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The Animation Journey of Hanna Abi-Hanna

The Academy alumnus, former instructor and Annie Award winner is a talented role model

Hanna stage 3

Hanna Abi-Hanna giving a speech at this year’s Annie Awards. Photo by David Rocco Facchini.

Academy of Art University School of Animation & Visual Effects alumnus and former instructor Hanna Abi-Hanna won an Annie Award earlier this year for his work as lead animator on Studio MDHR’s smash hit video game Cuphead, which also won the Annie Special Achievement Award. In 2017, critics and fans across the board have praised Cuphead for its difficult boss fight gameplay and unique 1930s cartoon animation style.

While this is Abi-Hanna’s first Annie win, his journey in the world of creative industry has been a long one. In Lebanon, he drew and sketched vigorously from childhood before receiving a B.F.A. in graphic design. He moved to San Francisco in 2004 to pursue the Academy’s traditional animation program.

“It was an interesting time, because it was after all the studios stopped doing traditional animation. Disney had shut their department. Dreamworks did the same,” said Abi-Hanna. “I was excited to learn everything I was doing but everyone was telling me to learn 3-D animation, but I never really took the time. I graduated into this weird space, but it pushed me to get a lot of experience in areas I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I did a lot of After Effects and Flash, then later Toon Boom Harmony. I had to be resourceful.”

After graduating, Abi-Hanna returned to the Academy as a part-time instructor from 2010 to 2016. During this time, Cuphead producers, Studio MDHR, found an old reel of his on Vimeo and hired him as a lead animator. Abi-Hanna eventually contracted two of his former students as assistants on Cuphead, both of which later became full-time animators on the project.

“Hanna is a very patient teacher. He gave me a lot of great advice on how to push certain shots, how to make some better for time. Thinking smart, not hard and so forth. When I finished taking his thesis review course, I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again,” said Joseph Coleman, one of Abi-Hanna’s former students. “He called me and asked me to help on Cuphead and I didn’t hesitate. I was a lab tech at the Powell building and he set up an animation station for me at his house. I would work at his house then go to the lab tech position at the Academy. Then after a few months the owners of Studio MDHR asked me to come on board. Again, I didn’t hesitate. He may not know this, but he has been a mentor to me.”

Danielle Johnson, a student of Abi-Hanna’s and classmate to Coleman, shared a similar story. “Hanna was the very first animation teacher that I had. He’s responsible for teaching me almost everything I know about animation. I applied for a listing he posted and got a call a couple weeks later,” said Danielle Johnson, another former student. “I was doing freelance stuff for Github before, but I’ve never worked in games or the animation industry before Cuphead. I worked in his house with him and his wife, we’d spend all week working together. It was almost like we were family. I was so pumped when he won the Annie.”

After party - Hanna

Academy of Art University School of Animation & Visual Effects alumnus Hanna Abi-Hanna. Photo by David Rocco Facchini.

While recently parting ways with Studio MDHR to pursue film animation, Abi-Hanna expressed gratitude for his serendipitous involvement in the project.

Cuphead did something that wasn’t really done before in a world where feature quality 2-D animation is becoming more and more rare. It was hand-drawn which is sort of a dream for a traditional animator and they were animating on ones,” he said. “It brought me back to hand drawn animation on paper. I had my 2-D animation setup untouched for a while.”