Exclusive Q&A With Uzo Ngwu AB '23

Uzo Ngwu is a rising junior at Harvard College, dual-enrolled at Berklee College of Music studying Art, Film and Visual Studies and Vocal Performance. She’s a multidisciplinary artist with focuses in illustration, film/animation and music, but also has interests in writing, acting and directing. Alongside her academic obligations, Uzo works as a freelance illustrator and some of her clients include Hulu, Freeform and MTV.

Q. What sparked your passion for animation, visual art and graphic design? Do you define yourself or identify more as one than the others?

A. My passion for visual art is one I’ve had since I was a child. In elementary school we made compliment booklets at the end of the school year, and I vividly remember one of the recurring compliments in my book being “I like your drawings.” All throughout middle and high school I was known as the artsy kid, probably because I always decorated my textbook covers and went above and beyond on creative projects. Despite my obvious love of visual art, it wasn’t until freshman year of college that I really started to develop my skills as a visual artist. I purchased my first iPad and used it as my primary tool for visual art. Drawing so frequently made me realize how much I love the craft, and it reignited my love for digital art and illustration. 

Similar to my passion for visual art, my passion for animation started young. As a child, I loved watching animated films and TV shows and for a while I refused to watch media with “real people.” I’ve always loved watching animated media, but my passion for creating animated media didn’t come until much later. This passion was sparked when I had to create a short animation as a final project for the class Fundamentals of Animation. There was something so satisfying about bringing my ideas to life and telling a story through animation. 

I strongly identify with all the art forms I engage with. I like to refer to myself as a multidisciplinary artist or a multi-hyphenate creative because I can’t be defined by just one medium. 

Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?

A. At Harvard I study Art, Film and Visual Studies, which is perfect because it directly relates to my interests and aspirations. There are 3 tracks you can pursue within that concentration, and I’m pursuing both the Studio Art and Film/Video track. That means I get to take classes on subjects ranging from drawing to animation to narrative filmmaking. I also love how much freedom I have to explore my own specific interests within this department. Last semester I took a class called Directed Research, which was an independent study style class. I crafted my own syllabus and used class funding to purchase a 2D animation package. 

Q. What are you most proud of that you’ve made thus far?

A. My sophomore fall I took the course Fundamentals of Animation and as part of my final project I made a short animation that was about 1 minute in length. I’m proud of this project because it’s the first narrative animated short that I’ve ever created, and the process of creating it made me fall deeply in love with the medium of animation. Not only does it hold significance as being my first short, but it’s also meaningful to me because I created a world where Black women can exist peacefully. Representation in animation is something I care deeply about, and I want to continue to create animated media that centers the experiences of Black women and girls. Additionally, my animation was received well by people on social media. On Twitter alone, the video has amassed over 900,000 views and got the attention of a director I greatly admire, Matthew Cherry.  

Q. What are some challenges that you’ve encountered, perhaps with balancing time while still being enrolled at the college? Or have you taken (or at least thought about) time off?

A. Balancing school and my personal hobbies is a skill I’m still working on, but thankfully my major is centered around art so even when I’m not pursuing my own personal projects I’m still satisfying my creative desires through assignments and class projects. This question also just reminded me that freshman year I scheduled a recurring event on my Google Calendar that was labeled “DRAW.” I don’t think I ever really followed it, but I always did my best to make sure I was incorporating making art into my weekly schedule.  

I have never taken time off, but it is something I’ve been thinking more about recently. Though the summer is a great time to pursue personal projects, I can only imagine how much more I could get done with a whole year dedicated to said projects. 

Q. What is the project you are most excited about tackling next?

A. I am currently trying to expand my short animation from last fall into a longer short film (about 15-20 minutes). I love the world I created with that short, but want to develop the story a bit more and raise the stakes. For this project I’m writing a screenplay for the first time, which has been a really exciting process. I’m taking a summer screenwriting course through the organization Made In Her Image, so I’ve had a lot of support in my journey to develop my skills as a screenwriter. In this process I’m also working to develop my skills as a 2D animator. I’ve never animated a project of this length before, so I don’t know how long it’ll take but I’m excited to finally complete and share it. 

Q. Can you talk about messages or intentions within your art? 

A. Representation in art and film is really important to me, so I often center Blackness and Black women in my work. From illustrations to animations, I enjoy creating pieces that highlight the diverse beauty of Blackness. It’s not common to see Black women represented in animation, so rather than wait for someone to represent me I want to learn how to animate so I can represent myself and people who look like me. Black women (and all people of color for that matter) deserve to see themselves in all types of stories, aesthetics and artistic mediums. Additionally, I want my work to normalize the presence of Blackness and afrocentric features in art and film/animation. Ultimately, my goal is to create pieces that resonate with others.

Q. Do you think the pandemic has caused an uptick in both creation and/or consumption of animated shorts/visual arts and media? 

A. Oh absolutely. I think the pandemic gave a lot of people the opportunity to explore their passions and figure out what they like to do. People used art to pass the time and to translate the many emotions they were feeling during the pandemic. Similarly, I’m certain that there was also an uptick in media consumption. When you have to stay inside, what else is there to do? I definitely discovered a ton of new animated content during the pandemic.

Q. What inspires you?

A. So many things. If I were to hand you my phone and have you look through my camera roll you would find a ton of pictures and screenshots that may seem meaningless, but hold great artistic value for me. I have pictures of houses, colorful flowers, clothing items, screenshots of other people’s artwork and a ton of other random images. There is so much beauty and inspiration to be taken from the world around me and from the work of other artists. I never learned much art history, so a lot of artists who inspire me are contemporary artists I’ve discovered via social media. The Gobelins YouTube Channel is also a huge source of inspiration for me because the students at that school always create incredible short films. I'm also greatly inspired by animation studios such as The Line Animation, Cartoon Saloon and Studio Ghibli. 

Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in animation, but aren’t sure where to start?

A. Just start animating. You can read all the books you want and watch all the tutorials you want, but you’ll never learn if you don’t practice. Also give yourself the space to suck! As Harvard students we are often perfectionists, but when it comes to learning a new medium you have to get comfortable with being bad before you get good. Consistency and the ability to evaluate and learn from your own work is key. It’s okay to want to be prepared, but I’m learning that the need to over-prepare before starting is just a form of procrastination. Additionally, it’s important to consume animated content, whether that be animated Disney films or thesis films on YouTube. It can serve as a source of inspiration for your own animated projects, and it also helps you define your style and taste as an animator.

Uzo's website can be found here and her instagram is @uzotheartist

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