This past summer, the Duke STEAMy video challenge asked Duke students and recent alumni to create videos designed to showcase the STEAM interdisciplinary approach—a cross between the sciences and the humanities. Sophomore Rebecca Lai, a first-time animator, was the winner of the challenge. The Chronicle’s Ryan Eichenwald sat down with Lai to discuss her experience with animation and STEAM.
The Chronicle: You were originally majoring in biology, why did you switch?
Rebecca Lai: Well, I think biology was kind of my default plan coming in. In high school you don’t really get to take that broad of a spectrum of classes. After coming here, though, I took my first computer science class second semester, and I liked it so much that I decided this was probably the thing for me.
TC: What got you into the STEAM program?
RL: So a friend told me about the video challenge, and I think the idea just felt very personal for me, because I’ve always really enjoyed both the arts and the sciences. So, you know, the chance to promote that concept was really appealing.
TC: You were allowed to choose any medium of video you wanted. What made you decide animation?
RL: I’d never actually animated stuff before, but I’d used Flash before to draw things, because it can do vector art. I’d actually gotten practice in it by interning at an animation studio where I was designing props for them. When I saw the video challenge I thought it would be a great opportunity to also learn how to animate, since I hadn’t done it in Flash before.
TC: Can you describe your inspiration behind the video?
RL: Part if it is a bit autobiographical: the whole “feeling like you have to choose” between art and science, then eventually realizing that you don’t and that when you combine the two can lead to really great results. That part is kind of like my own story. But in terms of other influences, I think there’s definitely a bit of Alice in Wonderland and maybe Narnia sort of thing where you enter into a new world and find new things that inspire you.
TC: Why did you choose the particular motifs and metaphors that you did?
RL: The whole idea behind STEAM is that when you put art and science together, it leads to better things, and for me that kind of made me think of plants growing—the whole idea of growth—so.. plants became my metaphor in the video.
TC: Can you describe what it was like creating the video as a first-time animator?
RL: I wanted to do an animation piece, but because I hadn’t animated before, I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn out well at all. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish a two-minute video. I watched a lot of tutorials online, and I think that’s one of the great things about technology today, is that there’s so many online tutorials. So I watched a bunch of those to learn how to do basic animation, and then from there on it was just a lot of experimentation—trying things out until they looked good.
TC: How long did it take you to complete the video?
RL: I think I started the second week of July. I was doing research in Pittsburg, and then I’d work on it after coming back from work, at least one hour every night. It was on and off for maybe three weeks.
TC: Did you ever think, 'Oh, I’m not going to be able to finish?'
RL: At the beginning, definitely. I actually started off by designing the character, and that part of it, the design parts you have to draw the character in all these various positions so that you can use it later on in the video. At first, I just hated my character design so much. After one day of brainstorming and trying to get out some good designs I thought, 'This is too frustrating. I don’t think I’m going to make a video after all.' But the next day, for instance, for some reason I was very inspired, and I started trying some other things, some other designs. After that it was a lot easier.
TC: Was the character supposed to be based on your appearance?
RL: No, not really. I just had an idea of how I wanted the character to look and I just played around with different designs until I settled on something I liked.
TC: What was your reaction when you won?
RL: I was looking in my inbox and I saw the email heading, and I just saw that it was about STEAM—I didn’t see what else was in there—so at first I was a little scared. I was like, 'Oh crud. If they announce the winners…' I mean, it would have been okay if I didn’t win, because I got so much out of the contest anyway, but I was a little nervous. Then I opened it, and actually seeing 'Congratulations!'… That was also another shock, but eventually—it was a very happy moment.
TC: It was a $1000 cash prize? Any idea what you’re going to do with the money?
RL: The weekend before school started, my laptop actually broke, so I already bought a laptop that just happened to be a thousand dollars. So, in the end, there’s no gain.
TC: Will you be planning to use the laptop for further animation?
RL: Yeah, actually. The new laptop I got is a 17.3 inch monitor, so it’s going to be really good for art. I’m pretty excited.