by Juliana Scannelli ('23)
Growing up, everybody always says, “If you get famous, don’t forget the little people like me!”
However, the chances of someone becoming widely known are very slim. This is not the case for the Class of 2003 with their own famous Animation Director, Kirsten Lepore!
Since graduation, Lepore has been a part of the LA animating community. During her high school years, Lepore was interested in all things art. She was a part of the growing music department as a Percussion musician, performed in SBHS’s very own marching band, and played in the Jazz bands. The time she spent out of the band room was spent in the art rooms. Kirsten was interested in any art classes she could take and even made a mural for SBHS halls with one of her classmates.
In an exclusive interview with The Viking Vibe Lepore said, “I pirated some 2D animation software around [my] sophomore year at SBHS and spent all my free time outside of school bringing in inside jokes purely for the amusement of my friends. I think that was the first time I got really serious about animation as my potential career.”
Listed on her website as her first published 2D video is “Story from North America” which was created in May of 2007. Her three renditions of animation are the first to come up when Google Searched.
Lepore then graduated from the Maryland Institute of College of Art with her Bachelor's in Fine Arts. Lepore then graduated with her Master’s degree from the California Institution of the Fine Arts. After she flew out to LA to join their animation community, she met her husband, filmmaker, and animator Daniel Kwan, who directed Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. Currently, she and Kwan have one son, Gio, who will be turning four in 2023.
As an animator, Lepore struggled to get a job right out of college, seeing as most jobs required ‘prior experience’, which, when fresh out of college, was something Lepore did not have enough of. got her first job by networking, attending film festivals, and keeping a strong website presence where all of her work is showcased. After some freelance jobs, and when her short films started to bring in awards, people began to reach out to her with job positions.
“Some of those early jobs I got from doing web contests helped me build my portfolio early on. I also tried to stay true to my specific style, which attracted employers in the ad world because my style is sort of unique,” she said.
Currently, Lepore is hired by production companies for her many other talents including music videos, shorts, and ads. When more well-known, companies like Marvel have reached out to have her work on the “I am Groot Series” on Disney+.
Her famous five animated shorts include, “I am Groot, Groot’s First Steps”, “I am Groot, Groot Takes a Bath”, “I am Groot, The Little Guy”, “I am Groot, Magnum Oplis”, and “I am Groot, Groot’s Pursuit”, follow little Groot on his many mini adventures. The trailer for the shorts reached a high of over 19 million views on YouTube.
The idea for the beloved character, according to Lepore in an interview with Marvel.com, was to illustrate “stories that everyone had experienced growing up”. The original pitch to Marvel Studios was much longer than the five shows listed above, but eventually, the list was limited and the idea for “I am Groot” mini shorts series was underway.
However, the “I am Groot” series is not Lepore’s favorite work.
Lepore affirmed, “I think my proudest work is still ‘Hi Stranger’ even though it’s a short film. It feels the most ‘me’ and it was very gratifying to see that it resonated with so many people online as well.”
“Hi Stranger” has over 5 million views on YouTube and was published in May 2017. The video also has several reaction videos made by other YouTubers including REACT; the title of the video is “TEENS REACT TO HI STRANGER”. The claymation character in the video provides a zen feeling and the watchers can obtain a feeling of appreciation for the video. For a little less than 3 minutes, watchers can meditate and relax, as according to the bio under the video, “the film is made especially for you”.
Not only has the claymation made an impact on YouTube, but the short was featured in several publications and on The Late Show with Steven Colbert. In response, Colbert said, “Some people find it really comforting, and others want to know if you can take out a restraining order on a cartoon. In fact, some people have said, this is the most disturbing cartoon they’ve ever seen.”
The show then goes on to show another cartoon made to spook the audience even more.
Some might feel too much intimacy from the video, while others might find comfort and feel relief seeing as ‘Hi Stranger’ seems different from the ‘often abrasive internet’.
The work behind creating each video changes daily. The day-to-day job of an animator is constantly changing as it depends on the budgeting of the production. If Lepore is designing her project, then her days are spent designing and working in coffee shops or outside in nature. Then she has to build her design to make it come true, and during that time she says she will “jam out” to her “bops” or listen to podcasts. However, if Lepore is directing an animation, she will visit each stop-motion studio to give tips about “puppet performances” as well as hopping to other studios to sign notices or notes.
Some days are lowkey, using the “I am Groot” mini-series as an example, Lepore said that some days she attends meetings over Zoom, and sometimes the day of an animator does not even include animating! On days like this, she has to tend to the producer side of things like budgeting and scheduling.
Lepore added, “I built my career by being able to fulfill all the roles in productions though, from writer & animator to camera & lighting person, VFX artist, sound person, etc. I think it's great to have a working knowledge of all the roles as it makes for a more educated and prepared director.”
Lepore started her career by entering her projects into festivals, and the list of awards listed on her website is no small feat. Most of the listed awards are for ‘Bottle’ another one of her shorts from 2010. The stop-motion short illustrates a ‘transoceanic conversation between two characters via a bottle’, and has won 37 awards, and accumulated over 10 million views on YouTube.
In addition to the many awards won for “Bottle,” Lepore went to the 95th Oscars to represent Everything Everywhere All At Once and ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’. Lepore’s husband, Daniel Kwan, co-directed ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ and the film was up for 11 awards. The movie ended up winning ‘Best Picture”, “Best Original Screenplay”, and “Best Film Editing”. Kwan won “Best Director”, while some of the actors took “Best Actress”, and “Best Supporting Actress/Actor”.
A24’s stop-motion animation, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, was nominated for best-animated feature, a team of which Lepore was also a big part. While a part of the A24 team, Lepore met director Dean Fleischer-Camp, who mainly has only directed Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and ‘Fraud’ so far according to NJ.com. Meeting Fleischer-Camp and promoting the 2010 ‘Bottle’ stop-motion, allowed her the opportunity for Lepore to partake in a Marcel feature film. She said it was an instance of being in the right place at the right time.
Lepore commented, “Marcel is definitely up there as one of my favs - it’s the only feature I’ve ever worked on that intensely and I was involved from as early as the storyboard phase. It was such a meaningful experience to work with so many wonderful crew members [whom] each brought so much to the film both on the live-action shoot and the stop-motion shoot.”
Lepore has become a big part of the animation community, it has not come easy but there is certainly a lot that has been done since her time in college and time at SBHS. Her artwork still has real estate in SBHS on the first floor near the auditorium/VTN announcements room. And her collection of movies/short stories will only continue to grow as she takes on more jobs and projects.
As a final note, Lepore said, “[This career is] definitely rewarding– mostly after you've put all the grueling work in, though, and someone sees your work and is touched in some way by your film.”