An Animation Student Recalls the Evolution of Her Thesis Film

9 - An Animation Student Recalls the Evolution of Her Thesis Film

Student Academy Award Bronze Medal winner Hayley Foster with Frozen directors Shane Morris, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck.

Hayley Foster (Animation – B.A. ’13) is off to a good start this summer. Her senior thesis film Yamashita earned several awards, including a bronze medal at the Student Academy Awards and will be airing on Fine Cut: KCET’s Annual Festival of Student Film on Monday, July 7, 2014. She also got promoted. Now a storyboard artist on a new Scooby Doo show at Warner Bros., she previously worked as a storyboard revisionist. Loglines sat down with Foster backstage at the Student Academy Awards to discuss her film Yamashita and how her LMU experience has prepared her for the real world.

Let’s take it back to the beginning. What was the genesis of Yamashita? I love history, and in high school I read Farewell to Manzanar for freshman summer reading, and it really affected me. When I came to LMU, I took an American Cultures class where there was a unit on Japanese-American internment. This allowed me to look at internment camps from a more scholarly point of view, as opposed to Farewell to Manzanar, which is very personal. As part of this class we had to do a photo analysis, and I chose a photo by Dorothea Lange with a little girl wearing a peacoat and an assignment tag on her lapel. The girl was in a holding center before she was shipped off to Manzanar, I knew this character had a story to tell. I did my paper analysis on it, and I knew I had to make it my thesis. In each class up until then I got to work on bringing her story to life.

It seems like from this process you were able to explore some dramatic themes. What were you looking to show with your film? I definitely wanted to delve into family, because my family is the most important thing to me. My grandfather died while I was in high school, and it was a turning point in my life. That’s who the grandfather character in Yamashita is based on: someone supportive, someone who connects to some part of yourself that maybe you don’t even know fully. He always supported my art, and in the movie, the grandfather supports the young girl’s interest in her heritage. Exploring family and different family dynamics was important. Also, in keeping with Japanese themes, they have something called “Mono no aware” which means “the pathos of things,” that nothing is permanent. The grandfather’s death, while sad, is a part of life and the human experience, as shown in the film by the leaves falling. There were also themes I wanted to leave up to audience interpretation, too.

I loved the style of the film. Was it fully hand drawn or computer animated? It’s hand drawn on the computer. [Laughs]

What was that process like? Well, I start with the storyboard, and that’s the rough outline of where I want the character to go into the space. I made background layouts to know the correct perspective, and then put those into a program called TV Paint. It gives you flexibility to give the film a hand drawn pencil look via raster graphic, so I’d take the images into TVPaint and then animate the characters.

Oh, wow, that sounds like an intensive process. How long did it take? I did a storyboard in my junior and senior years; I continued to finesse the storyboard and make it more specific and animated the final scene where she’s at the foot of the mountain in my first semester of senior year. I completed the rest in about four or five months during my second semester. I couldn’t have done it without my great friends and my boyfriend, Zachary Wong (Animation – B.A. ’10) who composited the entire film.

I’m sure this led to some unique challenges. The most challenging thing was getting Yamashita to look the way I wanted. In my mind, I had a certain image, and I’m still developing as an artist, even if I am a Student Academy Award nominee, which is incredible.

To shift gears a bit, you had the opportunity to attend a dinner with the Academy’s Board of Governors. What was that like? I had the honor of talking to Simon Otto, who is a head character animator at DreamWorks. He’s worked on How to Train Your Dragon, but he’s also worked on Prince of Egypt. It’s one of my favorite movies because it is so powerful and dramatic, and it’s where my style and interest leans. Just talking to him about his craft and how DreamWorks has changed over the years, and how he had to adapt quickly when they closed their 2D unit was really inspiring.

What has the transition been like into the professional ranks? It’s been wonderful. One of my professors at LMU, Jay Oliva, who is a storyboard artist and director at Warner Bros, brought me over to work there. He was so great about mentoring me through the process. Working as a revisionist at Warner Bros, where you help clean up artist’s work, allows you to see what the artist’s work is like and how to approach a scene, so the transition to storyboard artist was pretty easy. It felt like an extended class, albeit one I could get fired from. [laughs] The people there are friendly and have been great to work with.

Seems like Jay had a great impact on you. Is he a source of inspiration? His storyboard class was definitely the beginning of figuring out what I wanted to do. He does a great job of bringing students into Warner Bros. and giving them the opportunity to work, which is invaluable to the school and the students. All of the teachers in the animation department work for the betterment of the students and help us succeed, as long as we’re willing to put in the work.

Okay, final question. How did LMU help you discover your style? My style I think is based on the works of Hayo Myazaki. The way LMU helps students is that if they have a sense of what they want to do, they help foster it. The teachers were shocked that I chose to do a nine-minute animated short by myself, but they worked to help me accomplish what would become Yamashita.

10 - An Animation Student Recalls the Evolution of Her Thesis Film