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Sky Shields, creator of SYFY's 'Caught!' short, on the importance of speculative fiction & a Black experience that's 'just there'
In honor of Black History Month 2021, SYFY and Tongal, a global community of content creators, invited six Black animators and filmmakers to create video shorts that represent their experiences through the lens of science fiction and fantasy.
Starting Feb. 1, these six shorts will premiere on the SYFY network and be posted on SYFY's Instagram and Twitter handles throughout the month — and beyond. To further celebrate these original shorts, SYFY WIRE got in touch with the creators in order to break down their work and take a closer look at what inspires them. Next up is Sky Shields, creator of "Caught!" which explores Shields' childhood fear of the dark and the endless possibilities of a blank canvas.
Tell us about yourself!
Hi there! I'm Sky. I'm an artist/director/writer who works mostly in 2D and 3D animation and motion design. I'm a fan of speculative fiction, foreign languages, philosophy of science, mathematics, and thorny questions in philosophy.
Tell us about your piece, "Caught!" What inspired you and what does it mean to you?
I wanted to pay a little homage to my relationship with the dark as a little kid. Dark rooms, dark mirrors, and blank paper all have the same effect I think, in that they're always asking to be filled with whatever happens to spill out of your subconscious.
What about this piece makes it a reflection of yourself and your love of genre?
Growing up we were always a very science and sci-fi oriented household. My father was an engineer working on spacecraft power systems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Altadena where we lived, and we watched Star Trek every week as a family fairly religiously. Both of my parents kept all of their books on the shelves where we could find them, so I was reading things like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land at age 8. I used to stay up late at night to watch the original Doctor Who and vividly recall my father deciding that we weren't real cultured sci-fi fans if we hadn't watched The Day The Earth Stood Still and Them! (with the giant ants). Consequently, I had a lot of this sort of imagery running through my head whenever the lights went out, and I wanted to sort of illustrate that.
What and/or who inspired you to become an artist?
I went to an arts magnet high school where you showed your affection by drawing in each other's sketchbooks (everybody carried a sketchbook). The classes and extra-curricular activities gave me a lot of outlets, from writing, drawing, and painting to sculpture and 3D modeling. Funny enough, I took a rather long detour (into research and politics) and only got back into animation again later via some scientific visualizations that I was working on. Around that time, I started making videos for various record labels as a way to hone my skills, because the quick turnarounds on those projects really forced me to not second guess myself and get used to just making the first crazy thing that came off the top of my head. My plan has always been to bring that back to some science documentary work as well as some longer-form sci-fi, but all of that is still in the works.
What do you love about genre? Tell us about some of your favorite works and why you love them. (Meaning: Please feel free to gush about your fandom and your nerdiest loves.)
I've always been a fan of things that fall somewhere on the spectrum of thought-provoking to mind-bending. Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren and Greg Bear's "Petra" were huge influences when I was younger. I loved the idea that reality could be this fragile or malleable thing. I found both of those in a giant cache of used paperback books that my parents bought me (six paper grocery bags full) when I was 12 or so and spending way too much money keeping up with my reading habits. Those books were a treasure trove peppered with things that I arguably shouldn't have been reading at that age but I'm so very glad I did.
In general, I think speculative fiction is really important for us as a species. Particularly the sort that serves as a testing ground for unique thought experiments about culture, science, society, and human nature. Whether you're extrapolating trends into the future or transposing the present into a parallel world, you're giving your audience a way to explore concepts and ideas and their ramifications, sort of in vivo.
Recently, I've been on a real hunt for people who do weird fiction or cosmic horror really well. By really well, I mean people who can use language to reproduce things that by their nature defy reification — the way explaining a dream or a psychedelic trip seems so difficult right afterward, even though you know you just experienced it. There's a sort of religious transcendence in that — tinged with equal parts beauty, majesty, and terror — that I enjoy. Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation most recently did that for me.
When was the first time you remember seeing Black representation in the fantasy/sci-fi genre space? Was it a show or movie? A specific creator?
I mean, my brother and I both ran around the house with banana clips stuck on our faces, so I need to give Geordi Laforge some serious credit. But I remember most how excited I was to see the book covers for Octavia Butler's books. I remember the Wild Seed cover art by Wayne Barlowe and all of the John Jude Palencar covers of Butler books (Mind of My Mind, Dawn, Parable of the Sower) that showed these surreal and mysterious Black people as shape shifters and aliens that resonated with me. And then the content of her books blew me away, the way she seemed to effortlessly experiment with questions of social order, and the complex morality of race, gender, and sexuality in a way that subverted standard tropes in science fiction. It felt like a true merger of the world I knew (she attended high school with my mother) and the worlds I imagined.
Old issues of the short-lived Milestone Comics imprint were also an amazing discovery for me. Hardware, Blood Syndicate, Icon, and Static were all sort of a revelation and I wish those had continued in their original form. Blood Syndicate dealt with gangs and drugs in an ethically nuanced way that you never saw in media at the time, but which mirrored the world around me. Static was a Black character with a white sidekick buddy, which even at the time struck me as a wonderful inversion.
What still needs to happen to make you feel as though Black experiences and stories are truly represented in genre?
More and more stories where the Black experience is just there, and not explained. I recently saw the Toni Morrison documentary The Pieces I Am and was struck by her decision to not explain any aspect of the Black experience in her books. In so much literature you see the main character as a proxy for a white male reader, and the result is that everything that isn't white or male gets explained to within an inch of its life, as this alien thing. I'd love to see more works where Black people can just be, and against that backdrop be as casually weird and idiosyncratic as we like: be an alien; be morally compromised; be occult; probe the limits of consensus reality. I feel like the energy saved on explaining ourselves can be invested in simply pioneering.
Watch "Caught!" below and find more of Sky Shields' work on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Check out it and other creators' shorts on the SYFY network and on our YouTube as they premiere throughout Black History Month.