Peter Gould

Heart of Design ConversationS

The Art of Acceptance

Heart of Design ConversationS

The Art of Acceptance

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews FX artist Mariam Hamed

Anyone who has Disney, Blizzard Entertainment, and Dreamworks Animation on their CV clearly has talent in abundance, but where does spirituality figure amid the demands of the elite film and gaming worlds? I spoke with Mariam Hamed to find out how intention and acceptance have helped her to navigate the early years of her creative career, and bring contentment and purpose to her professional life

For many creatives, working on an award-winning, critically-acclaimed, commercially successful animated movie is the ultimate professional dream; seeing the fruits of your skill, imagination and hard work on the big screen, watched by millions around the world.

For others, that dream might be joining one of the most successful studios in video game history, working your magic on some of the most played, most iconic titles of all time, alongside legends of the industry.

Mariam Hamed has done both. Currently at Dreamworks Animation, and formerly of gaming behemoth Blizzard Entertainment, and before that Disney, Mariam has started her young career at some of the most recognisable entertainment companies out there; working as an FX artist and animator on projects that instantly showcase the level of talent she brings to the table.

At Disney, she created effects for Encanto, which was released at the tail end of 2021 and went on to win a string of prestigious awards, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Golden Globe for Best Animated Motion Picture, and – notably for Mariam – being a part of the team that earned four trophies at the Visual Effects Society Awards, as well as many, many others.

Her responsibilities for the film included modifying the setup and simulation for the memorable ‘door magic’, as well as the ‘fantasy stairs’, magical flower growth, and many other aspects of the animation.

Moving to Blizzard in October last year, Mariam has created stylised and realistic effects for the company’s cinematic team, modelling for games such as World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. And most recently she has joined Dreamworks as an FX artist, with no doubt many exciting projects ahead of her.

It’s an incredible resume, especially for someone who is early in her professional career, so I was excited to speak with Mariam about what ignited her passion for creativity, and how faith, tradition, and culture is shaping her future aspirations.

Taking the leap

“I never thought in a million years that I’d be working in the industry,” said Mariam when we spoke while she was still at Disney, before her moves to Blizzard and Dreamworks.

“I’ve always loved to watch movies, especially with my family, but I actually went to college to study interior design. I love design – I love the artistic nature of it, love to draw, and create. But then Avatar came out and it changed everything.

“In my head it wasn’t a job you could do. That world and that goal was so far away – it wasn’t something that regular people do for work.”

“I watched the making of Avatar, and that was a turning point for me. Before that I thought that people who actually create movies might not be regular humans, you know? In my head it wasn’t a job you could do. That world and that goal was so far away – it wasn’t something that regular people do for work.

“So even though I really loved interior design, and creating through that, my attention turned, and I searched how to become one of those people. And so I switched my major and started out with 3D modelling, and then developed a passion for effects.”

Despite some initial resistance from her family, and her interior design teacher (who asked “do you really think you’re going to join Disney just because you switched your major?”), Mariam was determined to follow this new path.

“Doing that was a leap,” she admitted. “I didn’t know whether I would succeed or fail, but I knew that if I didn’t take that step, I would regret it.

“My parents came round to the idea. Initially they tried to change my mind, but I told them this is what I love. So they left me to go for it, and I think it paid out for them. They trust me now to make good decisions, I think!”

Part of her parents’ concern was rooted in their perception of the entertainment business. Mariam explained that they were worried she’d “join the bad side of the industry where there are drugs and alcohol”.

Despite her experiences being “completely different to that”, this is a concern that many Muslims have about an industry that has not always had a great reputation for considering the values and ethics of Muslims – perhaps highlighted by their lack of authentic representation on-screen.

In her 2018 report, Haqq and Hollywood, Dr Maytha Alhassen writes that Hollywood has a “decades-long habit of characterizing members of the Muslim community as The Terrorist, The Lech, or oppressed figures in need of saving,” and that “the Muslim community's representation on big and small screens has been driven primarily by Orientalism, anti-Blackness, anti-Muslim racism, patriarchy, and imperialism”.

The tide has started to turn in recent years, highlighted by the likes of the Riz Test – named after award-winning actor and activist Riz Ahmed whose speech to the UK Parliament about diversity on screen prompted the establishment of a test for the representation of Muslims in the media. The test assigns films and TV shows a pass or fail based on their depiction of Muslim characters, with the aim of raising awareness and encouraging better representation.

And while there is clearly some work still to do on this front, it does feel like things are changing, with more values-based video games on offer, and more genuine attempts to include and authentically portray Muslims on-screen. But in order for this to truly change, Muslims need to be part of the solution – working on the inside to make a difference.

Creative industries can be a breeding ground for beauty, for positive ideas, and striving for ‘better’. And in my experience, it seems there are more Muslim voices within the industry – more of a Muslim presence which is leading to more of an understanding, and – hopefully – more representative, positive, and values-based projects seeing the light of day.

I did wonder, however, whether any difficult moments had come up for Mariam in the first few years of her career; times when she had been asked to work on something she was uncomfortable with

“Thankfully not,” she said.

“One of the projects I worked on previously was Love, Death and Robots [for Axis Studios]. It was the Tall Grass episode, which was really good, but I was glad I didn’t have to work on other episodes of that series because some of the scenes in them were a big no-no.

“As a Muslim, I don’t want to work on haram scenes, or scenes that don’t go well with my beliefs, and thankfully I haven’t had to. But if I was asked to, I’d like to think my supervisors would be understanding and not assign me those projects.

“I really feel like you have to set rules and boundaries. Not because people are against Islam, but some people just don’t understand how important some things are for us.”

“I really feel like you have to set rules and boundaries. Not because people are against Islam, but some people just don’t understand how important some things are for us.”

Contentment in every eventuality

As we talked, it was clear there is something very intentional about the way Mariam approaches her work; not only in knowing when and where to draw lines in the sand, but also in the way she uses her faculties, appreciates the challenges of her job, and experiences a sense of awe in the world around her.

“I really love the process of research and development – finding solutions to problems, solving for how to create effects. When you create something, and then it doesn’t work, you have to find another way to do it, and I love that process. It’s a lot of fun.

“As an artist, I really enjoy beauty. I like to look at how beautiful our surroundings are, and the fine details in certain things”

“And then as an artist, I really enjoy beauty. I like to look at how beautiful our surroundings are, and the fine details in certain things. I’ve been trained to do that in my work, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and it really helps you to feel close to God.

“I’ve started doing some painting in nature because it’s something that God created, and is so beautiful to reflect on and say SubhanAllah. To look at the sky, look at the sun, look at a beautiful sunset and just say some dhikr – this is really amazing.”

It’s that level of contentment, conscientiousness and gratitude that has helped her to accept any eventuality that might emerge during her career. Even if it means not attaining something she had set her sights on.

“Even when I applied to Disney, I prayed Istikhara (in Islam, the ‘prayer of seeking counsel’) and made dua, and was ready for whichever outcome,” she explained.

“If I really want to do something, I’ll make dua and just say ‘if this is good for me, let it come to me. And if it’s not good for me, keep it away from me’. And that faith in God, that he’ll remove anything that’s bad for me, is really. comforting. And if something doesn’t come up, I’ll move on and be ok with that. I can overcome it and keep going with something else.

“It’s the same at work. If something I’ve worked on doesn’t make the final move, then I would trust my superiors that it’s the right decision for the film and the story, and trust that it’s God’s will. So I would say Alhamdulillah and move on.”

This acceptance is at the heart of the spiritual principles of Rida, which can be translated as ‘perfect contentment with God's will or decree’. Reaching this level of patience, trust, humility, gratitude and contentment – no matter the situation, or whether the outcome is as you had hoped –  is no small feat. Especially in our professional lives, where we can feel so much pressure to hit targets, achieve commercial success, or build a certain reputation.

To truly live with Rida is surely very liberating; eliminating the need to rage against a decision, or stubbornly force a particular outcome that you believe is essential to your progress. Both of which can be exhausting – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

There’s a verse in the Qur’an that sums it up perfectly: “.. And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know”.

Telling stories

Having contentment in every outcome does not, however, mean that you should not have aspirations for the future. And Mariam has plenty of those.

“I always liked to write stories, so hopefully I will be able to do that more in the future,” she said.

“I want to show people our culture and us as Muslims. The movie I just worked on, Encanto, is set in Colombia, and you can see their culture, how they’re interacting with each other, what they’re like as a family and as a people. That’s something I really want to do in the future – create something that will get us more connected to people around the world.

“I have lots of friends, but there’s a gap in knowledge – a gap between my culture and theirs. I’m from Egypt, and when people hear that, a lot of them think of camels and pyramids, and that’s it. They think we live in the middle of the desert,  which of course just isn’t the reality. I’d just like to close the gap – create something for them to see us as people: how we interact with each other, how Islam provides us with guidance about how to treat others, and things like that.”

With her experience at Disney, and now at Blizzard, she’s certainly got the tools to reach this goal, and having seen and heard her enthusiasm first-hand, I truly believe that she has the character to do all this and more.

But as she explained when I asked her about her advice for young creatives, there’s also a gritty, determined side that needs to come through.

“In terms of advice, I always tell people ‘you can do it’. If I can do it, you can do it. I was in their place at one point, so nothing is impossible. You just have to persist and work hard, and eventually you’ll see results.

“It’s ok to get scared, as long as you don’t let that stop you. You need to use that feeling to keep going and really pursue what you love to treat others.”

“During my own process, I developed as an artist, but there were lots of times when I was scared, and questioned what I was doing. Is the hard work going to show? What if I fail? I doubted myself. many times, and still do now sometimes. But it’s ok to get scared, as long as you don’t let that stop you. You need to use that feeling to keep going and really pursue what you love. And if you really love it, you’ll work harder than anyone else

“When it’s something like that, it doesn’t really feel like a ‘job’. You don’t wake up and think ‘oh God, I need to go to work’. No, you wake up and you enjoy it – you look forward to the day, even if there are challenges. And that’s a real blessing.”

As we ended our call and parted ways, I felt a genuine sense of gratitude for being able to speak with Mariam. Not only is she working at companies that many would consider the pinnacle of their industries, but she’s doing it on her terms, and setting a beautiful example as a result.

Setting intentions and boundaries, dreaming big, and having acceptance of whatever comes your way can be unbearably hard in a professional context, with so many demands, pressures and expectations weighing heavily on your shoulders. But Mariam is a welcome reminder that spiritual fortitude and professional success need not be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they can work hand in hand in positive and inspiring ways.