Vashti Harrison is an award winning director who specializes in experimental cinema, she is the 2016 winner of the Field Notes Official Selection of Best Documentary for her short film Sixteen at the Sydney World Film Festival. Vashti is not only a passionate filmographer, she is also an extremely talented artist and illustrator who has studied at various prestigious campuses such as the California Institute of the Arts, also known as the Disney School of Animation, founded by Walt Disney himself. Her newest artistic project has been creating characters for the ever increasingly popular 3D animation short Hair Love. Hair Love is the story of Zuri, her father Steven and his struggle to style Zuri’s hair for a special event while her mother is away.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became involved with film making and illustration?
I’ve always been involved in art as a child I drew a lot. When I went to college I floundered a lot trying to find my place, but it was a chance encounter with a film class that turned everything around for me. It was during my time between grad school and undergrad, that I traveled to Trinidad for the first time and it really transformed my work. When I started making films, everything clicked, because I felt like that when I was drawing I wasn’t really saying anything with my art, I was just replicating things, but cinema really helped me to understand how to express myself. It was during my final year at CalArts, while I was working on my thesis film, that I took a bunch of animation classes, and it was this that rekindled my love for drawing.
What was it about Hair Love that connected with you personally and made you want to be involved?
When I heard Matt’s idea and I read the script, my vision for it was sort of immediate. I knew exactly what he wanted, and I had a very clear idea of what I could do and how well I could execute it. It was a special moment that I feel probably other artists will have experienced. Sometimes the ideas just don’t come, in the case of Matt’s story it was immediate, I got it.
What was your inspiration for the look of Zuri and her father Steven?
Matt looked through my pictures and gave me an idea of what he wanted, which was to make a 3D animated film, similar to the style of Pixar. That was my first jumping off point, because I know the vibe and aesthetic of what a Disney or Pixar character looks like. I told him typically the children characters have big heads and big eyes with small bodies, whereas men have small heads, small eyes and big bodies. It’s not a rule that has to be stuck to, but it’s a visual language that has been written at this point. I knew that he wanted to capture people’s attention and deliver a message immediately that this is a Pixar style animated film, and I would have the freedom to create the characters how I wanted.
There are only a hand full of POC (People of Color) 3D animated characters, so whenever there is one that is rendered, on Instagram or twitter its received very well. So I knew that now is not the time to push the envelope on character designs. I wanted something that would read immediately and people would say “Oh my God , that looks like a Disney movie, I want to see that movie”.
Having experienced the stigma we’ve faced as Black women about our looks and particularly our natural hair what does Hair Love mean to you?
The idea of not being comfortable with your own skin or your own hair specifically, is something that I definitely grew up with, and when I see these videos on Instagram of these little girls showing their moms how to do their hair, or they know exactly which products to use, it’s so normalised for them. They’ve never experienced this shame, frustration or stigma, so I really like the idea of Zuri, specifically that she is completely confidant in who she is. It makes the conflict within the story just about dad and daughter, and not about how good her hair is or how it should be. My dad has done my hair before, I remember he did braids, and thinking “oh, my dad is really good at doing braids”, within that memory, there is a fondness of remembering how good my dad was at doing braids. There was no political aspect to how he did the braids, or what kind they were. It was just about this intimate moment when my dad was away and my dad did my hair, so that’s why I’m interested in the love aspect of this story.
Vashti, along with being an award winning independent film maker, you have written and illustrated your first book, titled Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, can you say what lead you to create it and what the process has been like?
Writing has always been a part of my interest and plans, because story telling for me, is always about a marriage between image and writing. Sometimes that story needs to take place as a short film, sometimes it needs to take place as a written, or it can be executed as a painting with text to be written in addition to it. So the idea of storytelling has always been a part of my creative process. I knew I wanted to create a space for myself, to create content that is definitely in the kid-lit world, but I’ve always had a passion for drawing fashion and clothing and I really felt I needed to find a character that wasn’t a grown woman. The initial thought in my mind was to create these little ladies of fashion.
My agent and I put together a pitch and we sent it off the a bunch of different publishers, with the idea of making a book of between 30 and 40 African American women, all stylised in this “little lady’ character I created, to tell biographies of these African American women through history. There was a lot of interest so we held an auction with three publishers that showed interest, and I ended up going with Little Brown Books for Young Readers, whose parent company is the Hachette Book Group. For me these little characters were always little girls dressed up, I didn’t want to imply in any way shape or form, that these important women in American history were little lades, there is nothing little about them. The company was very supportive of the idea, so I signed on for a three book deal, Little Leaders is pretty open so definitely want to include some little boys and girls in the story. I created this book for American Black History month, but in the future I want to open it up to not just American women, there is a lot coming and I am very excited about it.
To learn more about Vashti and her work, you can visit her website at http://www.vashtiharrison.com/ and keep an eye out for Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History which is being released to book stores on December 5, 2017.
Carolyn Hinds: A Bajan nerd living in Toronto, who likes to speculate on plot theories for TV shows and is a major fan of Jane Austen. My favourite shows are The Walking Dead, The Expanse, and blackish and I will do karaoke anytime, anywhere.