Name and Year: Claire Niebergall, 2012

Hometown: Annandale, VA

Major: Fine Arts

Medium of choice: Animation, Graphic Design

When you sit down in front of a blank sheet or computer screen, how do you get started? What gets you inspired? Motivated?

Claire Niebergall: I always have to start with a story or theme. First and foremost, animation has to be approached as a performance. It’s acting in very slow motion. If you don’t have a central message that’s strong, you have little foundation for the rest of the piece, the ‘art’ of the animation. You can’t design the costumes for a play without first having a script! Things also change along the way, though. You discover new things about what you want to say, and how to say it. It’s a fluid process, just like any other artistic medium, and looking at other animators’ work is the best form of inspiration. Their ideas, their techniques, and if I’m able to speak with them, their stories about the process, are what convince me to keep going and try new things.

What would you say is your biggest art–related accomplishment?

CN: My very first animated short was accepted into a competition out in Seattle, the “2D or Not 2D Animation Festival,” and screened in an IMAX theater in front of an audience of about 100 people. There’s something amazing about seeing your characters running across a 20–meter–wide screen, and to hear total strangers point at your film and whisper in the dark, “That’s so cool!” It was a great experience, and I’m so proud to see my work making people laugh. It’s the best feeling in the world.

Of your pieces, which is your favorite?

CN: My first piece, “How the Coyote Got His Cunning,” is still my favorite, and my best work so far. The art style of the Pacific Northwest is absolutely gorgeous, and I’m still really happy with how I was able to capture it in an animation. My favorite recent one is “My Home, My Burrow,” which is about how my bedroom back home is overrun with bunnies. Fortunately they’re just a bunch of bunny–related decorations, not real bunnies… but they feel real to me!

A little known fact is that art can be stressful. How do you detox? Clear your mind?

CN: Definitely exercise and long walks. It’s amazing how much exercise clears my head, just to get out and move. People should do it more often! There are always days where I’m stuck working, look at what I’ve drawn, and think, “Ugh, this stinks. It’ll never be done. It’ll never be good enough!” At that point, I just drop what I’m doing. Go for a walk, go to the gym, sit outside, go to Dunkin Donuts (and suddenly feeling like going back to the gym again). Animation is a medium where you can be stressed all the way through production, but once the piece is finished, you’re suddenly the happiest person in the world. You just need some long breaks to give yourself energy to push through.

Do you have a favorite location in the art building or on campus?

CN: Houston Hall is my absolute favorite. I never go there for art–related work, but when I’m studying for other classes, nothing beats the comfy Houston armchairs. And Insomnia Cookies makes this giant peanut–butter cup cookie that I can’t resist. It’s the ultimate comfort food.

What do you think of the Arts scene/community at Penn? In Philly?

CN: Penn is an amazing place for the arts. Everyone here is creative in some way, whether their creativity is part of their major, or in a club, or just a hobby. My friends’ artistic talents and abilities floor me every day. The rest of Philadelphia is a wealth of inspiration for artists of all kinds. It’s a great place to practice and experience art in all its forms, whether by going to the PMA, the Kimmel Center or just walking around town. There’s so much to be seen and heard both on campus and off. Philly’s a tough city on the surface, but there are sides to it that I really do enjoy and that everyone should check out. It’s got quite a few hidden gems.

Did you always know you wanted to do Art (in general and at Penn)?

CN: I’ve always loved art, but when I was younger, I actually tried to tell myself not to love it. I always told myself “No, you can do better than that. You have a great brain. You could be a doctor. You could be an engineer.” And for a while, that’s what I tried to do. I came to Penn as an engineer in the Digital Media Design program, which is a fusion of computer science and art, but after a lot of failure and frustration, I realized it wasn’t working for me. I started to think, why not focus on something I love, something I can do? The world needs artists, actors, musicians, dancers, anyone like that, just as much as we need doctors and businessmen. Art is everywhere and touches everything, and as an animator, I can dabble in so many different things at once: illustration, sound design, acting, painting, art history, writing, even a little bit of marketing too. Art was always my passion, but it took a good kick in the head for me to finally admit it. I don’t know where it’s taking me, but I haven’t looked back since!

Has animation always been your preferred medium or were there others you liked to use?

CN: Animation is the one I’ve gravitated towards most. I used to do a lot of acting, and I still like the idea of performing for people, even though it’s through drawings and paintings. I never want anything I draw to stand still. It’s a curse! I could easily do one drawing for a single illustration, rather than 500 drawings for an animation, and I always prefer to do 500 drawings. To make a drawn character move and speak, there’s a special kind of magic in it that you can’t reproduce in any other medium.

Do you have a favorite artist? Animation? A role model?

CN: My favorite artist of all time is Alphonse Mucha. I have a big weakness for anything from the Art Nouveau era. My favorite animation is probably Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a masterpiece both in storytelling and in visuals. My role models in the animation industry all happened to work on my favorite cartoon when I was a little kid — it’s a Canadian show called ReBoot, which was the first computer–animated television series, back in the early 90s. These people are the reason I became an animator. They’re my childhood heroes.

There are a lot of funny animations online. Do you have a favorite internet meme?

CN: Anything by Don Hertzfeldt is hilarious (Rejected in particular…  I quote it way too much). But for me, even a picture with ‘DERP’ written on it still cracks me up.