LMU animation student Hayley Foster captured the Japanese-American experience in a short that won a Student Academy Award

By Michael Aushenker

When Hayley Foster created “Yamashita” while attending Loyola Marymount University, she thought she was merely working on her thesis project. She had no idea her animated short would quickly win several accolades, including a Student Academy Award and a television airing.

“When you look at who’s won a Student Academy Award in animation, it is such a who’s who. I really think she has got such a shot,” said LMU associate professor Tom Klein, chair of the school’s animation program.

Foster hangs with “Frozen” writer Shane Morris and directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck at the Student Academy Awards in June Photos courtesy of LMU

Foster hangs with “Frozen” writer Shane Morris and directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck at the Student Academy Awards in June
Photos courtesy of LMU

For Foster, it all started with Disney’s “The Lion King” and Hayao Miyazaki.

“They were my first foray into anime,” Hayley Foster recalled of Miyazaki’s traditionally animated films. “I remember seeing ‘Princess Mononoke’ for the first time in high school, and then subsequently watching it every Friday night for weeks, just trying to find the seams and absorb how it was made.”

While not anime, “Lion King,” as numerous critics pointed out, bore an uncanny resemblance to Osamu Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion.”

Foster, whose heritage is Norwegian and German, translated her love of Japanese anime into “Yamashita,” inspired by the famed Japanese-American internment memoir “Farewell to Manzanar” and her semester abroad in Kyoto and Osaka.

“I promised my Social Justice teacher in high school that I’d use my talents to help society in any way I could,” Foster said. “I think it’s important to remember our shared history as Americans. Even though I’m not of Japanese descent, I can still appreciate their sacrifices and struggles.”

It was, in fact, a photographer famed for her social realism who caught Foster’s creative eye.

“One image that inspired me in particular was a Dorothea Lange photograph that I analyzed for my  American Cultures  class  at  LMU,” she said, describing the stark depiction of a young girl, in a pea coat and hat, staring at the camera  “with an ambiguously serene expression on her face” as she and her family awaited an evacuation bus to transport them to a War Relocation Authority center.

In addition to her Student Academy Award, Foster’s “Yamashita” also won her LMU’s inaugural Walter Lantz Foundation prize, named after the animation giant.

Klein, Foster’s mentor figure at college, deemed the success of “Yamashita” “a validation of everything of our visual education [program], bringing current technological practices into play.”

However, when “Yamashita” aired over the summer on KCET’s “Fine Cut” festival of student film, Foster missed it.

“I don’t have a TV in my apartment!” she said, though she heard from people who caught it.

“As a person just recently out of college, it was beyond anything I had ever expected for my little thesis film,” she said of winning the student Oscar.

She was equally flattered to receive the Lantz prize in her senior year at LMU.

“It was a surprise and an honor to kick off what I hope will be a constant presence to celebrate the great creations coming out of LMU’s animation program,” said Foster.

On a personal note, Foster’s grandmother grew up a huge fan of Lantz’s most famous cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, and “she does a mean impression of that laugh!” Foster said.

If one was to judge contemporary animation based on box office, it appears that the Pixar/DreamWorks Animation template has all but usurped the market with their digitally animated features.

“Pixar has made some of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. Without fail, I cry every time I watch ‘Up,’” Foster said. “However, I very much miss traditionally hand-drawn animation [such as DreamWorks’ ‘Prince of Egypt’]. One must look outside the United States to realize that animation is a varied and multi-faceted creature. I don’t think America does too well in appreciating the works of other countries, save for niche markets like Japanese anime. That is something that saddens me in regards to animation.”

Klein commended Foster for a thorough approach.

“Animation students are just so steeped in anime and what it currently looks like. She sort of dipped back [beyond] the anime tropes. It’s just authentic and that’s the reason people are responding,” Klein said. “She didn’t wing anything. To make it authentic, she was taking meetings with lots of different professors in different departments to get all the pieces right.”

Foster, 23, now works in Burbank, where she serves as a storyboard revisionist at Warner Brothers Animation. She isn’t sure where her animation career is going, but hopes to create a feature film.

“Right now I’m just plugging away at work, trying to progress as an artist as well as thinking of new ideas for personal projects and short films,” she said. “I know that’s all a bit vague, but the future is fuzzy, right?”

As for “Princess Mononoke,” did she ever figure it out?

“It’s too perfect; I haven’t been able to crack it,” she said, laughing.