The Journey Animation Manager Sara Oulddaddah

Manga Productions and Toei Animation‘s anime film The Journey is now streaming on Crunchyroll, and ANN was able to meet with animation manager and character designer Sara Oulddaddah. Oulddaddah has worked in animation and game development for ten years and is a primary member of the Saudi female gamers community GCON. Prior to joining Manga Productions, she won second place in the International Silent Manga Audition in 2015 with her entry “Blown Away.”

We talked with Oulddaddah about Manga Productions, working between Japan and Saudi Arabia on The Journey, and the team’s hopes to share Saudi Arabian culture and stories internationally.

When did your involvement in Manga Productions start? And can you tell us about your career prior to working on The Journey?

Sara OULDDADDAH: I’ve always loved art, ever since my childhood. I would draw stick figures and just drew on every surface that I could get my hands on. So I was very passionate about art and like many Saudis, I grew up watching anime dubbed in Arabic, works like Treasure Island, Captain Tsubasa, and so on. I also was a very big fan of video games and comics and just the fact that you can create a work that resonates with the audience and inspires them was just fascinating to me as a child. So my curiosity of wanting to know how this is made, as well as my dream to make something like this, to share my stories with the world, is something that gradually grew ever since I was a child.

By the time I was in college, I decided to go into information technology, web, and multimedia, which was a major that I chose basically to try to understand how animation and video games were made from like a technical perspective. So I got into digital art and you know, how to draw digitally. At that time I joined a group of wonderful ladies under the name of GCON. We were a community for supporting girl gamers, game developers, and artists in the region, supporting the talents, you know, connecting them to incubators and getting sponsorship for events to basically have the community in one place.

I also started working on my own manga and my own work, short animated movies and game development. I won an award from Sony and in indie game development with a very brilliant team. And by the time I graduated, there was no company like Manga Productions. So I decided to work in information technology in something that has nothing to do with art, which is insurance. At that time I felt that I was always physically tired, but I was still missing something. There’s an unspent energy. I just felt like my passion did not have anywhere to go.

I would spend all night working on freelance projects with indie directors, storyboarders, art directors, artists – whatever I can get my hands on basically. By the time – I think it was 2015 – is when I said, “okay, I want to test my skills internationally.” So I submitted for the very first time an entry to the Silent Manga Audition in Japan. That’s year had about 64 countries and over 400 entries. So it was very intimidating and I was very surprised to get second place. It was my very first time participating. And also I was chosen to attend the Master Class in Tokyo the following year 2016.

I basically got introduced to a lot of the secrets of the Japanese manga industry by masters. I’m talking about people like Tetsuo Hara, Tsukasa Hojo, Ryūji Tsugihara. They taught us a lot about the manga industry from the creative side and also from the business side. So I saw firsthand an example of a very mature and thriving market for animation and manga in Japan.

In 2018, Manga Productions made this call out through social media, asking all the talents who were interested to submit their portfolios. So I did, I submitted my portfolio and very shortly, I got a call that I was accepted. Those who were accepted also got to attend an event with Mr. Shinji Shimizu, who is the executive producer of One Piece. For me it was just mind-blowing, cause I’m a huge One Piece fan. And, you know, just meeting him was a great honor. But unfortunately that day I got very sick. I could not go to the event, but ended up working with Shinji Shimizu on The Journey project. So I’m glad it turned out well at the end.

It’s very fortuitous that even though you missed that one opportunity, it came back around again in another way. That’s really cool. So what was your role as animation manager for The Journey? Can you walk me through a typical day for you at Manga Productions?

OULDDADDAH: In The Journey I did work on the production management and also the art direction side. So every day kind of looked different. In terms of the production, my major focus was managing our team, keeping them informed and motivated, aligning with our partners at Toei – you know, ensuring everything is going according to plan with the schedule and that any issues are resolved, avoided, or escalated. Basically focusing on connecting everyone and making sure they’re all aligned. Also connecting with our marketing and legal teams and making sure that deliverables are fit for the distribution and so on. So I would say that part of the day is consistent, with a lot of readings, a lot of conversations with the team. And also we had a lot of trips back and forth to Tokyo to meet our team there.

We do have an office there and also to meet our colleagues at Toei. When it comes to the more creative side, the art direction, which is a role that I shared with multiple, very talented colleagues from Manga Production, our role was translating the vision of the director into a visual form. So we wanted to make sure that every single aspect or element that you would see on screen not only delivers the intended feeling of the messaging and you know, what the director wants to get across, but it’s also authentic to our culture. So in that part of the day, I’d be reviewing the designs with a team, the storyboards, layouts, and discussing our comments, aligning on decisions. Also talking to the director from Toei, the artists there, and gathering any references needed, providing research, and also creating references and designs as needed.

I was curious how that communication went between Tokyo and the studio in Saudi Arabia. Are you also fluent in Japanese or were there, you know, translators on each side to go back and forth between the Japanese and Saudi Arabian staff?

OULDDADDAH: A lot of our staff are very fluent in Japanese. I am to an extent, but a lot of our staff are, so honestly language was not a barrier. More of our challenges were with the differences in the culture, but it’s thankfully something that, you know, gradually working on the project we could overcome.

What would be an example of the differences in the cultures? Was it the staff in Japan not being familiar with elements like typical dress for that time period, or are there other examples that you had to educate them on to make it an authentic film?

OULDDADDAH: It’s mostly as you mentioned – we wanted to find the right balance between the Japanese animation and all its beauty, brilliance, and efficiency while also making sure that the unique elements appearing in the movie are authentic to the culture. So an example of this is, as you mentioned, the clothing: as you know, Arabian clothing is very particular; it has a lot of very small details to make it look the way it does. And for us, we want to ensure that even the characters, when you see them, they would still look authentic. But at the same time it has to be something that the animators can animate, because it can get too complex. So we had to design them in 3d and 2d. We even had to tailor some of the clothes that you see in the movie so the team could clearly understand how they are structured to animate them.

Also things like body language; in Arabian culture, body language is very unique. We talk a lot with our hands. With some phrases – like when I say “it’s really beautiful” – I would be doing like this. [brings one finger underneath her eye and trails down her face] “It’s like, so beautiful. Makes me cry, you know?”

So we also wanted to incorporate that body language seamlessly into the animation. And of course, in an effort to help our colleagues to understand the culture more, we worked closely on all the phases of the project. We have our artists, writers, producers, and so on, but also we organized a location-hunting trip for the Toei team, to the actual locations where the battles that are shown in the movie have occurred. And, you know, just allowing them to see the Saudi culture firsthand, the environment, the food, the aromas, the weather, and most importantly, the people. They also met some of the young talents and talk to them. And that honestly has impacted the cultural exchange in a very significant way that was greatly reflected in the result.

That kind of leads me to another question I wanted to ask for viewers who also aren’t as familiar with Saudi Arabian culture. Can you elaborate on where the film story comes from? You mentioned going to real places, so I’m assuming that the basis of The Journey is historical, but could you talk a little bit about that?

OULDDADDAH: Sure. So basically this film is based on an actual historical story that is titled “People of the Elephant.” It’s a story that happened before Islam. It was mentioned in the Holy Quran and it talks about an attack on Mecca that was led by Abraha from the Kingdom of Aksum that is located right now in Saudi Arabia, the heart of the Arabian peninsula. So, Mecca at that time was a very big trading hub and very prosperous. A lot of people also came to it because of the Holy Kaaba, which was the building that was also built before Islam by the prophet Ibrahim and was a source of inspiration and devotion to many. So what Abraha decided to do is invade Mecca to destroy Kaaba and basically redirect the people who are visiting that holy place to go elsewhere.

So what we did at Manga Productions was use that story as a base and develop our script around it and just handle it from a very different perspective – from the perspective of a fictional character who had fought in this invasion to defend his hometown, basically. What is the incredible outcome of this uneven battle? We wanted to bring the feelings and the conflict closer to the audience, rather than just narrating it. You know, them seeing this through a character resonates more. There are some side stories as well that are recalled throughout the movie that I think maybe many are more familiar with, such as the story of Moses and Noah.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but all of those are also historical stories that are told from a different perspective through the eyes of fictional characters, but they’re all connected with the same theme of determination and belief in never giving up.

So let’s talk about the characters of The Journey. What kind of hero is Aws and what kind of villain is Abraha?

OULDDADDAH: Between those two characters, we wanted to make sure that the contrast is very strong. Aws is basically a believer who’s brave and honest and wants to do nothing but good for everyone. He has a very difficult past and has been given a chance by the people around him and the city to have a new life, and this chance gave his life meaning. He is the type of character that is ready to just lay his life on the line to protect his loved ones and his homeland.

On the other hand, you have Abraha, an intelligent and vicious tyrant who has a lot of power and chose to use this power to destroy rather than help others. He wants to take over the land to enslave people, and he wants basically to take over Mecca and redirect its people by crushing the Kaaba under the feet of his mighty army of elephants. So I would say this is more of an infinite struggle between fairness and tyranny between the desire to protect and the desire to destroy.

So the film itself was originally scheduled for 2020 with a plan for theatrical release. And I was wondering if COVID or other issues may have impacted the production and caused it to be released now and if so, how Manga Productions navigated COVID.

OULDDADDAH: That’s right. Honestly, 2020 was the original release [plan]. We had very big plans for 2020, but sadly COVID happened and we had to basically put everything on hold to make sure it was safe for our team so we can start planning again. In terms of production, the good thing was that the movie was almost done by that time. It was, in the grand scheme of things, pretty much done, but we have some minor cuts or minor scenes that we wanted to do some retakes on, but our team could not access their high-end PCs due to the lockdown.

I’d say the biggest struggle that we had was with the Arabic dubbing, because a lot of the talents, they are in multiple countries with different situations with COVID – some are in lockdown, while others are in a more relaxed situation. So what we had to do is logistically find a way or a workaround for everyone, how we can follow the schedule and record their lines and so on. So it was a little bit difficult, and maybe another sad thing is that we could not celebrate with our team in Tokyo in person and our partners as well. But thankfully we did finally visit them last month after two years. So that’s great.

Some of my fans, they’ve expressed concerns about supporting the film due to political controversy between the United States and Saudi Arabia. And I was wondering if there is a statement you’d like to provide for those who may be on the fence or unsure about going to see the film.

OULDDADDAH: I see, what I want to say is that we at Manga Production, we are a production company. Our purpose is basically to inspire the heroes of tomorrow by developing animations, comics, and video games. And, you know, just like we’re inspired in our childhood by these beautiful works that we watched, that we played, that we read, we hope also to showcase our history, our culture in the Arabian peninsula, and to share it with the world, to bring people together and also to inspire them. So what we want is to continue to do this and we are not part of any political discussion.

I was curious how the collaboration to train Saudi designers and programmers through Japan’s Digital Hollywood University alliance with MiSK has worked out or what did that look like, if you were a part of it?

OULDDADDAH: Manga Productions is always working on developing talents, developing the Saudi youth, and equipping them with the skillset that they need to pursue professional careers in animation, comics, and video games, especially because we don’t have schools that teach those things yet. So thankfully our animation training courses with Digital Hollywood were very fruitful. As were the previous programs we did with Toei, Square Enix, Sony, and Kadokawa and out of those programs, we did hire talents to actually work on The Journey and on other projects that we have with experts in the field. A lot of the talents also found other job opportunities outside Manga Productions. We think this is a very essential step for us to support the youth talents, making sure that we’re not only just, you know, working on projects, but that we’re also building a market and an actual industry. And honestly, them finding opportunities, nothing makes us happier.

As one of the first female animation managers in Saudi Arabia, what has your journey been from a female point of view? Did you have any hurdles getting into this position?

OULDDADDAH: So, I specifically come from more an art background. I’m an artist, mangaka, and I’ve been working with GCON, the female community for game developers, artists and gamers, and also a lot of mentorship programs, initiatives for young talents for over 10 years. I worked on helping females develop their skills and find their place and voice in the field because there were not a lot of them in there. [I wanted to] create, you know, one place for them so they can get together and communicate together.. So this I think has led me to the current position as well, and I do come from a technical management background. So it kind of helped me understand how to create a system, in establishing some sort of efficient working system.

When I first came into Manga Production, I was working on the art direction. After that, my role gradually expanded to include production management. And I’m very thankful for our CEO Dr. Essam Bukhary and our management for their support for the females, because they have trusted me. They have believed in me that I could lead the animation and manga department. Now I’ve been doing this for the last three years. I’m also happy to announce that over – I think 68% – of our creative team are very talented females. I’m very happy about that.

That’s great to hear. That’s better than a lot of industries in general. So what is next for you after The Journey? Do you already have another project you’re starting on at Manga Productions that you can maybe share a little bit about?

I would say we have a lot of cooking in the kitchen. We do have a lot of projects, one of them being the second season of Future’s Folktales.

[It’s an] animated series about a Saudi family and…this is more of a slice of life [series] whenever they have an issue in their life, their grandma would tell them a folktale from the past that would transfer them to that time. And each episode has a different folktale, different art style, and is set in a different part of Saudi and the Arabian peninsula. It’s really great to just show, you know, the diversity of the culture and just generally introducing people to that through fun tales.

And at the same time, we also have another project which is about visualizing the history of Saudi Arabia. So our history is very rich, but has never been visualized yet or illustrated through art. So this will be the very first time. It will be a comic project where…the characters [are] actually visualized and taken from a text form, you know, in the books to something people can actually see and resonate with. So I am very excited to share more information about that as we develop it further.

The Journey film streamed on Crunchyroll in Spring 2022

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