wandering. With the Willoughby’s, Lois Lowry was being subversive with the tropes of children’s literature. So very early on we wanted to be subversive with the tropes of children’s films. I think that choice was necessary for the consumption, but also for our own originality through the process and the story.

We needed to come up with choices that give our audience a satisfying ending that allowed us to kind of build out the voices for our characters. You start off very close to the book, but as you start to find what is funny in time just going by 24 frames per second, little shifts start to lead into bigger shifts. It was a real process. It was four and a half years, and if you look at the very first draft, the script it’s very close to the book. And if you’ve gotten to the end of the book, you’ll notice there’s almost another story that starts happening and that was something that was very difficult to wrestle with.

There are other things like what are the stakes. If you bring a baby into a story, there’s going to be stakes with that baby. I had a pair of writers that jumped in to help me for a while. One of their opinions was that you can’t go longer than 10 minutes away from that baby at any point in the film because it was like the MacGuffin that is driving things along in the story. Little things like that show themselves when you’re living in this medium.


The design and animation in this film are fantastic and fun. What was the inspiration for the character design and animation?

The homerun inspiration was being able to hire Craig Kellman early on. I’ve worked with him on a few movies and there’s always that sort of feeling after a movie, “If only we could have gotten closer to Craig’s original designs!” So having been through that a few times…when Kyle McQueen, the Production Designer was collaborating with Craig, the goal was always to get as close as we could to the simple iconography of his 2D designs and the thinking behind those designs. When you follow the thread of learning…Craig was really reacting to this idea that all the Willoughby’s were a little bit starved. They were a little bit mummified in the legacy of the past. They were stuck. So they were very thin and very emaciated. You can see things like Tim’s short pants came out of the idea that he had one pair of trousers and throughout his whole life his legs have just shot out the bottom.

Some of those things might not come through in the movie because there’s not enough time to talk about them, the subtext in the design is there and the thinking is there. So as we translated into CG, we were trying to hang on to that. Where the stop motion idea kind of bled into the movie really was driven by a design desire to try to create a heightened world. Because we knew that the subject matter was a little dark and we wanted to create this fairy tale. We had created a narrator character and named it after the cat. Ricky was already on board. So this idea of Ricky Gervais being this wandering narrator of the movie…because it’s a cat’s point of view, we wanted to have this heightened world. So that kind of took us to heightened textures.


Kyle was really passionate about the idea that you could go to Michael’s and buy all of the tools to make the movie. From the metaphor of the thread connecting the Willoughby’s together with their hair, like that yarn thread, it’s a connection of legacy but it’s also it could be if you get tangled in yarn it could be a noose or shackle. So it’s this metaphor for what the kids have to try and get past. The other characters that they run into are all in opposition to that initial idea that Craig came up with for our main characters. The Nanny is full and she’s round and she comes in like a walking hug. She’s literally shaped like a heart, so we’re always looking for contrast and ways to sort of set our characters into their world. Commander Melonoff is in this giant factory which looks very austere. Craig had the idea that he’s this Tempur-Pedic mattress with arms and when you scratch the surface, he’s sweet on the inside.

That translated to all of our animation and design choices. The 2D principles were probably more in my head at the beginning as a 2D Animator, I always loved the idea of classic animation. I didn’t want to do what Cloudy was doing, which was rubber hose and muppet-y. I wanted to do something different. I really like the idea of physics and that there is a tactile, grounded world, and having worked at Aardman for years, it definitely takes you into those places. The other thing is that it affected our camera. Our budget was such that we had to find ways to get everything onscreen. So if I could set up the world like a sitcom, and shoot three camera setups, and not move my camera, it would save us money down the road. Well, that led to a physicality that actually added to the effect that the movie. So there’s kind of two films: there’s the film in the house and then there’s the film when they break out. And the camera responds on both sides. There’s more moving camera when they escape because they’re in a movie, and when they’re in the house it’s like there in a sitcom.  So all of those things kind of play into themselves to give you that look.


Do you have a favorite character and why?

I think Jane’s probably my favorite character and I think was the journey of building that character and working with Alessia Cara. Trying to find the funny in her. There’s something really funny about her. She wants everyone to listen to her but she doesn’t listen. I always find that she makes the sequences interesting. She was quite often my straight man against Will. I always laughed when we cut to Jane to see her expression. I think my favorite scene is when she follows Nanny into the library after Nanny shows up and she’s mimicking her. The animator was really on the knuckle of trying to make her act like Maya Rudolph but she’s still Jane. It was so subtle and sweet. Check it out, it’s pretty funny. It’s not where your eye is looking.

Watch a clip from the film below:

Off Camera with Sam Jones

Off Camera with Same Jones is easily my favorite podcast. Creative people speaking candidly about their process, loves and fears, and their journey towards finding success. I’ve listened to almost every episode. If you don’t know where to start, some of my favorite episodes are Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jake Gyllenhaal, Javier Bardem, Jack Black, Don Cheadle, Ewen McGregor, Sam Rockwell, and Jeff Daniels. Continue reading Off Camera with Sam Jones

Didier Ghez Discusses ‘They Drew As They Pleased’ Volume 4

The 1950s and 1960s at The Walt Disney Studios marked unprecedented stylistic directions brought on by the mid-century modern and graphic sensibilities of a new wave of artists. This volume explores the contributions of these heroes with special emphasis on the art of Lee Blair, Mary Blair, Tom Oreb, John Dunn, and Walt Peregoy. It includes never-before-seen images from Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty and discusses Disney’s first forays into television, commercials, space, and science projects—even the development of theme parks. Drawing on interviews and revealing hundreds of rediscovered images that inspired Disney’s films during one of its most prolific eras, this volume captures the rich stories of the artists who brought the characters to life and helped shape the future of animation.

First of all congratulations on the latest book in your series. It is my favorite volume to date, in large part because of my love and admiration for the work of Tom Oreb and Mary Blair. I’m curious, do you have a favorite artist among the group?

Walt Peregoy was probably the biggest revelation for me, while researching this book. Before working on this volume, I had been familiar with the personal drawings and paintings of Peregoy from the later part of his career, and I have to admit that I did not find them appealing. While researching his work for Disney, I was blown away by what I discovered: his mastery of style and colors in many ways goes even beyond that of Mary Blair’s. And his story, which was incredibly difficult to piece together (Walt was a notoriously difficult interviewee) is extremely rich and was very much worth telling.

The chapter about Tom Oreb was also one of the most exciting ones from my standpoint. First of all, while researching the career of Ken Anderson for the 5th volume of this series, I had stumbled upon a large amount of early Sleeping Beauty character designs by Oreb, which I was eager to share with the wider world. I also realized that if there was one artist whose stylized approach represented the 1950s more than anyone’s it was Oreb. Finally, it also gave me the chance to tell the story of the Disney commercials from the 1950s, a story that had seldom if ever been discussed and which would deserve a full book in itself.

Can you set the stage of what it was like at Disney Animation in the 50s and 60s?

Before the 1950s, the stylistic approach favored by Walt Disney tended towards realism or at least a style that reminded one of some of the most famous European illustrators of the end of the XIXth century and early XXth century, like Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré. Starting in the 1950s, the Disney studio and its artists started experimenting with a much more stylized approach.

The 1950s were dominated by the stylistic sensitivities of layout and background artists Eyvind Earle, Vic Haboush, Ray Aragon, Jacques Rupp, and Walt Peregoy, who were the new blood at the studio. Along with story artists Tom Oreb and John Dunn, they helped reshape the Disney style for a 1950s audience.

Earle had studied the works of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rockwell Kent and Georgia O’Keefe before finding his own style at the age of twenty-one. Peregoy admired the Mexican muralists David Siquieros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. Fernand Léger, the French painter and sculptor, had been his teacher. Tom Oreb was influenced by Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, David Stone Martin, Ronald Searle and Pablo Picasso. Visions of “Modernism” coursed through their veins.

The Disney studio at that time becomes much more adventurous in its artistic approach.

What stood out to you the most about the artists you picked for volume 4?

I already mentioned Walt Peregoy and Tom Oreb. Let’s focus on the three others that are featured in the book.

First of all, I have to admit that I cheated a little bit in this volume. The whole book is supposed to be about artists who were active at the studio in the 1950s and 1960s. However, I decided to include Lee Blair, who was only working at Disney in the 1930s and 1940s. His approach (watercolor) and his style is much more classical than the style of the other artists in the book, and provides a good contrast for everything that follows. There was also no way to discuss Mary Blair’s stylistic evolution without first presenting artwork from her husband, Lee, since his style influenced her so much at the beginning of her career. And I just loved Lee Blair’s work too much not to feature him in the series. The storyboard drawings he created for “Aquarela do Brasil” (to name just one project) are simply to die for.

Then you have Mary Blair, who does not need to be introduced and whose naïve style and use of colors is always a pure delight. I tried to make sure to locate artwork that none of us had seen before in book form. I especially fell in love with some pieces showing Alice in the Tulgey Wood and meeting the Jabberwocky. And, of course, being married to a Brazilian, I can’t resist her work on the “Bahia” sequence in The Three Caballeros.

John Dunn was a much more complex artist to research. I knew practically nothing about his style before starting this project and there was extremely little information about him floating around. Little by little, I managed to piece together what his stylistic approach had been (both whimsical and modern) and I also realized that the best way to tell his story was through the science projects he had handled for Ward Kimball (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond, etc.). In the end, I was able to kill two birds with the same stone in that chapter: discussing John Dunn but also piecing together a detailed and precise account of the scientific projects from the 1950s which had always intrigued me.

There’s a lot of art in this book that hasn’t been seen anywhere else. Can you talk a bit about your process of gathering all this amazing material?

I always try to tap into five sources of information and illustrations without which none of the books would be complete: the Walt Disney Archives, which preserve written documentation; the Animation Research Library, which preserves artwork; Disney’s Photo Library, which contains the photographic material; the family of the artists, who often have documents (and not just photographs) which are not preserved anywhere else; and private collections and archives. If you read the next answer, you will see that in quite a few cases, you have to link all of those dots to get the full story.

And as was the case with the previous four volumes 90% of the information and of the illustrations included in this book have never been seen in book form before.

Without giving away too much, what were some of the more startling discoveries you came across with respect to this group of artists?

Let me mention three of the most moving moments in the research process. When I was researching the work of John Dunn, I decided to interview producer Joe Hale who had worked with Dunn in the 1950s. I was trying to get a sense of who John was as an artist and as a human being. What I did not expect was that Joe would mention that he had worked with John Dunn on an abandoned project for TV called Abdul Abulbul Amir. I knew that a file about that project existed at the Animation Research Library, but I had no idea that Dunn had been the artist who had created the artwork for it. Joe’s clue was critical and allowed me to include artwork from that project in the book.

While researching the work of Tom Oreb at the Animation Research Library, Jackie Vazquez (my key point of contact at the ARL) and myself had the pleasure of stumbling upon some artwork created by Oreb for the clubhouse of the Mickey Mouse Club while looking for something totally unrelated. I still remember our delight and out excitement that day.

Finally, again while researching Tom Oreb, I stumbled upon a document at the Disney Archives which made clear that the last project that Oreb had worked on at the studio was a planned adaptation of the Baron Von Munchausen for television. Sadly, I also knew that no artwork from that project had survived at the Animation Research Library. I knew that the only option that might exist to find an example for Tom’s work would be if the storyboards he had created at the time had been photographed. I decided to find out. For this, I went to the Photo Library and started checking the negative lists one by one, week by week. I was about to give up, when I jumped on my chair: I had just found a negative description labelled “Baron Von Munchausen boards.” Thanks to this discovery you can get a sense in the book of what Oreb was trying to achieve.

Do you have any honorable mentions, artists that you wish you could have included in this volume, but simply did not have room? Will they be included in future volumes?

Eyvind Earle is one artist that I would have loved to include in this volume, but space did not allow it. I also knew that the Walt Disney Family Museum had released a great book about him, which alleviated my guilt. In the previous volumes of the series I would have loved to feature Tyrus Wong and Dick Kelsey. But again, one has to make some very hard choices…

Also, when I started writing this series, I thought I would skip both Mary Blair and Joe Grant since so much had already been written about them. Thankfully I realized that there was no way for me to do this in good conscience (and with all the new material I uncovered about them). So you see Mary Blair featured in this volume and Joe Grant will appear in the last volume in the series.

As we move into the 70s and 80s for the next volume, who are some of the artists we can look forward to seeing profiled?

There are two more volumes of the They Drew As They Pleased series in the works before completing this ambitious venture. I am currently working on the layout of the 5th volume which will discuss the 1970s and 1980s (The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Black Cauldron, etc.) and especially the careers of Ken Anderson and Mel Shaw, my two favorite Disney artists. And I am starting to write Volume 6 (the 1990s to the present) which will discuss the careers of Joe Grant, Mike Gabriel, Mike Giaimo and Hans Bacher. Exciting, to say the least!

Thanks Didier! We look forward to volume five!


For more info on this title, visit Chronicle Books.

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