ARTIST INTERVIEW: KAJSA RÅSTEN
Kajsa Råsten is an illustrator, animator and storyteller from Sweden. We are thrilled to feature her work in Pictoria 1 and 2. Alongside her work in animation and illustration, Kajsa is deeply passionate about promoting equality in the motion graphics industry. We joined Kajsa for a virtual Swedish fika to find out more about her mission, and learn what we can do to help.
Hello Kajsa, thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Please could you introduce yourself and tell us about how your relationship with art began.
Hello! Thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation!
As you said, I am an illustrator and animator from Sweden. I was born and raised in a small archipelagic town, not far from the capital of Stockholm and as so many other artists, my love for the creative started at an early age. In fact, a couple of years ago I ran into one of my old kindergarten teachers. She asked how I was doing and then wondered if I was still drawing. I asked “How did you know I illustrate? I expect most young children draw at that age.” She only replied “Not the way you did.” So I guess you can say that I knew my passion even back then. On top of that I was lucky enough to come from a long line of creative people, ranging from photographers to sculptors, so I got a lot of support in my decision to go into a creative line of work.
After graduating high school I went to a classical art school, where I got the opportunity to work with traditional materials like charcoal, oil paint and watercolors. But we live in a digital world. As I developed my artistic skills I started to feel limited by the boundaries of analogue techniques. What worked so great for others made me feel frustrated and uninspired. This is where I turned to the digital medium, in my case - working with my drawing tablet in Photoshop and After Effects.
Here I could combine the traditional methods I’ve studied with new digital techniques. And this is exactly what I love about the digital process. It is that it allows me infinite palettes, canvases and techniques without limiting my creative process.
We have been delighted to feature your work in two of our illustration directories, Pictoria Volume.1 and Pictoria Volume.2. Your work, ‘A Quiet Moment’ has stayed with me since I first saw it. Can you tell us about how you created this work and what you hope to convey to the viewer?
I’m so glad to hear you say that, it is actually one of my favorite pieces too. It’s hard to say exactly when the idea for this artwork took form, I decided several years ago that I wanted to do a series of environmental studies, but I didn’t want them to just be “backgrounds” as such. It was important to me that they were pieces of concept design as well. I wanted each and every one of them to tell a story. A story that would give you just enough information to invite you to contemplate upon the narrative told by the composition. I wanted the viewer to become the narrator.
If you look at them together, you might notice, while the techniques are the same, the motifs all differ considerably. Despite this, it might be easy to see how they belong together. Not just due to my love of textures and dancing light reflections, but because they’re all depictions of a calm moment, forever captured in time. The harmonious seconds when you’ve just drawn a breath but yet to release it from your lungs. Those few precious minutes when the wind has decided to subside and the sun has yet to set on the horizon.
When creating ‘A Quiet Moment’ I remember looking at these gorgeous Japanese houses for inspiration. All I can say is that they truly are the epitome of stillness and calm.
Slowly I started envisioning a remote yet serene home, with cool stone walls and soft wooden floor boards. A place where one could get far away from thundering highways and stressful city lights. A place where one could go to have a few quiet moments just to oneself.
You produced a video for the life science company IDL Biotech, where you created the animation, design, storyboard, script and SFX. Could you give us an overview of the process you went through to make this piece and explain how each aspect comes together?
IDL Biotech is actually another favorite of mine. Both since it was such a beautiful project to work on, and because IDL Biotech’s mission is to find the best way to diagnose and manage diseases like cancer and typhoid in children in third world countries. It’s hard not to be passionate about such a charitable cause and feel humbled by having the opportunity to aid their operation.
The movie is created, like so many of my other videos, at the animation studio Adme; and when creating a motion graphic video such as IDL Biotech, I usually start with writing the script for the voice over. Based on the client brief, this could be anything from a short narrated story to a dialogue between several people.
When this is done, it’s time to start working on the storyboard - the plot of the movie. There are a lot of things to keep in mind when making a storyboard with everything from rhythm and pedagogy to transitions and tone of the entire film. Remember, if you’re trying to force too much information into a small time frame, chances are the movie will feel stressed and unarticulated. Make the movie too slow however and you run the risk of having the viewer lose interest.
The storyboard step is followed by the process of setting the tone and style of the design. This is one of my favorite bits, since it allows me to look upon countless pieces of inspiration before settling on a specific style. This is to make sure that every style frame created by me is not just original and unique, but also perfectly suited to the client’s brand and trademark. When the style frames, usually consisting of three to four illustrations, have been approved by the client, it’s time to start creating the actual movie. The animations and illustrations are usually created in tandem with one another in the software After Effects. This way I don’t have to waste any time going back and forth between different softwares.
When everything is done I add the sound and watch all the bits and pieces come together - voice over, plot, illustrations, animations and sound.
You have a great ability to complement movement, shape and form to the audio you work with. For you, does the audio dictate how you animate certain elements and transition to scenes? If so, do you prefer to have the audio in advance before you begin the storyboarding process?
This is a great question, and in all honesty, this differs from project to project. A lot of the time I don’t have access to, for example, the music from the beginning of a production, which means I need to find music that complements the timing and movement of the animations. This is always a difficult task, especially together with the importance of picking music that communicates the right tone and feel of the message.
Sometimes it might be better to, as you say, let the sound dictate the flow in certain scenes. Changing the movement of an animation here, or tweaking the timing of a transition there. And in some cases I have the wonderful opportunity to order custom-made music, specially designed to fit the production. This way I can make sure that it in every way harmonizes with the flow of the video, without ever compromising the message or overall tone. The sound effects are usually a bit easier to produce, since I have access to a large sfx bank, where I can pick and choose from thousands of pre-recorded sounds which then can be adjusted and fine-tuned to fit the animations perfectly.
Since 2017 you have been on a mission to try and help create a more equal, safe and fair motion industry - was there a specific catalyst that inspired you to begin this programme?
Honestly, there have been countless times where I have been reminded that our industry is divided and in desperate need of change, both through my own experiences and that of others, so it’s hard to say that there’s been one specific incentive leading to my decision. Although the realization that I wanted to dedicate a big part of my life to this issue, came when I had the opportunity to hold a lecture for a high school class in 2017. Their animation teacher, contacted me, after seeing an interview I did with the Swedish newspaper Metro. She expressed a pressing concern that her female students had lost faith in the industry, feeling that they will never succeed in finding a job they liked or felt comfortable in. She explained that a lot of them felt that there was no place for them in the motion industry, and that many even thought about giving up on their dream of becoming an animator. Based on our conversation I sat down and created my first lecture about equality.
Here, I feel that it is important to mention the actual state of the industry of which I’m speaking. The motion industry is, as with so many other technical lines of work, considerably homogenous. It is, maybe unsurprisingly, dominated by white men, usually with a sexuality matching the typical norm. Because of this, women, people of color, other sexual preferences and lower socio-economic status have a hard time entering the field of talent. This is the main reason why I feel so passionately about levelling the playing field. Creating a more equal, loving and bias-free motion industry for everyone.
You host lectures at high schools and universities for students, to further your mission to create gender and ethnicity equality in the motion graphics industry. What advice would you give to a student looking to begin a professional career as an illustrator or motion designer?
I have a favorite mantra that I love to tell the students at all of my lectures - The only way to not reach your goal, is to give up along the way.
Now, this can of course be applied to more or less everything, but somehow I think it is an extra good fit when talking about an industry that, by the looks of it, doesn’t want you there. Imagine being a young woman or a person of color with a passion for the creative and a dream to work at one of the great animation studios. Then imagine taking a closer look at one of those companies and realizing that there’s not a single person like you in the position that you’ve aspired to.
One explanation why there are less women than men in the field of talent is for that exact reason. There will never be an equal creative industry as long as a great number of people don’t feel represented amongst the role models and influencers we see today. So my advice to the students who feel underrepresented would be to overlook the fact that they might be a minority. Remember that this is not an indication that you don’t belong, but rather irrefutable proof that you are needed.
Contemporary youth activism seems to have been embraced by young people in Sweden, with well-known activists such as Elin Ersson and Greta Thunberg getting worldwide recognition for their work.
How have your students reacted to your lectures, are there any common frustrations or hopes for the future they have shared with you in the context of gender and ethnicity equality in the creative industries?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most common worries I see amongst the female and minority students, is the worry that there is no place for them in the field of talent. And just as much as I have shared my experiences with them, they have shared theirs with me. I’ve heard everything from sexist bosses to discriminating hiring staff, and yet the stories never stop surprising me. But just as the worry of an unfair industry is a recurring subject, so are the hopes and beliefs that change is possible, or rather achievable.
Just the other week I held a lecture where we talked about what kind of characters we would like to see more of in media such as movies or games. Almost immediately upon asking the question a large number of hands shot into the air. Voices started to yell out “people of color”, “Muslims”, “queer people” etc. Later on I gave them an assignment to create their own character and present them to their classmates. You might not be surprised to hear that a large amount of the students created characters similar to themselves or sharing their own experiences. Some of them came from places of war and devastation, while others painted a picture of the difficulties being a trans person in a modern society.
The wonderful thing about holding these lectures, is that I, not only get to share my knowledge and encouragements, but also get to learn from their experiences and insights. I truly believe that to have the best understanding of the world around us, we need to learn from as many different experiences as possible. A student once told me she believed that in order to truly understand a person’s pain from injustice or discrimination, one has to experienced pain of their own of one sort or another. I believe there is truth to what she said, and if we can learn to understand each other’s pain, even though we haven’t been through the same thing, we can start helping each other in ways we’re incapable of today.
Based on your background as a professional creative, and your experience working with the next generation of artist and designers, what do you think the creative industries in Sweden will look like in the next ten years?
Another good question. It’s hard to know exactly, since I don’t have a great insight in all the creative companies in Sweden. And of course there is some level of concern after seeing rising conservative and xenophobic voices spreading across the globe. But, since I believe that multicultural and multifaceted companies are the best (or should I say only) way to create inspiring and successful creative productions, I think there is no way to go from here, other than forward. And after talking to so many brilliant and passionate students, I have no doubt that change is coming. We need to work together in order to create a loving and inclusive industry and for that we need all kinds of people.
What advice would you give to the people already working at or owning creative companies, to help them work towards a more equal industry?
One of the biggest obstacles we face when talking about an equal industry, is the argument many companies use when hiring new creatives. The phrase “We just try to hire the best people" is not only common but also incredibly problematic for a lot of reasons. You see, the argument "We don't discriminate, we simply hire the best talent for the job” would only work if the field of talent is completely free of bias, be it regarding gender or otherwise. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as bias is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The result of this is that it is harder to get ahead for women as well as people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals etc.
There are, for example, currently more men than women in the field. So the odds that you hire a man instead of a woman for your creative team, are greater. This leads to there being less female role models in top creative positions down the road. And as we all know by now, it’s easy to get discouraged simply by seeing how male-dominated and homogenous the industry is. In other words, a lot of people end up passing up doing motion design, simply because they consciously or subconsciously think that they don’t belong.
Because of deep rooted biases in our society, women today are, on top of that, conditioned to believe that they are not as good at jobs involving intense technical know-how as their male counterparts. Since ‘motion graphic artist’ is one of those jobs, we see an automatic drop in women going into the industry. Not because they do not want to work with animation, but because they don’t think they’re good enough to succeed.
So, in order to get an equal industry, we all need to actively try to level out the uneven status quo. My advice to the people already working in the industry, therefore, is to be proactive when they’re in need of proficient creative individuals. Actively seek out talented and qualified women, LGBTQIA+ people or people of color the next time you're looking to hire someone. It’s not about choosing a less qualified person, it’s about making the effort to find a qualified person whose point of view might be different, but nevertheless complements your own. You’ll be doing your company and the industry a favor in the long run.
Could you tell us about a challenge that you have faced in your professional career, and explain how you overcame it?
When I was studying motion design several years ago, I once did an internship in NYC. The USA is not only far away from my home and life in Sweden, but the cultural differences between Sweden and America, are actually quite a lot bigger than one might expect. After my first week at the company where I worked, I was shocked over how dissimilar it was to my earlier experiences, working in Sweden. Not only because the hierarchy was quite a bit more noticeable there, but also because I felt as if I was treated differently because of my origin. I’m not exactly sure why that was, but I remember feeling foolish and out of touch a lot of the time. It got to the point where I felt like I was incapable of doing my job, which in turn lead to quite a lot of performance anxiety.
I am well aware that this is nothing compared to being an actual alien, immigrating from another country. I still had my home and family in Sweden to go back to when the internship was over, but it was definitely a learning experience through two cultures clashing unexpectedly. When you get to the point where you seriously question whether or not you’re even qualified to do the job you’ve worked so hard to achieve, simply because your culture doesn’t fit in at the place where you work, you need to take a serious look at the choices you have before you. For me, it was either to give up, terminate my internship and leave my education without my diploma, or to find a way to take back control over my situation. I chose the latter.
I decided that this would forever be a learning experience for me, because if I couldn’t do the thing I loved doing, then I might as well stop trying all together. I had to remind myself that failure is only failure if you don’t learn from your setbacks. After that point I started working extra hours, practicing on my favorite art styles and developing new techniques, so that I once again could feel confident in my line of work. Rather than giving up, I decided to walk taller than I had done before the move and to take on every obstacle with a running start. It was through this experience that I realized that the only way I would not reach my goal, was to give up along the way.
Finally, we would love to hear about what you have planned for the rest of the year - can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to do a series of pro bono illustrations for the non-profit organization Her Birthright. Their goal is to provide free menstrual cups for all females in Sweden, so naturally I was happy to help. I can’t tell you for certain about all my upcoming projects, but I’m hoping to do some more pro-bono commissions in the upcoming year. Other than that I plan to keep creating my animated videos, especially within the humanitarian field. As well as keep filling up my Instagram page @kajsarasten_art, where I post everything from behind the scenes of my animated videos to fun little doodles I do in my spare time.
And of course, I will continue holding my lectures for a more equal, safe and fair motion industry, for everyone.
© Kajsa Råsten