Your Own Little Thesis Film #1: The Beginning

As an animation student at the University of Southern California, I’m required to make a film to graduate. Since my first day of college, I’ve looked forward to senior year with eagerness and excitement. It’s gotten scarier as it’s gotten closer, sure, but I still feel an exhilarating rush when I think about directing a film and finally being able to put it ahead of everything else. I usually have so many ideas in my head that I thought trying to decide what I wanted my film to be would be painful and tedious.

I never expected to figure out what I wanted to do for my thesis film as early as my Sophomore year.

Yet, that’s what happened.

My second piece of concept art for my thesis film, “Your Own Little World”

My second piece of concept art for my thesis film, “Your Own Little World”

The idea came to me like a sudden fever as I pondered an assignment in an animation-centric screenwriting class. Usually good ideas take a lot of time to emerge and just getting one requires a lot of active development, but this one came to me in an instant.

When my professor asked me and my fellow students to close our eyes and visualize ourselves moving through the rooms of our childhood homes and pick a memory to write about, I eventually found myself lingering in my livingroom. I stared at the armchair where I spent so many hours doing homework as a child with my mother directing my focus and keeping me moving smoothly from one question to the next. At that age, if she didn’t help me, doing a simple math worksheet could take hours and hours due to my severe inattentive ADHD. In my mind’s eye, I settled back into that chair, looked in my mind, and I pondered how, on a fundamental level, my mind flowed the same way it did when I was in elementary school. Sinking into those emotions, and sensing into my mind, I started to replay things I felt from inside my skull, and then I saw a huge mass of strings congealed together. I pushed as hard as I could, yelled at it, begged for it to move and do something on its own, but as the pressure of time crashed down, it wouldn’t budge. Everything exploded from there. I started writing the script that would eventually become the first scene of my thesis film and I was so engrossed that I didn’t look away from the computer until it was done.

When I did a reading of it in class, people went silent.

Perhaps it's the nature of living so long with a certain neurological structure: it feels so intimate and natural that visual ways of conveying it grow over time without you even knowing, then burst out when something summons them. It forms into something incredibly authentic and original.

I didn’t decide that this idea was “the one” until the summer before junior year. It was a weird, existential summer, and I felt dissatisfied with my inability to just snap my fingers and make 15 short films appear. I was somewhat cognizant of how intense my expectations for myself were, but I still felt like I wasn’t good enough. My perfectionism and high expectations had killed every personal project I had tried to do since the start of college. Each time, I froze up and let myself get paralyzed by my own strangling grip.

I had no idea how to get out of this. Every step I tried to take would be chastised by my superego for not going far enough. It took a lot of time to really think about it and create the space I needed to realize I was strangling myself. Feeling rejected and undervalued, I sought ferociously to deliver, deliver, deliver, but no matter how many times I pulled the trigger, nothing would fire, because the gun was ultimately not loaded. I realized I couldn’t squeeze productivity out of myself by just mindlessly submerging myself in pressure and pretending I would die or be imprisoned by the corporate overlords the moment I graduated college and never have the chance to make anything again.

My dad suggested that maybe, instead of expecting myself to make a bunch of short films every year despite my college workload and executive dysfunction, I could calm my potatoes and just make a kick-ass thesis.


The Creative Career Conundrum

In this era of media and entertainment, creative industries have bloomed like flowers in a lush spring.  With screens, signs, and lights glowing everywhere we look and televisions perched in most livingrooms, and, importantly, an internet of things dispensing streams of information at lightspeed, someone just walking in on this decade might think careers in creative fields like music, film, design, animation, and illustration would be gaining reputation and respect as fast as they’ve been growing.  However, a strange stigma persists.  Careers in science, tech, business, and medicine are still pushed as the standard of excellence and success while careers in the arts are downplayed and treated as unsuitable and frivolous for anyone wanting to make a real living. 

As an artist, writer, animation major, and general creative, I’ve been lucky to have a family and parents who have encouraged my trek down this path and believed in my potential to do wonderful things with it while also supporting myself.  They’ve given me the software, materials, and support I’ve needed to grow and pursue a career in film and animation.  However, not every aspiring artist, musician, or filmmaker is that lucky.  In high school, I saw so many talented creators pushed away from something they had a passion for and scooted towards math and science.  Even some of my peers in an animation program as competitive to get into and exalted as USC’s still have parents who don’t think highly of their decision to go into an artistic field and would prefer them to go into marketing, tech, or business. 

It’s easy to see that creative fields are growing, need talented people, and aren’t as impractical or low-paying as some would conjecture, so why the stigma?  Deciphering this is not a simple task; cultural and social things are just not simple.  However, some key culprits are at play holding the stigma in place: an unfamiliarness with the world of today, a dismissal of what is creative, flexible, and emotional in favor of what is solid, worklike, and established, and a push for a kind of success defined by social status and money.  One—the media bloom is still a very new phenomenon and people are not quite used to it.  It will take a while for our social impressions to refresh to what’s been going on with the media and job landscape.  When many of our parents and grandparents grew up, the screen’s presence was not nearly as pronounced and in some cases nearly nonexistent, and the importance of music, design, and video in all sorts of areas had not yet broken into the world.  Two—The arts are far too often relegated to the status of ‘hobbyish’, ‘decorative’, and ‘unnecessary,’ despite how they augment almost anything you could imaginably pair them with and how they move our souls even on their own as part of what makes us uniquely human.  Whatever happens to be more emotional, vulnerable, and humanistic is often subjugated in importance to what is heady, computational, and businesslike, and the arts are no exception.  Three—we still deal with the fundamental human dilemma of what truly defines success.  Though our values are shifting, we as a society still think of success and happiness in terms of high-class jobs, white picket fences, material possessions, and social status.  The arts aren’t as unprofitable as one might think, but it’s true that if you become a thriving doctor, people will hold you in some sort of awe and your job will pay you a ton.

Despite this stigma’s prolonged life, there is reason to be positive.  Excitement for our new world is mounting, and it is not just optimistic but realistic to look forward to social change that may finally dissolve the stigma and empower generations of creators and artists.

Faintheadedness, AKA The Time I Almost Fainted In Anatomy Class

It was 6:40 AM, May 3rd, 2016, and I was waking up to get ready for school after a long night of slumbery somnolence.  In my sleepy haze, I let things slip past me, including important things like making sure Nutrition entered my system that morning.  I did not put any edible material into my oral cavity, I did not commence mastication, I did not transport any nutritious mush down my throat through peristalsis into the lower reaches of my digestive system to be broken down into fuel for my body, and I certainly did not pass go and collect $200.    I managed to brush my teeth, though, which was good, and I got my mom to wash my hair in the kitchen sink, a long-standing mother-daughter bonding thing between the two of us.  It was a wonderfully comforting feeling to know that I didn’t need to make the hurried trek down to my bus stop, since I could just get a ride from my brother as he practiced driving to school.

I walked nervously into my first period classroom, hoping my AP Literature teacher wouldn’t ask about the essay I had accidentally forgotten to bring that day, but, to my relief, she only informed me that, due to the EOCT testing schedule, we were starting our day with an hour in second period, and I was in the wrong place.  So, I hustled over to Anatomy, hustled over to my Math classroom to retrieve the phone I’d left there the previous day when I’d taken my Series and Sequences test and had to rush away right after to get to my AP Psychology exam, and then hustled back to Anatomy.  The smell of formaldehyde was gathering in the air.  I saw the bag of partially dissected cats rolled in paper towels sitting at the front of the room, and soon enough people were mulling over to the box of lab glasses and aprons and pulling white, teal, and clear gloves from boxes off to the side.  Scalpels and surgical scissors stood sinisterly and playfully in cups behind the boxes of gloves.  They clinked as people picked through them and slid out the cutting instruments they found the most desirable.

I tried to keep my mind down.  It seemed easier than it had been before; I just focused on my desire to learn and the fascinating structure and anatomy of cats.  Even when I stared directly into the sad face of Gabby, the cat my group had nicknamed and started skinning, I felt barely a quarter of the emotional distress and overload I’d felt the last time my group had her out on the table.  The change surprised me.  Maybe it had just been my weird menstrual hormones tugging on my heartstrings after all, I pondered to myself.  I kept my mind on the actions we took and the coolness of seeing the preserved dead cat’s body laid open with such morbid vulnerability.  The pale nose and toes stayed calmly in the corners of my vision.  I saw the moonstone-like foggy eyes of the small cat the group to our right was dissecting as they held his stiff, rigid body under the faucet to wash his dead insides, and I barely twinged.  I borrowed some VaporRub from them before the chemical smell could get to me and smeared the herby gel under my nose.  It was a surprisingly nice smell; very sweet and minty.  I tried not to notice the slight intrusion of the thickening formaldehyde.

Mrs. Helms carried jars of fetal cat specimens that she’d gathered over the years out to the tables, and immediately a curious crowd formed.  Girls held two small, gray, wrinkly, scrunched up baby cats in the palms of their hands, gawking and cooing.  They’d just been found in someone’s dissection cat the day before, so they were new.  Dead for a while, and now newly born from their mother’s guts, carried delicately out into the open, chemically air. Grey and lightly fuzzy, with wide, closed eyes and flat, alien-like faces.  When I held one, it felt like a lump of clay in my hand, solid but slightly squishy, with its little features and wrinkles and folded paws appearing like they were carved and molded out of itself.  It was adorable, yet still very much dead.  The kit’s young face looked serene and at peace; quite a contrast to the distressedly curled, lolling tongues, crinkled noses, and wide open mouths of the adults.  Something made me think of ferrets.  I resisted the urge to cradle the tiny creature in the center of my palm, and instead gently ran my fingers over its body.  There, there, little one.

A little bit later, all the groups were mobilizing together to continue the dissection.  First, I carried the formaldehyde soaked paper towels that were underneath Gabby and dumped them in the trash.  Then, I watched as my other group members peeled away the skin and muscles on Gabby’s underside, lengthened the incision right up to the cat’s chin, and pulled apart the ribs.  The long, thin bones looked so delicate, yet they didn’t yield to our curious invasions without a small hassle; the cavity still stubbornly wanted to close.  I looked at the cat’s toes and internally debated whether to play with them, thinking of how I’d often walk up to my cat and tickle her toes, and tried to keep my gaze away from the small crack between her eyelids.  They were all guilty, reluctant curiosities.  All the movements in the room seemed to grow progressively slower, as if the weight of time were dragging on them.  I swore my heart beat more slowly and heavily than usual.

I squished my gloved finger against the cat’s spongelike lungs, then drew my hand back and stood and watched.  My lab partners squished them too, staring with awe at the tissue’s ability to inflate and deflate.  As time passed on, it seemed to become irrelevant, and I swore it was passing more slowly.  I read the chemical stained daily paper under Gabby, seeing headlines about international politics and Donald Trump.  Then, I felt my face getting hot.  Sounds seemed to get a little quieter.

Suddenly, from its quiet beginnings as a flash of heat and dampened noise, it started to aggressively slide over me.  I saw dark grey clouds creeping over my vision, fizzling with some kind of static.  My heartbeat climbed from my chest to the inside of my head, and its throbbing made me feel like a living speaker with the way that low pounding vibrated through my body.  A dull tin filled my ears.  It was like being submerged in water; sound slipped away into indistinct acoustic blurs.  Some kind of waves rocked me back and forth on my feet, and I swayed to the rhythm, feeling unconsciousness slipping over my senses.

Oh fuck, I almost said out loud to myself.

I backed away from Gabby and the counter and tried to balance myself.  I have no memory of it at all, but apparently I brushed against someone, because my teacher said that was the case later and right now I heard someone speaking to me in a concerned tone, asking if I was okay.  I felt sick.  I was tossing and squirming over an ocean of sensory decay.  My vision went dark gray, but I could see a small bit of what was around me.  Then, I remember my teacher steadying me and taking me to a chair, where she put cool, wet paper towels on my neck and leaned me over onto my thighs to let the blood flow back into my head.  She said I was really pale.  I vaguely noticed people staring worriedly over to where I was, but self-consciousness didn’t quite occur to me at that moment.  Mrs. Helms helped me peel off my gloves and undo the tie of my apron, then took the safety glasses off my face.  She told someone to bring a chair out into the hall, then escorted me to the cool, clean air outside the classroom.

Excuse my vulgarity, I said internally to myself.

I sat, with my head still swimming, sipping water from a small plastic cup, staring at the men’s and women’s restroom across the hall.  My vision cleared up.  I wanted to gulp down cup upon cup of cold water, but Mrs. Helms had me drink slowly, so I wouldn’t overload my stomach with water and make myself nauseous.  My body felt light and limp.

Carter, who had not been in the room for a while the last I knew, cooly strolled out of the men’s room in his pale yellow shirt.  He slowed and looked at me curiously, probably noticing the pallor of my face.  I wondered if my face was as pale as Gabby’s skin under her fur.

“Guess what….” I murmured dizzily, wishing my hearing were less muted. “I think I almost fainted….”

I can’t really remember what he said next, but I made sure to tell him I was okay.

After taking care of some things in the room and checking on everyone else, Mrs. Helms checked on me again, and with her holding my arm, I ended up wobbling over to the science office, which I never knew existed before that day.  It was a cute, cozy little room.  I reclined on a long couch with a dainty floral pattern, trying to wait out the faintheadedness.  There was a weird twitchiness in my muscles, and my head ached softly.  I tried to stand up once, and I felt that familiar hotness in my face and fuzz in my head.

My teacher said I was flushing and I should lie back down.  

Around fifteen minutes passed, and, though I was getting better, I wasn’t better better.  I thought of my cat’s soft white fur, glimmering in warm summer sunlight.  I breathed.  Everything seemed so incredibly still.  I felt so comfy, hidden away in a room I’d never thought of until that day, alone, recuperating, sitting quietly like a zombie hiding in a morgue.

Then, Mr. Ruggiero, whose role at the school I wasn’t quite sure of, came in with a wheelchair, asked me and Mrs. Helms some questions, then, along with Mrs. Helms, helped sit me down in the rolling contraption.  Mrs. Helms got a girl named Kayla to carry my backpack and phone to the clinic.  As Mr. Ruggiero rolled me out of the science office, I felt like a ghost gliding through the halls, or an ice cube sliding around on a hotplate.  All of a sudden, I felt so giddy.  I almost giggled, but I hid my smiles with the back of my hand, sloppily pretending to rub my face.  I felt like I was flying.  I’d never been in a wheelchair before.

Once at the clinic, I rested in a little cot.  I had my knees up at the request of the nurse—probably for circulatory reasons, to get blood back in my head—and my backpack was at my feet.  The nurse asked some questions.

I got out my lunchbox and ate some slices of kiwi and two whole Oreos to hopefully help me and my blood sugar.  I ate the kiwi first, letting it sweetly tingle on my taste buds and chewing slowly and delicately.  The Oreos came next; I crunched them inside my mouth, my body visibly quivering with each clench of my jaws.  The first I savored, but the second I pulverized passionately and swallowed within twenty seconds.  With a sigh, I relaxed and settled my head down on the pillow.  On the wall at my right was a curious poster.  Its edges were a little curled, and I could see the tape underneath that held it to the wall.  It was a picture of a cat lying blissfully on its back.  The four legs were spread out as if the creature were waiting to undergo surgery.  In fact, it was in the same position as the dissection cats—except this kitty glowed with life... Kind of.  I stared morbidly.  It amused me more than it disturbed me.

“I’m fine.  Really.” Read the text accompanying its smiling orange face.

Read My High School's Literary Magazine!


At the beginning of my Senior year at Lassiter High School, I knew I wanted to work on some sort of team and participate in some kind of collaborative creative endeavor.  I was given the perfect opportunity when my AP Literature teacher announced that she was looking for someone to join the team, and I applied right away.  Our school's magazine had gone underground for various reasons, and we worked hard to resurrect it and shed light on its potential.

One school year later, the magazine was released digitally via the Lassiter High School website. 

The staff premiere of The Trojan Digest

The staff premiere of The Trojan Digest

 It was not without an incredible amount of heart and soul that this was accomplished, both in the creative spirit of all the contributing artists and writers, as well as my fellow team members Abrar, Anagha, Juila, and my AP Literature teacher, Dr. Blanchard.  We spent an entire year reviewing art and writing, curating a rich collection of work, and laying out an appealing and mentally engaging visual feel for the magazine's pages.  I have one story ("Salamander Songs") and one piece of art in it, and I served as one of its editors, the chief graphic designer, and its main art curator.

The entire finished document laid out before us...

The entire finished document laid out before us...

Now that my time with the team has passed, I am deeply thankful for everything my experience of working on it taught me.  I cannot describe how much that part of my life as a high school senior enriched me.

Thank you, everyone.

The Magazine's Mission Statement:

"We’re here to offer you a student publication dedicated to art and literature that captures the unique and expressive voices of our student body. The Trojan Digest (formerly Arête) seeks to compile a body of literary and artistic works of the highest quality— serving as an outlet for creative ideas, bringing recognition to talented artists and writers as well as enjoyment and feelings of community to readers."

Trust Death: An Essay

            One moment, even amidst plenty of background noise, I hear a footstep lagging behind my very existence by merely a fraction of a millisecond.  It echoes around my head in distorted circles.  I can hear a metaphorical presence breathing, slow, deep breaths all around me.  Yes, I am imagining things.  I know I’m imagining things; after all, it is I who is attempting to give a very elusive, abstract concept an anthropomorphic form.  Here she is now, forming in my mind, a figure like a shadow with nothing but a void for a mouth.  She is invisible, far out of mind enough to seem on a distant plane of existence, but quite real and eerie once you put your attention on her. 

Her name is Death.

            If there’s any essential law of life that is exceedingly overlooked and hard to understand, it is that we need to learn to trust it, that eerie presence we call death.  Every bit of life that is about change and birth is also just as much about death, from the small, imperceptible details to the large whole of existence.  Death exists in many forms:  The death of past selves, past habits, past days, past friendships, past moments, past milliseconds, and, of course, the physical death of ourselves and people we care about.  Birth and newness cannot exist without death.  New things, feelings, experiences, mindsets, and ideas can only rise to the surface of manifestation once death has cleared the way for them.  The next moment, at least for us humans in this current configuration of the universe, can’t really begin without the last one dying.  Death is all around us; our identities are in a constant state of death and rebirth.  Even our bodies are, as cells divide and replace themselves.  The only thing beyond death is perhaps the existence of existence.  We can trust this process.

            Yet, for most of us, death in all its forms evokes feelings of anxiety and fear.  I certainly know it does for me.  That’s why most popular person-like depictions of death are crowned with dark hoods and rusty scythes.  We characterize it as threatening, monstrous even.  Death is always at our heels gobbling up what existed and how it existed; who we thought was us one minute ago is gone.  We fear not existing.  The selves we leave behind on a daily basis fear not existing.  The dread of death underlies everything we do, everything we think, the very structure of our psychology, biology, and emotions.  Thus, it is natural for us to not trust death.

  However, trusting death as much as I can has given me a new perspective on life and loosened the viselike grip my human fear of death holds on my soul.  I know this sounds really wacky and abstract.  It is.  Death has swallowed the past, and the future is only a figment of the imagination, so the only true thing is the present moment.  Stick with it.  It’s your best friend.  The ghosts that death has taken from you can only control you if you let them; they are distant echoes, not close voices.  Trust that what’s gone is gone and that you innately have everything you need alive with you in this exact moment to work as an agent of change to be or do whatever you wish. 

Old Friends: A Contemplation On Past Projects

I found an old friend--  An animation, to be exact.  Among other things.  And it took me on a trip down all sorts of old roads and memories that have been marinating in old emotional mind goop.  Eventually, it got to a point where I just spent an entire seven hours just digging through ages of old stuff I used to like, YouTube series I followed, and music I used to listen to.  In the process, I got to ruminate on all these things I created in the past, from animations and comics to short stories and full-blown attempted novels.

"Ultimate" (2012)

          I was rummaging around on an old flash drive looking for a thing when I found a folder with a bunch of clips for an animation project from way back in middle school.  If I have my chronology correct (my memory is not the most reliable source for when exactly stuff happens), I worked on this project in 8th grade, which was about 2012-ish, within a couple of months after I finished that Tell-Tale Heart project that got so popular with my peers. This project below, which I named "Ultimate," was created mostly in Photoshop, with only a couple of Painter shots (specifically the ones with the yellow creature).  I guess I was maybe 14 or 13 when I made it.  This was the first time I really dumped using Corel Painter to create animation frames; most of the frames and art for Tell-Tale were created in Painter, but I started using Photoshop Elements as I figured out how to work the software better and discovered its capabilities.  Beware, this project is OLD, and is better viewed as a benchmark on the road to where I am now and where I will be in the future than as any representation of my current abilities.  It's OLD, very old.

          It doesn't have sound for a reason; I can vaguely remember wanting to add sound and music to it as I was making it, but I've since forgotten what I wanted to put in it, and I figure that it's better to let it be in its current condition, with the focus being the visuals and animationeyness.  It's funny that I gave it an upbeat-ish name like Ultimate, considering whatever discernible plot there is seems to tell a rather depressing story of a feline creature's prey slipping through its fingers (or claws, rather).  The barren-looking land doesn't add much optimism.  What is most interesting to me, though, is the way I edited it and the animation techniques I used.  Often, when I'm animating something complex in a dark environment, I'll just work in silhouette to make the process faster and create a certain artistic emphasis on the subject.  In one of my more recent projects, Stormforest, I employed this several times, admittedly.  However, I've recently been trying to quit using that as a shortcut so I can face the demons of animated coloring and shading head-on.

          So, yes, this is quite an old friend of mine.

          But you know what's even older...?

"Soap Opera of the Sea" (probably 2008 or something)

          I've been animating stuff for a long time, you see.

          Yes, I made this when I was in elementary school.  It was 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade, I think, and I was making it for a project.  I was in Target, an accelerated education program for kids who got a certain score or higher on some assessment test and went to an advanced class for the whole day every Thursday for enriched learning to suit our minds, and we had a unit on marine habitats (or sharks, was it?  I know we had a unit on sharks, because we dissected them at some point, which was madly cool).  The assignment was pretty open-ended, with lots of options, so I wrote a script, created characters, animated stuff in Anime Studio, and edited all this together on my own in Windows Moviemaker, complete with titles to show what the characters were saying since I didn't have any voiceacting for them.  I can remember sitting at a pale grey desktop monitor figuring out where I wanted to move what and when.  I'm surprised at how sophisticated the story is and how I used some subtle-but-not-so-subtle elements of satire, coming back to this after all these years.  It's genuinely filling me with fuzzy warm feelings of adorableyness. 

"Envious" (2013) and "Famiglia" (2014)

         Now, let's step back forward in time to when I went to film camp.  For two years, I went to a week long film camp in Atlanta called Camp Flix, where a team of about 5 to 11 kids and one counselor make a 5-minute long film in about 7 days.  I would have gone another year, but I was busy having the time of my life last summer at my state's prestigious and unfathomably awesome month-long summer enrichment program, GHP (Georgia Governor's Honor Program), and you can't go any more once you turn 18, which I'm less than a month away from doing.  So, at Camp Flix, I made two short films with two different teams, and I co-directed on both.  It was a pretty interesting experience for me.  The first one was "Envious," a horror ghost story slash teen drama, and the second was "Famiglia," a parodical comedy that re-imagines the basic gist of the famous Godfather series in a high school setting....  with an Italian Club That Cannot Be Refused.

I animated that opening title sequence in Famiglia, by the way.....

          Dang, let's just take a moment to appreciate that kick-butt frothy mouth moment.  I brought foaming candy to camp one day and made that happen, and I'm so proud of that.  I also did lots of the ghostly, bloody makeup.

DANG, what a fine shot.

          Anyways, this camp was one of the highlights of my life both years.  It was actually pretty brave of me to decide to do camp in the first place.  I felt really awkward on set during "Envious"; I came there wanting to direct, but I often felt drowned out by other people, since they spoke up more and had more outer confidence than me most of the time. It was challenging and riddled with times when I was uncomfortable in my own skin.  My social skills hadn't really gotten to where they are now, and I wasn't nearly as assertive as I am today.  There was even one whole day where I felt like a weakling.  But the key was to refuse to crumble and collapse.  I got my voice in and made valuable contributions to the project.  I even made friends, which was honestly kind of rare for me.  It was a wonderful learning experience, and definitely not just in filmmaking...  When I worked on "Famiglia" I still wasn't really social, but I was much more assertive, and I got to get my voice in even more.  My second year counselor, Keyes, said I had a good eye for performance and that I worked with blocking and directing actors really well.  Being really familiar with editing, I also either edited a lot of stuff myself or worked really closely with the editor(s) on both projects.

          I came in my second year, my "Famiglia" year, with a storyboard for an original concept of mine already sketched out, and I worked really hard pitching it to my teammates and my counselor, but the rest of the team wanted to do the fun Famiglia concept instead, which is one thing I guess I regret a little bit, but Famiglia was so much fun (and wholesome hard work) to make, and it doesn't bother me too much.  It was just interesting to help realize stories I wouldn't normally write (I'm not really into writing high school drama or the like, especially if proms and teen romance are involved), and it was especially interesting how Samantha's story evolved from a stone cold serious mafia story with adult characters to a cute comedy about a high school girl skipping Italian Club to see her boyfriend and facing the wrath of her clubmates.  THING TO NOTE:  The concept was devised by an Italian, so no offense meant to Italian people.

Refugees, the Webcomic (around 2013)

          The conception of this one is quite interesting to discuss.... 


         This story, "Refugees," is actually a project I'd like to work on again; maybe not in exactly the same way, but again nonetheless.  If I were ever to start work on it again, it would probably be as a series of short stories and comics.   It's a pretty dark webcomic about bizarrity, brutality, and mystery; it follows Pepper, a young aerid of the planet Ocwoeno who must embark on an uncomfortable journey after he finally snaps and murders his tormenter.  I made it with the super-pixelly Flipnote Studio for the most part and occasionally threw in an animated video.  Hardly anyone read it, so I was pretty much just making it for me.   It began, interestingly enough, as someone else's story at its very roots.  That might sound terrible at first, but let me explain it a bit.  Refugees is kind of a product of the many repeats and reincarnations of a simple Warrior Cats fanseries that was born on Flipnote Hatena.  That probably sounds even more terrible, but it's really much more complex than that little description implies. 

          Now, many young artists of my generation and culture have found themselves in the Warriors fandom at some point:  Me, for example.  As a naive little 6th grader, I discovered Flipnote Hatena, a (now dead) website where users of Flipnote Studio, a simple pixelly art and animation software built in to pretty much every Nintendo DSi, could post their work, leave comments, and even edit and spin-off unlocked flipnotes they downloaded.  I found a little Warriors fanseries, "The Tale of LostClan," that was made by a user called Supahfrog, and I latched onto it eagerly.  I followed it for a while.  I was deeply saddened when Supahfrog wrote in her profile bio that her DSi had gotten some crippling injuries and she wouldn't be able to continue her series.  However, a new beginning surfaced with her simple open ended cessation of her series to her fans: "feel free to continue it yourself if you want," she said.  It ignited something deep and creative inside me, and thus my original rendition of the series began. 

          Starting from the very beginning of the story, I made several little minute-long snippets of animation that told my interpretation of the plot and characters.  I pretty much went to the moon with it.  I stopped around episode 21, though, because I felt I was getting too absorbed in it to the point where it was interfering with other stuff I wanted to do, and it was passed off to my friend who began yet another retelling of it.  I had come up with a lot of things that transgressed Warriors canon, and she kept a balance between my LostClan and Supahfrog's LostClan, adding her own twists here and there.  My version never really stopped breathing, though.  A couple years passed.  One day, after watching my friend's LostClan, I decided I wanted to do my own again.  I tried directly remaking it at first, but a couple key technical difficulties and techy blunders got me really frustrated with it, and I found myself enjoying this random flipnote comic I was making on the side much more.  On a huge whim, I totally threw the warriors universe out the window and made my own universe, totally changed everything, and took the rough concept of LostClan and planted it somewhere totally new....  Thus creating pretty much a new thing with only echoes of the old LostClan.  I even found Supahfrog on deviantART later and asked her about it, and she gave me the A-okay "This is totally not my story anymore, keep doing what you're doing" thumbs up.

          So....  Do you see what I mean...?


"Dracolias:  Sleeping Flame" (2011)

          I found this around the same time I found "Ultimate," on a flash drive I was looking through for some thing I cannot recall.  Let me say, I was filled with joy and relief when I found it, because for a long time I thought I had lost it, digitally misplaced it, or accidentally deleted it away forever.  So, without further ado, my 6th grade self brings you "Dracolias: Sleeping Flame," a story about dragonlike creatures who live on a giant artificial biome on a ginormous space shuttle floating in the depths of space and can actually fly outside in space without dying. 

Chapter illustrationey things....

          I guess I'll just have to show you an excerpt and wrap this whole thing up:

In Jiola’s head, there was a blur of shapes and outlines.  She couldn’t tell the ground from the sky.  She looked down at her paws—they were blurry, fading into the background.  Where was she?  Jiola’s head was spinning. It felt like she recognized something in the spinning landscape, but she couldn’t put her claw on it.  She took a quick glance behind her.  There was a dark, cavelike opening only a few feet away. Desperately, Jiola ran through it. She was eager to escape the madness around her. For a moment, she could hear her pawsteps, her talons clinking against hard stone. Then, everything was dark.  It was suffocating. Jiola could hear the howling of a distant wind, but there was nothing in view.  Just blackness.  Her gaze darted around quickly, looking for any sign of light. Then, something sprang up in front of her, only inches from her face.  It was horrifying, but dazzlingly interesting.  It snapped the three parts of its jaw together, and opened them again, showing the pinkish-red inside of its mouth.  Fierce teeth gleamed at Jiola, long and sharp.  Snap.  The mouth closed again.  The creature’s outer skin was a murderous shade of cobalt blue.  Jiola wasn’t afraid.  She wanted to see what it would do next, as it drew ever closer.  The whispering of the wind was silence now, apart from the loud snap of the creature’s jaws.  The thing had no eyes, and it stood nearly incomplete on a spindly blue body, gnashing its three way jaws over and over again.  The body didn’t matter.  Jiola’s dream consciousness hadn’t completed it.  All the focus was on the head, the teeth, the throatless mouth…  She was amazed, exhilarated.  Even though it seemed to be in full detail, it was somehow out of focus at the same time.  Then the beautifully monstrous mouth closed for the last time.
Jiola woke with a start. “Flusty?”  She couldn’t feel his warmth against her side.  He was gone.  The sun was beginning to go down, and she could feel wind chilling her skin.  He must have gotten up for some reason.  She extended a forepaw out sideways to feel the spot where Fluster had once been.  It was completely cold. He’d been gone a long time. Where could he have run off to?  Jiola sat up and dug her talons into the ground.  She twisted her neck around and looked at the village.  The dragons were crowded into little groups, mumbling and rumbling.  She got up and pranced over into the center of the village.  Her parents crossed her mind again.  Where were they?! She wanted to know so badly that it hurt.  Neesa was safe, but where were her parents?  They could be dying, or dead…
And I’m not doing anything! That mean voice in the back of her head made its presence known.  It sneered again, And I’m not doing anything! Not for Fluster, not for anyone, not for my parents!  Jiola let it rage on and on, and the more it spoke, the more guilty and anxious she felt.  It broke her.  She walked slowly, being careful not to step on anyone’s tail.  The rest of the dragons paid little attention to her as she stepped past, sweeping their tails, even tripping Jiola a couple times.  She didn’t bother to listen to their conversations at first, as they rarely talked about anything worth listening, but then she caught a whiff of a conversation between an orange dragoness and a rose and yellow dragonling.
“So, that dude went missing?”
“more like ran away.  He’s probably dead by now.”
“wait, whu—“
“His espharyx’s infected.  If the infection didn’t kill him, a Skalodon did.”
“Yeah… plenty of those around here, the big dopes…”
Jiola’s heart raced.  Was it Fluster that they were talking about? A black dragon intruded on the conversation. “Hey, Morga?” The orange dragoness turned her head. “Yes, Egor?”
“Come with me,” said Egor.  He looked serious.
Morga replied brusquely.  “I’m speaking to Kwindt right now. Can you wait a sec?” She didn’t look the least bit concerned for what Egor had to say.  “Fine.  But you’d better hear this.” Then Morga locked her gaze with Egor’s.  She had a hungry look in her eyes, like there was a big, juicy piece of information that she could sink her ears into.  “What is it?”
“Come on, and I’ll tell you…”
Morga stood up and stepped toward Egor. “Sorry Kwin, I need to hear this.  See ya’ later.”  Kwindt had remorse in his eyes. “Okay. Later.”  He got to his paws and scuttled away.  Morga finally noticed Jiola standing nearby, and she turned towards her and clicked her jaws.  “Don’t eavesdrop on me, girl,” She spoke in a condescending tone, glowering down on Jiola. Jiola’s heart was beating faster and faster.  Morga then began to turn away, but something stopped her.  “Why were you listenining to my conversation?  You look frightened.” She looked Jiola right in her eyes.  Hmm… the dragoness contemplated.  What pretty blue eyes… such a pretty color… such a pretty young dragonling…
Egor was hasty.  “Come.  Don’t waste your time on her.”  Morga stayed still, waiting for Jiola’s answer.  Jiola didn’t know what to say, so she said the loudest thought in her head.  “That dragon you were talking about… do you know his name?”
Morga snorted, “Don’t know, don’t care.  He’s dead.  They’ll find his body tomorrow.” She swung her head around and stepped after Egor without another word.  But Jiola could tell… there was something resting on the tip of her tongue.  “Wait!! I need to know!!”
“Get your tail out of here.  It could get caught in all sorts of unwanted things.”  Egor replied.  Jiola burned with suspicion.  She let her fangs show a bit from under her lip.  Something was definitely up.  If that dragoness was talking about Fluster…
Morga let her fangs show in return.  She flexed her talons fervently, letting her displeasure show.  Jiola backed away, tail whipping through the air behind her, and let out a low growl.  Egor stepped forward and bent forward to glare into Jiola’s eyes and spoke.  “You heard what I said, didn’t you?”  Jiola stood defiantly for a second. His rusty tinged orange eyes were saturated with a cold fire that kept her on the tips of her talons.  She shivered.  What would HE want with Fluster?  What would Morga want with Fluster?  She and Egor seemed to have all that they wanted.  Why would they need to get rid of Fluster?  Jiola was trembling violently now.  Egor and Morga turned and walked away.  Morga looked into Egor’s eyes, and whispered, “Come, brother.  What do you have to say to me?”
Jiola was standing in an awkward silence, trying to keep calm.  It’s okay… It’s okay…  You’re just being paranoid… Paranoid…  There isn’t anything wrong…  Fluster’s fine…  She reassured herself.  Her legs wobbled insecurely.  Without a word, and still shaking, Jiola collapsed onto the ground where she stood and immediately fell asleep.

Not terrible for a twelve-year-old, I guess!

This should be all for now.

It would probably be a good idea to wrap this up.

Thanks for reading this aimless wandering!

An Essay: In Defense Of Creative Photography

An essay I wrote for my 11th grade AP Language class, partly in response to an essay by Susan Sontag, “On Photography”…

          In one single moment, there is so much to remember. Photography is a unique way to capture it—but not all of it. Some of it, what we see, is what is recorded. Yes, pictures do lie sometimes. At the least, they simply aren’t showing us the whole story. We can’t truly experience the environment they were taken in, or the events that were happening. We can’t see the environment in motion or hear, feel, and smell what was going on around the photographer. As Susan Sontag would assert, one also cannot fully understand the inner workings of a snail just by viewing its picture, or what the purpose and procedure of a party was just by viewing an image on Facebook. However, it would not be fully valid to say that photography limits our understanding. Sontag makes some brilliant points, but one problem is that she is only looking at one aspect of photography, the aspect of photography used for documentation and journalism. She is not addressing photography directly as an art form and a personal experience. 

          When one is using photography for art, it’s different from the way it would be used in documentation and journalism. Using photography for art is not necessarily a mother taking a picture of her child blowing out their birthday candle to preserve the memory or a tourist getting a snapshot of a famous landmark, nor is it necessarily even a professional photographer taking a couple’s wedding pictures. When one is trying to do art, one’s approach is that of an entirely different kind. You are not simply recording for memory or for publicity and journalism; you’re trying to show people something creative. A conventional photographer taking pictures of the Queen’s birthday celebration for a magazine will be using the same kind of lighting, the same conventional composition, the same typical subjects. An artistic photographer could and will go far beyond that. If I were hired to photograph the Queen’s birthday party, they’d be kind of perplexed. I would be focusing on the flickering candles, the little roach shuffling behind the presents, the puddles of glimmering water on the table from where the ice cold drinks’ condensation dripped down, a bird fluttering around outside the window, or the fluorescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling in its exquisite blown-glass lamp. Maybe they’d get lucky and find a picture of the Queen’s face in profile against a blurry fireplace. Creative photography is hardly what Sontag describes as “mental pollution.”

Here we have a concoction-in-progress (above) and a fly sitting on the arm of an outdoor chair (right).

                A good artistic photographer can present ordinary objects that we see every day in ways that are so different that it seems like those objects are completely unfamiliar to us. This photography is the primal capture of how someone who thinks a bit differently sees the world. Sure, the internet may be saturated with a bunch of plain photos of silly cats and sweaty (but nonetheless talented) athletes, but the creative urges photography can release in an individual are apparent. With many people, photography is not about documenting or recording, it’s about creating, despite how it may be limited to only one moment and angle in our universe of unfathomable amounts of moments and angles. The Queen or that famous athlete, or even the beautiful landscape of the African savanna may be omnipresent in magazines, newspapers, and web articles, but an artist’s soul is not.

                Sontag’s argument, however accurate it may be for most photography, is also only looking at photography from the perspective of a person looking at a photo and analyzing it. The experience of actually taking a picture is not commented on at all. When a photographer’s finger is on the shutter release and their lens, focus and position are perfect as they’re staring through the viewfinder, they and that object or person they are photographing are locked in a tight, intimate embrace. In the shoes of a photographer, trudging through briars and mosquitoes or bending down and squatting awkwardly with their back curving off to the side to try and get that one subject in view and framed perfectly by its environment, spinning around crazily trying to capture the insanity inducing rush of people in New York, or waddling around in the snow next to a stream waiting for just the right moment, imminently arriving, to capture that odd looking rubber ducky bobbing down on the water, or twisting on a long range lens frantically to get a close up of that little cardinal that just perched on a branch near the window, it is as much a journey of the spirit as it is a journey of the body.


                The person reading the magazine and observing the cover may only get a picture, but some photographer got paid and went and experienced that scene with their own existence, understood the presence and the movement of that magnificent scene. It was a fully fleshed out world. The photographer was in it. Their face was squished up against the back of the camera. Their eye was peering through the camera’s viewfinder. They stroked the surfaces of the subject and the scene with their spirit. Their soul expanded out to meet that foreign scene or object, that person or creature, for just that handful of moments. If that isn’t something akin to understanding, then someone has to be kidding me.

                When compared to any other medium, is photography really especially limited? Sontag criticizes it for only focusing on what something looks like. However, it’s easy to do the same with writing—just by writing about only the visual qualities of the subject. Photography can only ever express what can be told with just a picture, yet you can never fully, immediately express what something looks like with just writing. To write about everything that can be visually expressed by a picture in one glance would take pages and pages of detailed sentences, or one heck of a writer, which is a relatively rare occurrence—and even then, it would only result in one or two pages less of writing. Just as you can only focus on a specific angle of something in photography, you can choose to only focus on a specific angle in writing; editorials, persuasive essays, in fact, almost every kind of writing can be skewed by a decision on the writer’s part to focus on one thing rather than another. Video, which is basically just millions of individual pictures in a timed sequence, can explain a lot, yet it is limited as well. Angles, editing, engineered lighting. The celebrity you see on TV every day is not always this pretty preppy person that makes these almost oddly cathartic shifts from cuteness and kindness to deranged melodrama—it’s all about what the executives want to include to keep people’s interest. The truth is, everything imaginable for human creation, everything touched by human hands is limited. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. But knowledge can be gained, bite by bite. If one person ate all the food in the world at once, they unfortunately would probably explode, and they wouldn’t have time to savor the qualities that are innate to one little bite. All these different foods, of all types, textures, colors, cultures, and flavors, would just be inhaled without any attention to their individual essences.


          Our senses are limited. When we see something, we’re not SEEING something; we’re just receiving information about the light bouncing off of it. We can only see, taste, hear, or feel what comes to us within a given range of vibration, magnitude, intensity, or quality. Our intellect is limited. While we may experience one room or street corner or grove of trees with our presence, we are stuck in the position of our body and the limits of our senses. We cannot comprehend what it must feel like for the eagle, whose vision can detect the miniscule twitch of a running rabbit on the ground from hundreds of feet in the sky. We are stuck in the angled cages of our own opinions and experiences, dividing us from each other and skewing our perception of our already limited reality. Our life is a blip in the cavernous sequences of the universe. Our life is the click of a shutter—stroking one detail of the universe.    

Thank you, friends...  You can look at my photography HERE.

The Process of Illustrating a Book: 'They Call Me Strange'


So.....  It happened like this:

One evening, pretty much out of the blue, I got an incredible opportunity.  I was offered the chance to illustrate a BOOK.  As a teenage artist!  An actual book!  An actual book for children and young adults, written by someone right here in Georgia who happened to not be me!

When my mom came into my room and introduced it to me, my first action was to immediately (and enthusiastically) accept and call the author right away.  On the phone, I was met with an equally enthusiastic woman, Alexa Andres, the author of the book, who had heard of me through our shared hypnotherapist and was eager to begin working with me.  I was so naturally ecstatic that I could have sworn my soul was out of my body bouncing off the walls of my house.

We discussed the basic ideas, pricing, art style/medium, and other important things in this first phone call, and a couple phone calls later we arranged a place, day, and time to meet.  I did my first conceptual drawings for the book within a day or two.  I didn't know much about the fully fleshed out story of the book other than a basic concept (wolves, two characters meeting and conversing), but this was the first step in an educational and enriching process that would help me grow as an artist and a person.

 Young Rose + her fabulous red hood (left): We went with the design at the far left of the row of three for young Rose.  The hood in the book varies with the passage of time.

 Older Adam + Basket + random notes (right): We went with the face pictured in its own image for Adam, except with toned down ears, and the basket was pretty much the basket.

My blind concept sketches (above) To get my creative juices flowing...

Though the actual characters were pretty much nothing like the werewolfy creatures I drew right off the bat  based on some of the reference pictures she sent me, the author adored them, and the wolf (in the yellow-ish image) happened to completely fit her vision of Mr. Wolf, the not-so-big-or-bad wolf in her story.  

Our first meeting, like the rest of our meetings, took place in the cafe area of a supermarket (A Publix, if I remember correctly).  There, the author explained her vision and the story, and I received the manuscript of the book.  I was immediately charmed.  The story was inspired by her experiences with having Sensory Processing Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder, and having to grow up with her differentness and creativity being squashed or misunderstood by other people.   It follows a lonely, unusual little girl named Rose who has conversations with a friendly and compassionate wolf who keeps her company in the woods as she grows up.   It really struck a chord in me, since I have ADD and a tiny pinch of other stuff, and I've had to deal with being different from most of my peers my entire life.  My dedication to the story's meaning turned my motivation up to bursting.

Alongside the story itself and the format of the book, we also discussed character designs.  The author laid out the main features of each character, then endowed me with the creative liberty to interpret them in whatever way my artsy mind wished.  I told her I would do several different sketches for each one, send them to her, and get her feedback on which designs she preferred.  We set up a perpetual stream of ideas and communication by email that kept going throughout the rest of the illustration process.

Those we were pretty much cool on.  However, figuring out the design for older Rose proved to be more difficult.  

Now, my raw interpretation of older Rose was this:

I wanted to try and show Rose's trials and the things she managed to overcome through the design; a twenty-something year old woman in college, satisfied, strong, and sweet, but still with a lot of internal battle scars and insecurity-- a significantly older face, not your typical hollywood-pretty, but definitely beautiful.  However....  she looks really weary and kind of unhappy with those tired eyes and her sleepy expression.  She's a realistic human being, yes, but it looks a little... scary.  It looks a little too grown up.  'They Call Me Strange' isn't a super light or simple story, but the author needed a grown-up Rose that was a little more friendly and definitely happy with the decisions she made for herself.  

...So, with the author giving me feedback at each step, I started off erasing things and modifying little bits of the design, making older Rose a little more emotionally pretty.  However, things still weren't working quite right.  The dilemma was solved, though, at the next meeting.  The author was looking up a reference on what she wanted in the design, and I was sketching out another design on a piece of paper.  When we compared our ideas, it turned out that we'd had a genuinely serendipitous mind-merge!  My new design (the original sketch of which I unfortunately cannot find) was exactly what she was looking for.  So, look at the previous designs... and then look at something completely different! 

Older Rose's progressing design (left) in sketches and Older Rose's final design (above) in an illustration which was not in the published book.

We finally had older Rose's design down.  I was already a couple watercolor pieces into illustrating this book... I'll go ahead and talk about the actual illustrations now, but first, take a look at some storyboarding stuff...

These are just the big ones.  I did a ton of little sketches all over the manuscript, which I won't post here due to this being the actual manuscript of the children's book containing the actual words of the story.  It would deprive many people of an incentive to buy the book in print if I just put the manuscript up here, wouldn't it? (not to mention it would be kind of illegal)

When I started the illustrations, I started at a brisk pace.  I tried my best to get three done per week, with schoolwork and everything, but of course I couldn't maintain that without siphoning away my homework, personal, writing, and study time.  The author was completely understanding about it, since she knows what it takes to be a student.  

Nonetheless, crafting the illustrations (each an 8.5 x 11 watercolor piece) was a labor of love I worked relentlessly at.  I illustrated at home.  I illustrated in art class at school.  I illustrated in Physics class when we had free time in there.  I illustrated in waiting rooms.  One one occasion I illustrated sitting at a cast iron outdoor table in the Marietta Square while I was eating pizza with my sister, my mom, and a couple friends.  Heck, I even illustrated in the car and on the bus home from school.  Enjoy this little photo journey (below) in which I document my paints and brushes and illustrations and admiration of glittery sunlit water bottles.


I listened to a lot of music, too.  Being the kind of kid who creates playlists to fit their mood and certain tasks they're doing, I made a lot of little playlists to draw and paint to.  There's one album I listened to often-- Jónsi's Go.  I also listened to a lot of Elsiane, Fleet Foxes, and Sigur Rós while I illustrated.  

I picked out music that seemed to really fit the story or the particular scene I was illustrating, and these went above and beyond.  It helped me get in touch with the soul of the story, even when I had a rough day or a busy schedule; Music has always been important to my creative process, whether I'm listening to my soul jams or fiddling around in Mixcraft, my music composition software. 

The illustration process was thrillingly fun and filled with so much learning, and I'm so glad I got to have that experience.  It was beautiful to help a fellow creative person realize a narrative work and to really participate in bringing it to life.  I've also had an ambition to write and illustrate stories myself and, coming away from this, I feel more capable than ever of doing that.  I currently have two ideas for very picturey children's books brewing and an entire novel (young adult to adult range) in the works that I plan on incorporating my art into.  Illustrating someone else's story was great, and now I'm ready to start illustrating my own!

You can find Alexa Andres on TUMBLR here.  She has a published a fair amount of other books since we worked together on They Call Me Strange, and for each one she gives a section of the sales profits to charity.  I haven't read any yet at the moment, but I hope to.  You can find a list by clicking here.  Check them out if you have a chance.

You can get They Call Me Strange on AMAZON.COM and BARNES & NOBLE.  If you live in the Atlanta area, you also might be able to find it in certain malls; I've had a couple of my friends tell me they saw it.  It's also in a neat little New Age shop called "Forever And A Day" in Woodstock.  Thanks for reading, fellow humans!  I really appreciate it!


Last but not least... is a picture of the final, physical book!