Inspiring Designer: Mighty Oak

August 9, 2016 by Erin Behan

Emily Collins and Michaela Olsen have a rather unusual job. They make paper dance. But not just dance. They also make it walk, talk, bubble, and even morph from one object to another. The two are the animation side of the Brooklyn-based studio Mighty Oak. A third partner, CEO and creative producer Jess Peterson, handles business development.

Inspiring Designer: Mighty Oak
Since spring of 2015, the three women have been producing hand-made animation of all types under the Mighty Oak banner, including stop-motion animation and documentary video, and that involves lots of paper manipulation. As part of that work, they animate GIFs, create branded content, do mini-documentaries — all for big names like The New York Times, Jose Cuervo, AT&T, and more.

Their work for the Times' education department section involved folding newspaper, origami-style, and animating it into letters. In a piece on gift-giving for Time Inc. Studios and AT&T, they animated gifts jumping into a box, adding a very realistic-looking self-tying bow. And for part of the feature-length documentary, Dream, Girl by Erin Bagwell, they hand-cut painted paper for animated scenes that were then interspersed with interviews of individual subjects.

Whether it's a GIF of just a few seconds (see their Instagram) or a more complicated piece, Collins, Olsen and Peterson keep storytelling at the forefront, while igniting the senses. "What we're trying to do," says Collins, "is embrace unexpected ways of seeing material. So whether you're seeing paper and it's structured or layered or you're seeing a shoe that morphs into a butterfly … we're playing with the unexpected, and the magic of these materials is always the goal. And sparking people's interest in it."

Mighty Oak works with animating all sorts of things (from nuts to blooming plants), but Collins and Olsen say they find something special about using paper. "Most people don't expect paper to have sculptural quality or animatable quality. So just knowing that, we can use it in an unexpected way," Collins says. In particular, they use animated collage to great effect. "There's just a great variety of textures and a variety of different qualities of paper."

That could mean picking just the right wallpaper for a set, or creating texture with paper — sometimes the paper itself has depth or it might be painted or layered — for different skin tones or for an object like a house. The diversity and differing qualities of paper are an asset for animation, as is the speed in which they can mock-up an environment in paper, Collins says.

Inspiring Designer: Mighty Oak
Whatever they do, from an advertisement for a Fortune 500 company to a GIF for Instagram, their work is eye-catching. It's a conscious decision, says Olsen. "We pick colors and shapes that are very graphic and bold so that they kind of pop out when you see them."

Mighty Oak straddles two disparate worlds, that of handmade and of digital. On the one side, they are personally often manipulating handmade physical objects in front of a camera. On the other, there is the digital manipulation that comes after.

"You're able to really enhance what you're doing, whether it's color correction or adding hand-drawn Photoshop accents," says Olsen. "Being able to go in and edit your animation to look more crisp or less crisp … to create a hybrid of those worlds. Whether you're trying to make it look more digital or less. That's my favorite thing."

Inspiring Designer: Mighty Oak
The work takes time. A seemingly simple three-second animation, something like a cut-out paper hand that's tossing a ball back and forth, could take three to four hours. More complex projects like Dream, Girl, took several months, says Collins.

Still, no matter how complicated a project, the everyday quality of paper grounds the team, according to Olsen, who remembers her first animation project as stemming from paper cut-outs.

"Everyone uses paper all the time. It's not like when you're sculpting something out of a weird epoxy clay," she says. "You're transforming this everyday material. I think people like seeing the magic of that. With paper you have a lot of ability to really illustrate and create new things."

SHOP AT for animated paper.

Erin Behan

Written by Erin Behan

Erin Behan is an L.A.-based writer and editor who considers fine paper one of life's little pleasures.


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