SU senior’s imagination immerses herself and others in created worlds

SU senior's imagination immerses others in alternate worlds

Justina Hnatowicz finds growth and achievement in her unexpected passion for animation.
Published: April 3, 2019
Justina Hnatowicz
SU Senior Justina Hnatowicz sits in the animation studio in Shaffer Art Center.

Justina Hnatowicz has slept overnight in the lab many times during her college career. The Syracuse University senior says that is not uncommon, as it is the nature of her craft. Her overnight venture came as she developed the story of the pudgy bird during her junior year and dedicated her entire semester on the project until it was perfected.

What started as an animation about an eggplant with wings slowly turned into one about a bird who can’t fly, and viewers across the country have fallen in love with the chubby creature.

It was worth it, as her dedication led her to an award-winning animation that has been selected for eight film festivals across the nation, winning awards at six of them.

Justina Hnatowicz's award winning film, Burdie

The animation world was an unexpected discovery for Hnatowicz. During her sophomore year, she found herself sitting in the dark computer lab facing the giant desktop. Hnatowicz began to cry. It was her first animation class, but she felt as if the gates of heaven had opened. She fell in love with animation, marching to the advising office when it was over in hopes to transfer. Unfortunately, it was too late for Hnatowicz to switch, so she settled for declaring an animation minor.

Hnatowicz’s college career started with a dream to be on CNN after completing a Broadcast and Digital Journalism major at Newhouse. After only a week into classes that plan changed to an Advertising degree with a focus in art direction, which is what she will be graduating with this May. She didn’t expect her major to change yet again when she took that class. By that point Hnatowicz was just looking for a fun minor. She had always loved art, making animation seem like a natural fit.

As a young girl, Justina could often be found in the basement of her Poconos home, building her own world. She constructed play houses out of cut-up shoes and boxes and brought erasers to life by drawing faces on them. Her Legos littered the floors.

The senior still creates these worlds, making sure to place each piece of clutter in the right spot. But this time, she does it on her computer. From the characters to their stories, Hnatowicz says enjoys creating the world from scratch and the power of telling such stories.

Justina Hnatowicz's project, Bomba's Workstation
Justina Hnatowicz's 3D project modeled after Bomba's Workstation

From the moment she finishes her other work, until after most go to sleep, Hnatowicz stays in the computer lab or hunched over her barely functioning laptop. To her, animation is not work. Rather, it is a passion and she dedicates her nights to it the way other people watch TV.

“Justina really has the confidence to dive in and solve problems efficiently,” says Heath Hanlin, Associate Professor of Computer Art and Animation. “I think where she may have an edge is that she is highly discerning in terms of coming up with ideas that are familiar enough to not alienate general audiences, but fresh enough to not seem derivative.”

Hnatowicz has grown a lot from the “cripplingly, debilitatingly, shy” person she says she was when she began her time at Syracuse. She largely attributes her personal growth to throwing herself into her newfound love of animation, meeting her current boyfriend, and receiving support from her freshman year roommate, Amanda Greiner.

“I have seen Justina get more comfortable and confident in what she does and what she wants,” says Greiner. She explains that Hnatowicz’s ambition is not new, but over the years, Greiner has seen her confidence skyrocket, which she attributes to pursuing the things she loves.

Hnatowicz has her eyes on Pixar, Disney, or DreamWorks in the future, which both Greiner and Heath Hanlin are confident she will reach.

Justina Hnatowicz at the PA Indie Film Festival
Justina Hnatowicz at The Pennsylvania Indie Shorts Film Festival with a stuffed animal of the main character, Burdie, from the award winning film.

“I think she has the people skills, temperament, and determination to direct large feature animation projects, and I would love to see her find her way to that opportunity,” says Hanlin. The animation industry was heavily male dominated when Hanlin entered, but he explains that is rapidly changing.  “There’s never been a better time for women in this field and things will only get better with natural leaders like Justina entering the professional world.”

Hnatowicz imagines herself owning her own studio, allowing her to keep the creative autonomy that is hard to find in the larger studio environment. In the shorter term, she does not have a plan for after graduation, and she is happy with simply “floating through.” All she knows is that there is a possibility of moving to the West Coast – even if that means working at a grocery store, she jokes.

Self-described as someone who gets bored quickly, Hnatowicz says aspirations do not rest in the familiar. She wants to expand her animation skills by learning visual effects (think explosions in the Marvel movies). She wants to create an Etsy shop to sell the pins she taught herself to make. She has made about one hundred thus far. Eventually, she wants to publish the novel she began in eighth grade. Her self-published copy currently sits on her Syracuse bedroom bookshelf as a daily reminder and motivation.

For now, Hnatowicz remains in that dingy computer lab, dreaming of the day she gets her own desk with a three-monitor super computer, or at least one that hasn’t been destroyed by her animation software. When that day comes, Hnatowicz is already planning the little Easter eggs around her blockbuster films as a tribute to Burdie.