All posts by CA Davis

Smithsonian features MADS Film Essay “INHUMAN FIGURES”

“The human can be redefined, and the future can be remade too. The question remains: in whose image?”

Michelle N. Huang

Over the past two years, the Media and Design Studio’s digital storyteller, CA Davis, has been working with English and Asian American Studies assistant professor Michelle N. Huang on the Studio’s latest film essay — INHUMAN FIGURES: Robots, Clones, and Aliens. Based on Huang’s research on Techno-Orientalism and the ways in which racial stereotypes pervade popular American films and television, INHUMAN FIGURES is now streaming as part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s online exhibits. You can watch it at

INHUMAN FIGURES examines three popular science fictional archetypes—the robot, clone, and alien—and illuminates the racial logics and histories that underpin them—namely, the tireless worker, the indistinguishable copy, and the forever foreigner. By bringing to light lesser-known and forgotten histories, Huang shows how sci-fi futures are built on the backs of “humans that have [always] been less than human.”

Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies, Michelle N. Huang

Breaking down examples of popular films such as Ex MachinaCloud Atlas, and Arrival, the film essay makes visible how these racialized tropes are utilized in the process of U.S. nation-building and future-making. And while popular film and television provides plenty of material to critique, few offer an alternative vision. “There is a limit to how many times you can see naked Asian American clones be thrown in an incinerator without feeling dehumanized yourself,” comments Huang.

the film’s titular characters — top, robot; left, clones; right, alien

In order to fill the visual gap between the overused stereotypes in dystopian films and the possibilities of reparative speculative futures, the production evolved to incorporate the animation of three independent artists: Chicago local Keith Couture, and Evanston sisters Brittney and Crystal Galloway of the indie animation house, Sleepy Gallows Studio. Much of the production was spent conceptualizing, planning, and iterating the eight minutes of original animations based on a story arc that peels away the facades of these future beings in order to reveal the people living under their masks—no small task for a three-person art team.

our Asian American everywoman, Emi, discovers the people beneath their scifi facades

And while the film dissected such racial stereotypes about Asian Americans head-on, it is notable that the production team of INHUMAN FIGURES itself reflected the multiracial coalition building that coalesced throughout 2020 amidst a surge in the Movement for Black Lives against police brutality and racial violence. The team’s animators, Brittney and Crystal Galloway, are themselves representative of a burgeoning wave of Afro-Anime enthusiasts whose work is directly inspired by the decades of rich, hand hewn Japanese animation.

“Working on this project has reminded me that there are other ways to animate,” Brittney Galloway reflected. “I was trained in the traditional American way and many of the teachers looked down on anime. The mixing of frame rates is much more common in Japanese animation as they are still experimenting as opposed to the West where it’s ‘perfected.’ While there are shots I wish I had more time on, overall, I don’t think the production suffered. In my future endeavors, this project will be a reminder that there’s always a way to make things more practical without sacrificing too much quality.”

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INHUMAN FIGURES is a 24-minute film accessible free of charge via the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center online exhibit. Visit the exhibit here:

Reading the City and Telling its Story in Alternative Forms

For several years, Classics professor Francesca Tataranni has guided students in developing their own video-driven essays and map-based walking tours in her acclaimed ‘Ancient Rome in Chicago’ course.

Now, the Media and Design Studio is honored to unveil her latest work in conjunction with the studio, an exploration of her own, titled “One Dark Wall”

Since 2015,  Francesca Tataranni (Charles Deering McCormick University Distinguished Professor of Instruction of Classics and Director of the Latin Program) teaches her course, Ancient Rome in Chicago, a seminar that asks students to use Chicago—it’s buildings, it’s concrete, it’s public art—as a resource for the film essays they make throughout the quarter. For the past five years, Francesca’s students have helped create a virtual walking tour of Chicago’s buildings that utilize classical, Roman architecture. Francesca often called on the expertise of the Media and Design Studio to help teach best practices and styles when creating these film essays. But, in the winter and spring of 2020, Francesca collaborated with the Media and Design Studio’s digital storyteller, CA Davis, to create her own film essay on a controversial mural in Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library.

Several years prior, Francesca found herself surrounded by four walls covered with raw paintings of a visual interpretation of Virgil’s Aeneid. What struck her wasn’t the sheer amount of work that Irene Siegel put into the murals in 1985 but the dark, gastly depiction of the underworld on the entrance wall that stands in opposite to a fire and brimstone depiction of the Trojan War.

“Seeing the Dark Wall for the first time was truly overwhelming,” Francesca recalls. “I remember surveying the wall over and over again from all directions in an attempt to make sense of the shattered quotes and anguished images that cover its entire surface. The more I looked, the more frustrated I grew.”

And it turned out she wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by the mural’s visceral imagery.

Irene Siegel painted her interpretation of the Aeneid in 1985, right in the middle of the Reagan administration—a time which, Francesca discovered, influenced the painting as much as the public’s reception of the work itself. Over the following months, Francesca unraveled the painful story of Irene’s months-long battle just to finish the mural amidst severe outcry against her visual style and personal attacks as an artist. When thinking about how to relay this story, Francesa first wrote the story into a research paper which compared the mural’s visuals with the original text. What she revealed was how Irene Siegel’s feminist reading of the Aeneid is portrayed in the figure of Dido, who Francesca calls, “the true hero of the Aeneid.”

When Francesca approached the Media and Design Studio, she did so with two intentions. The first was to create a visual essay based on her written work surrounding the mural in order to accurately portray the painting in the context of her feminist, political reading of Irene’s art. The second was to learn what it takes to professionally develop such a film essay so that she could use her film while teaching her students how to create their own. What followed was a months-long process of rewriting her essay into a scripted voice over narration, and multiple days of filming on location to re-enact her discovery and research of the mural itself.

“Working with John (Bresland) and CA (Davis) on the video script was an incredibly enriching and liberating experience. They showed me how to let go of some concerns and constraints that usually drive my writing of words on a page and allow visual and sonic elements to dance with the pen.”

The Media and Design Studio’s digital storyteller, CA Davis, was tasked with combining all these elements into a coherent, flowing story that accurately depicts the history, politics, and re-reading of Virgil’s original text in the light that Francesca shone. The result is the film essay entitled, One Dark Wall, which can now be watched via the link below.

In March of 2021, Francesca plans to use this film as part of the Department of Classics’ end-of-quarter event on the reception of classical works such as the Aeneid. You can sign up to watch that event via the link below.