A Prelude Before 'Prelude'
Mitra Shahidi, Academy of Art University 2010 alumna, has been hitting the film festival circuit this year with her animated short film, Prelude. The film tells the story of a young rebellious girl, her actions and her uptight grandfather, which leads to a stronger and closer relationship between the two.
Shahidi started Prelude as a traditional animation collaborative project as a student at the Academy, under the supervision of Graduate Director Sherrie H. Sinclair, and describes the hardships and optimism that came along with the process of making her film. She reminisced about her time at the university, the ambitious drive of the film and how it felt when she started submitting Prelude into festivals.
Mitra Shahidi. Courtesy of the School of Animation and Visual Effects.
Courtesy of the School of Animation and Visual Effects.
Before you graduated in fall 2010, what was it like to be a student at the Academy?
What I loved most was the flexibility. I was able to waive the classes I needed in order to take classes I wanted. The Academy supporting and providing resources for the movie, Prelude, was an extraordinary opportunity. There was a very tight-knit community at the Powell building of fellow artists which made going to school a joy. I have a degree in 3-D character animation, but I never spent as much time doing 3-D as I should have, because I was focusing on the film pretty much the entire time. It was really fun.
What was the inspiration for the storyline and characters of Prelude?
A few years before I started this film, I had composed a little piece of music - the music you hear in the beginning of Prelude. The more I repeated this melody on the piano, the more I imagined a little girl in a dark little room building something. After about a year of brainstorming with friends and rounds of iteration the final story was born. It was a very educational and enlightening process. Most of my ideas for stories come from music.
(L–R) Shauna Lacoste, Sherrie H. Sinclair, Shawn Finn, Mike Walters, Toby Hefflin, Mitra Shahidi, Priscila Vertamatti, Javier Espinoza, Anand Vedawala, Jessie Lu and Abigail Lee. Courtesy of the School of Animation and Visual Effects.
What programs were used on Prelude? Was there one you preferred over the other?
We used whatever program we got our hands on. Photoshop, Flash, Premiere, After Effects, Nuke, 3D StudioMax, Maya, Toonboom, Houdini, Flipbook, Monkeyjam—you name it. I prefer using pencil and paper over all of them, because it is the quickest and simplest way to get my ideas across.
Toonboom ended up being a lifesaver in terms of coloring all those frames and reading the cleanup animation lines. Nuke also won my heart for compositing and the ease of using nodes for everything, especially for rendering shots. I can’t imagine having to do all that with Photoshop, although, Photoshop has come a long way in animation since then.
There is traditional hand-drawn and 3-D animation in Prelude. Were there any technical difficulties or hardships when it came to working with other students?
Yes, we all came from different skill levels and different years into our study. Most of us were learning how to just animate, and very [few] of us knew how to do any 3-D.
Making the 2-D and 3-D elements look like they belonged in the space was challenging. At some point we had this crazy idea of making the whole first two minutes of animation in one camera move, and to animate everything on top of the camera move. Of course that idea got discarded after a few months. But we do have several shots where we had to print the moving background frame-by-frame and animate by hand on top of it. It was a really ambitious thing to do.
Working with other students was super fun! We had some tension but that wasn’t even one percent of the time. Somehow the whole journey was full of laughter, fun and excitement. It certainly taught me how to collaborate and work in a team. First and foremost, I learned that in order to get along with people, I needed to speak in their “mental” language. I cannot assume people can read my mind, and I have to listen 90 percent of the time and talk 10 percent to make it efficient. Also, unjustifiable optimism is a must to keep the project’s overall mood upbeat.
What was the first festival you applied to? How did it feel to get accepted?
The first festival we were accepted into was the Los Angeles Animazspot Film Festival. It was very encouraging when I got the email. I started sending my film to a lot more festivals right away.
After we finished the film, everyone was four years older than when we started. We had a better eye for good art and our tastes had changed, so all of a sudden I had a DVD with 45 people’s blood and sweat, but I was reluctant to send it anywhere because I thought it wasn’t good enough. After a while, I decided that sitting on it was not doing it justice, so I sent it to as many places as I could. Being accepted was a truly fantastic feeling.
Although Prelude has been completed and selected in many film festivals, are there any last minute changes you wish you could still make to it?
There are way too many things I would like to change. Digging into the compositing files again would be opening up a huge can of worms, and after years of finalizing it, I prefer to say, “It is what it is,” and move on. I recently burned it onto Blu-ray discs, and now I see a lot more things that I overlooked before. Some fixes on the credits are not as seamless as I thought they were, and color jumps between shots are way too obvious. But it’s too late now—it’s already been sent to so many places. So in short, yes, there are changes that could be made, but too many to actually roll my sleeves up and start fixing. Time to make peace with it and move on.
I heard that you were recently at the International Film Festival of Cinematic Arts (IFFCA) in Los Angeles. What was that like?
It was great. The films that were screening there were highly artistic and beautiful. Watching the film with other people who appreciate the art of storytelling was a very delightful experience. The next one is the Napa Valley Film Festival, which is a much bigger one, and I am super excited about it.
Courtesy of the School of Animation and Visual Effects.
Is there anything you are working on now? Any future projects we should be on the lookout for?
I am working on a social enterprise that has a mission of ending child sexual trafficking through visual storytelling. I have a small team, and we are working on the first animated short film, with a strong social message. It is called Maly, and it will probably be done next year. My studio is called PureStory and you can check it out at www.purestory.org.
I believe that visual storytelling, [whether it be] shorts or feature films, animation or live action, should be used to say something or make people feel something. I am amazed at the number of films out there with absolutely no meaningful message and that just look pretty. Why put so much work into something if it won’t emote anything? Why talk if you have nothing to say?
Do you have any advice for current Academy students who will be graduating soon?
With my current understanding and level of experience, I would have never initiated such an ambitious project. But I am glad I was young and hungry for creativity so I did it without fear. My only advice would be to never let fear take you over and bite into bigger chunks than other people might recommend. If you think you can chew it, you are probably right. Always push yourself and never allow fear to paralyze you.
I have to admit I have lost that insane positivity and passion having been in the gaming industry, and I am desperately working on getting it back. Just never lose it in the first place, and stay hungry. Don’t think too much, and just jump into whatever project you want to do headfirst. Have fun.
Below is a list of festivals where Prelude has screened:
Asheville Cinema Festival 2014 (Official Selection) - Asheville North Carolina
Napa Valley Film Festival 2014 (Official Selection) - Napa California
International Film Festival of Cinematic Arts 2014 (Official Selection) - Los Angeles California
Animazspot Film Festival 2014 (Official Selection) - Los Angeles California
Nineworlds Film Festival 2014 (WINNER in Short Animation Category) - London, UK
MovingMedia International Student Film Festival 2014 (WINNER 2nd Place in Animation Category) - Detroit
Laughlin International Film Festival 2014 (Official Selection) - Laughlin Nevada
Mosaic Film Festival 2014 (FINALIST) - Grand Rapids, Michigan
For more information on Prelude, please visit www.preludethefilm.com.