Unpacking the Creative Genius of Lavanya Naidu

Unpacking the Creative Genius of Lavanya Naidu
To say that we have been captivated by Lavanya’s work might be an undersell. Whimsy, nostalgia and wonder all come together so beautifully in every piece of her work that it leaves you positively riveted! An animator, illustrator, and most importantly, a storyteller, Lavanya Naidu, an alumnus of NID, India and Gobelins, Paris, now resides and works in Australia.
It’s the cusp of summer in 2023. After frenetic back-and-forth on emails we manage to lock a meeting across oceans and timezones and settle into a virtual chat. What follows is a warm, leisurely conversation. This talk about her work-life, punctuated by many laughs and anecdotes, edited down here to a more consumable length.
Did you know we were to lose Lavanya to the world of medicine? Thank you Mr & Mrs Naidu for sharing that design school form! They were right in identifying her love for drawing and gently nudging her along this path which would come to define a large part of her life.
With no clear goals for herself, she stepped into NID wide-eyed, curious and eager to learn. Traits that characterize her every endeavor. Animation wasn’t what she envisioned for herself back then, but the visual communication courses in the foundation year sparked a deep interest. She felt ‘this is it, this is what I’d like to do’. Guided by this new interest, she took up animation and like every graduating student, she found herself in the thick of her final project with an NGO called ThoughtStop Foundation in Calcutta. The film dealt with the subject of the impact of domestic violence on children.
It’s this very film which, unbeknownst to her, set the course for her future adventures. Her film was selected at TBS Digicon6 International Film Festival, Tokyo Japan. (Spoiler, her film also won a gold in the regionals!) Her maiden voyage out of the country and interacting with other asian filmmakers opened a whole other world to her.
The Boy who slept in Class, Thoughtstop Foundation
“And I think that's where I kind of had that bug where I thought, Okay, I really need to learn more.” While others looked for jobs and opportunities closer home, she firmly set sight outwards. Hungry to learn more, she settled on Gobelins Paris. French cinema, particularly the hand-drawn traditional animation films she saw as a student, had been a huge influence. At the time, the Indian Animation Industry was gravitating towards CGI. “I think they (The French) have such a focus on skill but they're also not afraid to tell their stories, however quirky and off the beaten path they may be.”
Egged on further by a friend living in Paris, she decided to take the plunge and enroll. This stint in character animation at the summer school had a profound effect on her. Creators who had worked on features like Atlantis were now her faculty! (The likes of Mike L. Murphy, Yoshi Tamura, and Alexandre Heboyan) As she talks about her time there, you start to borrow her enthusiasm for learning.
Exhilaration of the program behind her, she found herself down the usual rabbit hole of job-hunting. She got approached via Behance by a small German start-up which was working on kids apps. The app world was still in its nascent stage back then. A fertile ground for play.
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Small segments from the animations done as a part of the in app storytelling for Otataa.
She remembers the beginnings fondly. It was an open palette. Lots of freedom to explore interactive storytelling, characters and a great collaborative team distributed across the globe. There was the excitement of building something new and novel at the time. It was a short-lived bubble. Soon, business numbers overtook creativity and Lavanya found herself itching for change.
"Within two or three years that (app landscape) changed. It started becoming hyper competitive. I think that's when I decided that I'm going to take a short break, and just freelance for a little bit. All the while I was also illustrating kids books, because I felt like that was an avenue, where I could still keep putting (my own) work out. I was doing that after hours so I had pretty long days. But I think it was pretty rewarding, actually, because I got to be creative, despite the apps going in another direction."
Illustrations from Books done through the years.
Whether she will admit it or not, she has been good at responding to her creative itch and taking a punt at trying something new. Be it work or places. She moved to Singapore, joining her husband there. However, this pit stop in her life wasn’t to be.
“Creatively, I wasn't really finding my place there. It was a struggle. I felt like there was a lot of censorship, about what you can and can’t put out there at that time. So I decided to just take a few steps back and be like, Okay, maybe this is a transitory phase. And perhaps we can try moving somewhere else where we could both get opportunities.”
Enter Australia. A mate-y good decision! While her husband found a transfer, she still had to find a job. Now, anyone who has tried searching for a job in a new country from another continent will be all too familiar with the drill. Hours spent researching, exploring options and reaching-out often to be stonewalled by immigration laws or the polite ‘We would love to talk once you’re here’ response. Quelling her anxiety she moved, summoning all her optimism to embrace the chaos. Luckily for her, when she did re-connect to the shortlisted studios in Melbourne, she got her call-back.
“The first Interview I went in for was that of 12field Animation. They had developed a concept for a show called Strange Chores and were going to put it into production. At that point of time, their pre-production artist had just left the gig to start another job and they had an open position. I wasn't necessarily experienced in (TV) pre-production. So I was like, Look, I'd like to try myself. ( I needed a job). And they were really kind enough to put me (a newcomer) on to this full-on aussie show.”
This kicked off what would end up being a 3 season association with Strange Chores and the world of production for TV. Which, as she shared, is a different beast. In her first role as a pre-production artist, she worked her way through different stages of the development, from pre-production to production, working with different departments and getting her hands dirty. It was grueling but satisfying work.
Backgrounds from the designs for Strange Chores, Season 2. Images are property of 12field Animation, Ludo Studio and Media World Pictures
She returned to Season 02 of Strange Chores as Head of Design where she supervised the visual design across the show from props to backgrounds, ensuring they met the standards of the show’s style and treatment and ready to ship to animation. This stint saw her as a lead, shepherding a team of 10. All new, all working remote (Covid time, remember?).
Her quest for perfection meant long hours, sometimes 12-15 hours work days in a year long production. She felt responsible for the team’s work and well-being. She recalls it as being a demanding but equally rewarding time. It is this spirit of learning and adapting that shines through the more we chat. Each experience, however strenuous or creatively challenging, is viewed in a positive light.
Strange Chores, Season 02 Trailer. Copyright 12field Animation, Ludo Studio and Media World Pictures
It’s one thing to collaborate as part of a larger team and quite another to lead from the front and manage. We asked her how she took on this new role.
“I think that was interesting for me…When it comes to leadership, I had probably miscalculated the amount of managerial responsibility I would have. I think it's probably not an area I would see myself in, going ahead. But while I was in it, I think I made the most of it.”
Her two key learnings :
Learning to let go… and you can’t quite afford to have an off day. You become emotionally responsible for the people that you're with.
Working on this season also allowed her to try her hand at directing an episode, end-to-end. From locking animatics, briefing animators to overseeing sound design edits - she got to handle it all. Editing down an animation episode to fit the 11 min sacrosanct slot meant devising clever ways of editing, stealing away a frame here, a frame there, without compromising the story. A different kind of creative approach.
Serendipity has shaped a large part of Lavanya’s journey. In between production seasons (of 1 & 2), she found herself working on Ari Folman’s (of The Waltz with Bashir fame) new feature, Where is Anne Frank. A multi-studio, global production, it had artists from across the world. She leaped at the opportunity working with Studio Moshi, one of the many studios on the film. How often does one get the chance to work on a 2D feature of such scale? Speaking of the experience, she describes it as humbling and enriching.
“It was equal parts intense and amazing! For one, as a traditional animator you are waiting for projects like this where everything is hand-drawn. The (visual) style of the movie was such that there were no repeats, meaning no holds, no boils. This is where I learned that the action scenes are still ones where we can get away with easily. It’s the still, quiet scenes that require so much work. You have to have a very steady hand and make sure your frames don’t look dead.”
Final screenshots from one of the scenes Lavanya worked on (R1 & R2 stages), a tricky multiplane, multi-character shot.
By now Lavanya’s tried her hand at most things books, apps, commercials, episodic production and feature. Through all these roles and projects a few things stood out quite clearly for her. Perhaps team management led roles weren’t quite her cup of tea. She craved the freedom to express herself more wholly. There was a longing to get back to drawing and immerse herself completely in the process. And this took her back to dedicating her energies more towards illustrating for Children’s books. Something she had been doing all along, but not so single-mindedly.
When we spoke, it had already been a year into this new phase, this hyphenated identity of illustrator- animator, juggling between publication and few independent animation projects. (She is currently repped by Aliza Hoover from Cat Agency, who she claims has been her biggest champion as she makes in roads into the publishing world.)
She thoroughly enjoys world-building, the hero’s journey, adventure and fantasy. Working with books has been a step in that direction. “I think I want to give books a little more time. And at this point, I feel like I also really want to get into writing. So I'm going to start focusing a little bit on that area and probably see where I go with it. It’s a massive experiment on my part at this point of time.”
Process Breakdown from Tailor’s Daughter, a nod to a childhood spent with textiles.
Rough thumbnail to lay down the idea, evolving the sketch and blocking values in greyscale, adding in blocks of color to see how the palette works, building on the details, finally adding in light and voila!
She admits to being restless, fueled by the need to constantly engage in something creative at all points of time. “I'm not the kind of person who can just end up doing one thing. I get bored easily. I need to try new things and experiment with stuff.” But if there is anything that her last stint and Covid have taught her, it's the ability to let your mind rest and then wander, build better boundaries and enjoy all the time to do nothing (as Calvin says).
Even as she says this you can see her creative itch keeps propelling her to explore new canvases. There are embroidered cushions, painted doorways, and sculptures. While we both laugh at the idea of carving out time for self-projects as adults, in spite of her self critique, she is someone who manages it well!
Looking at her vast body of work through the years you can sense something has shifted.
“I always wanted to present happy work. Oh this is so joyful. But that has changed now... I'm a lot more open to expressing myself, I guess it also just comes with being comfortable with yourself. There are no restrictions that I put on myself when I draw anymore. I don't think there's this idea of who I want to be rather (it’s become) what would I want to explore.”
While she continues to turn inwards, tapping into her deeper emotions and experiences in her visual expression(s), the wonder, and a sense of discovery continue to be ever present.
Reverie, Personal Art
“At this point, I'd like to find avenues in which I can continue to tell stories that I feel are authentic to me or my experience. I like the idea of developing something.” And in her case, it’s obviously in a traditional hand-drawn format, her true love. “I would probably work on my own film and see if I can get funding or crowdsourcing.” Animation producers and funders, are you listening?
(since Lavanya was generous with her time, and clearly we had tons to unpack, we have some more bonus content below)
She admits to being a touch obsessed with dinosaurs. They occur everywhere. In her drawings, her sculptures and even in her kitchen cabinet, peeking from behind a glass. Much to her husband’s surprise. Collecting dinosaur figurines is probably her guilty pleasure or indulgence.They have decided to put a temporary break on the same to save their home from becoming a homage to Jurassic park.
AGI : What would you say have been your biggest influences that have helped/guided you along the way?
LN : During my time at NID we were exposed to French animation at some of our auditorium screenings as well as Annecy promo clips. This alongside animation shorts by Joanna Quinn had a big impact and influence on my work. I really fell in love with the stories, characters and style. Apart from this, there are a couple of children’s books that made me discover my love for art as a child. I feel like these two worlds are a very big part of the art I create today.
AGI: If you had to pick your biggest strengths, hashtags if you will, what would they be?
LN: Ooh hard one! Maybe #glasshalffull #aloveforthelittlethings #alwaysinastateofwonder
AGI : If you got a chance to do something over, what would it be? Could be a project or a certain phase or action.
LN : There are times I stumble onto my older work when rummaging through folders on my hard drives and my initial reaction is always yikes! But when that feeling wears off, I realise that I’ve grown from there and in a world where we are constantly striving to only put the best versions of ourselves on display it makes our journeys more real. Mistakes are a passage to improvement and change. So, to be honest even if today I look back and think there are things I know I could do better, I wouldn’t change a thing!
AGI: What are your views on having a strong personal style? Do you think it helps to develop one? Why?
LN : We are influenced by the things around us and I believe that does inform how we draw even if we don’t define it as a specific style. I can certainly see the benefit in developing a personal style which eventually makes you more recognizable for your work as a standalone artist. However, as an animator we often need to adapt to whatever art style a particular production demands and since my training stems from there I think I enjoy keeping things less defined and changing things up every now and then. For me personally, it allows me to appreciate and understand different art forms. So more than the style itself it’s more of a priority to understand what are the things that interest you and how this defines the way we draw.
AGI : If you had to compare the two industries, India and Australia - what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of both.
LN: I haven’t been a big part of the Indian animation industry for many years now so I can’t speak to the present time. But when I first started out 13 years ago, traditional animation jobs were hard to come by. My love for the field eventually pushed me to look beyond the local, as I wasn’t willing to let that passion go and was seeking to learn more. I see so much more enterprise, initiative and independent animation happening from some incredibly talented artists today which is amazing! So, my hope is that it is changing!
Australian animation is going through some changes and is at an exciting point. Being a part of the industry these last 6 years has taught me so much about the craft and production process. I also experienced working on my first animated television series as well as directing at 12field Animation, which I am really grateful for.
For how diverse Australia is I feel like we can have a larger representation of this in the animation content. But I do believe this is changing, slowly but surely!
On my desk currently A cup of warm peppermint tea gone cold.
All animators must try to strengthen their draftsmanship.
I can't seem to forget (currently) Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro.
I'd love to pick : Cecile Carre’s brain about everything she creates.
You can reach out to Lavanya on the links below
Lavanya Naidu