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IAIA Alumni Spotlight—Sydney Isaacs (Tlingit) ’16

Jul 17, 2023

Sydney Isaacs (Tlingit) ’16

In her academic and professional career, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Alum Sydney Isaacs (Tlingit) ’16 has demonstrated commendable initiative to pursue her creative passions, leverage her experiences, broaden Alaska Native representation, and contribute to creating more opportunities for Indigenous peoples. Since graduating from IAIA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Cinematic Arts & Technology, Isaacs has advanced to become an Associate Producer at GBH Kids, where she works on the Alaska-Native-centered children’s animated series Molly of Denali. “I attribute a lot of who I am today because of IAIA,” says Isaacs. “It just allowed me to become a more fully-fledged me.”

When Isaacs was a student, IAIA’s Cinematic Arts and Technology degree didn’t exist as it does today. However, she saw the potential of the cinematography program to connect to her interest in animation. “I already knew I wanted to animate, but I understand the same principles can apply, like camera angle—studying story, script writing—there’s a lot there that could be used. And so, I would try to find ways to make all of my assignments include animation of some sort. I had to teach myself a little bit of animation through YouTube. But then, thankfully, near the end of my time, more animation courses became available with instructor Craig Tompkins there, and he was the one that taught us the fundamentals of animation, and I think the animation program has been growing ever since.”

IAIA Board Member Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) was then working as the creative producer of Molly of Denali, which was released in 2019. “And so, when it was first kicking off, the goal—and it still is the goal—was for this show to take on Indigenous people, preferably Alaska Native people and other underrepresented voices to give us a seat in the room, behind-the-scenes, in all areas of the show’s production to make sure we are being represented appropriately and authentically,” Isaacs emphasizes. IAIA and GBH had partnered together to create a fellowship to advance this goal.

After graduating from IAIA, Isaacs was contacted by IAIA President Dr. Robert Martin (Cherokee Nation), who remembered her student work. “It was such a surprising conversion because he called me and said, ‘If I remember you correctly, you’re Alaska Native and are passionate about animating cartoons. There is this incredible opportunity that I think you should apply for.’ And he told me about this Alaska Native cartoon show that was being created by GBH Kids. I was shocked because Dr. Martin, who is probably very busy, remembered who I was and made time to contact me. That was amazing. And to think there was an actual animated cartoon show about Alaska Native culture being created with a spot open for someone to join was mind-blowing for me. That’s literally everything I’ve ever wanted to do and couldn’t dream of a better, perfect path. And so, I waited, and IAIA kept me updated with the application status.” When the application went live, Isaacs applied, interviewed, and was selected as the 2018 IAIA Molly of Denali Fellow, working with GBH in Boston, Massachusetts.

“I attribute a lot of who I am today because of IAIA.
It just allowed me to become a more fully-fledged me.”

The experience was, as Isaacs explains, “being a fly on the wall and observing how things would work.” She shadowed a production assistant on the show “because that’s essentially what I would be doing should I be hired anywhere else.” The paid fellowship time covered 10 weeks for about four days a week for three hours a day. After considering how she might get more out of the experience, Isaacs approached her managers to ask if she could volunteer additional time to match the hours of the regular staff “just to see how it all functioned” and get a more accurate picture of the work ahead of her. The managers agreed to let her donate her time. “I think that’s probably what led to them hiring me on,” she notes.

She became a production assistant and was subsequently promoted to production coordinator in 2021. However, her ambition didn’t stop there. “I’ve always wanted to write too. With IAIA just being a smaller school, we typically got to do everything. We were the editor. We were the story writer, the creative everything—storyboards, all of it,” she shares. She considered leaving her position to pursue writing fellowships but came up with another approach to write. “I pitched another idea to them, basically, where I asked my executive, ‘Hey, what would you think about me practicing writing, as in I’ll take the backseat. You don’t have to note on anything. But could I pretend to write a story and match another writer’s deadlines just to see if I could do it? So, when they write a premise, I will write a premise, and then, when it’s time to make a scene-by-scene, to get to that date, I will do that all the way through until the final draft. Do you think I could do that?’” Isaacs explains. The executive agreed, with the understanding that her primary job duties came first, and told her to not expect to receive notes.

Isaacs went through the process. “My executive producer pulled me into her office, and she was like, ‘So, I love your story, and so does everyone else that has read it. And we were wondering, would you be okay if we put it into the pipeline and actually made it, animated it, the whole shebang?’ And I was like ‘What! Oh my gosh­­—yes!’” Her first Molly of Denali story, “Art from the Heart” was released on MLK Day this year, and she is currently working on another story for the series, with more ahead.

In January 2023, Isaacs advanced to her current position of associate producer. She works closely with current creative producer Yatibaey Evans (Ahtna Athabascan) and coordinates with the Vancouver-based Atomic Cartoons, GBH’s partners on Molly of Denali. “Atomic Cartoons covers Molly of Denali’s overarching design, characters, design backgrounds, animation. In season one, I believe Atomic had no Indigenous people working on the show,” Isaacs explains. “And now we have at least 10, which is a huge deal.”

Issacs’s work as an associate producer is expansive. “You have your hand in just about everything,” she notes. “It’s reviewing all designs. It’s reviewing all animatics. It’s reviewing all stories. As soon as the idea comes, to seeing it completed and created throughout the whole animation process. It gets as detailed as creating the theme song for Molly before Molly had one. Naming characters.… It’s a lot of collaboration and bridge connecting with different departments, to make sure everything that’s related to the show is authentic and honest. And I get to have a voice and hand in creating all these things that are released for Molly.”

Isaacs has been able to apply her own knowledge of Northwest Coast and Tlingit art to the show. “There are a couple of stories that involve the Tlingit culture and art, like totem poles. And since I grew up learning my traditional and cultural arts from my Master Carver, even becoming a totem pole carving apprentice, I would casually slide that fact into conversation so my executives and other colleagues would know I had expertise in that area­—that they should really consider what I have to say. And my executive producers, they were a little hesitant at first, but when I was able to explain more, take time, and let them know what was going on or how certain things should be crafted, it became very apparent that they trusted me and asked if I’d be able to help our artists with creating Northwest Coast Art. And I said, ‘I could definitely try.’ And from there, just about anything that relates to Northwest Coast art is coming from me.” Her drawings are “Molly-fied” by Atomic Cartoons, which avoids inappropriate copying of Northwest Coast artists and inaccurate portrayals of Northwest Coast cultures.

Molly of Denali has grown to include many Indigenous people. “Outside of GBH’s Production team, there are Indigenous people working in a lot of different seats—it’s so cool. Our voice actors who portray Indigenous people are actually Indigenous themselves,” Isaacs reveals. “Even our writers—a good chunk of them are Indigenous. I’m trying to think of how many Indigenous people we have working on the show. We’ve been growing since season one. I think, to date right now, we’re at 111 unique Indigenous contributors. When we first started, there was maybe 60 or so. We’ve been slowly growing our capacity. Our growth goes into everything you could think of—designers, artists, animators, voice talent, directors.”

Molly of Denali’s Alaska Native cultural and language advisors are essential. “And so, we partner with and work with elders and other folks who are actually fluent, or darn near fluent, in the languages we’re using, and they will help us identify what words [to use], how to pronounce these words for voice actors to learn because they themselves aren’t as familiar sometimes with the different languages and dialects. And then also, at every stage of production, we have an Alaska Native advisor paired to the story. So, no matter what, an Alaska Native advisor will be there just to make sure we’re as authentic as we can be. There’s always somebody of Indigenous relations that will oversee any story being made, from scripting even into designs and animation.

For example, when IAIA Alum and illustrator Chad L. Yellowjohn (Shoshone-Bannock and Spokane) ’19, worked as a fellow on the show and designed characters for “Homemade Heroes,” the first episode of season three, the process was collaborative. “All those comic book heroes, the way that Molly and her friends look, that’s Chad’s design. He created it. He worked with our advisors—our cultural advisors—took their advice and what it should look like to be an Indigenous superhero, and his designs just blew us out of the water, honestly.”

Molly of Denali has impacted how other shows are being created inside and outside of GBH. “And then also on top of that, it is like the shows that we’re making within GBH, they’re looking—a lot of people are looking at the ‘Molly Model.’ Everyone keeps doing it, the ‘Molly Model.’ And they look at that inclusion, that type of drawing people in, and they let new and unheard voices come in, pitch their ideas, because that’s where freshness, where pure, great content comes from. And it’s been going really well, honestly, for these other shows, too. We’ve seen a lot of change in how we’re onboarding, how we talk to people, how our internal meetings go. Inclusivity, transparency.”

Working on Molly of Denali fulfills Isaacs’ major creative and cultural wishes. “It’s done a lot for me, because if I’m being very honest, I never thought that I’d be working for GBH, or someone affiliated with PBS and educational material. But, when I really think about it, which I’ve been doing quite often lately, that’s essentially what I’ve always wanted to do and where I’ve wanted to work without me realizing it. And I’m going to keep teaching about Alaska Native culture, Indigenous people, our values, our oral history and stories—ideally through cartoons and animation.”

There’s more ahead for Molly of Denali. “There’s an epic finale in this season, essentially. We’re going to places we haven’t been before,” Isaacs emphasizes, noting that the show focuses on Alaska and some First Nations peoples in Canada. “It’s exciting to see how much progress we’ve made on Molly, the challenges we’ve overcome so far—it’s all really good! And I hope it leads to more open doors and opportunities for Indigenous people to tell their stories.”

Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

If you would like to be considered for a future Alumni Spotlight, contact IAIA Communications.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of Rama First Nation) ‘19

Writer, IAIA Communications