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Getting Graphic with Artist Isabella Carapella

By Scott Kirkwood

As a child growing up in Syracuse, New York, Isabella Carapella spent many weekends visiting her grandparents in the small New York town of Corning, where she learned to paint, knit, sew, and cross-stitch. As she got older, she fell in love with Pixar films and the stop-motion animation of Wallace and Gromit. So she was already thinking about a career in animation when she stepped into her first class at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). But as she learned more about the intricacies of the film industry, she discovered that she might not be cut out for it.  

“When I got to SCAD, I dipped my toes in 3D animation, but I realized those sorts of projects require you to pick one area like lighting or rigging or modeling, whereas I wanted to do a little bit of everything,” she says. “When I took a motion-graphics class, I realized, ‘This is it.’” 

Isabella Carapella

Midway through her third year at SCAD, Carapella realized that government aid, scholarships, part-time jobs, and student loans weren’t enough to meet the college’s pricy tuition, and she was forced to end her studies there before she could graduate. But she never stopped teaching herself the tools of the trade. Her instructors at SCAD had introduced her to Adobe Illustrator and After Effects, and Carapella learned the rest by watching videos on YouTube, Instagram, and School of Motion.

Early on, Carapella strung together a few short-term gigs as an intern in Ohio and a hostess at Fogo de Chão in Portland, Oregon, with plenty of freelance work sprinkled in. But she recognized that she needed to jump into illustration full-time if she wanted to make it a career. 

Finally, a big break: Carapella moved to New York for an internship at Huffington Post, which she turned into a full-time gig creating illustrations and motion graphics to accompany articles, videos, podcasts, and social media posts. After two years, she grew tired of New York, so she reluctantly handed in her resignation and planned her return to Portland. Surprisingly, her boss didn’t accept her resignation. “What if you stay on, and work full-time from Portland?” he asked. Even better.  

ILLUSTRATING THE NEWS

Today, Carapello lives near the Columbia River Gorge, where she hikes, camps, and backpacks, documenting her adventures via Instagram. Although she lives in the Pacific time zone, she rises early to work East Coast hours and meet East Coast deadlines. And some of those deadlines come pretty quick.

“Projects with a quick turnaround definitely exercise my brain a bit because I have to think of a concept and then execute it—you can’t really turn back once you start working on it.” When news of an airport bombing in Turkey broke in 2016, Carapella had a couple of hours to create an animated illustration for social media, to show support for the victims. For another project, she had a plenty of advance notice: it was for a series on the frustrations of in vitro fertilization, titled IVFML, so she worked with HuffPost’s podcast producer to craft images for everything from the website to smaller details like illustrations for the iTunes store (Turkey and IVFML images are shown below).

“I never expected my work to be so focused on current events, but Huffington Post really threw me into it, and I’m so glad they did,” Carapella says. “It feels good to put my art toward something that’s helping people and informing them about what’s happening in the world. In the current political climate with more and more people accusing news sources of fake news, it’s really important that we provide top-notch information, from data visualization to illustration work. And it’s a great way to give back to the community.” 

Some of the topics venture into pretty risqué territory, including HuffPost’s Sex Ed for Grownups series (two of Carapella’s illustrations for the series are shown above), which she wasn’t quick to share with her parents, she confesses with a laugh. “At first it was a little weird—I’ve never been the kind of person to voice my opinions on issues like sex, but I’ve come out of my shell,” she says. “The Sex Ed series was one of my favorites, and one of our most popular series, which goes to show how poor sex education is in our schools. I’m fortunate that my managers never force me to do something I wouldn’t want to do. At this point, it’s just a lot of fun to see how far we can push a topic without going too far.”  

A FAVORITE RECENT PROJECT

One of Carapella’s favorite recent projects is a short video focused on the Gotham Girls roller derby league—a sport that combines athleticism with feminism. Below, she walks through the creative process (producer/editor: Savannah O’Leary; motion graphics: Isabella Carapella; art direction: Adam Glucksman; creative direction: Carina Kolodny and Marc Janks). 

Click to watch a short video, focused on the Gotham Girls roller derby league, that Carapella developed with a team. 

1. “HuffPost’s Savannah O’Leary and Adam Glucksman interviewed several players and filmed B-roll of their training and matches. Adam and I worked on the tone of the illustrations and lettering, finding inspiration in Ruffmercy’s music videos, which speak to the raw, gritty nature of the sport.” 

2. “Savannah imported the video footage into Adobe Premiere Pro, added some historic footage, edited the file to match the music and voiceover she had written, and finally made color corrections.” 

3. “Once a near-final roughcut was ready, Adam and I started experimenting. I created some hand-drawn animations in Photoshop, but realized that the process of importing the video, drawing dozens of layers, and exporting and rebuilding in After Effects would take too much time, especially if any animated portions needed to be changed. Adam started playing with the brush tool in After Effects, to see if it would simplify things, and it worked well, so we streamlined the process and kept everything in one program.”

4. “Adam and I divided up the video and tackled different sections, making a few reference frames to keep the style cohesive. To draw on the video frames, we used Wacom tablets, which sped up our process and kept that loose, sketchy feel that helped us highlight the power and the intricate movements of the athletes; all the line animation shown in the final video is frame by frame within After Effects.” 

“For the section focusing on ‘Massacre’ changing into a uniform, we had to toggle between frames many times so that the line drawings matched up properly. Sometimes we duplicated the line animation layer and offset it to create the ‘shadowing’ effect seen in the GIF above.” 

5. “In the final stages, we pulled different color overlays and masking techniques to add some grit to the footage. We started by creating adjustment layers with multiple correcting effects—such as contrast, brightening, and hue/saturation—so each section of the video had its own unique look. We then played with different color overlays and grainy textures within each section. The different treatments give the film an old-school analog look that feels as authentic as its subjects.”

See more work by Isabella Carapella on her portfolio site