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Meet Kate Stransky

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kate Stransky.

Kate, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I knew since I was a really young kid that I wanted to be an artist and that I probably wanted to do something with movies.

I kind of grew up in the industry and much of my family works in the business. My father is an actor and when my parents divorced, my dad moved to Los Angeles. My summers and winter breaks were spent with my dad in LA where I hung out a lot on set and backstage on whatever film or show he was working on and the rest of the year I lived with my mom in northern Lake County. My mother was a producer for talk show television in Chicago for many years and my brother is now a commercial and film actor living in Los Angeles. My husband also works in the industry in the camera department.

I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I majored in film and animation, specifically stop-motion animation. I spent a summer in the Czech Republic and then studied in France for a semester where I fell in love with theatre design and puppetry. I came back to Chicago to finish my last year at school and was hired at The Field Museum of Natural History in the exhibit design department specializing in designing and creating miniature dioramas. I started working in theatre designing and building puppets, costumes, set pieces, and specialty props for companies like Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Emerald City Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theatre, and Lookingglass Theatre. I also worked as a sculptor and model maker for toy companies and museums such as a The Shedd Aquarium, Hasbro Toys, Slinky, and Cadaco Toys.

It’s hard to make a living working in theatre in Chicago. I was now married and had kids and a mortgage so I made a career jump by working in film and TV. My first big show was working in the art department for the television series “The Beast” starring Patrick Swayze. Since then I’ve worked on projects for Michael Mann, David Lynch, Steve Conrad, 20th Century Fox, Sony Television, Universal Studios, IFC, Gaumont Films, The Food Network as well as numerous commercials. I’ve also designed and animated stop-motion animation ads for Laughing Cow Cheese, Boursin Cheese, Glade Candles as well as music videos and films.

For the past seven years I’ve taught in the film department at Columbia College Chicago where I teach Production Design, Advanced Practicum Films, and Cinema Models and Miniatures.

I recently was the production designer on a short film/music video for the band Local H starring Michael Shannon. I am now working on a few different projects including a series of miniature models of Van Gogh paintings for a virtual reality museum exhibit that will go up this fall. I am designing and building a series of large scale sculptures for holiday displays for buildings on Wacker Drive, and I am a production designer for a new pilot called “Senataur” that uses miniature sets and live-action puppets.

I am also in the pre-production phase for my own stop-motion animated film “The Bone Mother” which I’ve written, designed, and will direct.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
There have been many struggles along the way but honestly I’ve learned so much from them that I just consider it part of my education.

This kind of work is hard because not only does it require creativity to create and design things for the job, but you have to be incredibly creative when it comes to finding work. I work in stop-motion animation and making miniatures– two things that aren’t a booming business in Chicago. And I’m doing things that I didn’t know of anyone else doing so I didn’t really have anyone that I could shadow or follow. I had to create a career on my own.

This industry is also very challenging if you have a family at home. Working on a show or film I could be on set for 12-16 hours a day and it’s not the kind of job where you can call in sick if you have a kid home from school.

Kate Stransky – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I work as a production designer and director for live-action film and stop-motion animation. I also am a model maker and sculptor for exhibits, toy companies, film, and animation. I design and build sets, puppets, masks, and miniatures.

I wear a lot of hats because I have a somewhat diverse skill set. I have a fine arts background so I can draw and paint and sculpt which is a strong foundation in everything that I do.

I definitely have my own distinct style to my art however I’m really good at creating something that the client wants even if it’s totally different than my own style. Even though my own personal art has been described as “dark”, I worked in the toy industry for years creating cute little characters for pre-school aged kids.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Success to me is being able to do what you love and make a decent living at it.

At a few points early in my career I’ve had to get a “real” job to make ends meet. I worked in an insurance agency filing papers and I was an executive assistant to the Vice-president of a major corporation. (I’m still not sure how I got that one.) Either way, both were the most depressing work experiences of my life. I remember feeling like a failure because I had to leave working in the arts in order to pay my bills. I felt like I had no purpose…until at one point I decided to let these circumstances motivate me, not define me. I worked hard in my spare time to create a stronger portfolio of artwork, gathered more industry contacts, and got some more experience by doing some low-paying gigs. I invested in myself and my art.

Even though I’m busy right now, I still use these experiences as a motivator. I might want to sit around for a weekend and do nothing and then I remember those hard times at the office jobs being depressed and I get back into my studio and draw or make things or I send out my resume to a new producer in town. This is the kind of industry that requires you to continuously stay motivated to get new work. It’s deceiving because I might get five calls in one month and I feel like I’m a success but then later in the year I might only get one call in five months. You have to always be looking for work even while you’re working.

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