Visual Empathy (Demo)

Elena Ciolacu is a Romanian award winning illustrator, graphic novel creator and 2D animator. In 2013 she graduated from Coventry University, UK, with a BA in Illustration and Animation and as of June 2018 she is also a graduate of the prestigious National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale”(UNATC) in Bucharest where she undertook an MA in Animated Film. She is a strong believer in visual media’s power to shape society and her work focuses on visual storytelling that aims to bring to the world’s attention messages of moral, spiritual and ethical value.

by Ada Popescu

Her first graphic novel, “A Story of Hope for the Bullied”, won two international awards and nearly 500 messages of gratitude from bullying victims all over the world. Her second graphic novel, “Disposable People”, is probably the first visual narrative that imagines the Alzheimer’s disease from the perspective of the people living with it. This book is based on Elena’s research into cases of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and also on her own experience of living with her grandfather who was diagnosed only one week after she started working on this project. Elena is currently focusing on 2D animation projects and her second and latest animated short, also one of her most ambitious projects, has just entered the festivals circuit.


How long have you been doing what you do and where do you draw your inspiration from?

I have been drawing ever since I was a child, I got serious about art in high-school and I created my first graphic novel and animated my first short film during my BA studies, but I think I can safely call myself a professional artist from 2013 when I graduated from university. I draw inspiration from many things: everyday life, civic concerns, history, my faith, literature, photography, art, design etc., but all these are steered in a certain direction by my own vision of life, my search for purpose and meaning in everything that I do.

Some of the themes of you projects are heavy – your animation “Remember me” is about the Stalingrad war, one of the themes in your graphic novel “Disposable People” is Alzheimer’s, you also did a project on bullying. What motivated you to tell these stories?

“Remember Me” has a very special place in my portfolio of work because it was my first attempt at creating an animation and my first attempt at exploring one of the subjects that I am most passionate about: history. It is my modest tribute to the Romanian soldiers who fought in WWII, on the Eastern Front. Although my initial approach was going to be merely depictive and generic about WWII, as I started doing research and read testimonies of Romanian war veterans that fought on the Eastern Front, I soon realized that I had to tell a story that would convey the same awe, respect and sorrow that I felt for my country’s heroes. My two graphic novels, “A Story of Hope for the Bullied” and “Disposable People”, came about almost unplanned, they sort of happened to me. “A Story of Hope…” was created as a university assignment that required us to enter various competitions in order to get exposure. I chose to enter the Creative Conscience Awards (a competition that encourages young creatives to address social and ethical issues) and this opportunity came at the exact time when I was under the deep impression of the case of Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenage girl who had committed suicide because of bullying. Her story had a strong impact on me because this girl had asked for help before killing herself, she had put her story up on the internet asking for a friend and if I had seen her story in time maybe I could have helped her. There are thousands of children and teenagers going through bullying and I strongly felt at that time that I had to do something for them, to reach out a hand for any of them who wanted to grab it, mainly because I knew what bullying felt like, I knew what its consequences on mental health were. So I created my “Story of Hope for the Bullied”, I posted it on the internet and within a month and a half I received nearly 500 messages of gratitude, newfound hope and empathy from young people all over the world. It was overwhelming! This particular event in my education and career drastically changed the way I saw my purpose and calling and as an artist. “Disposable People” is actually somewhat connected to “A Story of Hope…” because it started as a graphic novel commission from a research centre that was working on a project on the Alzheimer’s disease. They had seen my story about bullying and wanted me to create something similar based on the experience of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Again, just like with “Remember Me”, the research that I did and the shocking and thought provoking information that I found out made me want to tell this story at any cost, even after the research centre cancelled the commission. In an unexpected twist of events, whilst working on this story, I found out that my own grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This fact brought a very personal touch to the story as I decided to use him as inspiration for the main character – John has my grandfather’s face down to every expression and gesture. Furthermore, most of the lines in the story actually belong to my grandfather and to other real people suffering from Alzheimer’s that I had read about or seen in documentaries during my research. This book was first published in Romania in December 2015 with the kind of support of ROST publishing house.

What are the most demanding aspects when you are working on your stories?

Every part of the creative process is demanding in its own way. For example, after I come up with an idea, that little light bulb, the first sparkle of inspiration, I then go through a long process of polishing, chiseling and building a story that works. Sometimes this phase lasts long into the production process when I often scrap finished parts out or redefine characters. For me, the story has to carry the meaning and emotions that I first had in mind, but it also has to have believable characters, a coherent and gripping narrative that keeps people engaged with the characters and makes them empathize with them. I would say the feeling of empathy within my viewers or readers is the most important aspect that I focus on. But after I dive into the actual production of the story – drawing the images or animating the scenes, creating the illusion of time and rhythm, backgrounds, colours and lights that support the story – another demanding aspect lies in every decision that I make. I have to also admit that the sheer amount of work that goes into these projects (summing up to years of non-stop work) is a tough personal challenge as I sometime tend to lose sight of life-work balance and my health kicks back at me in revenge!

You just finished your latest animation short film “The Little Hero”. What is  it about and how did it come to be?

“The Little Hero” is my MA graduation film and it came to be thanks to my ever loving and supporting family, thanks to CINETic  (the state-of-the-art laboratory provided by UNATC), to my tutors, friends and alumni who kindly got involved and also thanks to my stubborn ambition to master this beautiful form of art. My first goal in creating this film was to learn, to teach myself how to animate professionally and the way I approached learning animation was similar to learning how to paint: reproducing a master’s oeuvre. In my case the master was Studio Ghibli and I learned by studying their production process from beginning to end. This is the reason why my film has a very Japanese feeling about it, but far from merely copying their style I wanted to challenge myself to reach this extremely difficult level of animation because later on, from the height of this level, I could better see where I would do things differently, where I would experiment. My second goal in creating this film was to share a story that would convey the same warmth and joy that I felt as a child watching the animated films from back then. “The Little Hero” presents a short episode in the life of a little boy and his mother and focuses on illustrating that most unique and beautiful trait of childhood: the act of playing (in real life!). The little boy wants to go out and play with his mother, but she declines his request being ever busy with office work that she often brings home. Sad and disappointed, the little boy goes out to play on his own, but the whimsical appearance of a blue butterfly sets him on an imaginary journey to save his mother from the lonely prison of work and chores. The images are beautifully accompanied by the original soundtrack composed by Simona Strungaru and I am pleased to announce that the film has entered the festivals circuit and in Romania it will screen at two festivals at the end of this year.

How do you find living and working in Bucharest after the Coventry experience?

Different but wonderful! A bit too noisy, hectic and crowded for my provincial tastes, but overall a positive experience. I love that certain beautiful “something” of being among “my own”, no longer a guest or a stranger, but a citizen in my own right entitled to every bit of good and bad that this country has to offer. When I moved back home after almost four years of living in the UK, I felt as if I was immigrating into my own country! I had gotten used to the people, places and life in Coventry, I had built friendships and a small network of people, I was accustomed to the shops, the rhythm of life, the social system, and I left all that behind to return home where I had to start all over again from scratch. This might seem like a foolish decision to many people, but I left because I knew that the longer I stayed in the UK the harder it would have become to move back home. But packed with the knowledge and life experience from the UK, with all the lessons I learnt from this great and beautiful country, I was able to face many difficulties, to tackle issues with a different attitude and overall to appreciate ten fold everything that my home had to offer. The wonderful thing about living and working in Bucharest is the sheer amount of enthusiasm and support that I am greeted with by people from all walks of life when I tell them what I do and share with them my plans and ambitions. Everyone here is so genuinely happy to meet hardworking people who want to contribute to our society.  There is this feeling, you see, of living among your own and sharing the same dreams and struggles with them, of working and fighting together for a common goal, a better tomorrow. I often felt that my tiny accomplishments in my profession were being celebrated by friends and strangers as if they were their own, I was sent messages of encouragement, I was invited on TV shows, I was introduced by people to other people. Even at university, one of the distinct aspects that I felt compared to my experience in Coventry, was that I was not just a simple student, being offered information and skills. If I so wished it, I was part of a team, putting my shoulder side by side with my tutors to recreate our industry from the ashes, to advance our field of work in Romania, to improve and overcome obstacles. This I didn’t have in Coventry, over there I was just one among many and a stranger on top. However, I can’t be hypocritical and idealistic and say that there haven’t been difficult times, or that I did not come across cheaters, liars, cracks in the system and iniquities. I have stumbled over many of these, as one stumbles over them anywhere in the world. But what matters is that we simply stop focusing on them (please, everyone, turn your TVs off!). I do not look at the world with hate and frustration, expecting it to roll out the red carpet for me, I just put all I have got into doing the best I work I can, into being principled and polite and no matter how embittered the world becomes I am sure that there will always be people who will answer back the same way. To sum up, I would like to share a beautiful quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that inspires me greatly and that I wish more people would follow as well:  “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music … Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

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