Sarah Chalek, Co-director “Outdoors”

An interview with international student and MoPA graduate Sarah Chalek, co-director of the 2017 graduation film Outdoors

My name’s Sarah Chalek, I’m from New York, I came to MoPA in the third year and I just graduated.

How did you find out about MoPA?

I found out about MoPA through a co-worker in New York. Someone who had just graduated from MoPA came to work at the studio I was at and we became friends. He was one of the directors on [the MoPA film] A la française. When I saw his film, it inspired me to go back to school and learn 3D.

What did you do next?

I tried to save as much money as I could while I was working in NY. I moved back with my parents to save extra money, my grandma helped me a little- a lot actually- and I got a scholarship through ASIFA Hollywood (link to, it’s an organization in the US for animators and they give international scholarships for students around the world. All you need is to write an essay and get an ASIFA member to recommend you. So- my advice would be to get to know an ASIFA member!

Why did you choose to study overseas?

I studied illustration at Syracuse University in NY and it was great, but schools there are really expensive. My parents helped me with undergrad but they said I was on my own for graduate school. In the USA the schools are like $50 000 a year. Here in France the schools are very affordable. When I found out about MoPA, and then the price, I thought that was something definitely feasible for me.

How was the language issue?

Before I decided to apply to the school I didn’t speak any French. My ex-MoPA friend in New York…I’d told him coming to MoPA was a pipedream for me. But he told me “Just learn French, it’s really easy!” so that kind of planted the idea in my head and I started learning French. It’s not actually that difficult, it just takes a bit of time.

What was it like when you first arrived?

It’s funny because I remember coming here first for the entrance exam and I wasn’t sure exactly where to go. I came here to the school but the exam was in a different building and nobody was here. I found just the IT guy; and he was nice enough to drive me over to where I needed to be. But from then everything went really smoothly (laughs]!

What about accommodation?

When I first arrived my roommates were great, they met me at the train station. They helped me a lot with French, too. In the beginning I wasn’t planning on having roommates because I being a little older than the other students, I thought I should probably find myself a place alone. I didn’t have a French bank account at the time, and in that situation it’s much better to share and sublet. I contacted the school and asked if they could help. They were really great, they sent a message out to all the students and that’s how I found my roommates.

How about following CG training in French? Was it difficult?

No, actually the lessons in French weren’t too difficult because the teachers are so good, and speak very clearly. When I first arrived here I found it difficult to follow conversations with friends because everybody talks fast and it’s tough to follow a social conversation. But in class there’s just one person speaking, well-organised and clearly, and I never had any real big problems following the classes.

What’s the South of France like?

It’s great! It’s sunny all the time! Le pays du soleil! It’s beautiful, with a lot of history. I really love Van Gogh so just walking through the streets here and you see all the locations that van Gogh painted, it’s just really inspiring.

What’s the social life like at school?

Since it’s a small school everyone is really tight-knit. When there’s a school party the whole school is invited. It was nice my first year, I tried to go to all the social events, trying to speak french and meet friends. Everyone was really welcoming.

What was it like working on your final film, in those last two advanced training years?

In the fourth year we started pitching ideas for the films and we weren’t actually working in groups yet. Everyone was pitching ideas individually, and then the professors choose eight ideas to make into our thesis [graduation] films. that year was stressful because I wasn’t so concerned about my idea being chosen, in the end it was, and that was great, but I was more stressed about making groups and working in a team. But it all worked out in the end, everyone in my class is super nice anyway and there wasn’t a lot of drama.

In the 5th year we only work on our graduation films, all the time [laughs]!. We had teaching staff who came to help us if we had technical questions. The developer of the Guerilla render software came to help us and showed us how to write custom scripts.

We had a bunch of animation teachers that were always here, all the time, to give critiques and improve our animation. We had a couple of workshops for more technical things like crowd simulation and it was nice to have teachers here if we needed them, but most of the time we were so busy working that we just needed time to do our work.

How about learning to be autonomous, in a working team?

At my previous school in NY I studied illustration and that was very autonomous also. We were given a project and we’d go home and work on it and most of the work is done on our own.

In the 5th year at MoPA that’s what we do in groups; when we have a question we ask other people in our class and usually one of my classmates, someone in the group can help me. A lot of the time you learn a lot yourself, alone while you’re working. I like that a lot. I think with any artistic career most of the improvement you’ll make just comes through practice and you just need to time to do your work and practice and you’ll get better that way.

YYou had a lot of recruiters, Annecy…the screening at the théâtre Antique in front of 2000 people… How was that?

Annecy was great, we met with dozens of professionals and everybody was really enthusiastic about our films and it was great making contacts. We had the screening and a day of recruitment here in Arles too. It’s so nice that professionals are interested in our graduation films. I made a lot of contacts, and a lot of things have opened up for my future.

And in the future?

My long term goal is to work on feature films, lighting, or texturing, compositing, for a future animation studio. I’m looking forward to it.