INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Becca Schuchat

Sophie Strauss is a singer-songwriter on the rise, characterized by her lush sound and witty, poetic lyrics. Her newest music video, “Quiz in a Magazine,” is a short, incisive song about sexism and the murky, confusing nature of girlhood. According to the artist:

"I wrote 'Quiz In A Magazine' as a way to capture the internal dialogue that girls and women have as we try to rationalize away the experiences of quotidian sexism and abuse," Sophie tells BUST. "I wanted to get at the little things that we shrug off--or are told we have to shrug off if we want to survive in a world that was not built for us or by us. When Becca told me she had a class full of teenage girls who wanted to make a music video for 'Quiz,' I couldn't think of a better group of people to interpret this song. I had no idea we'd release this video in the immediate wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations, but I gotta tell you I can't think of a better time to put out work that is by girls and for girls. I was fortunate enough to get to Skype with Becca and her class as they workshopped the video and got to see my wildly talented friend Becca guide a room full of 12-14 year old girls who were smart, passionate, funny, and creative. Their drive and vision made it so clear: we don't need the Harvey Weinsteins and the Woody Allens (etc. etc.) when there are so many achingly talented girls, women, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and trans people creating amazing work. We just need to make some damn room for them. So this is for anyone who is tired of silently trying to understand why they are being treated as less than human; this is to say that the dialogue doesn't have to be internal anymore--I see you, I hear you, I am here for you and with you and I love you."

I caught up with Becca Schuchat, the educator and animator who worked with a class of young women to create this video, to ask her about her influences, ambitions as an artist, and, of course, how the "Quiz in a Magazine" video came to life.

Can you talk about how the collaboration with Sophie Strauss came about? What was the conception for the "Quiz in a Magazine" video, and what was that process like?

Becca Schuchat: I reached out to Sophie after getting assigned to lead teach the Teen Music Video class summer art colony at the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York.  I had designed some shirts for Sophie in the past and had obsessively listened to her album while doing that--so I really loved her music and her voice, and I respected her as an artist. I had taught the class two years ago as an [assistant] and I was really excited to learn that this year, the class would only be teen girls!

Before the class started, I touched base with Sophie about which song I was considering choosing for my students and we both thought that "Quiz in a Magazine" deserved a music video made by girls. When I introduced my students to the song on the first day, the reaction to it was mixed. They all thought it was catchy but they had all wanted to make a music video for a song from the Hamilton soundtrack, so there was a little grumbling from them at the beginning, but by the end of the week, they were all singing along.

We started the process by doing a close-reading of the lyrics. I asked for them to draw up associational imagery, and to make mind-maps of things that came to mind from the song. We talked a lot about emotions in the song that were left unsaid, and how to communicate feelings/emotions visually without necessarily telling a straightforward narrative. Eventually, after an exhausting brainstorming session, we came together as a group and the girls began to organize the images they wanted to include in the music video. They loved the idea of protagonist entering the world of a magazine--kind of being consumed by it--and that was our starting place for the concept of the video.

How did you decide to incorporate your students in the process? What was their response to the beginning of the project, and how did working with this explicitly feminist song affect them?

I tried to have my students take the lead in the directing process for the video. They storyboarded and wrote shot lists themselves, and I mainly wanted my part to be more as someone who could share resources and different animation techniques. They definitely warmed up to Sophie--especially after they got to [video-chat] with her and ask her questions about her artistic/songwriting practice.

Within the first few days of the class, we did end up talking about double standards for women and men. The general consensus for my students, I felt, was that they had yet to actually encounter direct sexism. We talked about how sexism has effected them in schools and they were pretty hesitant to share anything from their own lives. Which makes sense; they were a younger group--ages 11 to 13--and I remember from when I was that age, you aren't necessarily thinking about how external forces might shape your perspective on anything. They were very aware of the more concrete aspects of sexism--like the wage gap, or double standards for school uniforms, or how girls' clothing is usually pink while boys' is blue, et cetera--but I think the more abstract aspects of sexism/misogyny hadn't yet made themselves prevalent in their lives. They did really latch onto how sexual some of the magazines that are marketed to girls are--like [Cosmopolitan], which we used as a prop in the video.
You make both documentary and art films. What kind of process goes into making such different kinds of films? Do you hope to direct feature films? What directors, artists, and teachers/mentors have influenced your aesthetic and your filmmaking ethos?

Over the years, I've become less interested in directing movies--although I am currently wrapping up post-production on a short film--and have leaned more into what originally brought me into filmmaking: storyboarding and graphic novels! All of my most recent projects have been short-form comic zines that have focused on the relationships among body, memory, and place.

I had a few incredible teachers at NYU--Zoya Baker, Christine Choy, Pato Hebert, Peter Lucas--who all influenced me differently. Many of their artworks, and the classes they taught, dealt with finding "truth," which has influenced my own artistic processes and pushed me to think about the aesthetics and poetics of subjectivity versus objectivity and how stories are told. As directors go, the most influential movie I ever watched was News From Home by Chantal Akerman, which was earth-shattering to me. I started thinking about the uses of landscape in (European, mostly) art historically and how New From Home complicates that.

A lot of your works use vintage/archival footage and sometimes interweave them with footage that you shoot. Can you talk about this assemblage-ish process? What made you decide to start using older video in your works?

I started using archival footage when I was in high school. Mostly because I wasn't fully satisfied with what I shot on my DVCAM, but I have always made collages in my free time, and using stock footage felt very natural to me. I also am very invested in the idea of sustainable artwork, which in my teaching often involves recycling materials and repurposing costumes, sets etc. and I think that reusing and recutting old films/archival films feels like a healthy work flow for me.

How did you get started making art? Do you consider yourself an artist, a filmmaker, both, or neither?

I have always been drawing--which is my primary medium, these days--since before I could write. I definitely consider myself an artist and depending on the day and how I'm feeling about my future, I sometimes consider myself a filmmaker as well. I think, eventually I will move back into making live-action films, but after film school, I felt very exhausted and wanted to shift my own artwork to something that felt more personal and more handmade. I love the directness of drawing and painting--that I can imagine something and immediately put it down on paper and hold it in my hands.

What would you be doing if you weren't making films?

First off, I hardly get enough free time to work on my own films. The majority of my time is spent teaching animation to ages kindergarten through ninth grade, but if I wasn't an artist? Hard to say. What's nice about being an artist is that you can be so many other things as well. Of the two graphic novels that I am planning, one of them involves climate change and border politics, while the other focuses on Jewish life and cancer research. For both of these, I get to do so much research and investigation about these topics that the title of "artist" seems to drop away. But if I wasn't making anything, I would probably want to go into environmentalism law/politics. Like I said before though, it's hard do say; it is difficult to imagine who I would be without illustration, animation and filmmaking.