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Animation around the world: Arts Academy students and faculty enjoy action-packed fall semester

From on-campus workshops to speaking engagements in China, Director of Animation Briana Yarhouse reflects on a whirlwind of artistic, educational, and professional opportunities.

Arts Academy animation students and Director of Film & New Media Michael Mittelstaedt pose outside the National Gallery of Canada

Arts Academy animation students and Director of Film & New Media Michael Mittelstaedt (rear) pose outside the National Gallery of Canada. Photo courtesy of Briana Yarhouse.

This fall, Interlochen Arts Academy animation students and faculty engaged with peers and professionals from around the world through a flurry of on- and off-campus opportunities.

From a trip to Ottawa, Canada for the Ottawa International Animation Festival to a weeklong residency with Summer Camp Island creator Julia Pott, students enjoyed rich opportunities to attend film screenings, collaborate across artistic divisions, create original films, and pitch their ideas to industry leaders.

No member of the Interlochen animation community was busier than Director of Animation Briana Yarhouse, who added a number of high-profile professional engagements to her action-packed fall semester.

“I’m exhausted, but it’s for a good cause,” Yarhouse says. “The students have loved it.”

From Interlochen to Ottawa

In September, Yarhouse, Director of Film & New Media Michael Mittelstaedt, and seven returning animation students traveled to Ottawa, Canada for the Ottawa International Animation Festival—the world’s second-largest animation festival.

“Considering that the festival is within driving distance, it felt like a missed opportunity not to take students to an event that would expose them to animation, filmmakers, and peers from around the world,” Yarhouse says.

During the Sept. 21-24 festival, students enjoyed film screenings, met the directors of Netflix’s Nimona, visited the National Gallery of Canada, and participated in the festival’s robust programming for teenage animators.

“The Ottawa festival supports high school students in a very kind and loving way,” Yarhouse says. “It includes two days of programming that’s dedicated just to high school students. Colleges have a day where you can learn more about each school and show them your portfolio. The festival also provides free tickets for high school students to see the guest speakers and showings on Saturday.”

Yarhouse, who is an active member of the International Animated Film Association (known as ASIFA), also had the opportunity to celebrate one of her peers at the festival. During the Sept. 23 awards ceremony, Yarhouse announced Maureen Furniss as the recipient of the 2023 ASIFA Prize.

Interlochen Center for the Arts Director of Animation Briana Yarhouse announces Maureen Furniss as the recipient of the 2023 ASIFA Prize at the Ottawa International Animation Festival on Sept. 23, 2023. Video credit: Michael Mittelstaedt.

“It was very exciting to be able to present the award to Maureen Furniss, who wrote the book which has become the standard for animation history,” Yarhouse says. “To have my students there to see me present the award was so cool.”

Exploring a living canvas

Less than 24 hours after returning from Ottawa, Yarhouse departed for Grand Rapids, Michigan to serve as a juror for the ArtPrize competition.

Founded in 2009, ArtPrize is one of the world’s largest and most-attended art events. The 2023 competition, which ran Sept. 14 through Oct. 1, featured artwork by 950 artists from 12 countries and 30 states across 150 venues, transforming the city of Grand Rapids into a living canvas. The competition presents two types of awards: Its top prizes, which are determined by public vote; and its Juried and Visibility awards, which are selected by a panel of professional artists.

Yarhouse juried the competition’s digital and queer art categories. During the closing ceremony at Rosa Parks Circle, Yarhouse presented the Prism Award for Contemporary Queer Artists to Christopher Shields for his work "Technophobia” and the Crossroads Award to Minyoung Kwak for “Isa(Moving)”.

“I was hiking all over Grand Rapids, looking at artwork, and bumping into old colleagues from my time as a professor of digital media at Kendall College of Art and Design,” Yarhouse says. “It was a really awesome experience.”

24 hours of condensed creativity

Students work on their film for the 24 HOURS Animation Contest

Students work on their film for the 24 HOURS Animation Contest. Photo courtesy of Briana Yarhouse.

From Oct. 13 to 14, 20 Interlochen Arts Academy students participated in the 21st annual 24 HOURS Animation Contest.

As its name suggests, the contest challenges teams of high school and college animators from around the world to create a 30-second film in just 24 hours. Submissions are judged by a panel of industry experts, who award prizes to the top-five college teams and best high school team, plus a special behind-the-scenes prize.

“Every year, students are asked to make a film based on a prompt; they don’t know what the prompt is going to be until they step into the competition,” Yarhouse says. “They have to create everything from scratch within 24 hours. It’s a very intense time.”

Arts Academy students first participated in the contest in 2022, placing fourth in the high school division. This year, four teams of five students—composed of both animation students and students from other artistic divisions—competed. Although this year’s participants were not among the competition’s prize winners, Yarhouse praised the students for their persistence and teamwork.

“It was a great experience for the students,” Yarhouse says. “My goal was for them to build teams, collaborate, and to create a film in 24 hours. One student said to me, ‘I learned and grew so much in that 24-hour period. It was like having 24 classes in a row.’”

Communicating across cultures

Yarhouse stamped her passport again in late October, when she traveled to ChangChun, China for the ChangChun Animation and Comic Festival and China (Jilin) Animation Conference at the Jilin Animation Institute.

“It was a big event with lots of pomp and circumstance: They literally had fireworks going off on stage,” Yarhouse says. “All of these people were there: party executives, the mayor of the city, the heads of the institute, and leaders of the TV and film industry in China.”

“I was one of the guests of honor. There were cameras flashing everywhere. They had me imprint my hand in gold plaster for a plaque that would hang on the wall at the institute, and I had an interpreter who went with me everywhere.”

Yarhouse gave two presentations during the festivities.

“My first presentation, ‘Envisioning a Kinder World: Promoting Education, Collaboration, and Understanding with Animation,’ was based on two facets of my own experience,” Yarhouse says. “The first is my role as director of International Animation Day for ASIFA, which celebrates the birth of animation. The second is being Director of Animation at Interlochen.”

“I have always firmly believed that one person can make a difference in the world,” Yarhouse continues. “It doesn’t necessarily take money to make the world a better place: Sometimes it’s making connections, helping people to see through each other’s eyes, and showing them all the things that we share in common—no matter what kind of government we live under, what kind of religion we follow, how old we are, or how financially stable we are. Animation is a great leveler: It communicates to all kinds of people from different demographics. As a person who wants to make a difference in the world, bringing about a worldwide cultural exchange is very exciting to me.”

Yarhouse’s second lecture, “Dreaming to be Gods: Creating the Illusion of Life Before the Birth of Cinema,” examined the pre-history of animation through the lens of the Prometheus mythology.

“Animation came out of this desire to bring life to the world, which has fascinated humankind since we could think,” Yarhouse says. “My presentation talks about how we’re on this pathway as humans to bring life to the inanimate–this obsession with recreating ourselves.”

Yarhouse also had the opportunity to share her unique perspective on animation and technology during an interview for the Institute’s television network.

“One of the questions they asked me was ‘How do you keep up with all the new technology?’” Yarhouse says. “I said, ‘I don’t. I care about creating students who are fearless, who can try new things without being afraid, and who can dream up new ideas. I want them to understand the principles of movement, the principles of drawing, and the importance of experimentation. They’ll learn the technology when they need it.’ That blew their minds!”

Creating a pitch with Julia Pott

Animator Julia Pott examines a student’s work

Animator Julia Pott (left) examines a student’s work during her Oct. 29 - Nov. 3 visit.

As October turned to November, Yarhouse fulfilled a dream a year in the making: Bringing Cartoon Network animator and Summer Camp Island creator Julia Pott to Interlochen.

“As soon as I got this job at Interlochen, Julia was the first person I reached out to,” Yarhouse says. “I thought her story would resonate so well with students. She’s very much an introvert, and she had a lot of anxiety about being a showrunner, running the writing room, working with people who intimidated her because they are so amazing at their jobs, and feeling like an imposter. She had all these wonderful stories to bring to the table.”

Over the course of five days, Pott worked with 30 Arts Academy students to develop concepts for original animated television shows. The students—who were divided into five teams of six—spanned the Academy’s Film & New Media, Animation, Visual Arts, Interdisciplinary Arts, Music Production & Engineering, Singer-Songwriter, and Creative Writing majors.

“One of my goals at Interlochen is to do these kinds of collaborations, bringing together all these different artistic points of view, mixing things up, and seeing what happens in the process,” Yarhouse says.

Pott’s visit culminated on Thursday, Nov. 2 with a live presentation in Dendrinos Chapel and Recital Hall. During the event, students pitched their show concepts to a panel of industry professionals, including Interlochen alumnus Don Dixon (IAA 93-96) and ASIFA President Deanna Morse. Each pitch included character designs, storyboards, sample episode plots, and an original theme song.

“It was a huge success,” Yarhouse says. “The students loved working with Julia, and the energy levels were high. The reviewers were blown away and had some really good critiques and comments for the students. Some of the groups have decided to continue developing their pitches on their own time.”

An audience beyond Interlochen

A painting of a dark-skinned hand grasping an orange in front of a cloud-filled sky.

Amidst the bustle of animation activities both on and beyond Interlochen’s campus, a film created by Interlochen animators was screened at the Cultural Animation Film Festival (CAFF) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Originally created for the Academy’s world premiere performance at David Geffen Hall, “MUKTI: Poems of Liberation” screened at CAFF’s Saturday Night Animation Show on Oct. 14, 2023. The short film brings to life three poems based on the personal experiences of several Arts Academy students.

“MUKTI: Poems of Liberation” is the second student-created animated film to be featured at a notable animation festival: In May, the animated poem “In Which You Are Sculpted” screened at the Unspooled Film Festival at the University of Wisconsin - Stout.

“Within just the first year of animation at Interlochen, we’ve already gotten some of our films accepted into festivals,” Yarhouse says. “We’re doing pretty well. I think we have a lot that we can build on.”