Robert Carnilius, a graduate student in the Cinema Art + Science Department, has already made a name for himself in the Chicago filmmaking community with his various short films tackling topics such as LGBTQ, race and
His initial short film, “Stay Positive”—which tells the story of a teen coming to terms with his HIV-positive status—gave
Carnilius his first film festival experience, earning screenings at seven different festivals throughout 2013, including The Provincetown International Film Festival. His next film, “Jaspa’ Jenkins,” which deals with racial discrimination, was selected to be showcased at the Chicago International Film Festival and was a Student Academy Awards finalist.
Carnilius was one of 12 filmmakers in 2014 to receive a grant from Chicago Filmmakers, a local media arts organization, through the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund, allowing him to embark on his latest project, “McTucky Fried High,” an animated web series that addresses LGBTQ issues through characters portrayed as food items free from racially defined identities. Carnilius was also one of 15 Columbia students to win a Weisman Award this year, receiving an additional $2,000 to put toward the series.
The Chronicle spoke with Carnilius about his latest project, his experience in activism and his thoughts on diversity in the media.
THE CHRONICLE: Where did you find inspiration for “McTucky Fried High”?
RoBert Carnilius: I was in my Motion Graphics I class and we had an assignment to make a kind of club. I saw a water bottle and I just thought, “Wouldn’t that be interesting to have a high school full of all these different food characters and then kind of tie it into trying to be something you’re not?” That day, I literally sat down and sketched out all the characters. I didn’t know what to do with them at first, but they were so alive, and I knew some of them were gay and lesbian. I sat on them for a while and then a year later, I ended up applying for the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund. I’ve
always been education-focused and social issue-oriented in my films, so it seemed like a perfect match. I have these great characters, I want to do something with them and they’re looking for content that’s educational. Let’s bring this together.
What are some of the major issues explored in the web series?
Some of the issues are coming out and bullying—bullying is a big one. The next episode deals with bullying and it’ll be really exciting. Other issues include body image issues, sexting and how that affects things when different people and technologies leak or hack into your phones. The last is gender identity and how that plays out in a high school setting.
Have you experienced any of the issues you address in the web series?
Yeah, everybody has to come out. I definitely dealt with that. Body image issues, not necessarily the way that it’s dealt with in this series, but being an African-American growing up in a predominantly white school and how it affected my self-esteem, not looking like the people that other guys are attracted to. You know, the surfer guy with the straight blonde hair and the tan skin. Those are issues that I dealt with, and it’s sad to see that teens today are still dealing with them. The great thing about having different characters is that it’s not just one perspective; it’s different perspectives, so I get to go outside of myself.
Are there any advantages to using food as characters instead of people?
You can hear the different actors, but you don’t see race or anything like that in it. Although we will be talking about that, it’s not something that would be immediately apparent. How and why would food discriminate against other types of food? Hopefully [we can] use this as a smaller sample of applying that to humans. Why do we separate ourselves? We’re all human.
When it comes to cartoons, there seems to be an absence of LGBTQ characters. Why do you think that is?
I think, especially in mainstream media, there are a lot of voices [playing] into what gets made. A lot of different [stations] will not air content with gay or lesbian characters. Even in “Sailor Moon,” there are characters whose gender would change and there are two lesbian characters. For the dubbed American version they made them cousins, but even as a kid, you could see that these two characters are more than just cousins—they had an intimate relationship. But when you get to that level, there’s a lot of money being put into this and marketing and advertisements. People appeal to the lowest common denominator. I think that ends up hurting that diversity and real conversations that could be happening.
Do you think the LGBTQ community is under-represented in media?
Oh gosh, yeah. This year, Benedict Cumberbatch was portraying a gay man, and you see straight actors playing gay roles and getting recognition for it. Gay actors can play gay or straight [roles] and they’re not getting the same recognition. At heart, it’s a deeper, cultural thing and our media reflects that a lot of the time. Hopefully this is helping that shift, and that’s the wave that I want to be a part of.
A lot of your work involves bringing social issues to light. How does filmmaking allow you to do that?
At one point in my life, I was debating which direction to go into because I love so many different things. The reason I chose film was because it was able to incorporate all of the things that I love doing, whether it’s live action and I get to write the story and design the graphics around it, or animation where I get to illustrate the characters and have animators animate them. Film incorporates so many of the things that I already love doing, and behind that I have that passion [for activism]. I really do want to help drive social change. The great thing about film is that it takes many different formats and I get to dabble in those different things and different areas and see what works with the message I’m trying to get.
Did you always know you would be interested in activism?
It wasn’t until being older and being in a community that wasn’t very supportive. Being in that situation really brought me out to realize who I was and what I believed in and why I fought for these things. When you’re feeling like the only gay person or the only black person and dealing with homophobia and racism, those things push you into a corner. Sometimes [those things] break you down, but sometimes they really buff you out and you can really see who you are as a person.