The long, successful journey of Animate Her | Sunday Observer

The long, successful journey of Animate Her

30 July, 2022

The Animate Her series was first inspired by the conversations that took place at an artists’ workshop organized by British Council’s Creating Heroines programme in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2019. 12 artists from South Asia and the UK participated and Irushi and the team explored the themes of overlooked heroines from the past, imagined heroines for the future and asked what real-life heroines from South Asia look like.

Each artist was given the opportunity to apply for a grant that enabled them to carry out the ideas that were conceptualized at the workshop. As a result of this, Irushi was able to work with an amazing team of creatives to retell the stories of a group of inspiring women from Sri Lanka.

As a self-taught animator, her aim was not to create something that was perfect, but rather to learn as much as she could with her team about storytelling through animation. As a result, they explored various mediums and forms, including clay animation, paper cutouts filmed on a multiplane, 2D digital animation and more for months! Irushi was drawn to stop motion because of its intrinsic imperfectness. She loves the staggered movement and their inevitable fingerprints in the clay characters which all add a human and handmade touch to the stories of these amazing women.

Being an avid reader and movie fanatic, Irushi had grown up watching a lot of animated films from the West and even the East, but hadn’t seen animated stories that represented brown skin characters from South Asia and Sri Lanka.

“Through the ‘Animate Her’ series I wanted to show that we have our own real-life heroines in this part of the world. These women have challenged disciplinary boundaries and have made an impact in largely male dominated professions. I found that the medium of animation was perfect to tell these stories because it also gave me a voice as an experimental storyteller,” Irish said explaining her intention behind creating ‘Animate Her’.

Selection of characters

Selection of the heroines for the series was a very personal process for Irushi. While she wanted to cover the stories of women from a range of disciplines from the arts, sciences, and technology, most of the women were those that she knew or admired for the roles that they played in their respective fields.

“I grew up reading Sybil Wettasinghe’s books and she was a childhood heroine of mine. Marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos is another heroine who is inspirational for the work she is doing in raising awareness about the oceans of this part of the world,” she recalled with gratitude.

Due to time constraints and the challenges that they had to deal with, Irushi had to limit the series to seven stories. Admitting the fact that they had to exclude hundreds of amazing Sri Lankan women, if she gets an opportunity in the future, she would like to explore more women’s stories and include them in their animated series.

Amazing team

Since the inception of the ‘Animate Her’ series in 2019, Irushi and the team have expanded with each new film. Cinematographer Yoshitha Perera joined the team from the very beginning, and also helped with the recording of the interviews. Professional composer Natasha Senanayake created the original music for the films. The team encompasses a set design and fabrication team which includes architect and artist Shahdia Jamaldeen, designer and teacher Selvachandran Surendran, animators Shenuka Corea and Loshani Nikeshala, Gayathri Perera, Shakthi Laknatha, and Venuranga Manage. The costumes were designed by a professional costume designer Dinushika Senevirathne. The editing of the films was done by Sankha Malwaththa, Dileepa Jayakody and Buddika Ranasinghe.

Obsession behind stop-motion

From left: Gayathri Perera, Yoshitha Perera, Irushi Tennekoon, Shahdia Jamaldeen and S. Surendran

Irushi first explored storytelling through stop-motion when she co-created ’83 A Very Short Film’ with Sumudu Athukorala and Sumedha Kelegama in 2016. This film which won the Best Animated Short Film award at the Agenda14 Short Film Festival in Colombo in 2016, was screened at the Dhaka Art Summit and at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka, and is presently being studied by the MENASA Film and New Media Students at the New York University Abu Dhabi. “Through the film, we told a simple story about a man who was haunted by his memories of the Black July pogrom of 1983. The reception of this film made me realize the potential of the medium of animation to talk about powerful, traumatic, or even marginalized stories in a nuanced way,” explaining her obsession behind stop-motion which is a somewhat rare artform in Sri Lanka.

“I chose to tell the ‘Animate Her’ series through stop-motion because the flexibility of this medium enabled me to experiment with various materials and forms to retell these interviews in a creative and compelling way,” Irushi further explained.

International recognition

The films from the series have been recognized at international film festivals. The most recent awards they received were the Best International Short Film at London’s ScreenPower Film Festival, and the Best National Short Film Award at the Jaffna International Cinema Festival for the short film ‘Thaji Dias on Traditional Dance’.

Besides, ‘Sybil Wettasinghe on the Umbrella Thief’ won the Best Animated Short Film Award at the Agenda14 Short Film Festival in Colombo in 2020, and ‘Asha de Vos on Studying Blue Whales’ won the Green Award at this same festival separately. Also, the films have been screened at several festivals and events across the globe including the UK, the USA, Nepal, India, and Austria.

The ‘Animate Her’ series has had a long yet successful journey so far. Talking about the future of this amazing animated short film series, Irushi said she hopes to conclude the series with these seven films, however they will definitely continue to tell meaningful stories about this part of the world through film and animation.

Lifelong dream

This coming September is very special for Irushi as she is finally pursuing a lifelong dream of formally studying animation. Irushi has been selected as a Chevening Scholar to pursue a Master’s in Animation at the very prestigious Royal College of Art in London. It will be a year-long program, after which she hopes to come back to Sri Lanka better equipped to take on new projects and guide her creative team in their new ventures.


Director of Photography - Yoshitha Perera:

“Working on the series was an incredible and unique experience. The storytelling strategy employed in the series was great, and the style was very different from what I practiced as a cinematographer previously. Cinematography includes components such as camera angle, action, lens types, camera motion, lighting and colour. Usually, as a cinematographer, making decisions related to these aspects is routine work, but in ‘Animate Her’, every scene requires decision making unique to the animation process.”


Music composer - Natasha Senanayake:

“Composing music for the animate her series has been an exciting process which includes discussions with the director on her vision for each film followed by finding a creative way to set the right tone for each story, using original music and sound. The type of instrument, sound effects and voices used within each original soundtrack contributes to creating the world we want our audience to experience.”


Architect and Set Designer - Shahdia Jamaldeen:

“ ‘AnimateHer’ has been an incredible experience - simply because of the chance to use my skills in a completely different way while being immersed in such a meaningful storytelling method. It’s been amazing working with a group of talented individuals - and I’ve learnt (and continue to learn) so much about stop motion. I’m constantly inspired by our film subjects as well as Irushi herself.”