The Illusionist: Ahmed Shehata VFX Egypt-USA
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 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)