I knew I wanted my thesis to be about death. It’s an undeniable part of the human experience. Not to sound depressing, but no one lives forever. If anything, I find that extremely comforting. After all, life will have the same ending no matter what. I don’t have to worry about it; there is no wrong way to go about dying.
I went through a bunch of different iterations for my project and finally settled on something I thought I could manage. But then the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. As uncertainty about the future grew, the entire structure of how I approached my project was thrown away. I was anxious about the future and my health; I lost all motivation to work on the project. From the beginning, even before coronavirus struck, my project’s medium was uncertain. At first I wanted to create a live experience, because — being a student at a top design school — I felt pressured to make some wildly life-changing experience. Then I switched to games, because game design is my major, but I found I was not passionate about that.
At last, I settled on the idea of making an animation, because I could seriously see myself going into that field after graduation. Originally I was going to do a 2D animated short following the story of an elderly woman named Emma who has become isolated with age and is afraid of dying alone. However, she slowly allows a friendship to build with her goofy mailman Walter who tries to look out for her. At the end of the animation, she dies. She isn’t alone though, and is able to die in peace because of the small yet meaningful relationship she built with Walter. When coronavirus struck, I had the storyboards finished. I had started working on rough animations, and I was even collaborating with a Jazz School alumnus to create the score for the short film. After the severity of the situation increased, however, I quickly fell behind on my workload. Even though I really wanted to continue working on the project, I couldn’t.
I had a virtual one-on-one meeting with my second semester thesis professor Ayo, and he was very sympathetic. He suggested an idea that I was unsure about at first, but as the pandemic went on and I learned more about current events, it made sense to continue my project in this way.
My project is a project about death, and death has become a part of our lives now more than ever. It’s in our faces. It has affected how we relate to each other and build and maintain our relationships. I decided to rework my animated short to take these new dynamics into consideration. Coronavirus had impacted the plot in two important ways: Emma is an elderly woman. Walter is a mailman. They are both high risk people for COVID-19. Emma, because she is elderly and thus has a weakened immune system, and Walter, because he is an essential worker who is exposed to so many different people and environments every day.
The more I thought about these new dynamics, the more the suggestions my professor had made sense. Reconsidering the plot of my project, I decided to change the storyline to reflect current events more. I changed the ending to have Emma be exposed to COVID-19 and become ill with it. She eventually dies. Walter feels immensely helpless as he looks at her with his mask on, and it is implied that he was a carrier who passed it on to her since he was the only person she was really exposed to.
After making this narrative change, I also decided to change the form of my project from animation to post cards. This decision was twofold: on the one hand, it seemed easier to accomplish with the resources I had available to me in self-quarantine; on the other, the choice to make work that could travel through the mail reflected the impact of coronavirus on the U.S. Postal Service. The government has forced the postal service to have the money for employees’ social security for the next 60-70 years and that’s why the postal service isn’t considered profitable. I think that’s just ridiculous. There has been talk online about the United States Postal Service potentially being at risk of becoming privatized, which I don’t agree with at all. We have a right to a government that will provide us with our necessary mail, and the USPS is even protected in the Constitution. The USPS delivers the last leg of deliveries’ journeys because companies like FedEx and Amazon don’t see that last bit as profitable. People in rural areas are guaranteed to get the mail they need such as checks, important documents, and correspondence between loved ones because of the USPS, because mail companies won’t see deliveries to these areas as profitable. The postal service deserves to be protected.
It took some thinking, but I finally decided to transfer my story to postcards. I would illustrate each story beat on a postcard for a total of ten (to be honest, it was the amount of postcards I could make with the type of paper I had available to me, not for any other reason). Each postcard would then be painted in water color, with india ink outlines. Each one would have a key word or two about the moment it was depicting. In a perfect world, I would be able to have these printed for people to order so they can receive a postcard each weekday for two weeks. I want people to feel a connection through the handmade quality of the illustrations, and they would have a story to look forward to experiencing every day. It would help break the monotony that people experience every day with all of this new free time they have on their hands in self-quarantine. Any and all profits would go towards helping protect the postal service. My only concern with this is that it is a very pessimistic take on the situation. But it’s hard to not feel pessimistic at times, and although some may say I have a responsibility as an artist to deliver a social message, to a certain extent, it is not necessarily my obligation. I can create art for myself to cope with the situation, and how people are reacting to it is something that is beyond my control. I can implement certain elements to steer the conversation in a certain direction, but ultimately it is up to the viewer to pull meaning from what I create, and that won’t always align with what meaning I put into it. The project is originally about death, and it is a reality as sad as it may be for some. I want people to talk about it more. People are afraid, and they have every right to be. I am not trying to say death isn’t scary, because it is. But I want people to know that they don’t have to face it alone, that there is a support system out there and we can share experiences and help each other.
We are not alone.
We are here.