What Hairstyles in Digital Animation Say About Race and Power

Stick figure with perpendicular vector field for hair
Stick figure with perpendicular vector field for hair
Drawing a perpendicular field of vectors is quite trivial when rendered as computer code.

I have straight hair. Extremely straight, spiky hair. It’s super rigid. And because of its rigidity, it sticks up on its own when it’s cut short.

This fact never struck me as noteworthy until I moved from Seattle to Boston for college, and I happened to have classmates who wanted to touch my hair. The common reaction was always, “It feels like a brush!” It’s the kind of thing that I, literally, just brushed off. I also had a roommate who begged to know what I put in my hair to make it do that. When I told him it’s genetic, he wasn’t satisfied and often rifled through my toiletries to locate the secret. Poor fella.

If you look back at the history of computer graphics, you’ll notice how the modeling of hair wasn’t really commonplace when modeling characters because wavy hairstyles weren’t renderable in the beginning. Around the same time of my hair discovery, and when I started to write code, I noticed how easy it was to model my kind of hair with straight lines and a little bit of math. By comparison, it was much more difficult to create anything with curves in it — which is what one would expect from a more common array of non-Asian-centric hairwear. But that didn’t matter because my hairstyle wasn’t representative of what was desired to be a more “normal” view of what a person looks like. After all, how do you sell computer graphic realism with stick figures with hair like COVID-19 spike proteins? Well, that was the 80s so the metaphor didn’t matter back then.

As I grew older, I noticed that my Black friends ran into similar problems where people wanted to touch their hair because it was different than “normal.” I put “normal” in quotation marks like that because the word’s meaning has become unclear to me over the years. I’ve come to realize that whoever gets to determine what’s “normal” is in a position of power that is enviable for many reasons. The biggest one is that you don’t need to live with the stigma of being made to feel “abnormal” — an especially undesirable feeling for most young people. Growing up with that feeling can do things to you when you become an adult. Sometimes it can make you stronger because it pushes you to swim against the current; in most cases, however, I’ve seen that it can do a real whammy on you and hold you back in many ways.

One of Frank’s early sketches from his Kickstarter campaign in 2019.

The way that a “normal” gets set is through repeated observation. We often talk about how Covid-19 era has normalized wearing a facemask because only a year ago it was highly unusual to see one anywhere in the world outside China. But now it’s such a normal thing to see everyone masked up outside, and even on TV or YouTube, that when masks aren’t worn it makes us feel uneasy. When you see something repeatedly, it’s no big deal and truly boringly normal.

Frank Abney’s Canvas is available on Netflix a little while longer: https://www.netflix.com/title/81332733

So when I saw a Kickstarter campaign in my social media feed a couple years ago featuring a Black animator and director named Frank Abney at Pixar who was working on a personal passion project to make a computer graphics film with characters that had coarse, curly hair just like him, I thought to myself: What a terrific way to normalize his hairstyle within the digital film industry. Frank E. Abney III’s vision came to fruition this year, and his short film “Canvas” is up on Netflix this month. It’s one of those sad/happy stories of an aging widowed parent and their family struggling with a pivotal life transition that has left the parent feeling empty. The story isn’t unfamiliar, but the characters certainly catch your attention, visually.

Frank’s Kickstarter campaign offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sponsor his film and to appear in the rolling credits at the end. At the time I was at the tail end of making a variety of angel investments to tech startups and had realized zero returns. I thought this would be a wonderful project to help fund instead because I knew the return on investment would be high. Not because I expected to make any money, but because I might get the opportunity to see a kind of film that I’d rarely seen before, with characters sporting beautifully modeled coarse, curly hair. And I did. It’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.

I’m so happy to have been a part of this special project of Frank’s. Read more about it on Variety.

Interested in learning about trends in 2021 that we might expect to really happen— I posted on that here on Medium just yesterday. And if the topic of How To Speak Machine interests you, there’s a book for that. Thank you for tuning in! — JM

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).

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