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Spotlight: Christen Smith, Mild West Animator and LAMP Facilitator - The LAMP

Spotlight: Christen Smith, Mild West Animator and LAMP Facilitator

By September 11, 2014 News No Comments
Christen Smith

Animator/LAMP educator Christen Smith

First, a little about your background with The LAMP. How did you come to teach with us, and what have been some of your standout teaching experiences?

I first heard about The LAMP quite randomly: earlier this year in January, someone on Facebook told me The LAMP was looking for program facilitators, and I was interested because I have always enjoyed working with children and students, since I was a teenager. But teaching with The LAMP offered an amazing twist on all my previous teaching experiences: not only does it combine my passions of filmmaking + investing in students and their communities, but it centers around a theme I explore a lot as both a consumer and creator of media, which is engaging critically with the messages in our media landscape while crafting thoughtful and provocative work in response. So this was an organization I had to be a part of! And I was very excited when they hired me on board.

My favorite experience teaching with The LAMP is guiding the students through a critical viewing of a video and hearing them discuss the contradictions between what they know, what values they hold, and what that video is implicitly saying/selling. It’s exciting to witness the development of our future’s critical thinkers, whether it’s discussing McDonald’s use of celebrity endorsements in their ads with elementary school students, or dissecting the stereotypes of women as portrayed in music videos like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (women as props) and Rihanna’s “Stay” (women as victims) with teenage girls from a leadership school and young women at Rikers Island. In fact, it was no surprise that these bright students from both Rikers and the leadership school had already been reflecting on the distorted images of women in many of their favorite music videos, movies and TV. But, they lacked the context, vocabulary, and forum to protest these messages about them. So it was a great honor for me to provide a sounding board for their discussions and critiques, and they jumped at the chance to express their outrage and talk back to these music videos with The LAMP’s MediaBreaker tool.

How did you come up with the visual concept and narrative for Mild West?

Mild West is an animated project I’m co-producing with my friend and collaborator Thomas Mann. We wanted to work on a vision of our own, instead of always working on someone else’s projects. He’s a writer, I’m an animator, and we’re both visual thinkers. So when he said he had an idea for a story based on a cowboy talking to a cactus in the middle of the desert, I immediately pictured it in my head and started adding to it, and we agreed these characters would be interesting to bring to life over a series of episodes.

When I sat down to start designing the look of our series, I thought about how the desert is usually portrayed in movies and cartoons. Full disclosure: I have never visited the American Southwest, nor any other desert anywhere. But I have watched a lot of cartoons and westerns (and did a lot of Google image searching), and deserts are usually pictured as brown, boring, and dusty. So one of the things I wanted to do with our series was to portray the desert setting in an unexpected way, with as MANY colors as possible. Georgia O’Keefe did that with her desert paintings, especially the more abstract ones. She challenges the viewer’s perception of what a desert is, and feels like, and symbolizes. So I am taking a lot of inspiration from her, and hope to challenge our viewers in a similar way through our background paintings as well as the overall character designs, animation, and story.

From start to finish, what is the process you go through to bring an episode from your imagination to the final video?

Every episode starts off with a script. Thomas, as the writer, pulls his ideas together and forms them into a story. Meanwhile, I am sketching and working on visualizing the world he’s writing about, and deciding what the characters, backgrounds and props look like. Then we record our actors reading his script. This is a huge difference between animation production and live action film/video production. In animation, the dialogue is recorded first, then the artists animate to the dialogue. As they say, animation is acting with your pencil (or stylus, these days).

Once we have the dialogue recorded and edited together, I plan out the action of the characters and camera by drawing storyboards to match the timing of the dialogue. It’s like a listen-along comic-book version of the episode called an animatic. The animatic stage is always exciting because it’s basically the first draft of the episode with voiceover and picture together. After that, it’s time to act out the characters with my stylus: drawing drawing drawing, animating, animating animating, until my arm falls off. (I work on a special computer monitor that allows me to draw directly into animation software like Flash.) Then we’ll add in the background paintings and a few special effects, and after a couple months working nights and weekends, we have a finished episode!

What interests you about working in animation, as opposed to other media?

Animation is the best combination of everything I love: filmmaking, visual art, rhythm and music. I love that animation gives a visual artist an extra tool to communicate with: the dimension of time, as opposed to a painting or an illustration which is only a still image. Similarly, animation gives a filmmaker an extra tool as well, the unique ability to slow down time and deliberately and intentionally create each frame of her film/video. Talk about the potential for implicit messaging! The moving image is a powerful medium, but animation has the ability to transcend the limits of cinematography by showing you what is not photographable. Animating is also a very solitary activity, hunched over my desk  and that suits my contemplative instincts while allowing me to still be part of producing a larger vision with a team, whether it’s on a freelance job or the team I’m putting together for my Mild West project.

Do you find that teaching helps you develop as a writer and animator?

I have definitely found that teaching helps develop my skills as a writer/filmmaker/animator, and vice versa, because to be effective at any of those things, you must know how to communicate with your audience – whether it’s a room full of hyperactive 4th graders, or someone who thinks cowboys talking to plants is funny. It’s one thing to have an idea you want to express, an image you want to share, or a curriculum you want to pass on. But you also have to understand where your audience is at, cognitively, culturally, and how to keep their attention long enough to bring them to the next level. You have to both challenge and guide them. This is my aim as both a filmmaker and a teacher.

What can we expect from the next episodes of Mild West?

In the upcoming episodes we’ll be revealing more of the characters that populate this Mild West border-town, and our cowboy’s grand schemes and dreams as he navigates the ups and downs of daily life and work. Each episode will be better than the last, and we’re excited for you to see them all! Please share, and stay tuned! 🙂

Follow Mild West on Twitter: @mildwestshow