By Sherene Strausberg
my first movie “cool for you” was admitted to 39 film festivals and received several awards, including a Silver Anthem Award last month. As an independent filmmaker with no financial backing or creative support team, I myself produced, directed, animated, scored, and mixed/edited the audio for an animated micro-short film. I’m proud of this achievement because it could only have happened for me due to the unique circumstances when a long, tortuous creative career as a woman in Hollywood, followed by a career change, met its abrupt culmination from an unexpected world pandemic. Let’s go back 30 years when I decided to become a film composer.
Without a single role model in film music and having never seen a woman win best film score at the Oscars, I decided in 1993 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 Academy Award for Best Original Score!) So, with no Hollywood ties, I took an educational path and majored in classical music composition at Indiana University, followed by a master’s degree in motion picture scoring from the North Carolina School of the Arts. Not only was I the only woman in my class of film composition students, I was also the only one who wasn’t married. I was more jealous 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 this support system during the earliest struggles of my education and career like my grad school classmates, as so often I felt discouraged or disappointed when trying to break into Hollywood.
I still longed for a lifelong partnership I’ve spent almost 10 years writing music for films, from short films to feature films, from short stories to documentaries. It was challenging because I wasn’t pursuing a role as a ghostwriter or orchestrator, but rather as an independent composer, with no agent or representation. It was my dream come true, but I didn’t have a work-life balance and was afraid I would never find a spouse, let alone have children. So, six years into my career as a film composer, I met a wonderful man, Todd, who I could see myself spending the rest of my life with. It was Todd who saw my frustrations and suggested an alternative career. I decided to go back to school and take evening graphic design classes at the UCLA Extension. The program gave me the flexibility to learn design at my own pace and the ability to choose courses that interested me most, such as B. Flash animation. Todd saw the combination of technical and creative skills I had through film scoring and sound engineering and accurately predicted that I could bring those skills to graphic design and excel.
My career transition coincided with our marriage, followed by a move from Los Angeles to New York City, and the birth of our two children. As a working mom with a 9am to 5pm graphic design job, I finally found a work/life balance. However, I quickly realized that being a parent doesn’t only take place from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. It can be relentless 24/7. So I decided to start my own business and start my own company, 87th Street creative. I named it the generic “Creative” because I knew that while my work was strictly graphic design, there was a chance it could morph into something else. I was thrilled that with my own company, work-life balance and flexibility, we could have a third child. Even with three children, I was determined to continue pursuing my profession and my desire to be creative.
While promoting my graphic design business, I began learning motion design and animation: 2D, 3D, and character rigging. Within a few years, my company grew from a graphic design startup to an established motion design studio. And then everything came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 with the pandemic. Projects were canceled, customers stopped calling and there was no work. I was devastated as the seriousness of the pandemic quickly became apparent.
During the pandemic, I wasn’t a composer, designer, or animator; Suddenly I was 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 I had to give up my creative work to look after our children while schools and daycare centers were closed. After so many years of creating a delicate balance between work and parenthood, everything fell to pieces and there was no balance. The long days of those early months of the pandemic have been such a struggle. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one as the largest exit of women from the workforce occurred in the year after the pandemic.
Then something magical happened. A friend shared a book with me that he thought I would like it. 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 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 providing tangible, concrete ways they can help save the planet. Plus, the illustrations were so rich and beautiful that I wanted to bring them to life, with glowing fireflies, swaying trees, and more!
We were stuck in lockdown and had very few places to go, but the illustrations in this book were moving – in my imagination! I decided to turn the book into a film. I contacted the author and illustrator who gave me the rights. After 12-hour days with the kids at Google School and a homemade Lego camp, I spent three to five hours every night turning the book into an animated film after they went to bed. The results exceeded my wildest dreams: a simple idea became a film that was shown and awarded to thousands of children at film festivals around the world Movement award nominationthe highest recognition in the motion design industry.
A career in Hollywood was tough. A career in Hollywood as a woman was even more difficult. I gave up before I even tried being a working mom in Hollywood. Now I’ve returned to the film industry, but 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 compelling animated videos for businesses and nonprofits. Her short film Cool For You will screen March 26 at 3 p.m. at the Garden State Film Festival. It will also be screened at Yale’s Environmental Film Festival, Montana’s International Wildlife Film Festival and Scotland’s Edinburgh Conservation Film Festival in April. Read more about Strausberg and her film Here.