Rachel Headlam, the 18-year-old Philly character animator and I meet at a bustling juice shop. “I’m wearing a white pinstriped shirt, a red Supreme headband, and sporting an afro puff today,” she texts. Sure enough, moments later, I spot a pair of puffs in the crowd and flag her down.
I ask Headlam about her Philly roots and her recent artistic collaboration with #VoteThatJawn — a movement that works to raise voter awareness in Philadelphia — which channels her love of animation and her passion for getting young people to exercise their right to vote.
She is in her third year at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and has a compelling vision for her future and the future of character animation.
What led you to the animation medium?
When I was in middle school, I guess I was getting bullied, so I watched a lot of Anime. And when I was watching a whole lot of Anime, I would always draw Anime characters. And in my head, I was like wow they’re really making them move! I can do that too! So I just used to go on Microsoft Paint and draw one Anime character, and then in the next drawing, their mouth would be open. Then I’d put it in Windows Movie Maker and go back and forth. I was like nine [at the time] and I would see it move and be like yooo! So that’s how I got into it. Just that feeling of like yooo! has never gone away.
What Anime did you watch most growing up?
You know, the classics like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach. Hunter x Hunter is my favorite Anime of all time.
What’s your favorite part of the animation process?
Everything. Seeing the final result is definitely the payoff. I love the grind. I love drawing 24 frames per second. And I do both 2D animation and 3D animation. 3D is super mathematical in a way and I’m a nerd, I like math, so combining both is just really great.
Are there any animators who influence your work?
My favorite animator of all time would probably be Yoh Yoshinari. He’s a director in Japan for Studio Trigger. They make things like Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia. But their style, even though it’s super Anime, is still super Western because they have the feeling of movement and form and things like that. As for Western animators, Glen Keane — he was this guy at Disney and he could design, he could draw forms really realistically, and his posts and animations were just really really solid. And definitely one of my teachers right now, Randy Haycock. He’s still part of that legendary class of Disney animators and he’s just great. I look at his tests he shows in class and I’m just freaking out. He knows everything about animation.
Is there an audience you keep in mind?
Probably people like myself. Fans of animation. I keep nerds in mind. Oh and you know what? In my personal art, I draw a lot of Black people because I like Black people. I am a Black person. So that is also my audience.
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired or daunted?
Sometimes I let it pass. If I’m in school, I don’t have a choice so I’ll just go forward with it. Different artists will inspire me when I see them drawing all day and then I’m like oh my gosh, I have to draw.
What spaces are sacred to your art-making?
It’s really weird, when those moments happen where I’m up for five days straight, I listen to a lot of Meek Mill and a whole lot of other rappers. It’s really inspiring because they’re always talking about coming from nothing and making it big, and even though I’m not a rapper, I can still relate to that. My sacred space is definitely rap.
Can you talk about your ties to #VoteThatJawn?
I’m registered to vote in Philadelphia and I’m going to do my absentee ballot for Philadelphia. I feel pretty connected to #VoteThatJawn because I didn’t just do the background [animation for VTJ’s original video], I made the poster too. And it’s really important to go out and vote, so I’m happy I was able to work on this.
I was reading Omarosa’s book and it just enforces the fact tthat people felt apathetic to the situation [and didn’t vote in the last election]. We need to vote so that this doesn’t happen again. So vote, please. To all 18–25 year-olds, please vote!
What do you hope to accomplish with your work?
Definitely representation in the industry as far as workers go, and the type of media that is put out. I want there to be representations of not just Black people, but everybody in America. I definitely want to promote more positive ideas and eventually, as a life goal, I want to do something super altruistic with my animation. I don’t know what that could be right now, but that’s the direction.
Neyat Yohannes is a staff arts writer at Ampersand, a Los Angeles-based arts and culture magazine.
You can follow Rachel Headlam and her work on Instagram. Her handle is @RachelHeadlam.