We entered the front of a nondescript warehouse in Burbank, California and stood there blinking as our eyes adjusted. A friendly receptionist sat on the other side of the desk, smiling as she asked who we were there to meet.
“Melissa Shepherd,” I explained, and she directed us to the sign-in keypads with a smile.
My daughter, Madeline Smith ’19, was trying to figure out which college to attend in her quest to become an animator. We traveled to California to tour one last university before she decided on where her academic journey would lead next. When Charlotte Albertson, Lausanne’s Director of Alumni Affairs, heard of the reason for the trip, she suggested a side-trip to go visit Lausanne alumna Melissa Goodwin Shepherd ‘98.
“Her work is incredible, and she could probably give her some insight on how to get her foot in the door in that industry,” Charlotte explained. Three weeks later, Melissa greeted us with open arms, and took us into the studio, guiding us through the pathways and drapes that housed worlds of different sets.
“These are friends of mine from Memphis,” she explained to the artists we met along the way.
Melissa is also from Memphis, where she grew up loving cartoons. By age nine, she had decided she wanted to make them when she grew up. Not only building the animations but also writing the scripts, composing the scores and doing the character voices, as well.
Melissa’s talent and love of the arts grew throughout her adolescence, but her family had trouble finding a school environment that supported her abilities and goals.
“I was looking for a place that was more open to arts and a place that nurtured individuality,” Melissa recalls. Her sister Ginnifer had attended Lausanne, and their mother had seen how the school’s faculty had nurtured her artistic nature. Melissa came to Lausanne her senior year and dove into her craft. “I was already comfortable with the Lausanne family, so it wasn't a scary change for me to go to a new school for my senior year. I met Allison Gillis Brownlow ’99 there, and she’s still my best friend. We’re still in touch every day, even though we're on completely opposite ends of the country.”
Melissa credits her time at Lausanne with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in the arts.
“I loved animation and dreamed of pursuing it as a career, but didn't think making a living as an artist was at all practical,” she remembered. “Karla Richardson, my art teacher, took notice of my interests and went out of her way to make sure I was considering all of my options for college, including art schools.”
Empowered by her teacher's belief in her talent, she decided to attend Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), majoring in 2D animation with a minor in sound design. There she discovered stop-motion animation: an approach of building physical objects and taking pictures of them one frame at a time to capture subtle movement.
“I fell in love with stop-motion when I joined the extracurricular club at SCAD, but at the time, there was only one official stop-motion class,” Melissa explained. “So naturally, I took it three times.”
Melissa moved to Los Angeles and interned for a small studio specializing in the craft, building relationships with others in the industry. Now, 15 years later, she’s worked for a variety of studios including Fox, Nickelodeon, Google, Netflix, Amazon and Cartoon Network. Lately, she’s been working for Disney Animation Studios directing several shorts.
“I love the creative process, and the magic of storytelling and animation that Disney brings to each one has been really inspiring,” she shared.
This fall, she lent her talents to directing and animating a short video about Lausanne. It was a project that Melissa loved creating. She came up with the overall concept for the video showing what makes Lausanne such a special place.
“After we planned out the whole shoot, I couldn't wait to get started,” she remembered. “I love animating real objects, especially people's hands, so I used several hand models to help showcase the diversity that Lausanne has on campus.”
Another favorite moment of Melissa’s in the video is a portion that shows a seed being planted, then growing into a flower. “I've gotten to do it a few times: it’s a fun challenge. The trick is that you have to animate it in reverse.” She also incorporated objects that belong to different family members, like her son's toy bus and her grandfather's calculator.
The experience of creating art for her alma mater was especially meaningful to Melissa.
“My experience at Lausanne was excellent, and I consider it a big part of my journey,” she shared. “It's great to see how far Lausanne has come since I was there. I'm grateful for my time at Lausanne, and I credit it for where I am today.”
My daughter and I said goodbye to Melissa in the studio lobby.
“Animation is a small world, and we all stick together,” she told Madeline and gave her a hug. We got in the car and left Burbank, driving back around the interstate to our hotel. Madeline was ecstatic and gushed about all that we had learned from the tour and our time with her fellow alumna. Among all the amazing art, equipment and people we met, one thing Melissa said at the beginning of our tour stood out above others to the young graduate.
“She said we were her friends,” she beamed. #thelausanneway #AlwaysALynx
Madeline Smith ’19 is attending Ringling College of Art and Design this fall. Our Alumni Office connects our current students with alumni all over the globe whether through mentorships, internships or college connections. Contact the Alumni Office by emailing Charlotte Albertson at email@example.com for more information.
This story originally appeared in Lausanne's Fall Magazine 2019. You can see the video Melissa directed for Lausanne below.