Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"The Family Circle: A Conversation with Claire Keane" by Jocelyne Barchet

Her grandfather, Bil Keane, created the legendary comic strip The Family Circus. Her father, Glen Keane, was named a Disney Legend in 2013 for his contribution through character animation on such films as Beauty & the BeastAladdin and The Little Mermaid. Now, Claire Keane is carrying on the family tradition, not only with her work at the Walt Disney Animation Studios as a Visual Development Artist, conceptualizing for wildly successful films like Tangled and Frozen, but also with her new visually stunning book "Once Upon a Cloud", in stores today! Her new book is described as "a story about finding unexpected inspiration and giving from the heart," exactly how you could summarize Claire's life story, which, by the way, she was kind enough to recently share with me... 

Jocelyne Barchet: Tell me about your early life and what it was like growing up in Southern California- Did you spend much time with your dad at the Disney Studios as a kid?

Claire Keane: I grew up drawing a lot at home. I spent my days drawing princesses. My dad was always very encouraging and supportive of my drawing. I would wait till he came home from work to show him my drawings and ask him to go over the problems I was having with them. He always showed me with one or two lines how to fix whatever was messed up in my drawing- usually an arm or a hand. He made it look so easy.

I went into the studio quite a bit with my dad. One of my earliest memories is kissing the nose of the Mickey-shaped mailbox they had on the main lot. I loved going into work with him. Everyone was always so kind to me. It was fun to see those faces again when I started working there as an adult. Everybody was just as I had remembered them.

JB: What was it like to move to France at the age of sixteen? Was that a difficult transition for you at that age or was it exciting?

: I was so excited to move to Paris. I went to the American School of Paris where everybody was so wonderful and accepting. It was a small school full of expat kids from one country or another who had all been the new person in school many times in their lives and were therefore very open. I made solid friendships there. It was truly a magical way of discovering Paris.

JB: Tell me about your time at art school in Paris- how do you feel the experience helped you develop as an artist? 

CK: I attended the Parsons Paris program the year I left high school. I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. At the end of the first year, looking back at what I was doing, I realized that it was the people under the clothes that interested me most and less the fashion itself. L'Ecole Superieure D'Arts Graphiques was recommended to me to be one of the best art schools in France, with an emphasis on traditional training and anatomy. It also turned out to be a very difficult school, accepting only one-third of the students to go on to the second year. Their teaching method was one of militant strictness. 

The school taught me discipline and through my own struggles with it, I learned my own strength and how much I could actually accomplish. They followed the Bauhaus philosophy of form following function. It was this philosophy that has been very influential over how I work. It is what has helped me through every design problem I've ever been faced with. For example, when working on Rapunzel's murals, I dove deep into the core of who she was before putting form to her paintings on the wall.

Most importantly though, it was at this school that I met my husband and father of my two children, Vincent Rogozyk.
JB: You've said you usually find inspiration in other artists, such as Matisse, Rembrandt, Klimt, Marie Laurencin, and Ronald Searle- What is it about their work that speaks to you? Also, who has caught your eye recently that you'd cite as inspiring?

CK: Matisse for his simplicity of line, color and composition. Rembrandt for the theatricality and mystery in his lighting. Klimt for his beautiful juxtaposition of patterns and human form- also I love all the gold he uses. Marie Laurencin has the ability to make her paintings feel whimsical and magical. Her women are full of grace and so serene and her shapes and colors are in perfect harmony. I love Ronald Searle also because of the storytelling he gets in his sketchy line. His illustrations are poignant and funny. These are also the reasons that I am crazy about Sempe's work.

Lately I have been so enthralled by the other illustrators that my agent Steve Malk represents (he has exquisite taste... 
if I may say so myself!) Among those illustrators, some of my favorites that come to mind are Jon Klassen, Christian Robinson and Carson Ellis. They have a sense of design that is so solid- I just wish I could have a little bit of what they have. Jon's work is always understated and witty, very much like who he is, and Christian's work is colorful and the shapes he chooses are in perfect harmony with the composition and colors he paints. Carson Ellis' illustrations are also understated but full of life and poignant details. She works like a graphic designer, designing her type for much of her work.

JB: What attracted you most to character development? Do you have a process for getting to know who a character really is?

: A character is always implicated in a story somehow. What is interesting to me is figuring out how that character lends itself to the story and why that story has been chosen for that particular character. In real life, we are put in situations that may or may not be what we want but what is fascinating to me is why, in the grand scheme of life, is this happening right now. In real life that question remains mostly unanswered, but in a movie or a book we can answer it and it is so satisfying.

I like to explore the moments that aren't necessarily in the story because it's in the moments when a character is just breathing or sleeping or getting ready for the day that I can personally connect with them- regardless of what type of person he/she is. Once I've gotten "acquainted" with a character through these moments, then I feel like I can try to depict him/her in one of the on-screen moments. Something I have found that helps a lot is just drawing the character in his/her room or kitchen. Just developing what kind of stuff that person would have around them, how they arrange things, their attitude in the most mundane moments of life. It's kind of like Method Acting for visual development.
JB: Looking back, what did you love most about working for Disney, and what did you find most challenging?

CK: I loved working alongside such great artists. Having a team of really good artist friends in the same building everyday. I also really loved collaborating on story with directors and story artists. For someone who is searching for the "why" behind their "what", working closely with the people writing the story I'm designing for is not only fun but it is essential to my work. I always wanted to be more involved than I was.

JB: What inspired the story of your new book, "Once Upon a Cloud"?

CK: I'd just had a baby who never wanted to sleep, so I had been thinking a lot about sleep and the role our dreams play in waking life. I began asking myself, "How could I show her all that is possible when we let ourselves dream?"

The idea for Once Upon A Cloud came to me during my time working on Tangled. I was asked to design Rapunzel's murals and it felt fitting that the paintings around her bed reflect her dreams. In these murals, I painted a few images of Rapunzel floating through a night sky. They called to me and I wanted to know more about where she was going in the sky and what she would end up doing. That’s when this idea of telling a story about a girl meeting the Sun, the Stars and the Moon was planted and I had an "a-ha" moment. However, I didn’t really know where this inspiration was leading to since it wasn't very relevant to the actual story of Tangled. I soon realized these were the beginning inspirations of a picture book.

From these seemingly unconnected inspirations came the desire to pass on this revelation, that all our questions can be answered when we just let go, enjoy the ride and let our dreams guide us.

JB: What was it like tackling your own original project like this, and how much did the creative experience differ from work you've done in the past?

: It was really rewarding creating my own story. I worked very closely with one of my editors, Nancy Concescu, who saw the potential in the story from the beginning. Based on our conversations, she was able to reach into my mind and pull out the best ideas and lay them out on the table for me. She was essential to me getting this project up and running.
JB: Did you pull any inspiration from your grandfather's work on The Family Circus while developing Once Upon a Cloud?

: It's funny that you ask that because, while the book itself does not quite reflect The Family Circus, it is dedicated to my granddad who passed away minutes before I got the news that Penguin wanted to make it- it was such an odd day of deep sorrow and boundless joy. My granddad was always a big supporter of mine and has been a great inspiration to me. I have felt his encouragement throughout this whole process.

JB: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who want to follow in your footsteps?

: Do what you love because that is how you will find what truly makes your life happy and fulfilled- even if the road getting there is bumpy and full of militant art school stuff... follow the path that makes you feel like you, because that is where great things start happening.

Follow Claire on Twitter: @ClaireOnACloud
Like Claire on Facebook
Buy "Once Upon a Cloud"

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Heart... also known as Balto" by Emily Alexander

I have a small, fluffy Maltipoo named Balto. Balto has a rough life (no pun intended... OK, it was a little intended). He is a man-dog disguised as a girly diva puppy. People are constantly saying “Aww, isn’t she adorable?” or “Look at her! How cute?!” And no matter how many times I say, “Why yes, HE is pretty wonderful,” people still insist he is a female... Well, he’s not. 

Balto is all boy. In fact, he thinks he is a lion. He has no idea he is actually a hybrid between two lap dogs (a Maltese and a Poodle.) He rolls around in mud and swims in ponds. He hates bath time and would rather chew my shoes to pieces than play with his stuffed animals. He guards the house when I go to work and protects me while I sleep. He can run circles around this neighborhood without growing tired. He is tenacious, spunky, and strong, despite his outer appearance.

I think the human heart is much like Balto. People often associate the heart with cheesy, lovey-dovey feelings we get when we are rather fond of someone – well, if that’s all we think it’s good for I think we are cheating the heart.

My favorite book series of all time is the Harry Potter (because it’s the best, duh). I always dreamed of what it would be like to put on the Sorting Hat. In a perfect world, I would place it on my head and after a few moments of contemplation the hat would boldly proclaim “Gryffindor!”

I didn’t want to be in Gryffindor because that’s the house Harry, Ron, and Hermione were in - I wanted to be in Gryffindor because of how the Sorting Hat describes it:

You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring nerve and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart.

"Brave at heart" — I fell in love with that phrase the first time I ever read it. I remember thinking, “I want to be brave at heart.” Not the flimsy, fragile heart that we associate with romance and fairy tales – I want to have the strong, sturdy heart that has no fear.

To have heart is to do what you have to do, despite being afraid or unsure. It is to take chances when you can’t see how the story ends - to trust your gut and know that things will be OK. To have heart is to continue onward when it would be easier to quit, to BE courageous even when you don’t feel that way - to fight and persevere. It is to press on.

No, the heart is not a fluffy white Maltipoo only good for cheesy jewelry commercials and unrealistic romantic comedies. It is a fierce lion ready to take on the world and anything that stands in its way. So be brave today – even if you don’t look like a girly puppy on the outside.

Be strong, be courageous, and take heart.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Oversized Heart" by Lana McKissack

Last week I was in my car listening to a piece on NPR about those brilliant underprivileged high school kids who beat M.I.T. students in a robotics competition, and I started uncontrollably sobbing. WHAT. THE. HELL? I felt ridiculous, so I changed the station to one that was playing "All About That Bass" and sang along as I gleefully wiped the tears off of my face. As soon as the song was over, one of those "Helpful Honda" commercials came on. A woman was talking about how her entire family's bicycles had been stolen, and how she couldn't afford to replace them. She said that riding bikes together was the main way she could spend time with her kids since they didn't have a ton of money for extracurricular activities. So, the Helpful Honda Guy told her that Honda was going to replace all four bicycles. Two waterfalls cascaded from my eyes. I finally had to turn off the radio altogether because I just couldn't escape these absurd emotional outbursts. 

What was wrong with me? Why was I incapable of controlling my feelings during news reports and blatantly manipulative car commercials? Was I finally confronting my disappointment over my lack of scientific achievement in high school? Or was I feeling left out because I'd found out the hard way that it really is possible to forget how to ride a bicycle? While I do feel a little sad about both of these things, neither was enough to merit the full-blown breakdown I had just experienced in the Starbucks drive-through line. And then it hit me. There was no underlying issue. I wasn't suppressing any childhood traumas. I'm just sensitive. I always have been.

The thing about being a sensitive individual is that many people (myself included) see emotion as a weakness. Yeah, sure, it's been a handy trick to be able to cry on command in an acting class. People are always so impressed with my ability to connect so deeply with my emotions. But lately I've been feeling like a bit of a fraud. I mean, is it really that impressive to shed a tear or two when you're the type of person whose eyeballs explode while listening to a Honda ad? No, it's not. Because I feel EVERYTHING. I soak EVERYTHING in. And I have zero control over any of it. If I have lunch with a friend who is upset, I too get upset and feel terrible for the rest of the day. If I know that I hurt someone's feelings, I'll think about it FOREVER. Seriously. I still feel awful for getting in a fight with a boy named George Edward Marti in second grade and throwing his retainer in the gutter. He totally deserved it, but let's be honest. That shit is expensive. And his parents probably got really mad at him. And he probably got in a lot of trouble. And he's probably still traumatized about it to this day. And... well, you see what I'm dealing with.

I always hoped I'd grow out of my Excessive Sensitivity Disorder - hey, if Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a thing, ESD gets to be too... although I think I might also have CFS, but that's a story for another day- so I've spent much of my adult life trying to desensitize myself. I figured if I watched Marley and Me enough times, it couldn't possibly upset me anymore. I was wrong.

And so I'm realizing that if trying to squash my emotions isn't working, maybe it's time to appreciate them. Yes, it's pretty embarrassing to cry in public at inopportune moments, but wouldn't it be infinitely worse to find yourself incapable of ever feeling anything? I think so. I suppose it's all just a matter of finding a balance and a healthy perspective. My hope is that one day I'll start seeing this oversized heart of mine less as a weakness, and more as a gift.

Now if you'll excuse me, The Fault In Our Stars is on TV, and those onions aren't going to chop themselves.

Follow Lana on Twitter: @LanaMcKissack

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Follow Your Heart" by Kara Sotakoun

One thing that almost everyone hears at least once in their life is that they need to “follow their heart.” Need to make a big, life changing decision? Follow your heart! Not sure if the person you’re seeing is right for you? Follow your heart! Trying to decide if you want pizza or double the pizza for dinner? Just follow your heart! It’s easy to say, and it might seem easy to do, but actually following what your heart is telling you is one of the hardest things that you can try to do.

In the words of the immortal Selena Gomez (and her team of writers), “The heart wants what it wants.” As trite as that song may be, that basic sentiment is absolutely right. You can’t help but want the things that you want. However, what you truly want, what you crave in the deepest parts of your soul, is the most difficult thing to get. It feels wrong to do what you want to do with little regard for what someone else wants. It feels unnatural and it just isn’t something we’re used to doing. We are taught from the moment we are born to always consider others first (unless the plane is going down), and to put others' feelings before our own. Rarely are we told to indulge in our own dreams, even though we are often given the advice to follow our hearts.

It’s just so simple and uncomplicated to follow someone else’s heart. It’s far easier to please someone else than it is to do what you want for yourself. Following your own heart, while a nice idea, can often seem like an act of selfishness. Recently, I read a quote from a man featured on FaceBook’s Humans of New York page: “I’ve tried to invest my time and money into other peoples' dreams. I thought that helping others succeed would be an easy way to accomplish something without the pressure of doing it myself.” Stumbling across that quote summed up life just perfectly. It just makes so much sense to help others, to build others up, to make others feel good. It feels so counterintuitive to make yourself feel good, and that is truly unfortunate.

I, myself, followed what was in my parents’ hearts and I went off to college. I was the first in my entire family to pursue a higher education. I had watched my older sister follow her own dreams rather than my parents' and it seemed so wrong to me. She did what she wanted, disregarding my parents’ wishes, and I watched how happy she became. Instead of following that path, a path of fulfilling my own desires, I aimed to please someone else. It felt like the right thing to do, but I ended up being miserable most of the time. Now, here I am in the middle of my junior year and I’m finally following my own heart, listening to what my heart is telling me. I’ve taken a year off to see what it would have been like to have paid attention to what it was I really wanted, as opposed to what everyone else was telling me that I wanted. Even though I was studying my passion, and working really hard at it, all I ever really wanted was to explore a life outside of education. It’s been incredibly fulfilling. Even though I’ve been working two jobs since leaving school, I feel like for the first time in my life this is what my heart wanted and I’m listening to it.

It’s so easy to live your life through someone else, to do what others want you to do in order to please them or to live by their accomplishments. Once you follow your own heart, though, you realize how much more satisfying it is to live your own life. It’s hard to break away from being a background character in someone else’s big show and become your own one-man extravaganza. But as soon as you decide to be the leading (wo)man by following your own heart, your life comes alive.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"From Film Scholar to Movie Goer: How the Cinema Won Back My Heart" by Stephen Gallutia

Film school is not meant for the faint of heart. It’s a bitter and brutal schooling, wrought by its own ideologies and reckless ambitions, a tumultuous down hill slope for any lover of cinematic art. My stint in film school, however short-lived it might have been, left me helplessly clamoring for the cinematic appetite I had going in. Despite the presumptions of any cinephile hoping to become the next great auteur, film school isn’t everything it’s talked up to be. 

Ruthless analyzation, broken ambitions, and an overwhelming sense of artistic apathy plague the a-typical film school student, many of whom can be found at the local fine dining establishment post-grad.  And here I am in my fifth year of college, blazing through in pursuit of a degree in Journalism and finally, within the last year, I have begun coming to terms with the lost love I have for the cinematic experience.  So here’s to 2014, the year that the cinema won back my heart.

Two weeks into 2014 I’m sitting in the office of the resident film professor at Asbury University as we peruse through my first screenplay, and he leans over to me having barely said a word, to say this, “I’d like to see what you can do with writing.”  That’s a ten-word sentence that left me both gut wrenched and ecstatic all in the same moment. And it made me ask myself, is it possible that one sentence can work both as an intervention and an epiphany? It was in that moment that I discovered I had lost myself in pursuit of an ill-fit ambition and that my true calling was to write.

Preceding this enlightening gesture, I hadn’t found myself in the buttery lobby of a movie theater in months, and quickly, as if I was regurgitating my lunch, I switched my major and began redirecting my life and re-evaluating the way I thought. In an act of withdrawal I proceeded to avoid the cinema for several months moving forward, reluctantly caving in on a viewing of Gareth Edward’s Godzilla sometime in the early summer. It came at me like a slow-burning thrill ride, blanketing me in an awe-inspired study of man versus nature. I was entranced. Newly enlightened by my change in schooling, Godzilla was the first of many cinematic experiences that whetted my appetite all over again.

Following Godzilla, I binged, spending dollar after dollar on viewings of Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, Birdman and pretty much any other film that could feed my craving that peaked my interest. I was hooked again, and not in the way that I might find myself saying, “I need help”, but rather in that way you do as a child, simply, utterly fascinated at the emotional and intrinsic nature of the cinema.

And so one of the key elements of film that you lose when you embark on the petty dream of being a film scholar is that innocent and intrinsic emotional release that comes with that 16:9 viewing on the silver screen. And yeah, 2014 was great year for movies, blockbusters like Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier were a throwback to the action films of the late eighties and early nineties, but it doesn’t matter how “good” those movies were, because in reality, what we all experienced, what I experienced, was that emotional release I’d been longing for and had lost so long ago.

Following the mixed critical reception of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a fellow student of mine at Asbury reminded us all, via Twitter, of why we watch movies. “We don’t watch movies for the ways they depict reality, but rather for the way they make us feel.” For me, there has not been a truer statement concerning film in long time. From the meta-reality of Birdman to the altruistic angst of the next great space odyssey Interstellar, every film I saw this year heightened my sense of imagination and cracked open the emotional floodgates of my mind with endorphins flooding in every which way. I can say with the upmost certainty there hasn’t been a year where I’ve cried in the cinema as much as I did in 2014.

Repeat viewings didn’t feel like a sin, they felt like a testament to cinematic perfection and an investment into the future of a brighter, more creative Hollywood. Even awards season seemed brighter, with filmmakers ditching art house melodramas for insightful and provoking character studies like Birdman, Whiplash, and Wild. Hollywood is looking better and better every day. So in a last ditch effort to convey to you, the reader, once more how important 2014 was to me I will vaguely recall one climactic event 20 years ago when, in 1994, I visited the theater for the first time. The Lion King got my heart beating at a pace that I haven’t felt until only recently, and it wasn’t characters or the plot or the mis-en-scene or anything else, it was the awe and splendor of the cinematic experience. The genuine, heartfelt wonder of gazing upwards at the imagination of a generation and feeling all at once that kid in me growing up, learning about the world and experiencing emotion.

Film school isn’t for everyone and it’s debatable whether it’s good for anyone. Film and all its spectacle weren’t meant to be bound by rules and regulations, film has always meant to transcend the authority of our imaginations and venture into the dark void of humanity to discover the still beating heart of our emotional existence. “We don’t watch movies for the ways they depict reality, but rather for the way they make us feel.”

To those it may concern:  My Top 10 films of 2014:

1.) Interstellar
2.) Birdman
3.) Whiplash
4.) Inherent Vice
5.) Nightcrawler
6.) Guardians of the Galaxy
7.) Godzilla
8.) The Lego Movie
9.) Wild
10.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes