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NewsJan 18, 2022

Animation majors see success with environmental conservation film ‘A Seal Story’

Short film premieres in international film festivals

By Georgia Sparling

Animation majors Sabrina Crockton, Aimee Ham and Willow Machado’s award-winning film “A Seal Story” features cute and cuddly aquatic mammals as well as an important message about protecting the planet. 

Namely, “If you see a wild animal, don’t touch it,” says Ham.  

It’s an easy way to be proactive about environmental conservation, a topic about which all three students are passionate.  

“This is a big planet. It is big and it’s overwhelming, but there are little things that each of us can do,” Ham says. “Not disturbing the wildlife when we see it, not littering, the little, tiny everyday things make an impact if enough people do them.” 

A Seal Story poster with film festival medallions.
"A Seal Story" has been accepted into seven film festivals, from Maryland to Bulgaria.

Crockton, Ham and Machado communicate all of this in “A Seal Story.” Clocking in at 3 minutes and 8 seconds, the short film is part documentary and part narrative with a focus on seals and humans' interaction with them. It follows a young pup who comes to shore to rest after swimming with its pod. Then, eerie music plays as one of the biggest dangers to the sleeping seal pup approaches: humans with cell phones. 

Into the wild 

The trio officially began work on the film in spring 2021 for their junior animation seminar, but Machado dreamed up the idea months before after multiple trips to observe seals at the New England Aquarium, which they note is the only animal that can be viewed without purchasing a ticket (an important detail for a thrifty college student). Before the semester began, Machado contacted wildlife rehabilitation centers throughout the United States and Canada to learn about seals. This research provided the framework they needed for the story.  

The three friends pitched their concept on day one of class and started working from their respective homes, as they were studying remotely due to Covid-19. 

illustration of two snuggling seals.
Willow Machado came up with the idea for "A Seal Story" after visiting the New England Aquarium.

“The biggest accomplishment of this film is that we did this during a remote semester,” says Machado.  

The past two years have been challenging for the animators. Alternating between group projects freshmen and junior years and solo projects sophomore and senior years, our Animation students complete four short films, at least two minutes in length, during their undergraduate careers. 

A few members of the “Seal Story” team allude to challenges in their freshmen group projects, followed by more trials when, in the middle of working on their films sophomore year, the pandemic began. 

“We went on spring break that extended for a week and then never ended. Aimee had to scrap her entire film. I got so burned out I didn’t even know if I wanted to draw,” says Crockton. 

“A Seal Story,” however, “felt like a redemption arc,” she says. 

Three people wearing masks, pink light
The "A Seal Story" team: Willow Machado, Aimee Ham and Sabrina Crockton

‘Emotionally available for bubbles’ 

The three divided their duties and were in constant communication, keeping ahead of schedule despite several personal challenges that ranged from moving to major surgery. They also checked in on each other’s mental health regularly. 

While the team animated the film’s underwater scenes, Ham remembers a message from Machado that asked, “Are you emotionally available for bubbles?” Her reply: “I’m always emotionally available for bubbles. 

“We were having as chill of a time as possible.” 

Are you emotionally available for bubbles?
Willow Machado ’22, Animation Major

That is, until it came time to export the film. On campus, the students would have had access to the render farm, a powerful computer system that allows for a relatively fast export of files. At home, exporting 600 gigabytes ended up throwing the team into a last-minute tailspin that saw them submitting the finished film to their professors with only an hour to spare. 

By this time, the three already had a list of film festivals to submit “A Seal Story” to. They decided to spend a conservative $40 (many festivals are free), hoping maybe one festival would accept their submission. Lo and behold, their film was selected for festivals from Maryland to Bulgaria, and so far, received the Student Winner award at Good Natured: A Conservation Optimism Short Film Festival in Oxford, England, and was a finalist in the Emerging Arts Film Festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 

As their film festival season wraps up, the animators are deep into their senior theses, which they each hope to enter in the next round of festivals. While those films are solo projects, the Crockton, Ham and Machado lovefest isn’t over. 

Ham vows, “‘A Seal Story” will not be the last project that we work on.” 

Follow the students' animation work:

Sabrina Crockton | website, Vimeo, Instagram

Aimee Ham | website, Vimeo, Instagram

Willow Machado | website, Vimeo, Instagram