School of Animation’s Studio X Work on Oscar-Nominated 'Theeb'

The class gained valuable special effects experience contributing to the Best Foreign Language Film contender

For Academy of Ar tUniversity students in instructor Catherine Tate’s Studio X (400A) Fall 2014 class, this year’s Oscar nominations were extra exciting. The class worked on special effects for the Jordanian movie Theeb, an Academy Award contender for Best Foreign Language film.

Directed by Naji Abu Nawar, Theeb is a coming-of-age drama about two orphaned Bedouin brothers living in the Arabian Desert during World War I. The film features a cast made up largely of Bedouins with no previous acting experience.

Jumanah Shaheen, who graduated from the Academy in May 2015 with a B.F.A. in visual effects and animation production, was the student producer for the project. Shaheen is from Saudi Arabia, so getting to work on a movie that took place close to her home country and with characters who spoke her language was especially meaningful for her. She was surprised and happy, but not shocked, when she found out that Theeb earned an Oscar nomination.

“It’s an amazing movie,” Shaheen explained. “It was beautifully shot on 16mm film. The team worked really hard on Theeb and pushed for it to get into all the right film festivals to qualify for an Oscar.”

The 400A class was responsible for making color corrections to the film, removing things that didn’t belong in a particular shot and other special effects tasks that ensured each frame looked as believable as possible. As producer, Shaheen worked closely with Tate, who served as visual effects supervisor, and Zhe Chong, the student visual effects lead for the project. She was also the primary link between the 400A team and the Theeb crew, communicating frequently with producer Rupert Lloyd.


Official U.S. poster for Theeb.

“I was responsible for getting the plates from my supervisor, assigning them to different artists to create the necessary visual effects,” said Shaheen. “I’d follow up on their progress with Zhe and relay any notes back to the artists. After reviewing their work with Catherine and Zhe, I’d send the footage to Lloyd for feedback to make sure we were focusing on what he wanted to see in each shot.”

Lloyd had nothing but praise for the work Sheehan and Chong did for the film. “[Jumanah] was friendly, hard-working, thorough and efficient. I always felt at ease asking for changes and was never made to feel like a pain for asking,” said Lloyd. “As a client, you need to know the person you are working with wants to get it right, to push themselves, you want to feel like they care as much as you do—even if they don’t—and that is how I felt with Jumanah and Zhe, the team that I had personal contact with. They were tireless!”


Theeb student producer Jumanah Shaheen. Courtesy of Jumanah Shaheen.

One of the most difficult aspects of Sheehan’s job was dealing with the huge time difference between San Francisco and London and Jordan where Lloyd was based while trying to convey feedback to the artists as quickly as possible. In addition, she and the other students sometimes found it hard to juggle their class schedules while maintaining a professional relationship with the Theeb crew.

“That was challenging, but it was also one of the best things about the project because it taught us how to balance our personal lives while still delivering to clients,” remarked Shaheen.

Along with the thrill of being involved with an Oscar nominated film, Shaheen said being part of such a talented and enthusiastic team was also rewarding. “I think this was the most motivated team I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “Everyone was very professional, on time with their work and excited. It didn’t feel like a student project. It was a real working experience. Everyone wanted to do their best and learn as much as possible.”

Shaheen is now applying some of that knowledge, along with other skills she gained at the Academy, in her new job as a bidding coordinator at Method Studios in Los Angeles. She appreciated the Academy’s emphasis on not only helping artists hone their talent, but also helping them implement it into their working lives and get paid what they deserve.

“Before I chose the Academy, I visited other art schools, like the Art Institute of California,” Shaheen said. “They were great, but it felt like the Academy focused more on setting up students with careers.” She added that the Academy’s grading system is tougher than some of the other schools she checked out, a difference she found motivating. “At the Academy, you don’t get an A unless you’re at the professional level. It was difficult, but also very encouraging.”

Shaheen is looking forward to watching the Academy Awards on TV. Although most of her former 400A classmates are still in San Francisco, she hopes to organize a gathering with a few who are in Los Angeles so they can watch the show together and cheer on Theeb.