By Sherene Strausberg
My first film, “Cool For You,” has been accepted into 39 film festivals and received multiple awards, including a Silver Anthem Award last month. As an independent filmmaker with no financial backing or creative support team, I produced, directed, animated, scored, and sound mixed/edited the an animated micro-short myself. I am proud of this accomplishment because the only way that this could have happened for me is because of the unique circumstances when a long, winding creative career as a woman in Hollywood, followed by a career change, met its abrupt pinnacle from an unexpected world pandemic. Let’s go back 30 years when I decided I wanted to be a film composer.
Without having a single role model in film scoring and having never seen a woman win Best Score at the Oscars, I decided in 1993 that I wanted to pursue a career as a film composer. (It wasn’t until 1997 that Rachel Portman made history as the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Score!) So, with no connections to Hollywood, I took the educational route, and studied classical music composition at Indiana University, followed by a master’s degree in film scoring at North Carolina School of the Arts. Not only was I the only woman in my class of film composition students, but I was also the only one not married. I was more envious of my classmates’ marital status than their gender. I wanted to get married but wasn’t sure how I would manage to find a spouse while pursuing such a competitive, gender-biased career. A solid marriage is more than just a partnership — it’s a support system. I wish I had had that support system during the earliest struggles of my education and career, like my graduate school classmates, as so often I felt disheartened or disappointed while trying to break into Hollywood.
I was still yearning for a life-long partnership, while I spent almost 10 years writing music for films, from shorts to features, narratives to documentaries. It was challenging because I didn’t pursue a role as a ghost writer or an orchestrator, but as an independent composer, with no agent or representation. It was my dream come true, but I had no work/life balance and was fearful I would never find a spouse, let alone be able to have children. So, six years into my career as a film composer, I met a wonderful man, Todd, whom I could imagine spending the rest of my life with. It was Todd that saw my frustrations and suggested an alternative career. I decided to go back to school and attend classes in graphic design at night at UCLA Extension. The program gave me flexibility to learn design at my own pace, and the option to choose classes that most interested me, such as Flash animation. Todd saw the combination of technical and creative skills that I had through film scoring and sound engineering, and predicted accurately that I could bring those skills to graphic design as well, and excel.
My career change coincided with our wedding, followed by a move from Los Angeles to New York City, and then the birth of our two children. Finally I had work/life balance, as a working mom, with a graphic design job that was 9 to 5. However, I quickly realized that being a parent doesn’t happen just from 5pm to 9am. It can be unrelenting 24/7. So, I decided to go out on my own, and start my own company, 87th Street Creative. I named it with the generic “Creative” because while my work was all graphic design, I knew there was a chance that it might morph into something else. I was thrilled that having my own company, with work/life balance and flexibility, we were able to have a third child. Even with three kids, I was determined to keep pursuing my career and my desire to be creative.
While promoting my graphic design business, I began to learn motion design and animation: 2D, 3D, and character rigging. Over a few years, my business went from a graphic design startup to an established motion design studio. And then it all came to an abrupt halt in March of 2020, with the pandemic. Projects were canceled, clients stopped calling, and there was no work. I was devastated, as the severity of the pandemic quickly became apparent.
During the pandemic, I wasn’t a composer, a designer, or an animator; I suddenly found myself the teacher, the lunch lady, the school nurse, the gym teacher, and more, all rolled into one. We were lucky that my husband’s job continued uninterrupted, but it meant that I had to give up my creative pursuits to care for our children while schools and daycares were closed. After so many years of crafting a delicate balance of working and parenting, it all fell to pieces and there was no balance. The long days of those first few months of the pandemic were such a struggle. I soon realized I wasn’t the only one, as the largest exit of women from the workplace took place in the year following the pandemic.
Then, something magical happened. A friend shared a book with me that he thought I would like. It was called “Cool For You” and explained global warming to children. I read it to my own children, who were two, five, and eight years old at the time. They all loved it. The book does a wonderful job of simplifying global warming for very young learners without scaring them, but also giving tangible, concrete ways to help save the planet. Additionally, the illustrations were so rich and gorgeous, I wanted to see them come to life, with glowing fireflies, swaying trees, and more!
We were stuck in lockdown with few places to go, but the illustrations in this book were moving — in my imagination! I decided I wanted to turn the book into a movie. I contacted the author and illustrator who gave me the rights. After 12-hour days with the kids on Google School and a home-grown Lego Camp, I began to spend three to five hours every night turning the book into an animated film after they went to bed. The results surpassed my wildest dreams: a simple idea became a film shown to thousands of children all over the world at film festivals and receiving a Motion Award nomination, the highest recognition in the motion design industry.
A career in Hollywood was hard. A career in Hollywood as a woman was even harder. I gave up before even trying to be a working mom in Hollywood. Now I’ve returned to the film industry, but it’s now on my own terms, with balance and flexibility, and three kids in tow.
Emmy-nominated art director and founder of 87th Street Creative, Sherene Strausberg combines music, sound effects, and custom illustrations to create engaging animated videos for companies and nonprofits. Her short film “Cool For You” will screen at the Garden State Film Festival on March 26th at 3pm. It will also show in April at The Environmental Film Festival at Yale, The International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana, and the Edinburgh Conservation Film Festival in Scotland. Read more about Strausberg and her film here.