Keep your inner-child alive | Sunday Observer

Keep your inner-child alive

24 January, 2021

Irushi Tennakoon, is a familiar name in the rare field of stop motion animation here in Sri Lanka and is a self –taught animator, Irushi has fast acquired a firm position in the local animation scene with a few successive projects.

Irushi began experimenting with animation years ago, as she was looking for a novel way to express herself and she realised that the stop motion animation was the ultimate format to tell her stories. Her process was minimal from the beginning as she used her study table to draw and create miniature versions of characters mostly from clay and a stop-motion app on her mobile phone to create the stories.

Since then, her animated short films have won awards and have been screened in Sri Lanka and abroad at various exhibitions and festivals, including ones at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka, the Women of the World Festivals in Nepal and the UK, and the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh. Her latest promising animation expression The Animate Her Series has been awarded the Best Animated Film recently at the Agenda 14 Short Film Festival.

Irushi’s work is playful, visually stunning and packed with smooth transitions and interesting, cute moments. Simultaneously, through her work, she questions how stories can be told in new ways, by exploring the depths of movement through space and time.

“I have always been interested in telling stories through doodling. I have been drawing ever since I can remember and as a child I used to doodle in all my notebook and it was part and parcel of my education. Looking back, I think that’s how I absorbed and understood what I was learning at school” Irushi recalled her obsession for drawing as a child in a conversation with the Sunday Observer,

This early realisation of her subconscious, doodling as a unique mode of creative expression gave her the confidence to consider art as a profession latterly. “With social media, this dream was realised faster than I thought,” she says. Pestering Annie written by Marianne Johnpillai was her first published children’s illustration. The author is one of her close friends.

Simultaneously she started exploring animation filmmaking as she was fascinated by the craftsmanship of sets, props and miniature characters and buildings and practical effects in large scale movies but obviously she did not have the space and budget for this sort of thing.

This is when she discovered stop motion animation and fell in love with it. “It meant I could be more ambitious and build bigger worlds by doing it on a small scale.

I think by discovering my mode of format in storytelling as the stop motion animation allowed me more freedom to combine a lot of different interests, from storytelling, filmmaking to making and building the image the way I want,” Irushi says.

Irushi comes from a family of amazing people who have pushed boundaries in the arts, sciences, and business.

There have been professors, inventors, entrepreneurs and artists who have done amazing things. Of her two grandfathers, one was an architect and she loved watching him sketch with his colour pencils for hours on end.

Her maternal grandfather was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Colombo and he was the chief influence for Irushi to get into academia and become an educator.

“While it has been a constant struggle to decide between these two paths of academia and art, I have decided to pursue both and this decision has enriched the work that I do. The artist in me has helped me to become a better researcher and educator – and as a self-taught artist, my research and academia has helped me to explore and learn new creative ways to express myself,” Irushi says with confidence.

The Animate Her Series

Irushi’s recent animation work The Animate Her Series funded by the British Council, is a series of animated interviews of six trailblazing women living and working in Sri Lanka.

Through modes of stop-motion and experimental animation The Animate Her Series brought to life the stories of marine biologist Asha de Vos, children’s author and illustrator Sybil Wettasinghe, lawyer and activist Ramani Muttetuwegama, traditional dancer Thaji Dias, architect Amila de Mel, and CEO of her own ICT firm, Lakmini Wijesundera.

Speaking about the inspiration behind creating The Animate Her Series Irushi wanted to bring out our own, Sri Lankan heroines, with brown skin and dark hair, who are going to great lengths to excel at what they do. Although throughout her childhood she was influenced by western books and animations which featured largely white heroes and heroines, Irushi wants to talk about the stories of our own brown skinned heroines through her creativity.

She wanted to challenge this by telling the stories of our real-life heroines and showing a group of women that she would have loved to see on screen as a child. She was inspired to create this animated series to tell these stories of women from Sri Lanka and South Asia.

“In February 2019, I represented Sri Lanka at a regional workshop for female artists organised by the British Council’s ‘Creating Heroines’ program. Twelve artists participated from South Asia and the UK. Here, we talked about who a heroine is and exchanged stories about everyday heroines from our countries.

After the week-long workshop, each of us was given the opportunity to apply for a grant by the British Council to continue a project based on the conversations we initiated at the workshop. For this grant, I proposed that I would interview a group of exceptional women from Sri Lanka and tell their stories through the mode of animation and the funder accepted my proposal and offered me the grant,” Irushi s said..

Marine biologist Asha de Vos, tech wiz and CEO Lakmini Wijesundera and Children’s author/ illustrator Sybil Wettasinghe have been Irushi’s personal heroines for as long as she can remember. She chose architect Amila de Mel and lawyer/activist Ramani Muttettuwegama after doing some research and learning about how important their work has been in their respective fields.

Thaji Dias’s story of how her grandfather Guru Chitrasena brought traditional dance forms from its village ritual setting to the modern stage, and how she and her family are striving to preserve this form was another crucial story that she wanted to highlight through animation.

Speaking about the process of bringing her imagination ito life, she’s humbly grateful for her talented team who have been with her through thick and thin.

“This project was impossible without them. I was fortunate to be able to work with a wonderful team that included cinematographer Yoshitha Perera, prop and set fabricators Shenuka Corea, Shahdia Jamaldeen, S. Surendran, Gayathri Perera and Venuranga Manage, and editors Sankha Malwaththa and Dileepa Jayakody. They generously shared their expertise throughout the process.”


Irushi draw inspiration for her creative work in many ways. However, picture books and animated storybooks that she grew up reading are her muses throughout her creative life. Sybil Wettasinghe’s and Roald Dahl’s books are her all time favourites. “I was amazed by the work of those like Sybil Wettasinghe and the books by Roald Dahl illustrated by Quentin Blake. With time, I have learned to be more mindful of my present environment and find inspiration from every day, ordinary life,” she added.

Stop-motion Animation

Although the stop motion animation follows a very basic technique in which objects are physically manipulated in small increments between individually photographed frames so that they will appear to exhibit independent motion or change when the series of frames is played back, it is quite time consuming.

However, after the tiresome process when the film is played back, the result is mesmerising. Being a self-taught animator and illustrator, Irushi strives each day to learn and grow as an artist.

She has a growing collection of books on the subject and loves reading about the creative processes of animators like Wes Anderson and the incredible teams at animation studios such as Disney, Aardman and Laika.

“Through these books I have come to appreciate the work and science behind their films.

It is also reassuring to learn that most of the big names in animation today have had a similar start to my own story, by experimenting on their kitchen tables with materials lying about their homes,”

In conclusion, Irushi said that her biggest strength is her sense of child like wonder. As she says her fascinating, creative ideas comes out of the hours that she spends reading and wondering. “Life as a grownup is never easy. There are good days and bad days. However, on most days I spend time in the garden being mindful and this helps me to sink back in to work with ease. I strongly believe that the constant ability to wonder is the key to become a great artist. I try my best to keep my inner-child alive,” she concluded.