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  • Writer's pictureFindingStrengths

No Words

By Jeanie Hartranft

Ever felt as if the walls are closing in? Feel like giving up? I can relate.

Have you ever felt something so strongly that no words can express?

This pandemic has only exacerbated feelings of isolation and loss of control for so many. For those who were already struggling to fit in, the added constrains of sheltering in place, wearing masks, or working or learning remotely may feel a bit stifling.

Many of my clients at Finding Strengths have expressed frustration with their current situation, but have found it difficult to put words to the culmination of contributing factors. Their struggle weighed heavy on my mind and although I could empathize and let them know they weren't alone, it didn't seem like I was doing enough.

I'm the type of personal, academic and corporate coach who is constantly thinking of ways to better serve my clients. It was during my five minute commute one day as I was trying to think of ways to assist in my clients' successes that an image flashed in my head.

The Concept Danced in My Brain

In flip book animation style, I imagined a child dancing and singing as if she had no care in the world. She reminded me of the young, blissfully expressing themselves with careless abandon before they feel the constraints of traditional schooling, before society tells them what behavior is appropriate, and before it is deemed time for them to grow up. This little animated figure continued to dance and sing as a box appeared around her, and although she tried to dance and sing like before, she found herself hitting the sides of the box. She quickly learned that she was no longer free to dance and sing like before and was very quickly silenced.

These images haunted my mind for a few weeks. I described the scene to clients I thought could relate and received positive feedback from them all. I had captured the feelings they were unable to express. Like no other time in my life, I felt I needed to make this little girl's message come to life. I looked into creating the animation myself, but found the process daunting. A friend suggested I look at to see if I could find an affordable animator. After just a little research, I found someone who was willing to work with me to bring the images swirling around my brain to the screen.

First stage

After working with my animator, Elodie, for only a few minutes, she created the first character, LeeLee, who is based on one of my clients, and was able to storyboard the first part of my story. I was in awe of her ability to put my concept into pictures. Within a few days, "LeeLee Boxed" was complete.

"Girl in a Box"

Unboxing LeeLee

As soon as the first part of this animation project was completed, I knew I had to get the character, LeeLee, out of the box. I imagined my role as a coach to my clients and thought about what it was that I did to help people go from being "stuck" to being successful. Much of the time I think I simply meet them at their level and walk alongside them during their journey. I am patient. I listen. I empathize. I let them know they are not alone.

Another inspiration for the second character in this story, ChiChi, while partially based on my role with clients, also came from the Co-Founder of Women in Leadership, Davis (WiLD), Dzokerayi Mukone and her two daughters, Tinaye and Chiyedza. These three females are fearless, bursting with energy, song, dance and generosity. WiLD ( is also planning to start a multigenerational mentorship program with a focus on African American and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) girls, teens and young adults.

The unboxing of LeeLee was a little more complex, just like it is in real life when we get overwhelmed.

It seems easy to get to that place where we just want to give up, but incredibly difficult to move out of that space, especially if we have to do it on our own. So, the second half of this little girl's journey needed to demonstrate the struggles, that push/pull of inner and outer forces calling us to stay safely in our new uncomfortable surroundings or dare to venture out into unknown territory. I sketched a very rough storyboard and gave to the animator for the next half of the story (and you can see WHY I need an animator to help me). I introduced a second character to help get LeeLee out of the box. ChiChi was born.

Luckily for me, Elodie understood my little scratches on paper and translated them into a more professional storyboard. I loved her idea of the movement of the camera angle. As I worked with her to make adjustments to the story and characters, I saw my vision come to life.

And then I tested positive for COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Factor

I never imagined I would contract the Coronavirus because I thought I was not engaging in any risky behaviors, but apparently it truly is easy to get. Getting this sent a shockwave through me, my family and friends.

Although the completion of this project was delayed a few days, I found the energy to review the steps of the next phase of animation. The story took on new meaning as I experienced my own fears and struggles with Covid. The isolation of quarantine brought on depression, which was only deepened when I lost my sense of taste and smell (for two weeks!). Like LeeLee who was trapped in her box, I was trapped in my bedroom, alone except for the dogs who would not leave my side, surviving on texts from friends and family and care packages dropped off at my doorstep.

"Girl Out of the Box"

Next Up: Bolstering the story with music

I was thrilled when the whole animated story was complete! This idea had been just that--a concept swirling around in my head for weeks--and was now dancing in front of my eyes on my computer screen. It was time to add music, but I was no musician. It was time to brush off my old contacts to see if anyone wanted to create a soundtrack to my little story. I knew that my old friend from Azusa Pacific University, Faith Lee Kenton, was a masterful pianist and decided to see if she could help. She quickly agreed to ask people in her network to see if anyone would bite. Within days, she connected me to Jennifer Oikawa, a Los Angeles-based, pianist, jazz artist, conductor and music teacher with extensive experience performing in a vast array of musical settings and genres. Jennifer had seen the rough version of my animation and after a short conversation, she agreed to see what she could come up with for a musical score.

Within the week, I saw LeeLee and ChiChi dancing to beautiful piano music, which enhanced the emotional experience of the story. Emotion leaked out of my eyes as I listened and watched. I couldn't have asked for anything more.

The first screening

Now that the music was set for the story, I began sharing it with people through text and on Facebook, and the most common response was, "That is so cute!" Some people told me their story of struggle and their fight to overcome adversity. Those are stories I'd like to collect.

Some people told me their story of struggle and their fight to overcome adversity. Those are stories I'd like to collect.

Intros and Outros

Next, I added titles and credits. I hadn't yet thought of a title for the project, but ended up with "Finding Strength" to coordinate both the story and the (almost) name of my company. I played with several title designs, text sizes and styles, and accidentally dropped a title above another title in iMovie and loved the effect! I added transitions, my logo at the beginning and end, and used a simple layout for the credits.

As I asked more people to watch it with me, the one comment I heard most was, "Is there supposed to be music at the beginning?" I honestly hadn't thought that far ahead. But now that the silence at the beginning and end of the movie was pointed out, I had to add something. Should I use a popular song? No. The bright idea that came to my head was: I have Garage Band on my computer. I wonder if I can make music with that?

Oh dear. I should have known as someone who never really studied music (except for that short summer of piano lessons with my neighbor when I was eight), that creating music for a movie is not as easy as Jennifer made it seem! Want to hear a cringe worthy sample of what I came up with before begging Jennifer to create something amazing? Reply in the comments. I'll send it to you. I'm warning you now--it is really awful!

So, after I let Jennifer in on my dilemma, she kindly offered to create music for my intro and the credits. Of course, they are incredible!

And after a few more tweaks to the movie, it is finished! Please watch, enjoy, ponder and discuss. And of course, please add a comment to let me know if the story of "LeeLee & ChiChi: Finding Strength" resonates with you.

Don't give up. You're not alone. You can do this!

Watch Now! "LeeLee & ChiChi: Finding Strength"

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