Please tell us about your background. What made you fall in love with cinema? How did you become interested in filmmaking and what did you work on before making Kenya's Symphony?
I have been an artist all of my life; from an early age I was drawing cartoon characters and the things in the world that intrigued me (mostly trains and sharks). When I would draw, I could easily picture scenes playing out in my head just like a movie. I feel that what eventually led me to the world of film is the inevitable merging of my loves for art and music coming together in my formative years. I would draw with Hollywood film scores playing non-stop in my headphones to feed my inspiration, thanks to my art teacher, Nikki Kutansky who introduced me to the world of orchestral music at a young age.
My favorite film growing up was Jaws, which is a masterpiece of cinema for countless reasons. For a soundtrack lover, storyteller, and shark “finatic”, it’s the perfect film to have made me into a lover of filmmaking! Over time, I began to realize that storytelling through art was my dream job.
Before Kenya, I had done storyboards for live-action short films at Columbia College Chicago, but only worked on much smaller animated pieces; I animated some micro-shorts in middle school and in college, along with experimenting with animation software such as Adobe Flash (Animate), Poser 3D, and TVPaint. I designed characters and created simple comic strip pages that filled numerous sketchbooks that I still own to this day.
Which filmmakers influenced you and your filmmaking? Which films, especially animations, have affected you the most?
As I mentioned earlier, Jaws was the film that captured my imagination in the world of film, but I also grew up a Disney kid like so many of us animators. Lilo and Stitch, directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois was the film that gave me confirmation that animating was my end goal. What a unique and inspirational piece of work! The film was created on a smaller budget with a phenomenal team of creatives with the most fresh and original art direction of any Disney films from that era. It also showed me that budgets are not deal-breakers when you’ve got a unique idea to play with and a great team of creatives.
UPA (United Productions of America) animation also has had a tremendous amount of influence on my work, which can be seen in the art direction of Kenya’s Symphony. I have always been a fan of animation that takes a chance at the unorthodox. I feel that animation leaves the door open for experimentation when it comes to technique since everything must be created rather than recorded with a video camera. UPA films are uniquely abstract and draw inspiration from 20th Century artists like Henri Matisse and Picasso. UPA Animation’s 1951 short film, Rooty Toot Toot by John Hubley was one of many films that I watched numerous times to be inspired in pre-production for Kenya.
I also define film composers as filmmakers; although I only have a handful of specific directors and films that I can confirm affected me directly with their work (there are tons of second-hand influences from watching cartoons and animated films at a young age), I have a plethora of film composers that continue to shape me not only as a creative, but as a person. Alan Silvestri influenced me first with his score for Back to the Future, followed by Lilo and Stitch and the dozens of works that fill his catalog of film scores. John Powell, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Danny Elfman, and so many more composers showed me the power of music, or the absence thereof, in film. I appreciated the medium of cinema so much more when I began collecting soundtracks in middle school. Every day I use music to help me on my filmmaking journey.
What are the themes/issues you try to reflect in your films? What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of an animation?
In my filmmaking career thus far, I have directed Kenya’s Symphony, and produced another short film titled Buster & Jamson, which is currently finishing up post-production. Although these films are vastly different in thematic material and design, I would love to take on more marginalized topics, as I did with Kenya. I am currently looking for the next story I would like to tell, and I will most likely find it in a topic that I have not seen a film about yet. My stories come down to the very basic principle of characters learning to accept the differences between themselves and the outside world. I feel that those kinds of stories create valuable and relatable takeaways long after viewing.
The most important quality in animation in my eyes is a clear story; as long as you are telling your story in the most understandable fashion, looks usually don’t matter. You don’t necessarily get to see as much experimentation in big-budget feature animation as you do in the short film circuit, so the most unique looking films oftentimes are made by indie filmmakers. Without the resources to produce Hollywood-quality films, animators have to get creative to tell their stories in a shorter amount of time and with what they have at their disposal. The great indie animator, Don Hertzfeldt, uses stick figure characters to tell his stories. And you hear people tell artists all the time “all I can draw is a stick figure”; well then, by all means, tell your story with stick figures!
A good eye for animation directing comes down to composition and clear character motivations. If a film looks like it took months of work and dozens of animators to complete, but the “camera” is focused on everything except key story elements, the film is failing to perform. I’d rather see an action film where I remember seeing the hero forced to make clearly difficult decisions for two hours instead of simply remembering the body count of henchmen they KO’d in fight scenes. Actions speak louder than words, but filmmakers must always remember to highlight the emotion before the antics.
Where did the idea for the film come from? How long did it take to complete it?
Kenya’s Symphony is inspired by a real-life experience I encountered at work. During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as an usher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was a dream-come-true for me, as this allowed me to be close to the music that I love and listen to regularly. However, what I didn’t realize is that the etiquette during a symphony concert is extremely strict and can get you into trouble if you don’t follow the rules of the house.
One night, a mother came in with her young daughter and sat right in front of my post near the back door of the auditorium. I was shocked because this little girl had to be no more than 5-years-old, and the symphony hall recommends no guests under 8-years-old for their regular concerts (and for obvious reasons). As the music began, I watched this girl’s interest nosedive to zero very quickly, and she began disturbing her mother in a desperate plea for attention. It was so interesting to me to see how someone of that age would react when forced to listen to classical music for 2 hours straight in a room full of old people. This concert happened around the same time that my Animation film class was to begin, and I knew that I wanted to create a film about music. This was the perfect premise for my piece! The film took a year and a half to complete from pre-production to picture wrap.
I view the community surrounding the symphony to be shrinking with each generation due to the current repertoire performed by many modern orchestras. Quite frankly it can scare new people away! This film was an opportunity for me to incept the younger generation with a fun, lively animation about what a magical experience it can be if you give the symphony a shot. I also wanted to tell this story from a uniquely Black perspective by having the protagonist of the story be a five-year-old black girl. My best foot forward was to give the audience a reason to relate to Kenya; she doesn’t want to be there, and many would certainly share that viewpoint! By going through the hero’s journey, her eyes are opened to the genre, and hopefully the viewers’ are as well.
Please tell us about the production and your experiences of making Kenya's Symphony. What are some of the challenges and difficulties (technical or otherwise) you faced?
Completing this film was one of the most grueling projects I have ever taken on, which is surprising due to the whimsical nature of this film! My lovely professor, Jim Rohn, recommended to my class to create a film that was roughly 2 minutes or less; I felt that in order to tell Kenya’s story the right way, I needed a four minute long film. Each week, the runtime remained, and both Jim and I were sweaty and nervous that this film would not be completed during my time at Columbia College Chicago. For a year and a half, my days and nights were devoted to the creation of this film when I wasn’t in class or working my part-time job at Dinkel’s Bakery.
The length of the project was an issue, but also keeping a consistent art direction was key in ensuring that the film was not a mess. I mentioned earlier that UPA Animation was one of my inspirations for the art style; this was a stylistic choice, along with a time-saving choice on my behalf to constrict my initial ambition of over-animating certain scenes. I feared that animating in my usual style for the entire film would doom my completion date, so I studied the work of the ex-Disney artists working at UPA Animation to see how they “artfully” cut corners and creating a visually unique art style for their films. I animated Kenya & her mother in my own art style, while the environment and background characters took on a UPA look, which created a disconnect between Kenya and the world around her. That is, until she has her epiphany moment and then becomes a UPA character herself, taking on the art style that was once unfamiliar to her.
Although I animated a majority of the film, there were some moments that I knew simply wouldn’t get done unless I enlisted the help of some friends. In the credits are many of my talented peers at Columbia College Chicago who helped me in areas that I wasn’t able to pick up during production, such as Hannah Meyers who designed the logo for the film, Sean Carter, Jey Woyner, Micha Rogers, Paul Kritikos, Frank Porcello, Helen Grimes, & Cassidy Romero who helped with animating some shots. Lilian Bermas was wonderful when it came time for backgrounds; she created a few backgrounds that I knew would be a nightmare for myself to complete. We had sound designers for the soundtrack who aided in filling in the gaps where dialogue was absent and music was busy setting the scene. Emilee Brackenbury led the team on sound and was a treat to work with. You can check out the end credits to see many of those that also helped to bring this project together; it was lightning in a bottle to oversee this project.
Your animation has a great musical score, and I understand that it was composed and recorded specifically for the film. Please tell us about your decision to have such a grand orchestral score for the animation. How long did the recording session(s) take?
Music was the stage of production that I was almost more excited about than the animation. When deciding how to approach getting music made for the film, I knew early on that I would need to get Michael Van Bodegom Smith on board as soon as pre-production began. We had met by accident the year before I began working on Kenya at a networking saloon for upcoming film projects at Columbia. I told him that I wanted to work with him on a project, and I would get back to him once I knew what that project was exactly. Once I had a storyboard completed for the first cut of the film, we sat down for a spotting session and watched the entire film together. He was able to see through my poorly-rendered storyboards and connect with the story almost immediately! I could tell that Michael was the perfect guy for this kind of project, one that would adapt to the very unorthodox approach to scoring this film.
Initially we wanted to record the score with an entire orchestra on a soundstage to get the most authentic sound for the film; this idea was quickly shot down when we realized we were still broke college students. The score for Kenya’s Symphony was recorded all in Michael’s apartment at the time, downstairs in his small garden-level bedroom. I was fascinated to watch him work. Instead of recording an entire orchestra, he hired soloists to come in one-by-one to record and overdub their parts numerous times to get the sound of each section of the orchestra. For example, Seoyoen Min, the principle cellist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, recorded all of the cello parts, and this was later mixed to sound like a group of cellos playing at the same time. Michael did this with every instrument he wrote for in the score (except for trumpet, which he recorded himself!), and this gave us the sound of a 60-piece chamber orchestra. The sessions took a couple of months to record if my memory serves correctly, but the music production took over a year to complete. We had no budget, but Michael and I invested over a grand for the music with our own money to make it happen.
Michael’s score tells the story with the utmost attention to detail. The music begins with a more classical approach as the concert commences. Kenya’s antics raise the stakes as she begins blowing spitballs into the crowd and creates chaos! By the time her straw is empty of spitballs and full of music notes, the soundscape transforms into what is essentially a newer, modern piece of music that Kenya can enjoy! Michael understood the goal of the music from the start, but being around during pre-production helped him to connect more with the characters and story, which can make a world of a difference in film scoring.
Normally music is written and recorded in post-production, but Michael and I were in a constant head-to-head race to the finish line to finish animation while music was being revised and recorded. It was a spectacle, and a challenging balancing act, but the final mix certainly gives off the illusion of what we were aiming for.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with small budgets? Does it liberate the filmmaker or limit his or her freedom?
The freedom that independent filmmaking allows is unparalleled in the sense that you can make any creative decisions that you please. As I mentioned earlier, experimentation really lends itself to indie filmmaking for that reason. When you are not worried about studio mandates, the control you possess allows for the creation of some frankly genius shorts and features. I believe that indie is the way to go in many situations; if the last two decades of Hollywood films have taught us anything, money does not always guarantee a blockbuster hit.
But see, that’s just it! Throwing a large amount of money at a production can sometimes make a filmmaker’s mouth water to the point that some of the creativity is lost; because they are able to get whatever they need with a magic budget, there’s a big chance that the charm is lost due to the glamor of crazy VFX, a star-studded cast, and the licensed rights to a wildly-popular song playing in all of the ads & trailers.
The only downsides that I see with indie filmmaking ironically are also money-related. Sometimes you don’t have access to large-scale distribution or marketing in order to get your film seen. Marketing and distribution do require lots of capital, so some really fantastic films will not see the light of day for a long time, if at all. Also, many times getting the budget to create your film can take months or even years to build up in order to get started with shooting even one scene, which can discourage some filmmakers from even starting on a project. I’d say both have pros and cons, but I have come to really appreciate indie filmmaking as an option when you need to get up and do it yourself.
Tell us about your festival run. Have film festivals provided you with the experience and exposure you needed?
Kenya’s Symphony has gotten into over one-hundred film festivals worldwide, and that is incredible to me. I wasn’t even planning on submitting this film to festivals until my professor and friend, Julian Grant, recommended the festival circuit to all of us. I reluctantly submitted to a few film festivals, and surprisingly got into most of them! That’s when I went ahead and traveled full-speed into the ecosystem with some amazing results.
The film festival circuit is much different than I would have ever expected. The opportunity that I have had to network with fellow filmmakers has helped me to stay connected to the animation industry and see what others are cooking up these days. I was even asked to be on the jury for a film festival last year after screening my film with them, and that was a blast! Being able to do Q&A’s like these is also very rewarding because it allows me to speak about a project that was so near and dear to me for well over a year. It’s a tough commitment to complete a film, but it is all worth it once you get the outlet to share it with the world. I will certainly be submitting to more festivals once I have another film ready to go.
What was the reaction of those who watched your film? Was the feedback what you hoped for?
What a surprise it was for me to see people’s reaction to this film! My heart was racing when I screened the film for the first time at Columbia College Chicago. As the end credits began to roll, the whole auditorium applauded and it was the most wonderful feeling. Ironically, this film has been in many film festivals, but only a handful of in-person screenings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the COVID restrictions in place, I have been able to read lots of kind comments regarding the film, and it warms my heart that people can relate to the relationship between Kenya and her mother. People have told me that they think about how their parents used to bring them to stage shows and concerts when they were young, or that they bring their kids to entertainment now that they are parents themselves. Audiences love the charm and sassiness of Kenya, and the choice to not give anyone dialogue. The music captures people’s attention and they wonder how we did it on a college budget. The responses have been all over the board and I am thrilled to read them all.
I created this project in order to complete a personal goal for myself, not so much to make an award-winning short film out of it. The feedback gives me all the confidence I need to accept this as a success story. It can be difficult to share your passion projects with the world, but I’m glad I did.
Please tell us about your future project(s). What are you working on?
Up next for me is adapting Kenya’s Symphony into a children’s book. As of recently, I have switched gears and would like to tackle this story in another medium to a brand new audience. My goal is to have it ready by the end of 2022.
Buster & Jamson will soon be completed this spring and this will allow me to dive back into the festival realm. Also, I would like to create some smaller-scale shorts/animation bumpers to experiment with new animation mediums in the meantime. Trust me, I will be staying hungry and active this year! I’ve got a lot of animation to do, so you will hear from me again.