Originally from Damascus, Syria, Essa Neima now teaches animation at the University of the District of Columbia. Over the summer, two of his pieces were on display at the “cARToons” exhibit in Politics and Prose’s café.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Essa Neima: The area of comic work in which I have the most experience is in 2-D animation. After I graduated from the College of Fine Arts in February 2003, I immediately started work at Spacetoon, the most well-known company producing animation and cartoons in the Middle East at that time. I started at Spacetoon as a 2-D Animator for TV shows and short movies. Later, I moved on to designing layouts and supervising an animation workshop in which we worked on the first full-length movie produced by Spacetoon. After several years of working in animation in Damascus, I moved to Dubai where I had the opportunity to work for several clients, including Cartoon Network – Arabia and the Cartoon Network Academy in Abu Dhabi.
WCP: How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?
EN: Most of the time I use Flash and Aura US2 computer programs to create the initial animation. However, when we prepare the storyboard and the layout, I usually do that in the traditional way (using pencil or pen and ink on paper). On my final project in Dubai, I did even the final characters and pauses using the traditional pencil and paper.
WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
EN: I was born in Damascus, Syria in 1981.
WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?
EN: After living in Dubai few years, I decided to move to the United States to further my professional career in a more dynamic and creative space. Friends encouraged me to consider the city of Washington. So I moved to the city 16 months ago and so far it’s terrific. I live in the Cleveland Park neighborhood.
WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
EN: I am a graduate of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus in Syria, where I specialized in oil painting. The training I had in cartooning was quite simple and focused on using basic tools in Flash and Aura. After, I myself tried to watch as many cartoon movies as I could, observing them very carefully. I analyzed them, even sometimes going frame by frame, to understand how they created the movement sequences, how they directed the artworks, etc. I sought to read everything I could, finding whatever books were available and seeking out advice from those with years of experience in the cartoon field.
WCP: Who are your influences?
EN: For one whole year, I watched cartoon movies, including two important ones: The Road to Eldorado and The Prince of Egypt. I sometimes would watch The Road to Eldorado twice a day while working in Spacetoon to fully grasp the art form. It was then that I discovered how much I enjoy the magic world of cartooning. DreamWorks movies gave me a very favorable help.
WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do over or change?
EN: Since I worked as 2-D artist, I had nothing to do with the story or the script. I found that many of them were told in an old-fashioned or uninterested manner or were close-minded in some way. The one exception was the original TV show I worked on for Cartoon Network. If I could, I would have liked to be the art director on some of the animation projects that I have done.
WCP: What work are you best known for?
In the Arabic world there are several projects that I have worked on. You can see a few examples of them here, here, here, and [for] herekatoony (the Arabic version), I made the animation for the new six characters added from the well-known Arabic TV show.
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
EN: I am proud of every single frame that I created.
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
EN: I would like to have an animation company responsible for making works of value and good purpose, whether advertising or TV shows. I would like to be a part of creating something with helpful messages to the viewers, including being optimistic and loving one’s life in a creative and interesting way.
WCP: What do you do when you’re in a rut or have writer’s block?
EN: My experience with writing is limited, but I always try to find inspiration from another artist or writer’s experience. I not only watch and listen to his/her movie or cartoon, but I also ask myself how they did that and analyze the method and sometimes the way of making it to make something similar but new at the same time. When making storyboards or animation, I find it helpful to watching somebody else’s work. It gives me other possible approaches to help in making the final creative decision on the art work and adds my own identity to it.
WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?
EN: I think the basics of cartooning will be the same—-we will always have very good animated movies which touch our deepest emotions as human beings and give us a visual treasure because artists create it.
WCP: What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?
EN: I am still new to Washington, D.C and the local cartooning scene, so I have focused mostly on my own work to date. I also teach animation at the University of the District of Columbia, where I had the opportunity to meet Professor Teresa Logan, who introduced me to National Cartoonist Society meetings. I continue to learn more about the city.
WCP: What’s your favorite thing about D.C.?
EN: I love all the trees, and everything that is here that wasn’t in the previous places I used to live. I love the architecture, the buildings, the changing seasons, and the experience of living in this nation’s dynamic capital.
WCP: Least favorite?
EN:I was not used to such cold winters since I have always lived in hot places.
WCP: What monument or museum do like to take visitors to?
EN: My favorite museum in the city is the National Gallery of Art. It has a world-class collection.
WCP: How about a favorite local restaurant?
EN: Zorba Café in Dupont Circle.
WCP: Do you have a website or blog?
EN: Yes, essaneima.com.