After you’ve seen animation from Brooklyn’s Mighty Oak—a team of three that uses intricate hand-made art objects to make imaginative stop motion spots, as well as hand drawn animation with a notable sense of play—everything else you see out there looks, comparatively, kind of lame. Clever and nuanced, Mighty Oak animation creates visuals you want to watch repeatedly just to catch the tiny details you probably missed the first time around. Take, for example, a Giphy that loops a plant sprouting from a woman’s head; as she bats her eyes, the sprout grows in tandem with each blink. It’s a short loop, recorded slowly, in real time, as the plant grows. For something that has been viewed over 2.9 Million times, the small vase used to make it sits rather unassumingly in Mighty Oak’s office.
Quirky items like this vase, used for making their singular animations, abound in Mighty Oak’s Cobble Hill office and studio. “This neighborhood gives away amazing stuff,” says Jess Peterson, Mighty Oak’s CEO and Creative Producer. Much of what furnishes their self-built home came from local gems discovered throughout the city. It’s certainly befitting of an animation shop whose name alludes to big things arising from the tiniest beginnings. Along with Jess Peterson, Michaela Olsen and Emily Collins are the trio behind Mighty Oak, a full-service, award-winning content studio that works primarily with animation, and that launched officially in May. In almost no time, they have built up incredibly high level clientele and projects, including branding and whiteboard animation for The New York Times’s education program, social media for big, sexy brands like Perrier, animation for a documentary about female founders, the Hatch Stories, and—last but very much not least—work they did with Dream, Girl landed them invites to The White House and The Paris Theater. Mighty Oak’s output shines in a borough chock-full of self-identified storytellers.
Collins and Olsen both attended Rhode Island School of Design and often tag team their creative roles. “Michaela and I are both animation directors, so we play off each other’s ideas a lot and juggle jobs and roles between us,” explains Collins, who worked with Peterson at the Children’s Museum, where Peterson headed up communications. On a storytelling and conceptual level, Peterson buoys projects with her infectious energy; and separately, she spearheads Mighty Oak business, development, and communications. Combined—their skills, synchronistic connections, and creative spirits—their union seems to have been written in the stars.
“It feels like we have so much to do, to say we’ve blown up is still not real,” Peterson explains. “Sometimes you stop and think ‘this is cool’ but you’ve gotta keep going. You don’t have time. We’re excited about the progress we’ve made, but there are so many people we aspire to be like.” Which is to say, their ambition is strong, and growing; it’s all very New York.
Despite the influx of client projects, Collins says their goal is to focus on original works. It’s there where Mighty Oak’s razor sharp storytelling and perspective shines, such as in an upcoming documentary about a clown named Chula, who brings laughter to refugee camps and afflicted areas, and another project titled Under Covers that uses stop motion animation, forced-perspective sets, and handmade puppets to explore our most intimate space: the bedroom.
Bucking trend, Mighty Oak doesn’t shy away from identifying as a woman-run studio. “There is a variety of different reasons we celebrate women; because obviously we are women, and are working in industries between the animation world and the world of film where there is a smaller percentage of women gaining recognition as directors, and producers,” Collins explains. Their work, too, highlights female founders and regularly celebrates women-run businesses—though it’s more nuanced than simply lauding Girl Power: they want to emphasize that, no matter how we identify, we’re all just people. “To be a woman doesn’t mean you only like feminine products,” says Jess. “We’re excited to be in a space where we can support other women’s voices, and show how, when we all work together, it works—but we’re not just doing work for women.”
Yet the fact remains: there is a dearth of women in animation. Olsen feels that despite progress it’s “certainly a boys club.” She’s quick to rattle alarming statistics, such as how Cartoon Network has only had two female directors. But their solution to this problem does not include being antagonistic toward men. “I don’t think it’s intentional that guys hire other guys, but it’s who they know, who they relate to,” Jess explains—and, similarly, “What I think is nice is that when we get to bring in other women who share our point of view or style, it’s nice that there’s a certain aesthetic or point of view we all relate to.”
“We’re excited to be in a space where we can support other women’s voices, and show how, when we all work together, it works.”
Ultimately, they’re not aiming to disband the boys club; instead they want to inject more female and non-binary voices into the playing field. “Similar to the boys club, if we don’t actively pursue more people of color, or people who identify as women, in a more comfortable way, then they don’t get the jobs. And that’s really important to us, too,” Jess explains. It’s this open and inclusive approach that will create fundamental change in the storytelling landscape, from the ground up, they believe.
So, what’s next? The girls can’t disclose much, but one project involves Madame Gandhi, aka Kiran Gandhi, the badass MIA drummer who hit viral heights by free-bleeding during the 2015 London Marathon. There’s also a big future in store for Hatch Stories, which may see syndication with an editorial partner. It’s all very hush-hush and in line with the humble, business-oriented ethos of Mighty Oak.
For now, they’ll grow and ride the synergy of Brooklyn’s entrepreneurial community, which is another story they hope to tell one day. “I’m a big music nerd and watch all these documentaries on the history of punk and stuff,” says Peterson. “I told the director of Dream, Girl how one day there’s gonna be some story about the lady Founder movement that’s happening.”
I said it sounds like something that could happen sooner than later, to which Jess naturally replied, “We should do it!”
Images by Jane Bruce