Topic: College of Fine Arts

December 14, 2015

Claire and the Keys image

Animation professor John Ludwick spent almost a decade working outside the classroom on his animated short film, "Claire & the Keys."

John Ludwick is one of those lucky people who’ve found a way to make their dreams intersect with their day job.

For almost a decade, the assistant professor of art and veteran animator has spent thousands of hours outside of the classroom, creating the world and characters of his animated film, “Claire & the Keys.” The 20-minute short tells the story of a young Claire, whose family bonds are tested when she pursues piano lessons without her mother’s blessing.

“I would talk in class about what I was doing, then go home and stay up late getting it done. Instead of being drained by the work, it was creative fuel for me,” the affable artist explained. “In a lot of ways, this project was the insulation foam around what I was doing at Ball State.”

Ludwick’s dedication to “Claire” didn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues in the School of Art.

“A film of this length would typically take a person working on it full-time a few years to create,” said Andy Beane, director of Ball State’s animation program. “Along with teaching, advising and co-creating the graduate MFA in animation, John managed to do it all while juggling a full-time job with us. It’s a massive accomplishment.”

See how animation professor John Ludwick's students helped him create his award-winning short film "Claire & the Keys."

More than 20 drafts later

The idea for “Claire” came to Ludwick during a trip he took to Poland in 2007. He was teaching at IUPUI at the time, hungry for a different kind of creative challenge, when he sketched the first thumbnails in a pocket-sized notebook, an item always within reach.

“Along with teaching, advising and co-creating the graduate MFA in animation, John managed to do it while juggling a full-time job. It’s a massive accomplishment.”

Andy Beane
animation program director

While the concept came quickly, Ludwick spent the next few years storyboarding and inventing the film’s backstory, along with perfecting the look and feel of his characters.

He thought he was almost finished in 2012, but after a review by Disney animator and storyboard artist Mark Kennedy, Ludwick changed his mind.

“The only person capable of sharpening my film’s story was Mark. His next-level critique nailed the subtle story kinks that I, and no one else, could see. That rare gift compelled me to spend another few months refining my story.

“At that point, I was on version 12 of the film, but it was only after I started on Mark’s revisions that Claire became like a real person to me.”

Three years later, the film’s version history had climbed to 24 iterations before Ludwick was satisfied with its ending.

“By the time I finished, I think I’d drawn Claire about 40,000 times.”

Students key to finishing the film

What got Ludwick through his final year of working on “Claire” was the students he hired, thanks to a Ball State ASPIRE grant.

“Without their help, it would have taken me another three years to finish.”

Reanna Miller, a graduate animation student, said working on "Claire" gave her a major boost of creative confidence. The two scenes she animated, along with backgrounds she illustrated and cells she colored, prepared her for a summer 2015 internship at the TV network Adult Swim.

“Without question I’m a better artist thanks to the opportunities John’s given me,” said Miller, who earned her bachelor of fine arts in animation from Ball State in 2013.

Warm reception at festivals

John Ludwick image

John Ludwick's "Claire & the Keys" has appeared at dozens of film festivals, earning several awards.

Ludwick recalls the exact hour he finished his last drawing of Claire in October 2014: He laughed out loud in front of his computer.

“I was giddy with relief,” he said.

Post-production work, which included months of sound editing by Indianapolis audio engineer Brice Bowman, pushed the film’s completion to April 2015.

Since being an official selection of July’s Indy Film Festival, “Claire” has gone on to premiere at dozens more festivals, garnering multiple accolades and awards, Hollywood screenings and inclusion in New Zealand’s renowned Show Me Shorts Film Festival.

“I had no idea what to expect but it’s getting such a warm reception, I’m a lot less nervous now,” Ludwick said.

What would it take for “Claire” to become Oscar eligible?

“You have to be a winner at one of the festivals recognized by the academy,” he explained. “So getting invited is a good start.”

‘Couldn’t imagine being anywhere else’

As he continues promoting "Claire" on the festival circuit, Ludwick is looking ahead to his next project—a satirical action-comedy about zombies weary of being a pop-culture trend.

Long removed from his undergraduate days as a “sleepwalking student,” the 52-year-old credits his career as a professional animator—he’s done 2-D and 3-D animation for Cartoon Network, PBS Kids and Toon Disney—for teaching him how energizing entrepreneurial work can be. Now it’s a lesson he loves passing down to his students: heed a creative calling no matter where they professionally land.

The flexibility he has to continue chasing his animation dreams at Ball State, an institution he loves for “recognizing animation as an art form,” is not lost on him.

“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. This department is a perfect fit for me.”

Which explains why, no matter the time he spends inside the classroom or the colorful confines of his cartoon-festooned office, Ludwick will always find a way back to the drawing board.

“I’ve got sketchbooks everywhere—in my bag, next to the TV, by my bed, always ready for my next idea. Drawing is such a huge part of my life. If I’m not doing it, a part of me isn’t living.”

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