At first glance, she appeared to be much younger than her 32 years yet when she spoke, it was with a sense of maturity and profound insight earned from a few short years working under the high demands of the international film and animation industries. The more she revealed about her experiences, the more it became apparent that this young woman, like so many of us, was searching to strike that fine balance between being consumed by her dream career and finding a deeper meaning in life.
As a young secondary school student, raised in a society that often scoffs at art as a career choice, Shilpa Kirpalani felt an inner void when she was dissuaded from pursuing her flair for art in favour of more mainstream business and science subjects. Feeling somewhat unfulfilled upon entering Florida’s Stetson University to pursue a Computer Science degree, it wasn’t long before her creative juices bubbled back up to the surface and she quickly switched her major to Digital Art.
Like many aspiring local artists who have ventured into the world of art rendered in ‘Digital Cyberspace’, Shilpa’s road ahead was to be one of twists and turns, ups and downs, stops and starts. Returning to Trinidad in 2003 after earning her undergraduate degree, she was hired as Senior Editor at Gayelle-The Channel but soon realised that our fledgling local visual arts production sector was still light years away from its international industry counterparts. Fortunately, her family’s initial reservations about her untraditional career choice changed to encouragement, when after nine short months of working here, Shilpa felt increasingly unchallenged and unfulfilled.
“I was really thankful that my parents stood by me and urged me to return to grad school to pursue my Masters degree,” Shilpa explained. “After graduating, when I got hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks they were thrilled for me. Later, when I was given the opportunity to work for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in Singapore, they pushed me to go even though I was terrified of moving half way around the globe. My mom and dad, sisters and brother and friends have been my rock and I genuinely want to thank them for their support.”
Indeed, making after earning her M.F.A in Visual Effects from Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design in 2007, Shilpa was to embark on an adventurous expedition into the exhilarating yet exhausting world of animated feature film making. That journey would take her first to California and then 11,000 miles away to Singapore when ILM offered Shilpa a JuMP (Jedi Masters Program) internship, which allowed her to explore the vast universe of digital art specialisation possibilities. Her inputs on Lucas films such as “Transformers:
Revenge of the Fallen”, “Mission Impossible 4” and “Battleship” introduced her to areas such as compositing, look development and match moving, then she eventually chose to specialize in digital lighting. Proud to be listed as Lighting Technical Director on the credits of the animated feature film, “Rango,” Shilpa admitted that few here in Trinidad truly understand what she does. “Everyone here calls me an animator, which I’m not really. I’m a Lighting Technical Director/Digital Artist,” she pointed out. “I’m not a lighter in the physical sense. I’m a lighter in the electronic sense… in the 3D space. Although lighting scared me, I went for it because it challenged me the most. There’s a side of me that thrives on challenges in spite of the stress that comes with them.”
The exhausting hours and high demands that are part and parcel of working in the motion film industry were reason enough for Shilpa to search for an avenue for finding a sense of calm, which she found in yoga. “Yoga offered me a way to find a balance between my work and my life. In the industry I’m in, you are expected to live to work, not work to live. Yoga has taught me how to breathe despite how chaotic everything can be in the world around me and in my head,” she explained.
The newly discovered sense of self inspired Shilpa to take a Yoga Teacher training course after moving to a much-desired mid-level position as a Lighting technical Director with The Moving Picture Company in London. Unfortunately however, she was retrenched within months due to budget cutbacks. Periods of unemployment, she realizes, are the unfortunate reality for many like her working in the international motion film industry and while she would love to work here in Trinidad and Tobago, she admits it would be challenging to find full time employment in her specialisation.
Now back at home and having very recently been afforded the opportunity to share her experiences as a member of a regional digital art and animation industry panel discussion at this year’s Animae Caribe Festival, Shilpa offered these words of advice: “Artists of this country, both present and future, have the ability to produce animation and visual effects of a much higher calibre. Our Government needs to be more focused on the creativity that can be cultivated by opening avenues into which our nation’s people can pour their hearts. We have the ability to create unique material for our market based on our diversity and creativity.” She went on to add, “Investors here also need to understand the fundamental nature of the graphic arts industry. As artists, we don't do what we do for the money. We do it because we love it! It can be a viable investment, culturally and financially. If the proper time is not granted and the direction isn't clear, we risk so many beautiful stories remaining untold.”
For her part, Shilpa hopes one day to be able to pursue her lifelong dream of teaching what she has learnt to others who also seek a future in art. “For now, though, I’d prefer to get more experience under my belt so that I can teach my students and prepare them for whatever area of the industry they want to enter. During my Teaching Internship at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I got so much fulfillment I got out of seeing my students excited about their work, and about learning, developing and seeing their personal progress. That was just so amazing to me.”
Her strong desire to help is unusual for someone her age, but Shilpa Kirpalani isn’t the typical career driven professional despite the financial rewards of a likely successful future in the high profile area of digital animated film making. Instead her desire to share her knowledge, skills and experience with others, and to help society’s less fortunate as she did when her second trip to Cambodia was to work with a Habitat for Humanity team, reveals a person whose depth of character and concern for others has taught her the art of genuine concern and caring. She is a promising digital artist and lighting specialist with the capacity to shed her own special light on our world.