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Can Online Avatars Define Us? Animator Jenna Caravello Dives Into This, the Art of Online Storytelling and Pepe the Frog

A still from Jenna Caravello's short animated film "Frontier Wisdom." | Courtesy of Jenna Caravello
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Southland Sessions Presents: From high school operas and drive-thru art exhibitions to Chicano comedies and underground DJ sets—we are showcasing the vibrancy of arts and culture across our city today.

Jenna Caravello makes mind-bending video games, interactive installations and animated short films that use symbolism and metaphor to ask profound questions about memory, loss and meaning. 

A still from Jenna Caravello's short animated film "Frontier Wisdom." | Courtesy of Jenna Caravello
A still from Jenna Caravello's short animated film "Frontier Wisdom."  | Courtesy of Jenna Caravello

Caravello, an assistant professor in the Department of Design Media Arts, will respond to the question “What Is Loss?” on Monday, Nov. 23 as part of the UCLA Arts series “10 Questions: Reckoning,” which brings UCLA faculty from across campus together to examine 10 essential questions. 

In this episode of the UCLA Arts podcast “Works In Progress,” Caravello talks about creating digital avatars, storytelling in virtual spaces and what inspires her, from ‘90s video games and “Akira” to European and Soviet animators.

UCLA Arts · Jenna Caravello: Digital avatars and virtual spaces
Caravello joined the UCLA faculty this fall and has been mainly working with graduate students on their projects. This winter quarter she’ll be teaching a class on designing digital avatars. In the course, the students will design, rig and animate their own avatars as part of a larger conversation about digital bodies. For Caravello, an avatar is “a picture that represents a computer user or a digital body controlled by a player” that can be used to describe video games, puppetry, dance or storytelling. 

“Avatars are pervasive in so many different types of art and, of course, spiritually and in religious practices as well,” she said. “Avatars have been the way that we define ourselves, the way that we identify ourselves, in digital spaces for a while now. But they have this long-reaching history."

Another class she’ll lead this winter will focus on storytelling in augmented and virtual reality spaces. Unlike a single-channel film, VR gives you a limitless 360-degree space, while with AR, the frame is dictated by the placement of the user’s smartphone. Because the class will be taught remotely, students will use their smartphones rather than VR headsets.

Caravello taught at CalArts, where she was a graduate student, just before the pandemic began. Teaching remotely will be different, she acknowledges, and engaging students in a virtual classroom will take extra effort.

Watch Caravello's animated short film "Frontier Wisdom" below.

Frontier Wisdom

While at CalArts, Caravello produced the short animated film “Frontier Wisdom.” The surreal story follows a phone repairwoman in the desert. Along the way she encounters a corpse that recites Bible verses, a self-propelled peanut and a post-apocalyptic rapture.

The film was inspired by a road trip with her father from Chicago to Los Angeles, but also by her father’s job as a service repairman for the Pacific Bell Telephone Company. 

“He would leave the house and he would drive around town in a strange van that was full of cables, and it was just very mysterious to me," she said. “I started to imagine that he was going on these adventures, that he was really a protagonist in some noir mystery out there in the desert somewhere.”

Caravello’s father, on a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. | Courtesy Jenna Caravello
Caravello’s father, on a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. | Courtesy Jenna Caravello

The film’s abstract, surreal elements are meant to invoke the idea that “a space can be a container for memory,” she said. "The Mojave Desert in that film is very similar to, say, an open world, massive multiplayer online game, so just an expansive realm of play."

Caravello was also playing with the idea of a memory palace, a way of memorizing details by creating an imaginary building with rooms that contain pieces of information. 

“The symbology becomes, what kind of mind palace can you project your memories onto?"

Caravello was an animator on the 2020 documentary film “Feels Good Man,” about the Internet meme Pepe the Frog. Arthur Jones directed the film, which stars illustrator and cartoonist Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, as he struggles to reclaim Pepe from alt-right white supremacist Internet trolls. 

Watch the trailer of "Feels Good Man" below.

Feels Good Man Trailer #1 (2020) | Movieclips Indie

"As the animators, our main goal was to speak to Matt’s art and to be this kind of voice for Matt’s comics in a way that that would bring his work to the forefront," Caravello said. "So, most of our conversations were about, will Matt laugh at that? Is that accurate to what Matt would want to happen to his characters?" 

Pepe began as one of four characters in “Boy’s Club,” a trippy series of comic books about post-college friends who play video games, smoke weed, drink beer and eat pizza. Furie was surprised to see users of Reddit and 4chan adopt the gentle frog and turn his face into Adolf Hitler or Donald J. Trump in the leadup to the 2016 election. 

Recently, Pepe has found new life as a symbol of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, and as a reaction sticker on the video game streaming site Twitch. 

"It's really an incredible story," Caravello said.

Caravello at work on “Frontier Wisdom.” | Courtesy Jenna Caravello
Caravello at work on “Frontier Wisdom.” | Courtesy Jenna Caravello

Teaching animation to undergraduate students has made Caravello aware of how animation styles change based on age and where students grew up. She began her art career as an oil painter and is used to seeing animation with erased pencil lines, while younger students may have started with drawing tablets and expect a cleaner style. 

Caravello’s use of space and perspective in her work was inspired by the video games she grew up with, like the LucasArt graphic adventure game “Grim Fandango,” which overlaid 3D graphics on static backgrounds. She’s also a fan of anime, especially the “maximalist dystopian future” portrayed in “Akira.”

She also points to the bizarre work of Ukrainian animator Igor Kovalyov, and the Estonian animator Priit Pärn, “whose films are part political allegory, part just reveling in ridiculousness” and whose film “Night of the Carrots” "changed the way that I work forever.”

“I was definitely inspired by more textural animations that for the most part were metaphors for political movements, for consumer culture ridiculousness, abstracted character designs,” she said.

Caravello also creates interactive installations, and is at work on a third-person open-world VR game installation called “Amber Row.” A user controls the game with a custom-made controller rather than a headset. The installation is based on “the idea of an MMO that is kept alive on a single server [and] has broken down and now serves as a container for all of the memories that are left behind from a person who is no longer present.”

“Amber Row” draws on Caravello’s experience of being diagnosed with the same genetic mutation that led to her mother's death, a mutation mostly found among Ashkenazi Jewish women. In the game the user collects objects that effect the avatar’s appearance.

"And this is how I explored the idea of collecting memories after my mother passed away, because it really can feel like a futile practice to run in circles after experiencing a loss and try to recreate memories of a person from everything that they've left behind.”

The desire to create a game that allows for open-world exploration was inspired by a Tomb Raider game her father used to play.

"He would defeat all of the bad guys on a level, and then he'd call me into the room and he'd let me just run around in the level freely, clear of enemies. Nothing to do but just run around in circles and jump and dive and swim and just be this character in a space,” she said.

Jenna Caravello is an assistant professor in the Department of Design Media Arts at UCLA. On November 23rd at 7 pm, she’ll respond to the question "What Is Loss?” as part of this fall’s 10 Questions discussion series. Joining her will be oncology chaplain Michael Eselun, and anthropologist Jorja Leap, who is an expert in gangs, violenc, and systems change. You can learn more and RSVP here.

Top Image: A still from Jenna Caravello's short animated film "Frontier Wisdom." | Courtesy of Jenna Caravello

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