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Animationweek editorial team had an interview with Drifa Benseghir, a professional 3D character animator and lecturer at Gobelins, l’école de l’image, Supinfocom and The Animation Workshop. It is our great honour to be able to share her knowledge, expertise, and broad international experience with you.

Starting as an animator

Animationweek (AW): Could you please tell us a little bit about you? What is your expertise?

Drifa Benseghir (DB): I’m a 3D character animator. I’ve been working with Maya® since around 2002.

I was a big fan of animation. Drawing was my hobby. I was drawing all the time for my pleasure and to create universes. It made me feel really good. I was a really big fan of Japanese animation. Because of this background, I had a lot of expertise in animation, more Japanese than American. I’m also very interested in Disney animations.

I started working as a 3D character animator in 1997 for the biggest video game company in France, I think it still is. The company is called Ubisoft® (∗1). I was very lucky. To be honest, I didn’t have any education in animation or computers. My formal education was in Japanese language and civilization. With a big coincidence, I found my first job as an animator without any experience or education in this field. All I had was my passion for this world.

∗1: Ubisoft Entertainment S.A. (https://www.ubisoft.com/en-GB/) is a video game developer and publisher in France. Their major titles include the Assassin’s Creed series and Rayman</i series.

The first job in Ubisoft®

AW: How did you get the chance?

DB: I found this ad from Ubisoft® in a French newspaper, in February 1997. They were looking for “professionals of movement”. That’s how it was described in the ad. There was nothing written about animation. It was saying something like “if you have any interests in learning a 3D program and have some skills in animation, we are willing to do training”. A lot of people from different backgrounds applied. It was a long succession of tests.

The first was to send something like a book or a portfolio with drawings to show your skills. Fortunately, I had sketches I had done while watching films like Akira or Nausicaä. At home, we had a good videotape player that could “pause” on images. That’s how I was sketching back then. In 1997, Nausicaä was not famous at all by the mainstream public in France. The guys who looked at my portfolio were previous students from Gobelins(∗2) and they knew about Hayao Miyazaki. They were very intrigued by my drawings and thought “who is that girl who draws sketches from Akira and Miyazaki’s movies!? It’s interesting”. Again, in 1997, very few people knew of Miyazaki’s movies, even in the industry. All eyes were turned on the other side of the planet, towards Disney animation. Lion King at that time made one of the biggest successes ever in the history of animation. Studio Ghibli’s movies were considered very “underground”. Anyway, they called me for an interview. This was the first test.

∗2: Gobelins, l’école de l’image (http://www.gobelins.fr/en) is an art school in France, which has a high reputation for its animation course.

AW:Then, what was next?

DB: After the interview, I had to do the animation tests. It was my first time in my life using a 3D program, even a computer. I was very thrilled with the challenge. I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I jumped into this new world even if I didn’t know how “to swim”. After many tests and interviews, the last interview was with the big boss of the company. Then finally I got the job as a trainee and junior animator. I found myself in a team of animators with mainly recent graduates from Gobelins and also some professionals who had great experience. It was not only animators. There was a guy who was a mime. He was very comfortable with motions. He could really do animation as he wanted with the 3D program. All the people I met at that time were a great inspiration for me and I am very grateful I met such amazing people. That was my first experience.

Being in the state of quest

DB: Since then, with all the help I got from the colleagues I met at Ubisoft®, I could continue to work in this industry. And during all this time, I have been self-taught. Always teaching myself by asking my surroundings “how do you do that and how do you do this?”. I’ve always been in the state of quest. I was always challenging myself to become better and better. It was not a competition. I was not thinking “how could I do better than the others?”. It was never my goal. My goal was to become the best I could become, day by day. It’s a very personal approach. I always felt a little behind everybody else because I didn’t go to an animation school. It was a little complex I had and I still have it sometimes. From the first job, you meet your first colleagues and become friends and you start to have connections and this is how all the rest became filled. It was not easy all the time.

It has now been 18 years that I worked in the industry of 3D animation. It had been in Paris for the first 12 years, then little bit in Scandinavia, Norway until 2010 when I found the first opportunity in Japan to work in an animation studio. In 2010, it was the first time I combined my formal education and my job. I could speak Japanese and work as an animator.

Becoming a teacher

Teaching at Gobelins

AW: Then, could you please let the readers of Animationweek know about your other expertise?

DB: My other job is teaching character animation with Maya®. This was also a big coincidence. I never really intended to do that. It just happened. At the Gobelins School, they desperately needed urgent help and I was the closest person, I mean geographically. I myself was taking training in the school to learn the other aspects of Maya® as a program: modelling, rigging, texturing and all other aspects of the craft beside the animation. I was attending a professional training course. They had a big crisis. The teacher who supposed to teach the class, gave a very late notice like in the morning of the day he was supposed teach, and said he couldn’t do it anymore. So it was a really big, big crisis for them. A former colleague, who was also there by coincidence recommended me and said “Drifa is here”. And I said “OK, I would help you”. I thought I could help them start their work and I didn’t really think about how I would handle this situation. To be honest, I became panicked the evening before I started. So the next day, I found myself in front of the class of 15 students. I was not so much older than them. I was only 28 years old and some of them were 25 years old. It was kind of weird.

To my big surprise, it was an amazing experience. I found out that I was somebody who was able to teach and explain things in a simple way. Even talking about something difficult to teach like Maya® could be fun and interesting. It was a big surprise to me. It was also a surprise for the school. They were really happy and called me back saying that the students were really happy. So I went back even if I didn’t have such a great CV. I didn’t have a name of a big school or a big studio in my CV but this experience was positive for both sides. So they called me back.

Teaching experience at the Disney animation studio in Paris

DB: Somehow I got recommended to the Disney animation studio that was in Paris (Montreuil) back then. It was in 2003, they were shutting down the French studio. Before they let all the animators go, they wanted to give them some training of Maya® to give them more chances to find work after. So I also found myself being kind of a teacher of Maya®. I didn’t teach animation because they knew animation better than me. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience for me. They were the ones whom I could learn so much from. I was very humble in front of them and very honoured to share these moments with this team of the great animators from Disney. They were the most talented people I ever met in my life. It was incredibly inspiring.

So I’m a 3D character animator and also a teacher. I started teaching in 2003 so it’s been 12 years now. I’ve been teaching a lot at the Gobelins School and also in Supinfocom (∗3), the biggest CG school in France. Gobelins was for animation and Supinfocom was more for CG and I also teach regularly at The Animation Workshop in Denmark.

∗3: Supinfocom became MOPA (http://en.ecole-mopa.fr) in 2015.

Developing expertise

“Experience is the hardest teacher, it gives you the test first, and the lesson afterwards”

AW: How did you learn and acquire your expertise?

DB: I learned the hard way… Just by doing. I recently read a quote from Oscar Wilde saying “experience is the hardest teacher, it gives you the test first, and the lesson afterwards”.

This is how I have been learning. First is just like “OK, I don’t know how I’m going to do that”. Then do it the best you can, and then after it’s done, I tried to take some time to concentrate and understand how I could make it work better the next time I would be in the same situation. It has always been “do do do do until it works” and “re-do it, re-do it, even if it doesn’t work” and “try again in this way and this way”, “mmmm, doesn’t work”. So it was a lot of experiments and a lot of trials.

I always study by saying myself “I don’t know how to do that. But It’s OK, that’s fine. I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to do it the best I can”. So the first 5 years were filled with a lot of frustrations, yet a lot of fun too.

It’s also one way that I teach my students. I tell them “first, it’s gonna be frustrating but at the same time very rewarding. Once you find yourself in this state of quest, there’s a lot of happiness “. I don’t teach by saying what to do or how to do something to the students (or at least not immediately). First I give them a challenge and let them find by themselves. Of course, after a little while (it should never be too long) I finally share with them my knowledge and teach them one way to proceed. Of course in a creative job, there can be many, many ways to do something. So I just teach in the same way as I have been taught in my life. If my students can become comfortable with the fact that “you don’t know everything”, but as long as you “do your best”, it will work out, then I’m happy. It will take time and work. But if you do it with dedication, you’ll get there. I think this is going well in my classes.

The 15-minute rule

AW: Who would help you when you have questions and you need help?

DB: My co-workers. In animation, you always work in a team. I rarely find myself alone. We are always a team. I had chances to work with very talented people who were very generous but in a way, I could not ask for their help all the time. I think it was Alex Williams, who also teaches in The Animation Workshop who came up with the “15 minutes rule”. When you have a problem, you try to fix it by yourself without asking for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, if you don’t have any solutions, it becomes a waste of time. You may not be on the right track at all and should ask somebody for help. This is something we also teach to our students.

So yes, trying to find the good balance. I sometimes see co-workers and students who ask questions as soon as they have a problem. It’s a pity. I think taking 15 or 20 minutes to search for a solution on your own is a good way to train yourself to solve problems, which you don’t know the solution. It’s a good compromise. After 15-20 minutes when you can’t get there, it’s time to ask. It requires also courage sometimes to ask for help. A lot of people are very shy or just too proud. They want to protect their image and they want to appear professional so maybe they think that asking question is a sign of weakness. So it’s very important as a professional to find a good balance. Trying to do it by yourself but also being honest and saying, “With this, I need help” and ask the right person. Of course, as well as not being afraid to fail, to throw everything away and to start from the beginning.

“Togetherness is a precious and very important thing”

AW: I have a question about the way you learn animation. What do you think the difference between online school and traditional classroom learning is?

DB: I don’t have an experience of teaching at an online school. I can’t say from my experience. I think online school is really good, too. I don’t have an experience so I can’t compare really. What I heard from my co-workers or students who did online school, is that they miss the energy of being in the same room with other people and you communicate and you live together. You interact. They are missing real interaction.

I think those who did online school are missing this interaction and they are a little bit shy about interacting with others when they start working in studio. If I can give an advice, I can give an advice that “if you can, I recommend that you choose a school where you can directly interact with other fellow students”. I’m not talking about interaction with teachers. The most important thing is to be in the same room with other students like you that face the same problem, maybe at the same time, and there is what it’s called a sense of togetherness. For me, togetherness is a precious and very important thing. If you can only learn online, it’s better than nothing. Then, what could be done may be to organise some weekly meetings with animators from your town. You could have a real exchange by meeting other people and have real communication. I think all the animators I met were a little bit regretting that they couldn’t have interaction as much as they wanted. They have a really good level so I’m sure they’ll catch up. I also think it affects your personality when you interact directly. I can see how positive it is to be in the same room for three years together. I really like it and I need it.

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