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The artist’s eye: a conversation with Briana Yarhouse, Interlochen’s Director of Animation
“We are in a golden age of animation,” says Yarhouse, whose work has been featured in festivals around the world.
From making flip books to crafting business presentations, Briana Yarhouse has seen it all. Yarhouse’s international experience and broad interests set her apart as a difference-maker in the animation industry, and a valuable resource for her students.
Yarhouse was hired in fall of 2022 as Interlochen’s newest Director of Animation. Her work has played in festivals from the Berlin Film Festival to the Canlandıranlar Animators Festival in Istanbul, Turkey. She’s a former professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, a respected animation juror, and a speaker and writer at prominent international festivals.
Here, she shares valuable insights into her career and offers tips to students interested in pursuing animation.
How did you get started in animation? Are there any early memories or influences that brought you to this point?
I got started in animation in fourth grade, when someone showed me how to make flip books and rolled paper animations. I could take two pieces of paper, curl one with a pencil, and roll it back and forth to create an animation. I was so excited by that idea that I just kept making them even when I couldn't afford to do it. I didn't have any pads of paper, so I would cut paper out of newspapers and tape them together to make little flip books for Christmas. That was the start of me experiencing the magic of animation.
What were the first steps in your animation career?
I went to school for illustration, but from the very beginning animation has been a passion of mine. I began to work in animation in the 90’s, when computers became tools that were used in a variety of different industries. I started using various computer software programs to create my own hand-drawn animation. I was working for a company at that time doing screen printing and color separation, all by hand. I would come in on weekends and lunches to learn new programs, new software, new technology, because I saw it as a real key to accessibility. The potentiality of it was just so exciting.
You’ve done a lot of freelance work throughout your career. Can you talk about your experience of that?
I spun myself out of that position into doing freelance animation, web design, and illustration. A lot of the work I did in the past was with industrial animation. I worked for businesses doing presentations that they needed, everything from Herman Miller to mom-and-pop shops. I wanted to leave myself the space in my life to create my own short films. My passion was to have a lifestyle that would allow me to feed a family, make my rent and mortgage payments, and still have time to create my vision of what I wanted to do with animation. I did that for many years.
Teaching is more than just how you can talk about something. It's about sitting down with a student, mentoring them, walking them through a process, drawing collaboratively with them, and showing them how things work.
Before coming to Interlochen, you taught at Kendall College of Art and Design. What got you into teaching?
I always told people that I was never going to be a teacher because I can't put two words together. I'm an artist, I'm a writer, but not a teacher. Then, when I got the opportunity to do some workshops, I realized that teaching is more than just how you can talk about something. It's about sitting down with a student, mentoring them, walking them through a process, drawing collaboratively with them, and showing them how things work. A lot of teaching happens when I'm sitting over your shoulder and we're creating things together.
You’ve been able to show several of your films at international festivals. Why is doing that so important to building a strong career in animation?
It’s important to get your work out there so that you can become part of a larger community. What's happening in animation crosses borders so easily. Right now we are in a golden age of animation, where just about everything that you see has animation touching it in some way, from TV commercials, the games that you play, to the training videos, films, and TV shows you watch—whatever it might be. Animation is everywhere, and it communicates no matter what age somebody is. It doesn't matter what language you speak or your social, economic, or political background: animation communicates.
If you can get a piece into a festival, it can travel around the world; it can touch a lot of lives. When your name gets known, people start to reach out to you and say “Wow, that is amazing what you did.”
What are some ideas, themes, or storylines that you find yourself returning to again and again in your art?
I find myself drawn to collaboration as a medium for looking at the world, understanding who we are as a people, and having empathy for others’ identities. I also focus on those magical places we all encounter—maybe it's taking a walk along Green Lake, seeing a leaf move, and understanding the dynamics that go into that moment. The power of the artist's eye draws you towards something that might just be part of your mundane life until it suddenly takes on the magic of what it really is. It's a moment distilled that has echoes through all of reality. That's the kind of thing I'm interested in.
The power of the artist's eye draws you towards something that might just be part of your mundane life until it suddenly takes on the magic of what it really is.
What are your preferred mediums for animation?
I've worked digitally since the 90’s in hand-drawn animation, and I love the medium. Recently, I worked in a mixture of hand-drawn stop motion and pixelation, which is where you work in front of the camera and animate in location. My students employ all kinds of mediums including clay on glass, sand on glass, paper, digital—a whole variety of unique ways of expressing animation. I am interested in trying things I've never done before. That's really what drives me as an animator.
What brought you to Interlochen?
What brought me to Interlochen was knowing about the level of passion that occurs here, the history of Interlochen, and the level of goals and opportunities that students have. It's a chance to mold young lives at the critical point of high school. I've worked with high schoolers in the past, but being here at this intersection of passion, energy, and dynamic motivation is different. I'm one person, one seed, but through touching these lives I have the opportunity to change the world.
How do you connect with students? How would you describe your teaching style?
I teach in a variety of different ways. For instance, I'll walk a student outside and say, “Look around you and see all this movement. I want you to find three objects moving in space, start to draw them, and see if you can capture that movement. I know it's almost impossible to do. But let’s go into this knowing it's impossible to do and then see what comes out of it. What did we discover?” I want my students to learn to look at the world differently.
Why should young animators consider attending Interlochen Arts Academy? What is distinctive about the programs available here?
At Interlochen, you're going to have so many experiences you will never experience anywhere else on this planet. You will have opportunities to collaborate with students across all our arts disciplines. You will be impacted by some of the greatest writers, thinkers, and artists who are working today because we bring them here to talk to you. Who else does that? It's an amazing place.
Do you have any advice for young animators?
Draw lots of things. Look around you at what moves and how it changes. And most of all, find the things that are magical in your life. We’re all surrounded by magic. We disregard it as mundane, but everywhere you can look there's something unique or interesting that no one else is noticing. Find those things and instill them into your life. If you're moving clay, move clay! If you're drawing, draw! Be willing to make all the bad drawings you possibly can, so you can get them out of your system and get to the good drawings.
Are you working on any new projects or professional developments right now?
Currently I’m starting a collaboration with Karyna McGlynn at the Writing House. Karyna is an internationally-known poet, and we are starting a dialogue about what it looks like to cross-pollinate ideas from her poet’s perspective. What's it like to play in her sandbox? What's it like for her to play in my sandbox? We’re going to see what comes out of that.
What is something you’d say to a student that is interested in Animation at Interlochen?
If you're interested in Animation at Interlochen, I would say don't be afraid to apply! And keep making things. You don't have to have a lot of money or experience to get started in animation these days. You can pick up a phone or get a piece of paper and make an animation. The most important thing is just to keep doing it. Write stories, tell stories to your friends, listen to the stories your friends tell, and start writing down the things that you find interesting about their stories that you can take and make your own.
To learn more about Animation at Interlochen Arts Academy, click here.