At 23, Charlie Callahan has, as he says, “learned to pivot”. The Greenwich native who graduated from Greenwich High School in 2018, had only just completed his freshman year at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan when the pandemic disrupted in-person learning.
But this sinking feeling was not new to him. It was during his freshman year at GHS that he first learned a hard lesson about the best laid plans.
Having enjoyed playing in the GYFL for several years, Charlie tore up the ACL in his freshman year at GHS.
His next steps were as much a testament to a can-do attitude as they were to the thick catalog of GHS courses.
“I pivoted and decided to make art my main focus,” Charlie recalled. “The GHS is fantastic. I really like that they have such a wide range of choices. I’m so glad I went there. In addition to academics – whether you want to pursue music, sports or artistic studies – there is such a great selection.
Charlie said that although GHS is a large high school, with around 2,700 students, it was always easy to build relationships with the teachers.
“I took as many art classes as I could find,” he said. “It opened up a new path for me, and it’s something I realized I was good at.”
“Computer arts was huge for me,” he added. “I had never touched a digital pen before or worked in Photoshop.”
Other courses included basic illustration, pottery, perspective, life drawing, and AP art. Charlie enjoyed the drawing lessons the most.
“It was a place where I could have fun, create new art and practice,” he said.
Charlie said that while he was following AP Art, art teacher Sheyda Ardalan, who he describes as “my main support,” helped him find potential colleges.
Representatives from art schools visited GHS to talk about their programs. Then, in person, Charlie visited SVA, Pratt and SUNY Purchase.
“I knew I wanted to work in art, and along the way I decided I wanted to work in animation,” he said, listing Ed, Edd n Eddy; Well 10; Avatar: The Last Airbender and Rocket Power as favorite childhood cartoons.
“SVA really clicked, because I wanted something I could do as a job, but it’s also something I love to do,” he explained. “SVA was the most business oriented and had the most connections. They say, “We will guide you as best we can on the path to employment. It was a major help for me.
During his time at GHS, Charlie had focused primarily on illustration. Then at SVA, he threw himself head first into animation.
“I got a full scholarship – a Silas H. Rhodes scholarship,” he said, referring to the competitive scholarship named after the school’s founder. “They really liked my work.”
In his first year, he took the compulsory courses of the Animation department, including Intro to Animation, Life Drawing and History of Animation.
The campus is spread over several buildings out of 23rd street, and it took some getting used to.
Freshman year, he lived in the 23rd Street dorms between 2n/a and 3rd Av.
“These dorms were the originals. They are very cramped and small, but each had a kitchen.
As a sophomore, he lived in newer dorms on the 24the Street, which had many amenities.
“Things were going well,” he said. “But then I remember being in class and hearing rumors about a pandemic.”
“SVA was very strict about opening and closing regulations,” he said. “When it got too bad they said school was closed. Go online.”
As New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, students initially worked remotely in their dorms, with the option to return home to work remotely. Later, the dorms closed.
Charlie said he was lucky to have a complete computer, including a Cintiq, which he carried home to Greenwich.
He spent the second semester of sophomore year and the entire first year taking distance learning courses.
“The junior year was really fun. I was more relaxed at home and more comfortable behind the screen. I reconnected with a lot of people and was able to take more control of my life.
“This transition was interesting. We stuck to our schedule – all from home. It wasn’t a big deal, but maintaining motivation and doing so much work is tricky.
Coming back in person for the final year was a relief and provided more latitude in course selection.
“Seniors get the first dibs and I’ve taken fun classes like Stop Motion and Film Noir,” he said.
The past year has also been spent working on his thesis film, but Charlie said his thesis supervisor, Lisa LaBracio, was an inspiration and a big help.
Thesis preparation begins the summer before the final year, including work on the story, script, and general animation beats.
“When school starts, you get into the actual production of the backgrounds and the animation itself,” Charlie explained, adding that thesis films should be at least a minute long. His lasted three minutes. “You go through many iterations and meet many deadlines.”
Part of the experience was to observe the progress of other students and how they went about their work schedule.
“It combined everything I had learned in the four years I was there,” he said. “The amount of work I had done before helped me – everything was relevant.”
Ultimately, thesis films are judged on a pass/fail basis, but Charlie didn’t take anything for granted.
He said the decision was based on a 10-minute meeting at the end of the semester with Hsiang Chin Moe, the head of the department, and your professor for the screening.
“She said she loved it and gave me compliments, but I was still waiting to find out if I made it, which I did. It was fantastic.”
From there, all the students whose thesis film was successful were able to screen their film in front of a large audience. The six-hour event took place in the SVA theater and each student could bring three guests.
Even better, the graduation for the entire school took place at Radio City Music Hall. The keynote speaker was Roxanne Gay.
“I have such good memories of my stay at SVA. I have met so many amazing people and teachers. It was a wonderful experience.
With his BFA under his belt, Charlie said he was looking for a job. It enjoys access to the SVA alumni system and job board which includes multiple links to career sites. Beyond that, the school organizes online sessions to help with job search.
“My biggest recommendation to young beginners is to expect things to change. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Expect the unexpected and be able to pivot.
“The world is tough these days,” he added. “But if you find something that really motivates and inspires you, go for it. Be prepared to deviate. It’s okay to change your goals.
More on the SVA BFA Undergraduate Program is available online.