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Frame by frame: ASU animators draw their imaginations into reality

In ASU’s animation program, students and faculty find their voices through different animated mediums


Frame by frame: ASU animators draw their imaginations into reality

In ASU’s animation program, students and faculty find their voices through different animated mediums

By the hands of animators, the lifeless come to life. With every frame, a universe develops, brought to life by the whirlwind of intense emotions the characters experience as they embark on mystical adventures. Animated classics, like “The Lion King,” “Spirited Away,” “Shrek” and more, invite us into an illustrated world where fantasy has no boundaries.

ASU’s animation program in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts gives ambitious creatives the tools to draw their imaginations into life by allowing them to explore animation production processes, like figure drawing, 3D modeling and storyboarding. Students and faculty alike are putting their pens to the page to stretch the bounds of animation beyond the mainstream, from telling the buried stories of marginalized groups to following the forefront of new animation technologies.

While 2D animation has existed since the 1800s, new technological innovations are shaking up the industry. With the popularization of 3D animation in movies like
“Frozen” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” moviegoers aren’t only watching films when they come to the theater — they’re watching the future of animation unfold. At ASU, animation students practice a combination of 2D and 3D animation to familiarize themselves with both styles.

Katelyn Bell, a junior in the program, selected 3D modeling as her pathway to learn how to build character models for video games and animated movies. A 3D modeler designs the structure and appearance of characters and background props before 3D animators breathe life into them with motion.

Growing up, Bell dabbled in a range of art mediums. Drawing was her introduction to the craft, but then she joined a fashion class and finally a theater program, which opened her eyes to the possibilities of art.

After her director assigned her villain roles to help her “reach inside herself,” Bell realized art allowed her to experience a controlled catharsis by which she could express and understand her feelings.

“It gave me a kind of outlet to portray negative emotions in a space that wouldn’t be taken the wrong way,” Bell said. “I felt like it was healthy for me to be able to do that, and it taught me a lot about my personality.”

Despite her penchant for theater, Bell was always drawn to digital art, and she also believed she’d earn a more stable income as an artist by putting her technological skills to use. When it came time for college, she knew where she would go: ASU’s animation program.

But once she was in the program, Bell was disappointed by the lack of formal “structure” in her animation classes. She said it felt like animation was treated as a hobby or pet project instead of a serious industry.

“It feels like [the program doesn’t] really have a lot of faith in us to make it professionally,” Bell said.

Because working to further develop the program animation clubs like Women in Animation at ASU are working to further develop the program by planning town halls with faculty to discuss and resolve issues, Bell said.

“I feel like animation is such a wide topic of learning, and I expected to have learned every little detail,” she said. “It feels like I’m only brushing the surface of every type of animation.”

Exploring the art

Ashlynn Dang, a junior studying animation and vice president of Women in Animation at ASU, has always wanted her work to be shown on the silver screen — even if she’s operating behind the scenes. Her dream is to lead a crew, establish a film’s visual style and dazzle an audience as an art director, whose job is to hone the artistic vision of an animated movie and communicate it to the rest of their team.

Dang aspires to work at DreamWorks Animation, where she can help create movies like the studio’s critically acclaimed 2022 movie “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish,” a stylistic fairy tale film that a critic even nominated as the “best animated film” of the year, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

“The idea of making a universe for people to escape everyday reality would be sick,” Dang said.

A reviewer for Polygon compared the storybook-inspired animation style of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” to the Academy Award-winning 2018 film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The “Into the Spider-Verse” film, which is the first movie in the Spider-Verse Saga, is highly praised for ushering in a new era of American animation due to its punchy, comic book-inspired animation style.

For every animated movie, there are thousands of animators working behind the scenes to “bring that fantasy to life,” Dang said. Over 1,000 animators worked on the second film in the Spider-Verse Saga, this year’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” which is fitting for such an “artistically ambitious project,” according to The Verge.

“I want people to keep that in mind when they watch their favorite films,” Dang said. “It doesn’t take a team of five, but a team of thousands of animators to make [a film] come together.”

While Dang hopes to use her talents to make family-friendly movies that both adults and children may enjoy, animation isn’t just a form of escapism. In fact, it’s a powerful visual learning tool for people of all ages, but especially for some of animation’s most die-hard fans: children.

A 2022 study found animation is an entertaining means to enhance visual attention and cognition, especially among children. Animated characters and their well-crafted motions stimulate viewers’ visual attention and help them understand concepts better, demonstrating how animation goes beyond storytelling — it also impacts viewers cognitively and psychologically, with applications in advertising, teaching and communications.

But Tony Pham doesn’t need studies to tell him animation can be used as a powerful educational tool. As the founder of the Valley-based TKMV Studio, Pham and his company have been creating narrative content, including animated TV shows and illustrated children’s books, to educate children about diversity and inclusion for years.

TKMV Studio also provides its services, including filming, creating 3D animations and illustrating children’s books, to create content for clients outside the company.

Pham’s studio is currently working with Arizona PBS, housed at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to create “Exploring with Yazzy & Jazzy,” the studio’s first in-house animated series. The show focuses on the science of the Arizona desert “to provide lower- income youth an opportunity to find a new career path,” according to the studio’s website. It follows twin robot sisters who have landed on Earth for a scout mission. 

“I want to be able to showcase all the beauty that Arizona has to offer in a 3D style,” Pham said. “The point of the project is to showcase that learning can be difficult but also fun, engaging and vibrant.”

Animation has always had a presence in Pham’s life, starting from his childhood. Along the way, he said he discovered this “expansive and vibrant” medium was the best way for him to showcase his creativity. “Unlike filming, you don’t need to get on camera,” Pham said. “You don’t need a location. But with animation, you can download different assets to create your own world within minutes.”

Questioning the narrative

Animation isn’t just a medium of imagination used to create the fictional films of children’s daydreams. Beyond that, animation can also be used to tell stories about real-life social injustices.

Andrea Benge, assistant professor of 3D animation in the School of Art, is a multimedia artist who “interrogates the gender grotesque, the idea that established gender roles and current power structures inherently connect sex and violence,” according to her website. Her films reference pop culture and contain imagery that evokes female nudity in order to reflect her experiences as a woman and how “people don’t let us own our own bodies,” Benge said.

“The female nude itself is just a loaded ... image,” she said. “It gets censored a lot and has a lot of very strong reactions.”

Even though Benge’s work presents adult topics, it draws inspiration from the airbrushed, candy-colored designs of toy company Lisa Frank Inc. by incorporating rainbows and childish, cartoony imagery. This paints a “superficial” and “seductive” veneer over her films that makes the heaviness of the story more palatable to viewers, she said.

Benge’s glossy, neon animations explore themes like adolescence, personal experiences, puberty and sexuality, with rabbits appearing as a recurring motif. She said it started as a reference to “Alice in Wonderland’s” White Rabbit and how he “brings you down into another world,” but she later layered this idea with the cultural symbolism of Playboy’s bunny logo.

“A rabbit is a prey animal,” Benge said. “Women are hunted sometimes, and you have to protect yourself from the predator. I find that the rabbit is a great kind of representation of the idea of innocence and how those things melt together.”

Rather than platforming an explicit stance on an issue, Benge’s films depict and question existing social narratives. According to her website, her award-winning animated short film “Ambulance” served as an “uncomfortable reflection on police brutality and superficial youth” by telling the story of a party she attended growing up. By the end of the night, there was nothing to celebrate. Just down the street, an acquaintance was killed by the police, she said.

“Why did that happen?” Benge said. “What really happened? I don’t know, and I still don’t know. There was no answer to it. I never got an answer. I don’t even remember the kid’s name.”

Like a true artist, what she did remember was the imagery. The jarring contrast between the wealthy, affluent area and the senseless violence of her acquaintance’s death has stuck with her since, a memory immortalized in “Ambulance.”

“We need to question it, think about it,” Benge said.

Amplifying marginalized voices

Sujin Kim, assistant professor of animation at ASU’s School of Art and an experimental filmmaker, also uses animation to amplify the voices of those who have been neglected historically and socially — specifically, women in South Korea.

In 2021, she created “Unforgotten,” an animated short film on sexual violence against Korean women during World War II for her MFA thesis at the California Institute of the Arts. That year, the film won a gold medal in domestic animation at the Student Academy Awards, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The film tells the story of Korean “comfort women,” a euphemism for women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II from 1932-1945. Many historians estimate between 50,000-200,000 were enslaved, but the exact number is still being debated. While the vast majority of the women were Korean, the women also hailed from the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other countries occupied by the army. Many died or committed suicide due to mistreatment and physical and emotional stress. It was one of the largest instances of state- sponsored sexual slavery in history.

The film’s visuals feel like a terrifying fever dream, with the women fragmented into bits and pieces, like broken figurines or a pile of scraps about to be scattered by the wind — together, but never whole.

“Instead of re-traumatizing those victims through violent images, I tried to deliver what they experienced through surreal visuals,” Kim said.

In Korea, the women who survived to return to their hometowns were judged by the rest of society, as sexual-assault survivors there were generally ostracized. Many of the women even considered themselves “‘dirty’ and ‘stained,’” according to the Taipei Times. The stigma society imposed upon these survivors silenced them for decades, robbing them of the chance to tell their stories, Kim said.

It was not until August 1991 that their silence was broken when Kim Hak-soon became the first survivor to speak publicly about the atrocity. Just four months later, 35 members of the Association of Korean Victims sued the Japanese government in Tokyo District Court for violating their human rights during World War II.

“Just by revealing what they experienced, they clearly delivered a message to the next generation,” Kim said. “Their willingness [to be on] the forefront of sharing their story is not something everybody can do. That was my focus.”

Animation can already be a long and arduous process, painstakingly taken frame by frame. On top of that, Kim said animators who tell the stories of marginalized groups have an additional responsibility to ensure accuracy and exercise care. Throughout the animation process, Kim constantly asked herself if she was presenting an authentic picture of the women and the tribulations they endured. With “Unforgotten,” she aimed not only to raise awareness of the atrocity but also to highlight how survivors later reclaimed the narrative and became activists.

“It is very important, as a next generation, to understand your roles and duties to share those voices with people who’ve never learned or heard of them,” Kim said. “Meanwhile, you should also be ready mentally to carry the pain.”

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen

This story is part of The Immunity Issue, which was released on Nov. 29, 2023. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @FatimaGabir on X.

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