SAM NASSOUR
ImagineFX|Christmas 2020
The Syrian artist tells Gary Evans why it’s important to learn the art rules, then break those rules and find your own voice

Sam Nassour always wanted to work in animation, but Syria didn’t have any good animation schools, so he studied architecture. Sam learned the rules of perspective and the principles of universal design – he liked how architecture combined the laws of science and the basics of art.

As a student, Sam worked in a graphic design studio, and the studio owner taught him Photoshop. Sam learned the dos and don’ts of creating advertising graphics on a computer before he actually owned a computer. His studies took him to Rome, where architecture played by different rules, had different principles, a city in which architecture really felt inseparable from art.

Sam continued working on his own character designs and story ideas, but was no closer finding work in animation. He got his big chance in the United Arab Emirates: opportunity finally came knocking… and it found the artist in his beach shorts.

Sam is speaking to us from Finland. Earlier this year, he joined Rovio Entertainment, the Finnish company behind Angry Birds. He was in London before this, and Dubai before that. It’s been an eventful career, in which Sam seems to have diligently learned the rules of his various artistic pursuits, just so he can break them.

SAM’S FIRST CRITICAL VOICE

Sam’s dad had been an art critic. So, growing up, Sam received a lot of good, constructive advice on how to improve his doodles. It was seeing The Lion King (1994) that him hooked on animation. Sam was into animals, but not for the usual reasons kid are into animals. He was interested in the challenge posed by the huge variety of shapes and colours: “I remember getting frustrated after failing to draw a tiger I saw in a magazine, so I got one of those blue carbon sheets that my mum used for sewing dresses, and traced the tiger onto it. It felt nice being able to capture something I liked in my own way.”

Sam grew up in Latakia in Syria (“which was a much different and better place to live back then”). Early on, he developed an artist’s curiosity for the world around him, felt the need to draw everything, draw everywhere. He drew on paper, and he drew on the walls of the house: “I’m lucky to have very supportive parents who nurtured my interest in drawing.” Darkwing Duck was his favourite animated series, then he got into Asterix. He liked “exaggerated character designs.” Albert Uderzo, Asterix’s illustrator, seemed to push what was possible with the rules of shape, but did it with careful, skillful lines: “I didn’t want to copy that style, but learn from it,” Says Sam. “I felt naturally gravitated towards simplifying shapes and designs. The right level of appeal, the importance of drawing with flow and gesture, straights versus curves: those drawing principles started to make sense.”

CARTOON NETWORK

Sam broke all the rules of professional etiquette to get his big break in animation. He’d decided to move – without a job – to Dubai, one of the most expensive cities in the world. He was at the beach with friends and saw a comic con taking place nearby. He went alone. Cartoon Network had a booth there – it had opened a studio in the United Arab Emirates and needed artists. Sam really wanted to talk to them, but didn’t have his portfolio, so he approached the booth in his shorts, took out his phone, and swiped through pictures of his art posted on Facebook. By his own admission, it wasn’t the best way to apply for a job. But the art itself made a good impression. Sam went home and sent a “more professional email,” and things went from there.

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