Friday, July 31, 2015

Forget Frozen – Why Strange Magic is the Fairytale Our Young Women (and Men) Should Be Crazy About

This film was slammed pretty hard by the critics, and I went into it warily. Being a visual artist and writer myself,  I am a huge fan of quality animation, but I am well aware that a lot of it is crap, too.  I was pleasantly surprised by Strange Magic, and the more I watched the more I realized that not only is it a beautiful and lushly-realized, nuanced story with some great messages…it’s actually kind of revolutionary as far as feature animated films.  I suspect that the critics hated it because they didn’t GET IT.  Probably because they are mostly men.  And that’s not a slam on men…it’s an acknowledgement that men don’t have the perspective of growing up as young women. 


Basically, it’s a Feminist Fairy Rock Opera that explores the complexities of Love.  It’s a Coming-of-Age story about young women that doesn’t romanticize romance, but portrays the experience of learning to navigate romantic relationships in a way that was pretty darn familiar to me, as a woman.  It portrays the challenges of girls struggling to establish their independence in a world dominated by men who want to control, manipulate and protect them, and it does so with insight and compassion.   

One thing I saw a lot of critics mention was that there was too much music.  Now, I’ll admit that I find some animated films where folks start bursting into song a bit annoying.  But this is a musical.  If you’re  not aware, musicals are insanely popular with young people, and for good reason.  If you don’t like musicals, steer clear (and if you're a critic who criticizes musicals for having music, you're a pretty lame film critic, IMHO). But if you can appreciate the art of using relevant pop music to express character and advance plot, Strange Magic ROCKS at this.  The musical selection is eclectic, recasting beloved songs from such popular artists as The Four Tops, Bob Marley, Beyonce, Dionne Warwick, Queen, Heart, ELO and the Troggs, to name a few.  The arrangements are great, and they are integrated into the film quite skillfully, evoking relevant emotions and often, charming humor.  It's self aware enough to even acknowledge that breaking into song is silly (and sometimes annoying).

Now, this is a story about Fairy Princesses falling in love.  But it’s not your average, sugar-coated Disney tale (don’t be fooled by the saccharine setup…stick with it!).  There is a Handsome Prince (who is not actually a Prince…not yet, anyway.  He has to marry the princess first to achieve that goal).  It’s quickly established that despite this guy’s good looks and popularity, his actions mark him as a manipulative, selfish bully who’s only after the crown.  The rest of the story follows MaryAnn’s journey after she discovers his true nature and processes her first major heartbreak.

Her initial response is to swear off love.  Former goth girls will relate to the impulse to harden our hearts and toughen up.  She decides she doesn’t need a man, and she focuses her energy on becoming her own protector.  One scene references the classic scene in Star Wars of Luke Skywalker honing his lightsaber skills with the training drone.  Some folks found this annoying but f them.  One of the reasons George Lucas made this film is because he has daughters and wanted to make a “Star Wars for Girls”. 
Critics bashed the fact that the King (and father of the girls) looks like Lucas – an obvious vanity cameo, right?  But the King is kind of a boob.  He’s a clueless, overprotective single Dad whose heart is in the right place, but is admittedly ill-equipped to guide his girls.  Like a LOT of dads.  I applaud Lucas for portraying the Father’s Dilemma of wanting to protect his adolescent girls with sensitivity and self-depreciating humor, as opposed to the traditional notion, which is to pull out the shotgun when the predatory boys come sniffing around. 

The film also features an over-involved, inept matchmaker of a Mother who is determined to make sure her boy (who happens to be the Bad Guy) finds love, despite his bitter rejection of the “L” Word.  Both families seem to be missing one parent, a factor that is not insignificant.
The interaction between parents and their willful children is handled beautifully – the children love their parents, and understand that they are trying to look out for them, however annoying they might be.  They don’t resort to destructive parent-hating rebellion, yet still manage to exert their independence.   

So – the Dad’s a boob and the handsome boy is a jerk.  Sounds pretty anti-male, right?  Nope.  While there are male characters that represent the dangerous, confusing and frustrating interactions between men and women, there are other male characters that are awesome.  They just happen not to be the ones who are handsome, popular and/or powerful (or white).  They are flawed, but brave, loving, respectful, and perhaps most important of all, willing to take the risk of vulnerability.

The plot is fairly complex and moves pretty darn fast in places.  Some folks may think it’s too advanced for kids, but I think our kids are up to the challenge.  You know how kids watch these things over and over again…if they miss something the first time around, repeated viewings will clarify things.  It did for me, with the added benefit of spotting little details that enhance the story.

I also totally dug the Sugarplum Fairy character.  Though the wisest and most magically powerful of them all, she has been imprisoned for years and her frustration at this is hilariously palpable, yet there is also a suggestion that her incarceration is all part of a larger plan to teach some valuable lessons.  She’s an enchanting representation of the elemental goddess figure, at once powerful and vulnerable, helpful and dangerous, loving yet mischievous.  And ultimately, the secret of her Love Potion is the most profound (and relevant in this day and age) lesson of all.

Which brings me to some other refreshing elements.  The Love Potion brings up issues which are relevant in our world of Gamergate-style male entitlement and date rape drugs.  While not explicitly delving into these topics, it does depict a young woman delirious with potion-induced infatuation, and an older male being honorable and NOT taking advantage of her.   It also explores the phenomenon of the “friendzone” with insight and sensitivity.

 In one scene that touches on the confusing mixed messages we send our young women, the King Dad urges his older daughter to get back on the dating horse after a traumatic heartbreak so she can find a man to love and protect her.  A moment later he worriedly complains about how his younger, boy-crazy daughter is too flirty.  The older daughter’s response is a justified gnashing of teeth that the King seems oblivious to, but is all too familiar to most of us female types.

It also champions the notion that even “ugly”, “unpopular” people can be lovable.  The trope of the Misunderstood Bad Guy is quite beautifully handled, and the development of the relationship between the Bog King and MaryAnn results in some Falling In Love scenes that I found quite enchanting.

Ultimately, I found much to love about this film, and I wrote this because I don’t want it to pass into obscurity because of the petty complaints of clueless critics.

Because here’s the thing – girls DO need and deserve their own Star Wars -not that Star Wars doesn’t work for girls as well as boys.  But I think they do need to see female characters embarking on their own Heroes’ Journey.  This film acknowledges that young girls ARE innocent and dumb and DO need to be protected…but they also need to be respected and allowed to learn the (sometimes harsh) lessons of life. A girl’s path to maturity is often filled with different dangers and challenges than boys face, but they can learn to navigate this dangerous world, and be heroes themselves. 
That’s an empowering and progressive message I think our young women AND young men need to hear, and Strange Magic manages to tell this story in a way that’s appealing to kids and adults, boys and girls. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

How Did You Make That???"; The Wonders of Kraft*Tex

For the past several months I've been making a bunch of different kinds of accessories featuring intricate cut-out designs backed with iridescent film.
I started with a vision of what I wanted to make; an insect or fairy wing effect (which also turns out to be reminiscent of stained glass), and specifically set out to find materials that would work.

I had certain requirements for my structural material.  It had to be flexible but not floppy, durable, paintable, glueable, non-toxic and cut well on my Zing electronic cutting machine.
I experimented with several materials; EVA craft foam, different fabrics, leather, faux leather, plastic crafting sheets, various kinds of paper and cardstock.

The papers cut beautifully, but weren't terribly durable.
The fabrics, leather, faux leather and foam were too soft, stretchy and/or fibrous to cut intricate detail well.  The plastic sheets looked flimsy and cheap.

I needed something that cut like paper but held up like leather. I started looking into synthetic papers (of which there are a number), and ultimately came across this stuff: Kraft*Tex.

What is Kraft*Tex?  Turns out you may have been wearing it most of your life without realizing it.  Kraft*Tex is what those leathery tags on the backs of your Levi's jeans are made of.
It's been used in the garment industry for decades, and only recently been marketed as a crafting material. 

In it's raw form it looks like a sturdy cardstock, with one paper-smooth side and one subtly textured side. But if you scrunch it up, or wash it, it gets creased and crinkled, which gives it a very convincing leather appearance.  It starts out rather stiff, but over time and use, it softens into more of a fabric-like feel.  It can be sewn, folded, molded into 3-dimenional shapes...probably a bunch of other stuff, too!

It is very durable, washable, flexible, paintable, glueable, non-toxic and, once I hammered out the settings and mounting techniques, it cuts like a dream on the Zing.

But still - what IS it?  A paper?  A plastic?  A fabric?  I couldn't find the answer to this question on the web, so I emailed the manufacturer, C&T publishing, and asked them.  They replied promptly, informing me that it's a paper pulp impregnated with a kind of latex.

(Note: for those of you with latex allergies, don't worry - my accessories don't have any Kraft*Tex directly in contact with the skin).

Folks are starting to play with this amazing material - mostly making things like wallets, bags and book covers - things often made of natural leather.

But Kraft*Tex has many advantages over natural leather.  A. No animals are harmed. B. It's cheaper than leather. C. It's more consistent than real leather (which tends to have flaws and uneven thicknesses and come in irregularly sized and shaped pieces, which results in a lot of waste scraps. D. It's actually more durable than real leather of the same thickness.

Here's a video with some great info:

Monday, July 6, 2015

How Did You Make That??? "Dryad" Exceptional Adornment

This "Dryad" piece glows with the earthy colors of the forest - lush greens and fiery oranges. Graceful leaf shapes create a striking silhouette that evokes magical woodlands and forest nymphs.
The iridescence is also transparent, creating a unique stained-glass effect, and it flashes and reflects the light in a spectacular and magical way as you move.

So how did I make it?

Faerie Magic, of course!

Well, okay, perhaps that's not completely true - my magic is made with mundane materials and techniques I've developed through experimentation. 

Here's a Walk-Through of how I crafted this "Dryad" adornment.

Sketches and test prints

I keep a sketchpad nearby and scribble my rough ideas when they come to me.  These sketches are then either scanned into my computer, or simply used as a guide to create the final designs in Adobe Illustrator.

Designing shapes in Illustrator.

The design is in black and white - the white parts will end up being cut away, leaving the intricate black shapes.  I have to be mindful of how to construct the designs so that they cut well on my electronic cutting machine.  It's a balance of visual harmony and structural integrity.  In the case of this piece, which will be made out of several individual pieces connected with rivets, I designed each piece separately, carefully shaping them so they will fit together correctly.  At this point, I'll print out the design and roughly cut it out with scissors and hold it up to my neck to see if the sizing works, and adjust the design until I'm satisfied.

Setting up the cutting sheet in Make-The-Cut

 Once I'm happy with the design, the pieces are imported into the Make-The-Cut software that works with my Zing cutting machine.  The pieces are arranged on the virtual cutting mat, which corresponds to the actual cutting mat that is inserted into the machine.  A piece of Kraft*Tex (a marvelous material that I will write more about soon), is cut and pressed firmly to the mat, which has a tacky temporary adhesive on it.  The machine then cuts the shapes from the Kraft*Tex.

Gluing pieces to iridescent film
Once the pieces are cut, I choose some iridescent film colors.  In this case, I layered 2 colors of film, and alternated the order of the colors; the oak leaf shapes have orange/green on top and a more blue-green underneath, so the orangey tones are more visible, with the blue-greens adding subtle undertones.  The other leaves have the blue-green film on top, with the orange/green underneath, so their main color tone is more green, with the oranges as the undertones.  This ended up working out beautifully to create 2 alternating colors that harmonized perfectly together.

The Kraft*Tex pieces are sprayed on the backside with a spray adhesive and pressed face-up onto the top layer of film.  The second film color is then layered below this and ironed for a few seconds to melt the 2 film layers together.  The heat also shrinks and the film a bit, creating some organic dimension and texture, and sometimes shifts the colors a bit in serendipitous ways.  Too much heat/ironing can burn holes in the film, so this is a tricky step.

After ironing the 2 layers of film
Next, the excess film is trimmed off by carefully running an Exact-O knife around the edges of each piece on the back side.

Trimming excess film
The front of each piece is then brushed with a clear gloss acrylic medium, which seals the surface and laminates the Kraft*Tex layer to the film layer.

Applying acrylic medium
I do 2 coats of this, brushing the first coat in one direction, so the liquid pools up against one side of each cut-out area, let it dry, then apply a second coat in the other direction.

Acrylic medium pooling around edges of cut-outs
Once the varnish on the front is fully dry, I apply a thick coat of Diamond Glaze to the back side of each piece.
Applying Diamond Glaze to back side
This non-toxic liquid is self-leveling and hardens to a clear, durable, yet flexible resin-like surface.  This gives each piece a bit more substance and weight, seals and protects the film layer and creates a smooth feel against the skin.

Diamond Glazed backsides
 Once the glaze has cured, a coat of clear satin polyurethane is sprayed onto the front side of the pieces. This adds a water-resistant protective seal coat, and dulls the glossy varnish down a bit, which gives the Kraft*Tex a more "leathery" look that I think looks better than the shiny gloss finish.  

Spraying on polyurethane sealer
I use the massive Uline catalogs the company keeps sending (despite contacting them twice to tell them I don't want paper catalogs) as a quick and easy spraying surface.  Simply flip open to a clean spread, set the pieces down, spray and carefully relocate to the drying area, then close the catalog.  The sprayed pages stick together, so when most of the pages are stuck, I throw it into the recycling bin and grab the next one on the stack.  

Satin finish has dried and gems applied
 Next, embellishments such as Czech glass crystals or glue-on rivets are applied with Gem-Tac, a heavy-duty adhesive made to attach jewels to clothing.  It dries clear and flexible and strong.  

Assembling the pieces with rivets
Once the pieces are finished, they are arranged in proper order, being careful to get the overlapping parts correct, and brass rivets are hammered through the hinges.  A pair of long ribbons are attached with crimped findings and the piece is finished!

The finished product!

These simple materials have now been transformed into an Exceptional Adornment!  Lightweight and flexible, with movable rivet hinges and long ribbon ties so you can adjust the shape, fit and hang; you can wear this piece as a necklace or a choker, with a few bobby pins you can fashion a headpiece, or use some hidden safety pins through the ribbons to adorn your decolletage...make a hatband or attach to a belt - the possibilities are as endless as your imagination!