Meet Danny Arafa, 21 | Published Author, Illustrator, Film Essayist, and Founding Editor of Scene Eats, Among Other Things

By: Ali Sakr

I’m a strong believer that there’s a lot more to a person than their achievements. However, I also believe that it’s more often than not that behind great achievements are even greater stories to be told, and lessons to be learned. This is pretty much the main reason I was so keen on having a chat with Danny Arafa, a man who, having just finished majoring in Media Studies at UBC, has accomplished some incredible – and very diverse – things. From founding @sceneeats with MO4 Network, to writing and illustrating a children’s book, he’s still consistently creating amazing content, shooting short films, reviewing books, creating film essays, and analyzing Egyptian ads.

Amidst our conversation, we managed to talk about passions and interests, studying abroad, art and creativity, Egyptian advertising – and a lot more. 

So, you’re a man of many interests. When it comes to the projects you’ve worked on, they all cover really diverse topics, ranging from advertising to food as well as film and illustrating – how do you manage all your interests without feeling like you’re spreading yourself too thin?

“I feel like it’s kind of difficult to get tired of something if you enjoy doing it. Personally, I’m a bit of an introvert, so like I don’t really enjoy sports that much or for example clubbing and other kinds of activities that are traditionally fun. But, I do enjoy working on projects, working with other people, collaborating, all that stuff. So I feel like since I genuinely enjoy it and I’m excited by it, I don’t get too tired. 

Sometimes I do have the issue of spreading myself too thin where I feel like I have too many projects to juggle, and it’s important to know that it’s okay to put something down for some time and get back to it later. It’s better than trying to juggle everything then having everything fall.”

You mentioned that you like working with people and collaborating, but I’ve also heard of how you’re sort of known as a “one man show” – often writing, directing, filming and editing your own work. Do you have a particular preference when it comes to working alone/with a team or does it mainly depend on the project itself?

“One issue that I know I have is that sometimes I can be a bit stubborn. I think the problem is I often have a very clear vision of what I want to achieve, and I also often have the capacity to do all the little things myself, including writing, editing, etc. So when I’m working with someone, I know exactly what I want – so when they do it, it could be good, but sometimes when it’s not what you have in mind it feels a bit off. This is why my favorite kinds of collaborations are when we’re creating something different, for example when I work with a different creator who has their own unique style, to create this kind of fusion of both of our styles. That’s what I enjoy.

One thing I also really like about collaborating is synergy. So how when you work on it together, you get a product that’s more than a sum of its parts.”

Illustration by Danny Arafa

Did anything specifically influence your art style, or did it just kind of come to you with time?

“One current obvious inspiration to my art style is Dr Seuss. I really enjoy the Physics of his world, the characters. It has a certain vibe to it that I really enjoy – I like working with the rules of his world. But before that I used to do a lot of water color. That is partially inspired by an artist called Furry Little Peach, but also by cartoons like Adventure Time, Steven Universe and Regular Show. They had that whimsical feel to them, where it was kind of fun but relaxed at the same time.”

You can find some of Danny’s earlier work below when he used to work with water colors quite often, alongside some of Furry Little Peach’s. 

Did you have a passion for art when you were little too or was it a more recent interest you discovered?

“One of the main reasons I started painting was I had a friend called Aimee who did watercolor, and I really liked her art, so that was one of the reasons I started watercoloring – I wanted to see what I could come up with.

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, but it was never really a major thing for me – just enjoyed doing it every now and then. I only started pursuing it more in the last few years of highschool, when I was doing IB. I remember I bought this water color set from Samir & Ali for like 15 pounds – the one for kids – and I got printer paper, and I did like 20 or 30 paintings in 2 days. It was just really random stuff and I remember enjoying it a lot.

Fun fact too: throughout all of my watercolor paintings, I never used anything more advanced than a kids’ set, and printer paper.”

screenshot from Danny’s film essay on Diamond Dust

So, a part of your interest in media and your decision to major in media studies was related to the Egyptian advertising scene. Did anything in particular make it stand out for you or was it just curiosity which led to like, more research and eventually that decision?

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything in particular, it’s just I have always found Egyptian ads quite interesting – I don’t know if I can think of a better word. What I really liked about that was that it was kind of a mixture of creativity and psychology – it wasn’t pure art. There was a method behind it if that makes sense, it has a purpose behind the creativity.

So like when I saw ads abroad, there are nice ads of course, but a lot of the time they feel very clean and sterile and corporate, whereas in Egypt they kind of feel genuine which is a lot more effective.”

Danny Arafa with Wally, Amy, and Timmy Mowafi, 3/4 Co-founders of MO4 Network during the launch party of Scene Eats

So you mentioned that in advertising there’s a method behind the creativity. Do you think maybe this kind of a concept helps eliminate certain problems you can face such as artist or writer’s block or maybe make getting past them easier?

“I honestly don’t like to refer to myself as an artist. I don’t know if you noticed but most of the time I just say Illustrator, because with artists I feel like there are certain connotations that come with that word that I don’t necessarily associate myself with. So to me creativity isn’t just coming up with something new for the sake of coming up with something new. Drawing or music or writing is not inherently creative, I feel like you’ve got to make interesting connections between things to come up with something new with a purpose.

So personally I haven’t really experienced writer’s block or artist’s block. I just kind of wait for an idea to pop up and I work on it rather than having to sit down. I feel like the fact that I work on different things kind of helps with that so I can do an illustration, then some photography then a recipe then some writing then a video. So I guess the fact that I have a diversified set of options to work on really helps with the blocks.”

This one is mainly because I’m just really curious, but is there a story behind The Egg ?

“We were going to color eggs, so I thought maybe I can film them being colored and thought of the best way to do so, and then I just remembered this effect I’d seen in commercials for pens before. At the end it turned out looking much better than I’d expected.

That’s actually one of the most frustrating things, though, like that video I literally came up with 5 minutes before, and it took like 30 minutes to edit everything, and then other videos I’d work on for weeks and they’d get half as much attention as this, so that’s kind of a weird thing. I think it really points to the importance of working smarter not harder.”

Danny’s illustration on a picture taken by food blogger Eman Naguib

What do you consider your biggest achievement?

“Well in terms of personal achievements, I think becoming more socially confident is an interesting one. As a kid I was very introverted and quite shy, I didn’t really like reaching out and talking to people very often so I feel like that was something I really worked on developing.”

Spending a few of your school years at NCBIS, you were probably exposed to a lot of diverse cultures growing up – how was it like growing up in that kind of environment? And did it maybe make the transition of moving to Canada a bit easier?

“It was definitely interesting studying around students from different cultures. Regarding whether it made it easier studying abroad, I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true. I have a lot of friends that studied at schools with mostly Egyptian students, and they seem to be doing pretty well abroad as well, so I don’t think that affects you that much in that regard.

I feel like schools in Egypt are sort of like a business where everyone is trying to pick the best school, and stuff, but honestly, I feel like one of the most important things is actually a student’s drive to learn and make best use of the resources around them rather than the school, especially since nowadays you have so many resources available online.”

What is a lesson you learned from your experience studying at UBC that affected you on a personal level?

“It’s hard to know if I learnt anything in particular but one thing that I realised both by living abroad and then living by myself – which kind of came together – is that a lot of our personalities are determined or very strongly affected by the environment in which we live. Being in Egypt with all my family and friends and the things I was used to – I felt like a particular person. But then being abroad and not having any of that I felt like a very different person. So yeah your environment I feel affects you more than you would like to think.”

And would you recommend sceptical teens to take the chance and seriously consider studying abroad?

“I feel like that would really come down to the individual and what they want to study. Like some particular degrees are offered at a higher quality abroad while others are available at a good quality in Egypt. As for the experience of living abroad I feel like what you learn is also because of living alone – you become more independent, you have to buy your own food, cook your own food, wash your clothes and all your stuff, etc. so that’s probably one of the favorite things I’d learnt.

I don’t like the idea that if you travel abroad then it’s necessarily a higher quality of learning – that could be true in some cases, but in a lot of cases you could study in Egypt and do great, and there are a lot of examples of that.”

On a slightly lighter note, what’s something “childish” that you still like to do? And what’s a pet peeve you have?

“In terms of “childish” I don’t know if this counts but maybe the way I eat. I’m actually like a very picky eater and my diet looks like that of a 5 year-old. So, I still eat the way I used to when I was younger. A pet peeve is I guess if someone is too close in personal space, or if you can hear them breathing or chewing louder than usual, that kind of annoys me.

I guess another potentially childish thing is that I still enjoy watching cartoons and sometimes I read books aimed at a younger audience like Goosebumps – I still read those when I come across them.

Also, I think one thing from childhood that I think I’d like to try to bring back is how children just don’t really care what’s going on around them – they just do what they want. So if they’re walking in public and they want to sit, they’ll just sit on the ground. I feel like that would be a nice skill to have as an adult. 

I was reading a book called The Four-hour Work Week and it had like a confidence exercise in it where you stop in the middle of wherever you’re walking and you just sleep on the floor for 10 seconds then just get up and continue walking. So yeah, that would be an interesting skill to reclaim from childhood.”

What advice would you give someone who has plenty of creative ideas but is unsure how to begin to bring them into the real world, or how to develop their creative skills?

“My advice would be that this is actually the perfect opportunity to learn how to do something. So a lot of the time if I want to do something on Final Cut or Photoshop or if I want to draw something or write something and I’m not sure how to approach it, I just look it up online and there are thousands of amazing tutorials on there. And then once you learn how to do that skill, it’s with you – you can use it later on. And as you work on projects you build your skillset and it just gets easier and easier.”

We’re all constantly kind of fed the idea that you need to have a specific passion in order to be successful. Do you have any advice for someone who might feel like they still haven’t found that one thing that’s for them?

“I personally disagree with that mindset or line of belief. If you have a specific interest, that’s great. I know a lot of people who have specific interests like cooking or drawing, or anything and it’s great – there’s nothing wrong with that. But you don’t need to have a specific passion. Like personally, I’m just a curious person. I like creating things and sharing them with people. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily passionate about drawing or writing or making videos. Those are just kind of a way to achieve what I want to do, which is create interesting things to share with people.

I feel like this idea of needing to find a passion is this modern mindset like having a passion is a “magical thing,” but it’s not – it’s just a way to learn or pass the time. If your passion is your family or your job or just running or reading or watching movies – I feel like that’s fine. You don’t necessarily need to have a cast of interests to focus on.

One thing I could say is that I kind of approach it in the opposite sense – I don’t like being labelled as a particular thing. I don’t want to be an artist or a foodie or whatever, because I feel like that kind of boxes you into a specific thing. And again, if you like to do that, that’s perfectly fine, but personally, for me, I don’t enjoy that.”

Do you have any plans/big projects in the near future related to maybe Scene Eats, or writing a new book?

“In terms of upcoming projects, one thing that I can definitely tell you about is that I have a new children’s book coming up. And I think I’ll just leave it at that for now. I am also working on a few other things, but they’re not at an advanced enough stage to talk about now.”

So I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned, because I’m personally really excited to see what Danny brings with his new children’s book.

And lastly, are you thinking of taking up any new skill sets/hobbies in the near future?

“For skills I want to learn, one thing I’ve wanted to do for a while is learn how to use after effects, but it’s like this really big thing by itself so it’s been a bit daunting, but I’m trying to approach that.”

And with that, this lovely conversation comes to an end. Danny has managed to work on all of these incredibly diverse projects, refusing any particular label in order to have the freedom of choosing what to create with no prior expectations. To share with everyone what he creates, with the pure intention of piquing people’s interest, and creating an ever so slightly more colorful world. Whether it’s colored by water colors or poetry, the end result is a world I much prefer to the one lacking the thoughts and ideas he has to offer.

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