SPECTRUM: Eliza Jappinen

SPECTRUM is an interview series by Lilian Darmono with members of the motion design and animation communities who have interesting and unusual perspectives to offer.

Guest name: Eliza Jappinen
Born/raised: Born in Sweden, raised in Finland/Hawaii before returning to Finland as a 15-year old.
Current Location: Helsinki, Finland
Age: 37

For this issue of Spectrum, I spoke to Eliza Jappinen, certainly a force to be reckoned with in the world of animation.

Eliza co-founded Anima Boutique, a top animation studio in Finland, before eventually moving on to dedicate her creative energy to direct and animate music videos for Studio Killers, a European virtual electropop band, whose lead singer character “Cherry” was created by back in 2007.

Background and upbringing

Eliza grew up with two older siblings who are also artistically inclined. This is thanks to her mother, who — despite passing away when Eliza was 11 — longed for an artistic career and nurtured this in her kids.

Her father is an astronomer with NASA, and Eliza identifies as being from an upper-middle-class background. She’s been independent since the age of 15, when she moved back to Finland alone while her father remained in the States. She started her own tech company at the age of 19.

In 2003, while studying graphic design in university, she was offered a job as a character designer for a startup animation company funded by an ad agency in Helsinki. It was a high-octane, fast paced environment in which Eliza was the only woman.

The perils of being “one of the guys”

She recalled the work culture was one in which everyone was young, cocky and said whatever they thought. “I wasn’t a wallflower, so I jumped in there and I was exactly the same. Once, I said to my friend his drawing was ‘bland, boring, and mundane!’” She laughs. “And he still remembers this. I was a shitty person.”

And what about being the only female? Eliza described doing all kinds of things, such as going out for a night of hard drinking to fit in with the boys, because she feared if she didn’t, they wouldn’t think of her as part of the team.

“You don’t realize you’re part of the sexist picture. You often feel better than other girls because you thought you’re doing so well, you’re being accepted as one of the guys, when actually, you’re just being a macho sexist to yourself and thinking it’s okay. But it really isn’t.”

Regardless, she gained experience and still recalls those years with fondness. “I got to try out everything there, and the understanding of each component of a production certainly gave me a good backbone to become a creative director of my own company.”

Fast forward a couple of years. The startup began to falter, so she and a few of the members decided to strike out on their own, forming Anima Boutique.

On Studio Killers and the birth of Cherry

All images copyright Studio Killers

In the interest of protecting the integrity of the project, we can’t give you the full backstory of how Studio Killers and Cherry came into being. Suffice to say that it’s one of the most interesting collaboration I (Lilian) have ever come across.

Even though it took time to come from concept to become reality in 2011, now, a few years onwards, Studio Killers and Cherry have evolved into their own being(s) in a very organic way.

Finding Cherry and looking through the veil

Eliza describes the process: “[Cherry] – to me she’s a real person. She’s not me, she’s not one of the singers. She’s like a spirit. When I drew her, when I heard her song, I was like, ‘There you are! Let me look at you! I’ve finally caught her, like a Pokemon.'”

She says other character designers and writers often feel the same way, that their creations become their own entity, with their own autonomous voice and will.

“It sounds completely insane, but I know what they mean. It’s almost like there is a veil, and now that I know how to look through it, I can pinpoint and see [Cherry]. It’s like [she] already exists, and all I have to do is to capture and nail [her] down and help [her] form into our world.”

Taking on a life of her own

Now that there’ve been several videos and songs out from the band with an ever-growing fanbase, the character has grown beyond the original context in which she was created. For Eliza, each fan interaction with Cherry, be it in drawings or cosplay, brings her one step further into the world, creating layers of complexity in her existence.

“The way the kids talk to her online and play her character — when I read what people say about her online, I feel they really see her, too. And I’m not even there! Yet they get the same perception,” she says.

“I have not even written a bio, and they still get the substance of that character, which is interesting because partly it’s the symbology and what I drew and what I put out there, saying ‘This is her.’ They see it, even though I don’t explain it. That’s success on so many levels for me, creatively, for having done that. So Cherry is a real person to me, and what I want to see is for her to be more real. That people don’t even question her or her origin, but instead think of her as her own force.”

On relinquishing control and collaboration

Studio Killers on stage with Cherry projected on the background

This “letting go” of control and authorship can be extremely important in a good collaborative creative process, says Eliza.

When she recruits a team of people to help her make further pieces for Studio Killers, she consciously works towards building mutual trust.

“Here’s what I have to say about [giving up control]: It’s not as bad as you think. You have to trust your own ability as a professional who can hold discussions and convince other people of your ideas. You draw, you talk, you write. You accept defeat sometimes and acknowledge that other people are sometimes right and you’re wrong.

I think there’s so much of a ‘me’ culture going, that I’d push back on it. I’d say let’s do a ‘we’ culture. Studio Killers is half music and half art. So I have to trust completely that the band is making amazing music. They have to trust me that I’m making great animation.”

At the same time, there are definite warning signs we all should watch out for, she says. Difficulties may arise from our own shortcomings as designers and creatives, something she herself experienced firsthand.

“If you have a lot of trouble and people are being really difficult about your work, it’s probably because you’re not very good yet. I’ve had that happen to me in my early career. So you have to think, “What can I work at, how can I be better?’ You need to listen to other people — they may be arguing against you because your ideas are stupid!” she laughs.

Eventually, though, she believes that we all find our ‘tribe’ through the quality of our work. To get there, we should shed the myth of the “temper-tantrummy, selfish, spoiled, creative geniuses.”

On the business of creativity

Promotional image for ‘Jenny’ the music video

Eliza has very pragmatic, well-grounded views when it comes to making money from being a creative.

Her experience has given her a lot of valuable insight, often through mistakes and hardship. ”

“Thinking I can do stuff immediately, just getting in and doing things differently. That’s where i was wrong. What I should have done is – if I want to do something different – to invest my own time and money making it. Just making it. And not even spend any time trying to sell it, because no one is going to buy into me without any history or whatever.”

Eliza underscores the importance of collaboration, of realizing that you are going to need help and other people’s expertise in order to get things done — like making a well-developed prototype or pitch of your creative idea. She laments that the myth of the “lone genius” is so entrenched that it leads to a lot of misconception about how to actually achieve success in the industry.

For instance, the marketing aspect of any project is so important, and often it’s going to take a different personality altogether to do it right. The original creator of the idea or concept has to reach out for help, and team up with someone else. Of course, this stage can only happen once you’ve finished making the product itself, and you can then start attracting your pool of investors.

The power of association

At that stage, she reminds us of how important it is to be able to sum up your idea in one single sentence, often combining different existing products or terminology, to make it easier (and quicker) for people to understand your vision. “Like Beavis and Butthead meets Golden Girls!” she laughs. “So basically, it’s a lot of old people making fart jokes!”

As creators, we often wince at having our work associated with other things. She felt the same way once, but now she appreciates the need to use things that have already existed just to push it that little bit of tangibility.

But in the end, to get a creative idea off the ground is essentially about convincing your backers that they will make money off you and your idea. This is the one thing that cannot be measured to produce any sort of certainty, she explains.

Thinking like an investor

Say you put yourself in the shoes of a potential investor.

You see a lot of good stuff on YouTube, but their numbers/stats don’t seem to be that good.

“So the question becomes: Is it your taste, then? Do you really know what’s good? Do you know what other people will like?

And that’s what a lot of people don’t trust in themselves in general. And what becomes basically a good standard practice in making entertainment would be a guarantee that you’re going to get your money back.”

Still from Studio Killers music video ‘Jenny’

This explains the risk-averse mentality of studios, where even the largest players need to ascertain that the enormous sum of money they’re spending to make your story or idea a reality will turn a profit. Production companies cost money, and things add up quickly with each passing day. (This is why we see so many prequels, sequels, and spin-off properties.)

“[The entertainment industry] has changed, because we’re watching so much more stuff via online streaming, [instead of] buying them. We see adverts in the beginning of YouTube videos, unless you have adblocking – in which case you’re effectively cutting income from this industry,” Eliza says.

On the positive aspects of the new world

It’s not all doom and gloom however.

Eliza describes herself as someone who loves pop culture, and because of this, she believes she has the instinct for what’s going to be popular and liked by the masses.

She cites the recent explosive global phenomenon of Pokemon Go as something positive in this ever-changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Laughing, she sings praises for the game: “It deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, considering all the horrible things that are happening in the world!”

A lot of her love has to do with the byproducts of the game.

“People who say that it’s not [awesome] are just really negative, to be honest. Honestly, if you look at the scale things of what’s happening in the world, getting people to go out, get some exercise, play-pretend, and meet other people – I mean, are you f**king kidding me? You don’t think that’s a good thing?

So what if it’s commercially super successful? I’m happy for it to make money!”

On physical appearances as reflections of different roles in life

Along with her vibrant career, Eliza says being a mother is also one of the most amazing things she’s done.

And she emphasizes this is not just limited to women, that the men she’s met who are very involved in their children’s lives would say the same thing, too. She urges fathers not to miss out on the experience.

“Costuming” towards an identity

Having lost her own mother when she was young meant Eliza had no immediate role model to fashion herself after. She talked about the trial and error of reconciling different roles she’s taken on in her life (mother, creative director, artist, entrepreneur) in terms of “costuming.”

She remembers trying on more “folksy” dresses or more “traditional” mom-like outfits to fit in at playgrounds, abandoning her usual “edgier” sense of fashion in order to make friends with other mothers — something that’s a bit of a challenge also because, as a Swedish-speaking Finn, she’s a cultural minority.

“These are things I’ve had to grow into, to reconcile cultural imagery and my own personal sense of style and even losing myself a little bit, wearing the mummy outfit, to embody the mummy persona to get into the role. It’s really weird, like playing dress-up to be a mum.”

The blue-haired mommy myth

In the end, the answer was in melding the two seemingly opposite sides of this identity: someone who “enjoys doing something with your appearance as well as baking cookies and reading books for your child,” ignoring the preconceived notion she felt at the start that women with blue hair and goth makeup “are somehow supposed to be colder, to spend less time with their children.”

She adds, “Everything is a costume. As the years go by, you just dress ‘whatever,’ and the more you dress ‘whatever,’ the more you seem legitimate as a professional artist. And even that in itself is a costume!”

But the most satisfying validation came from her son. Unsure of how he’d think of her bright blue locks, she was elated when he said, “Wow, mum, you look beautiful!”

“I’m not any less of a mummy to him because I don’t look like my mum, who’s more traditional in appearance,” says Eliza.

Diversity and hitting the “random” button

She relates the role of appearance to diversity issues.

“I’m assessing these things constantly: what’s the costume I’m supposed to wear for the appropriate role?

We are so so influenced by visual things. And this is the thing – I don’t know how we’re going to tackle [issues of] race and gender and all these things because they’re so visible. I don’t think we’re supposed to all look the same. I don’t think that’s the answer – but instead, I think we’re supposed to keep pressing the ‘random’ button on what we see culturally.

Like, let’s have the ‘blue-haired-president.’ The ‘black-doctor-scientist-ninja’! We need to spruce it up all the time. Always try to be subversive in some little way.”

From a character designer’s POV

As a character designer, her insight into diversity goes a step further.

When we first chatted about this topic, at first Eliza felt that changing the world for the better requires time, and that designing a white, male character could be used as an “entry point” for an audience as something familiar. Other diverse characters could bounce off of that character, and that we can’t be too “radical” all at once.

However, upon observing recent current events around the world, Eliza’s changed her stance. While it’s sound business advice to not be too radical all at once, things shouldn’t just be “business as usual.” We should demand more from ourselves and one another in the name of progress in general.

On her privilege, success and advice to others

Studio Killers on stage

Eliza admits that she manages to pursue her dream of Studio Killers because of her privileged upbringing. She credits having a husband who works very hard to support her and their six-year-old son, and parents from both sides who can afford to help them financially should they need it.

She also credits the Finnish social security system that gives her affordable, high-quality childcare. (Children get taken exploring in the woods, exposed to a diverse activities and skills, all for only 200 euros a month.) She admits that she wouldn’t be able to do what she loves had she been poor in a country like the US.

Look before you leap

This doesn’t mean that things are impossible for others, but she cautions young aspiring creatives from jumping off a cliff without knowing what they’re getting themselves into — or without ensuring they have a safety net to begin with.

“Proceed beyond this line with caution!” she laughs. “Don’t do what I did. I’m a professional cliff-diver, and I could afford to do so because of my network of support!”

The continuing relevance of feminism

To younger women in their twenties, she warns against thinking that feminism is no longer relevant to them.

Yes, things are changing, and progress has been made, but the battle is far from over, she says. Part of what becomes visible when you’re older is the dynamic at male-dominated workplaces where younger women are being treated relatively well precisely because they’re not seen as a ‘threat’ to their male counterparts – either sometimes due to their youth and physical attractiveness, or lack of experience and authority.

Another important piece of advice: claim your place in the world.

“I was pretty cocky and defiant, which wasn’t a bad thing,” Eliza says. “I was young and female. I certainly needed to believe in myself, since I learned in my first company – which was very dog-eat-dog – that you have to believe in yourself or no one else will. You take the opportunities and make them into great things. The moment is rarely handed to you.”

Finally, in closing, I asked Eliza what success means to someone like her, having created something so unique like Cherry and Studio Killers.

“For me, success is something you feel.

If I can continue in the scenario that I have right now, without Studio Killers growing any more, without getting more power or making more money, I’d feel successful. Because I’ve created Cherry and Studio Killers. [Right now], I feel accomplished and happy about myself.

Do I want to do more things? Absolutely. But success to me is knowing that I have done something I feel very happy about.”

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About the author

Lilian Darmono

/ www.liliandarmono.com
Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lilian moved to Singapore and eventually Australia for her studies, eventually graduating from Swinburne NID in Prahran, Melbourne. She then worked in print design before deciding to switch to the field of Motion Design in late 2003. Her obsessions include travelling, illustrating, and cats. She is currently in the London leg of her 'Mograph Tour Around The World', and calls Melbourne home.