Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved fluffy forest spirit Totoro was a daily companion for a young Sophia Orner-Thompson.

She said she watched “Totoro” daily when she was a child. That fascination with animation never left her. Now the Madison native is making films of her own.

At 22, Orner-Thompson can’t be sure where her education and love of storytelling will take her. She will be happy so long as she can be a storyteller with animation as her preferred mode of expression.

Animation offers the kind of creative control that other cinematic mediums do not, Orner-Thompson said.

“I think animation is a great medium for storytelling because there is so much capacity for visual symbolism,” she said. “There’s poetry in how much is packed into the design of a character or environment or color palette ... You can say everything with everything. You can put meaning in every line you make.”

The culmination of her time at Columbia College Chicago was a solo project, a three minute animated short with no dialogue, that took her three semesters to complete.

Orner-Thompson graduated from Columbia College Chicago in May.

It was definitely a lot of hard work, it did burn her out a bit at the end, Orner-Thompson said.

Her work, “Outrun the Night”, tells the story of a pair of children playing at the local playground. Not wanting their playtime to end as the sun is setting, the duo tries to outrun the darkening sky, but end up being lost in a dark city and fearing the shadows the nighttime brings.

“Outrun the Night” was chosen to be presented at the Josiah Media Festival in San Antonio, Texas. The festival runs Thursday through Sunday and is exclusive to young filmmakers 21 and under.

Orner-Thompson was 21 at the time when her film was completed, making her eligible for the showcase.

Her film was one of 54 chosen from a pool of 217 to participate in the showcase. Over 1,800 total films entered the festival selection, but only 217 were eligible for adjudication.

Festival organizers said there are six other animated films in the showcase.

Ronald Fleischer, traditional animation director at Columbia College, said he wasn’t surprised “Outrun the Night” was chosen for a festival and anticipates there will be more acceptances to follow.

Since her interview in August, Orner-Thompson’s film has been accepted to the Barcelona Planet Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain, the Sciacca Film Fest in Sciacca, Italy and the online only Reel East Film Festival.

Although not one of her professors, Fleischer offered Orner-Thompson suggestions during the production of her short film.

He called Orner-Thompson’s solo project “sophisticated” and something he hasn’t often seen — students don’t often do serious films.

“Sophia was a really good student — I could tell,” he said. “I didn’t have her in class, but she seemed to be a calm, mature student with a very special attitude that was different than the other students. You don’t always see that maturity. She was always very professional and level headed ... we’re all very proud of her.”

Orner-Thompson believes the project, although extremely time consuming, was a worthwhile endeavor.

Dealing with the eventual burnout is just part of being an artist or animator and if that person does their job well enough people don’t think of how much time it took, she added.

There were definitely moments in the production, however, when Orner-Thompson wasn’t on her own. She needed a composer and foley artists to create the film’s score and sound effects.

“Recording sound effects was really fun,” she said. “I needed footsteps for a little girl patting on the concrete, but the actor I had—he was a big guy maybe pushing six feet. He put on little dress up shoes and was doing this really light pattering, it was very funny.”

Orner-Thompson is searching for the next story to tell.

She does not intend to make “Outrun the Night” into a feature film though she has not ruled out using visual elements from the film in future work.

Driven by a passion for stories and narrative, Orner-Thompson is working toward her dream of directing an animated feature. For now she will continue making art that is more than “cool or pretty.”

Without using the possibilities of meaning hidden in animation, films become just “eye candy,” she added.

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.