The Illusionist: Ahmed Shehata VFX Egypt-USA

Ahmed Shehata VFX

by Sherif Awad
In filmmaking, visual effects are not only about creating
huge monsters like King Kong and Godzilla nor about constructing spaceships and
flying saucer. Currently, talented visual effects supervisors use sophisticated
software to enhance and alternate realities as captured by the lens of
directors of photography.
One the Egyptian talents who excelled in Hollywood
production is Ahmed Shehata, who has been contributing for over 15 years to
virtually most aspects of animation, film, television and advertising
industries. Specializing in advanced creature rigging, particle effects and
dynamics, lighting and rendering, animation/VFX pipeline tools and technologies,
he was nominated for an Emmy and two Canadian Screen Awards.

Born to an Egyptian mother and a father trading granites and
marbles in Tripoli, Ahmed Shehata spent his early two years in Libya before
moving again to Saudi Arabia with his parents. Shehata discovered Egypt when he
became thirteen years old in 1980 where he continued his studies in Egyptian
schools then in the Faculty of Fine Arts from which he graduated in 1997. “Coincidentally,
that year witnessed the Luxor terrorist attack that affected not only tourism
but the whole country”, remembered Shehata who decided to fly to the United
Stated in order to continue his higher learning. “After spending two years in
the States, my drawing capabilities and previous background drove me to enroll
into studying computer animation at Miami International University of Art and
Design. At that period, the two popular softwares used in this field were
first: 3ds Max and second: Maya that was only year-old in the market. After
practicing with the latter for another year, I applied for an MBA because, at
that period as well, my university was among the only five schools around the
world that gave an MBA in animation. After receiving my new grade, I was
appointed as teacher in the university, a job I took for another two years”.

Shehata started to develop a new software he called FinalRig
that is used to automate character animation, which took him from his academic
career to a new entity where he joined the teams of major animation studios and
computer graphics developers. “It started with BlueSky Studios in New York, a
company famous for computer animation feature films we all know. There, I
worked on Ice Age 2 and Robots”, he remembered. BlueSky that
works with 20th Century Fox is the main computer to Pixar and Walt Disney
Picture. However, Shehata soon discovered that he rather prefers to work on
live action films. This made him move in 2005 to another company called Luma where
he worked on Underworld: Evolution starring Kate Beckinsale. “On this
film, we used Maya and another software called ZBrush that help us in creating
detailed textures like a digital clay”. One should note that the competition
between Hollywood studios in the field of animation is high. “While Pixar
releases in the market their render engines like RenderMan for everybody to
use, a company like DreamWorks SKG develops it own software for internal and private
use only”.

After he ventured into animation and live action, Shehata
contributed in the film medium to Hollywood’s best kept secret: “the invisible
art” where Computer Graphics (CG) are used to enhance the shots created by
filmmakers and their directors of photography to the extent that viewers cannot
notice any alternations. One of the best examples of such artistic practice is the
Robert Redford starrer All is Lost (2013) where he played an aging
sailor who is fighting violent storm in the middle of the ocean. “The film was mostly shot inside a big water
tank in front of a green screen”, explained Shehata who was among the visual effects
team. “We use different softwares to removes the green screen and treat the
film frame by frame to generate background and foreground digital images that
are homogenous with the camera and actor movements. Also, we use what we call
motion blur to soften the pixelized surrounding outlines of the actor to
immerse them into the frames making use the higher res of HD”.

Another aspect of
Shehata’s work is to cut the budget of production by using his CG skills to
create explosives instead of using pyrotechnics and destroy parts or whole
buildings using 3D digital models. “It is less risky and cost effective to make
a car stunt using CG techniques”, he adds. “if something wrong happens, the
stunt team will need to repeat the shooting all over again while our department
can adjust the frames with few mouse clicks. Sometimes, CG creators attend the
shooting of such scenes and also other times, filmmakers come to our studios to
supervise our CG works on their films”.  

Although he made a
name for himself in Hollywood working in films like Underworld Awakening
(2012), John Wick (2014) in addition to TV series like Marco Polo
(2014) and The Borgias that landed him an Primetime Emmy nomination in
2013, Shehata decided to bring his talents back home. “It started in 2011 as I
went to Cairo back and forth nine time to try to bring my experience to
Egyptian filmmaking. Although I met most of the Egyptian artists working in the
CG field, the situation during that year was not suitable to start practicing”,
says Shehata. “I think the problem also lied in the fact that Egyptian CG
artists wouldn’t travel outside of Egypt to learn more. Only CG studios receive
some non-Egyptian clients to do some CG works but the contrary is not true”.
Yet, finally, last year, Ahmed Shehata joined forces with
Engineer Mohamed Tantawy to launch a Cairo-based company in Egypt: Trend VFX
where they not only execute CGI for films and TV series but also set courses
for the enthusiasts of this growing field. “300 enrolled in the first level of
our course that presented an introduction to the programs and the market”, says
Shehata. “Out of them, 80 were selected to enter the second level for more
elevated studies until we selected 20 to join our team”.
All is Gone

All is Gone
All Is Lost

After their works on the TV series Layali Eugenie
(Eugenie Nights) by Hany Khalifa, Trend VFX worked on the postproduction of one
of Eid al-Adha comedy El-Badla (The Suit) starring Tamer Hosny and Akram
Hosny. “The film needed visual enhancements like set and crowd extinction in
addition to cloud simulation”. While the company will be working on major
Egyptian projects, Shehata will divide his time between Cairo and his current
programming job at Apple, that he joined in 2016. “Still my dream is to work
one day on one of the new interlacements of Star Wars”.
Layali Eugenie (Eugenie Nights)
Layali Eugenie (Eugenie Nights)
Layali Eugenie (Eugenie Nights)

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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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