One morning in early October, I was flipping through local events online to assemble our calendar listings. That process becomes a bit of a blur sometimes, but my eye stopped short on a striking color cartoon — part of an announcement for an animation exhibit that month by Sachio Cook at the Hosmer Gallery in Northampton.
In the drawing, a wide-eyed woman crawls on her hands and knees through a forest, searching for something. It’s an example of traditional “cel” animation, familiar from old Disney movies, in which moving characters are animated onto a static celluloid background, like stage actors performing in front of a painted backdrop.
It’s from a scene in the short film Lipsmackers by Beer Can Rd., a thesis project by Sachio Cook from her time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It’s a surreal, kooky story about three women who live up against the edge of the wilderness. I think it’s pretty brilliant — it’s available to stream for free online — but Cook has moved on to newer, more sophisticated things.
After graduating with a BFA in Traditional Animation in 2011, she has been working full-time in animation ever since. Formerly a staff artist at the New York offices for the animation studio Titmouse, she moved to Northampton last year, where she works remotely on cartoons for commissioned projects the world over — from short educational cartoons to music videos.
Intrigued by that image from Lipsmackers, I stumbled onto Cook’s Tumblr account (sachiocook.tumblr.com). With one flick of the scroll wheel, her portfolio — bursting with vivid animations, quick sketches, detailed landscapes, and whimsical characters — came pouring forth, filling my monitor with a dancing digital waterfall of neon color. My eyes bugged out, Tex Avery-style. I had to know more.
Thankfully, Cook was up for a chat. At her Northampton apartment, she explained to me that animation became a part of her life long before she discovered that she could create it full-time for a living.
“Everybody is exposed to cartoons when they’re growing up,” she said. “But some people choose to stop watching cartoons at a certain age. I just never stopped. And I was also fortunate to grow up in a multi-ethnic household, with both Japanese and American television. In Japan, they have animation for all ages, so I just continued to watch it.”
Cook grew up in Yamagata, then moved with her father to Queens when she was six. As a kid she read comics and became enamored with films by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki like Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away. During the summers, she and her sister would return to Japan to see their mother and grandparents — and the newest Ghibli flick.
Differences in Japanese and American styles of commercial animation abound, including a cartoon’s tone, genre, and target audience — non-comedic animation for adults in America is still nearly non-existent, whereas it’s a major and established form of storytelling in Japanese television and cinema. It is also more common in Japan, still, to animate onto paper, then scan those drawings into a computer.
Cook, by contrast, uses a digital drawing tablet made by Wacom called a Cintiq, which she uses with a stylus to animate all of her current projects. She continues to freelance with Titmouse, and she has a few other commissions right now, which she did not discuss in detail. Suffice it to say: it pays the rent.
“It’s crazy how many opportunities there are for commissioned animation right now,” she said. “There is a boom of comedians and storytellers doing stories that are animated. Short films. Ads. Book trailers. If you learn to animate, there are a lot of outlets for it, and you can sustain yourself. It’s a really exciting time for animation.”
Most people, she added, still don’t think of drawing as a career that leads to financial independence. That’s something she tries to push back on. “I feel strongly that young people with drawing talent should have the chance to try out an interest in animation — it can help them to express themselves.”
That’s why Cook agreed to do the show at the Hosmer Gallery, even though she had only recently arrived to Northampton. “I really want to open up the idea of animation in the community. If younger people want to come forward and pursue it, that’s something I want to encourage. Architecture, fashion, music, fiction — everything can be channeled into the art of animation.”
That’s Cook’s goal these days: to double down on independent film projects while keeping enough commissions to pay the rent. When she completes her new short film-in-progress, called Bear Man, she hopes to get better acquainted with local and regional opportunities to screen it publicly at festivals or community events.
“I can finally do some work with no strings attached,” she said. “It’s hard to carve out the time just to make my own stories. But that’s what I’m working on now — something that can open up the world for me.”
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.