Maya Penn is a 17-year-old designer, animator, illustrator, and girl-wonder who is using her work to inspire a better world. We spoke to her about her creative process, role models, inspiration, and her new environmentally-driven animated series, “The Pollinators.”
What led you to become an animator? Why animation, and how did you get started?
Animation has always been my favorite form of storytelling. I’ve always loved animated shows and films – every time I finished watching an animated movie, I immediately wanted to know how it went from concept to final film. I watched every behind-the-scenes interview that I could find to hear from the movie’s animators. Those were my biggest teacher. When most kids at a young age realize that their favorite animated characters aren’t “real,” and are just the product of animators, writers, voice actors, etc., it can ruin the magic in a way. But for me, it made all of my favorite cartoons and movies even more magical because I realized I could create my own characters, worlds, and stories.
Do you believe art can drive social change?
Art is and always will be a form of expression, so it only makes sense that artists use their creativity to tackle the social issues they’re passionate about. Art shares a message and tells a story in a way unlike anything else, and it can have an extremely profound impact on people. Being exposed to powerful art can shape the person you are and what perspective you continue to see the world in.
I have always been a women’s rights and environmental activist. I hope to create awareness about social/environmental issues through my animation and inspire others to make a positive impact in the world.
We love that “The Pollinators” focuses on the environment and how young people can make a difference. What inspired you to take action on this issue?
It’s so crucial for youth to be aware of what’s happening in the environment and to take steps towards a more eco-friendly world. We need to take action now to preserve this world for future generations. Environmental issues tend to be very daunting, but presenting the importance of environmental responsibility through animation takes away some of that pressure and gets youth inspired and excited about doing something to make a difference.
You wrote “The Pollinators” to include several strong female leads. Where did you find the inspiration for these characters?
Since I first started animating, it has been evident to me that animation is a very male-dominated field. When I was younger, I couldn’t name one single woman that worked in animation. It was really odd for me to see zero representation of female animators, and especially any women of color in the field of animation. I wanted to create characters who could fill those gaps, who could be those role models.
There are a lot of strong and relatable female characters in “The Pollinators,” and a lot of their personality traits stem from the female role models in my family and my life. I hope that girls who watch the series will be able to learn a lot from these characters and see bits of themselves in them.
Animation is a very layered medium. You’re designing characters, backgrounds, writing, illustrating — and that’s all before anything moves! What is your workflow like? Walk us through your process.
When I get an idea for an animation, the concept either comes first in the form of the story or the character(s). If there is a strong plot I’ll usually begin writing that out first. Along with the storytelling I also really enjoy world building, adding details, depth, and lore to the world to make the environment the characters live in more believable. From there I like to go into character design, which is just me drawing the character(s) over and over again, changing bits and pieces as I go, until I feel content with the design and the complexity level of animating it.
I learn a lot about the personalities of my characters as I continue to draw them, which is why I write info/bios about the characters after I’ve drawn them and studied them for a bit. From there I storyboard, add in voice acting, go through multiple passes of animation, coloring, adding backgrounds and final visual effects, tweaking sound, and make final adjustments. This doesn’t include the dozens of times I watch it as I go to catch anything I might have missed when looking at details. It’s a long process, but it’s so much fun! It’s so rewarding knowing I made something completely from scratch.
To see more of Maya’s incredible work, follow her on Instagram @mayasideas.