Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is by Disney Animation Studios. (Supplied)
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Updated 16 April 2021

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
  • Louaye Moulayess on why ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is his most personal project yet

DUBAI: Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess was born and raised in a divided nation. With Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon,” his latest major project, he had the chance to tell the story of a fictional land not unlike his own, and to lay out a path forward for how it may be united again.

“When I saw the screening of the film, I realized what the movie is about: It's about trust and what we can do if people come together. Coming from the Middle East, I really like that,” Moulayess tells Arab News. “You see all these different lands inspired from countless places, and basically you see them individually. But if they are so beautiful individually, what can they do if they come together?

Louaye Moulayess is a Lebanese animator. (Supplied)

“That message resonates a lot with me coming from Lebanon, as all this especially applies to Lebanon,” he continues. “I was really proud to be part of something that just tells that story. I like that message. I know It sounds simple, but if we can just show this to kids and families, for me, that would make me happy.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, is set in the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, which is not based on the Middle East, but Southeast Asia. In this fantasy version of that region, humans and dragons once lived in harmony, before mistrust and political division tore the kingdom apart, causing the dragons to disappear and chaos to ensue. The film follows a princess named Raya who sets off on an adventure to unite the kingdom and bridge the gaps between the various warring factions.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is Moulayess’s latest major project. (Supplied)

Moulayess wants people in the Middle East watching the movie to apply the film’s message of togetherness and collaboration not only to politics, however, but to all aspects of life.

“It applies especially to Lebanon, but I don’t want just that. Yes, you can apply this politically, but you can also apply this to your (apartment) complex, you know what I mean? It can be global, but you can also apply it to your circle of friends. This is the appeal for me. It doesn't have to be political. It doesn't have to be big,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess himself started small — growing up primarily in the Lebanese village of Elissar. From a young age, sitting on the couch with his brothers and sisters, Moulayess fell in love with Disney movies, and saw their ability to convey a powerful message. He knew, even back then, that was what he wanted to do with his life.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada. (Supplied)

“I felt something good. I'm like, ‘I want to be part of this.’ That was the first step. The problem was, I didn't see anybody do art (among) my family and friends. So I started doing computer science. And since there was starting to be computer animation, I said, ‘Maybe I can do something with the computer.’ I did computer science for a year. Didn't work. I didn't like it. It wasn't for me, basically,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess started researching, trying to figure out how he could get from his small village on the Western edge of the Mediterranean to the halls of Disney or Pixar on the other side of the world.

One day, he stumbled upon someone who could possibly help him, an animator at Pixar in San Francisco. Overcoming his nervousness, he decided to send him a message out of the blue.

Moulayess worked on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2.” (Supplied)

“I was around 16 or 17. I emailed him and said, ‘Listen, I'm from Lebanon, this is the situation: I want to do animation. Can you help me?’ He was very kind, he replied right away. He told me, ‘Since you don't have a portfolio, try to go to this animation school in San Francisco. It’s expensive, so you’re going to have to have a job on the side.’ He just gave me a lot of good advice. And it's because of him that I made the decision to go to that school specifically,” says Moulayess.

When he’d completed his studies, he managed to land an internship at the place he had been dreaming of: Pixar.

“And guess who my mentor was? It was that animator. I said, ‘Hey, I want to show you something.’ I showed him the email I sent him when I was 16. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I'm here because of you.’ And it was honestly a great moment. It was like everything had aligned to have him as my mentor.”

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. (Supplied)

Moulayess went from working on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios, working on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2” before taking on “Raya and the Last Dragon.” At Disney, Moulayess is not only able to add his own voice to the legacy of the greatest animation studio in history, he’s also able to thrive precisely because of his background and perspective.

“I'm very proud to be here because of the diversity that they try to push every single day,” he says. “They understand that diversity will bring more to the table. I grew up in Lebanon, and I saw movies that maybe somebody else didn't see or shows that somebody else didn't see, I read books, I saw Arabic calligraphy, I saw my culture, and I have stories to tell that my gym teacher used to tell me from the village where he grew up. I mean, who else has that stuff?

Moulayess worked on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios. (Supplied)

“At the studio, the chief creatives understand it's in their best interest to bring diversity because it means more stories, more personality. I think studios around the world are starting to understand this as well,” he continues.

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which he considers his most personal project among the 15 films he has so far worked on, he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. In fact, one of the most memorable bit characters in the film was entirely Moulayess’ creation.

“I'm gonna give you my process,” he says. “Basically, I get asked to do shots. And for fun ones, I like to shoot references of myself in the room. I put a tripod, and I just act out the performance as much as I can. I'm a terrible actor, but I try to hit the beats that I want to hit. There’s one character holding flowers who has a very comedic moment in the film. I feel it's me, I put myself in this character. I shot the references. The directors, Don and Carlos, were laughing for, say, two to three minutes. That made me happy. They said, ‘Do exactly that.’ So I animated him exactly to my reference video. I feel that it's me in the screen.”

Moulayess smiles. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m incredibly lucky.”

Lebanese short film ‘Warsha’ premieres at Sundance Festival

Lebanese short film ‘Warsha’ premieres at Sundance Festival
Updated 24 January 2022

Lebanese short film ‘Warsha’ premieres at Sundance Festival

Lebanese short film ‘Warsha’ premieres at Sundance Festival

DUBAI:  “Warsha,” a short film written and directed by Lebanese filmmaker Dania Bdeir, had its global premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

The 15-minute-long film, which tells the story of a Syrian crane operator in Beirut named Mohamed (played by Lebanese singer Khamsa), is part of the annual festival’s online program until Jan. 30.

The film will be screened physically at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, which runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5, before it is set to make its Middle Eastern premiere later this year.

“Warsha” was also selected for the 2022 International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’

 ‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’
The film is now streaming on Netflix. Supplied
Updated 24 January 2022

‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’

 ‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’
  • The first Arabic-language Netflix original movie has been a huge success both regionally and internationally thanks to stellar performances from the cast and its first-time director

DUBAI: It’s been a long time since an Arabic-language film has dominated conversation across the Arab world quite like “Perfect Strangers” currently is. The first original Arabic-language Netflix film — an adaptation of the award-winning Italian original of the same name — has been trending across the region since its launch on January 20, inspiring both overwhelming praise for its stellar performances and fierce debate over the questions it poses. 

“Perfect Strangers” was helmed by Lebanese director Wissam Smayra and features several of the region’s most-acclaimed actors, including Egypt’s Mona Zaki and Eyad Nassar alongside Lebanon’s Georges Khabbaz, Diamand Bou Abboud, Nadine Labaki, Adel Karam, and Fouad Yammine.

“Perfect Strangers” features several of the region’s most-acclaimed actors. Supplied

Set during a dinner party held by a group of Egyptian and Lebanese friends, the film revolves around a game in which each person puts their mobile phone on the table, exposing to the rest every call or message that they receive. What starts off as light fun quickly descends into dramatic chaos as painful truths come to light. 

The film has already stirred controversy on social media with some Twitter users accusing the movie of “moral degradation” and “putting Western ideas in a conservative society.”

Much of the anger has originated in Egypt, according to the Hollywood Reporter, with one example being Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz who claimed that the movie is a “plot to disrupt Arab society.”

“The film touches on taboos, but it’s not about the taboos,” Zaki, the biggest star in Egyptian cinema, tells Arab News. “The main idea is about the privacy we hide in our phones, how we keep secrets from everyone around us, and how — for so many of us — even those who we are closest to know nothing about us.”

Bou Abboud defines the point of the film further: “It’s about exploring the exact limit to which we can reveal ourselves to the closest people around us and not be judged.” 

“We tackle each topic without (judgment),” adds Smayra. “We’re not trying to prove anything. We are just going into reality and focusing on the human interactions it inspires.” 

The film is a landmark in more ways than one, an eminently accessible mainstream drama that has immediately found a global audience, trending at the top of Netflix in countries including France and proving that Arab film is reaching a turning point both in terms of quality and widespread popularity, regionally and internationally. 

Helmed by Lebanese director Wissam Smayra, the film revolves around a game in which each person puts their mobile phone on the table, exposing to the rest every call or message that they receive. Supplied

“Respect (for Arab film) is starting to really grow. And this is a milestone, I think,” says Labaki, the Oscar-nominated director of “Capernaum.” 

To achieve the naturalistic style of “Perfect Strangers,” Smayra approached the film much like a piece of theater, rehearsing the script from start to finish with his actors for weeks on end, and filming the entire project chronologically rather than out of order, as is the norm for most films.

During filming, Smayra and the cast would meet every day out of costume and without make up, running through that day’s 10-minute scene 20 to 30 times in a row for hours until it became second nature, before filming the scene that night.  

“This is when you know that you have amazing actors,” says Smayra. “It wasn’t normal — these were crazy, insane geniuses. I was witnessing something magic.

“We worked with two cameras. Each day, we would start shooting for three or four hours until it was done,” he continues. “It was insane. Afterwards I could see they were all drained.” 

“And that was even though we were all just sitting around a table!” says Zaki. “It was an emotional drain.”

Nadine Labaki and Georges Khabbaz on set. Supplied

“It was easy for me, though,” adds co-star Karam, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated film “The Insult,” with a smile. 

Part of the reason for most of the cast’s constant exhaustion was that, unlike most films, there were no breaks for the actors. Because of the multiple handheld cameras and the nature of the story, the troupe could never drop out of character.

“The way it was shot was very important. You had to be present the whole time — even if it's not your moment, even if you know you're not going to be talking for a while,” says Labaki. “We were present not only as characters but as ourselves, watching the performance of somebody else that is so real that you really feel you're in it, you really identify, and you start thinking about your own situation. It was really fascinating.”

Smayra, who, like Labaki, got his start directing music videos in Lebanon in the early 2000s, has worked with Labaki in the past, executive producing “Capernaum.” Though it was his first feature-length film, he was a soft-spoken but assured presence, and never leaned on his fellow director in the cast as others have. 

“I never felt I was working with a first-time director,” says Labaki. “I felt from the start that this was going to be great; I was in good hands. Because of that, my only concern became doing the best I can for the character, and for everybody else, because you feel like everybody's performing on such a high level. I felt like I needed to be up to the expectations, and up to the standard they were all setting. I really loved this whole adventure.” 

“Perfect Strangers” is an adaptation of the award-winning Italian original of the same name. Supplied

For Egyptian star Nassar, what was truly remarkable is how nothing was lost in translation, and all the power he felt in the moment remains on the screen in the final cut.

“I told Wissam, ‘You are a magician.’ As an actor, I knew the subtleties I had introduced while filming and I knew the best moments of the other actors,” he says. “Watching it, there are no missing moments. All the actors’ power was there, nothing lost in the editing. He was seeing everything. I’ve never seen that done so well.”

And Nassar says that, to his surprise, he left the set a changed performer. “After I finished ‘Perfect Strangers’ and got back to Egypt, I had a different style of acting,” he says. “Working with actors such as Georges Khabbaz allowed me to see other schools of acting.” 

Khabbaz, Lebanon’s most renowned stage actor, found the film uniquely challenging, though he ends up being the film’s quiet and soulful anchor and has received an outpouring of praise online for his performance.

“I am a man of the stage,” Khabbaz explains. “The stage has vast space, which allows you to express using all tools.  This role was different. It was difficult. To do it, I had to keep my emotions closer to my chest, and show them only in reactions. I tried to do this role as an Eastern man but maintaining the Western concept of the movie. For this performance, I became a man of reaction, not a man of action.”

The film is trending at the top of Netflix in countries including France. Supplied

While some of the discussion around the film has focused on why Arab cinema is producing remakes rather than crafting original stories, each cast member made sure that “Perfect Strangers” responded to that concern with gusto, crafting a true piece of art that stands as the best version of the concept — one possessed with a uniquely Arab spirit — rather than a lazy cash-in. 

“Throughout the filming, my inner question was: ‘Why are we making this movie?’ We constantly discussed how we could present this material as Eastern people for an Eastern audience,” says Nassar. “The answer lay in how the dilemma the film poses affects Eastern people uniquely. We ended up discovering during the whole filming process why we were doing the Arabic version of this movie. In the end, it was very clear to all of us, and it will be to audiences, as well.”

Rihanna shows off Amina Muaddi heels in New York

Rihanna has collaborated with Amina Muaddi in the past. (File/Getty Images)
Rihanna has collaborated with Amina Muaddi in the past. (File/Getty Images)
Updated 24 January 2022

Rihanna shows off Amina Muaddi heels in New York

Rihanna has collaborated with Amina Muaddi in the past. (File/Getty Images)

DUBAI: No one has an affinity for Amina Muaddi shoes quite like Rihanna.

The singer-turned-designer has an unparalleled collection of heels by the Jordanian-Romanian designer, which have become her go-to choice of footwear whether she is attending lavish red carpet events, fundraising galas, taking an off-duty stroll or stepping out to dinner with her reported beau A$AP Rocky.

(Getty Images)

The Fenty Beauty founder was spotted out on a chilly January night in New York City while heading to dinner at a SoHo restaurant with the rapper, born Rakim Mayers. For the occasion, the superstar put her best foot forward, wearing crystal-wrap Amina Muaddi sandals that she paired with a red Balenciaga puffer coat worn over an oversized jersey. She accessorized the look with a pair of leather ski gloves by Miu Miu, structural diamond earrings and a black baseball cap with an embroidered “R” from R13.

One thing Rihanna and A$AP Rocky seem to have in common is their penchant for the part-Jordanian footwear designer’s creations.

The artists have both collaborated with the designer in the recent past.

In 2020, the Paris-based designer teamed up with the rapper’s creative agency AWGE on a four-piece collection of flared pumps and lace-up heels.

The collection marked A$AP Rocky’s first foray into women’s footwear and was Muaddi’s first collaboration for her own brand, though she also released a limited-edition footwear capsule collection with Rihanna’s Fenty label that same year.

The collaboration was honored as Collaborator of the Year at the 34th edition of the FN Achievement Awards.

Following the sell-out success of the first collection, Barbados-born Rihanna enlisted Muaddi to design yet another collection for Fenty.

According to an interview with British Vogue, Rihanna came by Muaddi’s shoes after her longtime stylist Jahleel Weaver introduced her to early prototypes.

But then she bought a few pairs herself via her personal shopper. She’s such a nice person. She sent me some Fenty clothes when she launched her own label – I feel amazing when I’m wearing them. There’s that swagger, you feel like you are channeling Rihanna,” Muaddi stated.


Review: Netflix’s ‘The House’ shows that home is where the art is

‘The House’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
‘The House’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)
Updated 24 January 2022

Review: Netflix’s ‘The House’ shows that home is where the art is

‘The House’ is now streaming on Netflix. (Supplied)

LONDON: Netflix is going big on adult animation. Not only has the streaming giant built its own studio in Los Angeles, but it continues to partner with some of the biggest names in the business –its first animated anthology film, “The House,” sees Netflix link up with London’s Nexus Studios to tell a trio of stop-motion stories centered around the mysterious titular house.

In the first, a family makes a Faustian deal with a creepy architect — he will build them a wonderful home if they agree to leave their old house and their belongings behind. As the allure of the creepy building overwhelms the mother and father, only their eldest daughter seems suspicious, investigating the sprawling house in search of clues about their mysterious benefactor.

The second relocates the story to a more modern setting, in which a beleaguered developer (voiced by a charming Jarvis Cocker) struggles to complete the renovation of the same building. The anthropomorphized rat must land a buyer before the bank comes calling, but an interested couple could spell more trouble than the house is worth.

In the final chapter, landlord Rosa (a cat, this time) struggles to keep on top of maintenance, while her rent-shy tenants make plans to flee rising flood waters that edge ever-closer to the house’s front door.

Sure, the three stories feel a bit uneven – the first a gothic nightmare, the second a modern creep-fest, the third a dystopian surrealist study – and the thread that binds them all together, the house itself, shifts from a malevolent entity to an inanimate object and (eventually) a savior figure in a bewildering, meandering arc that is a little hard to decipher. But “The House” remains a stop-motion masterpiece. Even if the stories are unbalanced, and the tone ever shifting, this anthology is a rare, beautiful showcase of animation at its most beguiling and captivating.

Nora Attal stars in summer campaign for Weekend Max Mara

Nora Attal stars in summer campaign for Weekend Max Mara
The 21-year-old stars in the Weekend Max Mara Spring 2022 campaign. Instagram
Updated 23 January 2022

Nora Attal stars in summer campaign for Weekend Max Mara

Nora Attal stars in summer campaign for Weekend Max Mara

DUBAI: British-Moroccan model Nora Attal is starring in a new campaign for Weekend Max Mara, the sister brand of Max Mara’s mainline collections.

Lensed by Eddie Wrey, Attal features in a video and campaign images set along a rocky stretch of coast in Capo Malfatano, Italy.

The 21-year-old catwalk star features in the stunning video advertorial wearing key pieces from the label’s Spring 2022 collection.

She can be seen wearing a beige knit sweater with yarn tassels worn with matching cream-colored trousers paired with loafers and the brand’s Pasticcino bag.

In the 15-second-long clip, Attal can also be seen wearing a belted trench coat, a flowy shirt dress cinched at the waist with a belt and a matching pinstriped trousers and jacket combination.

According to the brand, the Spring 2022 advertising campaign “portrays the protagonist in the summer wardrobe you have always wished for.”

The collection boasts a wide range of summer-ready styles from reinvented classics and summer-ready essentials to cashmere sweaters emblazoned with butterflies and cotton trousers. Tweed miniskirts, leather pouches and linen blouses are among the other items that jostle for attention in the label’s new collection.

The model has been keeping quite busy. She recently appeared in the holiday campaign for German label Boss, alongside Australian actor Chris Hemsworth.

Attal has forged a position as one of the most in-demand models in the world at the moment — currently ranks her as one of the top 50 models worldwide.

Based in London and singed to Viva Model Management, Attal has walked for renowned fashion houses such as Prada, Fendi, Dior, Chanel and Versace, to name a few, in addition to appearing in the pages of publications such as Vogue magazine.

Born to Moroccan parents in the UK, the model was first discovered by Jonathan Anderson, founder of the J.W. Anderson label, and shot a campaign for the British fashion house in 2014, before making her runway debut three years later.

Attal is among the growing list of Arab models breaking ground in the industry, including Italian-Moroccan Malika El-Maslouhi, part-Palestinian sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid, Moroccan-Egyptian Imaan Hammam and French-Algerian Loli Bahia, to name a few.