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ODU Senior Made Award-Winning Animated Short as a Tribute to Her Late Friend

By Sam McDonald

Old Dominion University student Gabrielle Dempsey can attest to the healing power of art.

A senior cinema and TV production major, Dempsey made an emotionally rich animated short film titled "The Boy Who Belonged to the Water" to examine her feelings about the sudden loss of a young friend last year.

"The grieving process was very new to me," Dempsey said. "I think the process of sketching everything out and drawing everything and allowing myself to have that artistic expression through animation helped me heal in a way.

"It took me through a lot of emotions while making the short film because it was so close to my heart. He was such a great friend and such an amazing person."

Dempsey doesn't share the circumstances of her friend's death. But through her art, she explores this painful loss with insight and empathy.

The film's colorful, minimalist animation style treats a heavy subject with care. Her narration is calm and direct. The soundtrack — an instrumental piece by Nicholas Britell called "Agape" from the feature film "If Beale Street Could Talk" — sets a mood of quiet contemplation.

Making "The Boy Who Belonged to the Water" was deeply meaningful for Dempsey. The film has also connected with audiences. At last month's Monarch Short Film Festival at ODU, it won Dempsey three awards: Best Short Animation, Best Student Film, and Audience Favorite.

"Gabrielle's 'The Boy Who Belonged to the Water' captivated the judges and audience of the Monarch Short Film Festival, showing beautiful artistry and craftsmanship in creating her animation film," wrote ODU Senior Lecturer Carolina Conte, "and perhaps even more so, sharing with us a powerful story, masterfully written and narrated by her."

Thinking back on the ceremony, Dempsey said her triple win caught her off guard. "I didn't know what to say. We were supposed to, like, give a speech," she said. "I was just in shock. It was exciting, though. I can say I was genuinely surprised."

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Dempsey.

What was the genesis of "The Boy Who Belonged to the Water"?

My animation professor, Priya Vashist, suggested that I submit some of my films, so I decided to work on another animation project to submit for the festival. I wanted to do a tribute to one of my good friends who had passed away. I started animating it and drawing everything. I came up with the narration of it after I finished animating. That was the idea behind it. I did everything — everything except for the soundtrack, of course ... I made it over the course of a week. I would work on it a couple of days, then take breaks just to reflect on why I was making it and on my friend and our friendship.

Who or what influenced your animation style?

Honestly, I can't say anyone famous. It was my mom and dad. They both sketch a lot. When I was younger, they would always be sketching on paper. My dad would help me sketch when I had a big school project to do. Also, my sisters are both artists. They all kind of inspired me in that way.

Why did you decide to attend Old Dominion University?

Honestly, I'm a Christian. I felt like God led me here. And my mom encouraged it. I went to college fairs and every time I saw ODU's table and met the same woman — like 3 or 4 times. I applied and got in and I got a scholarship, which always helps with making decisions. So, I feel like all those things kind of led up to it. Also, we got to tour the school in 2020, when COVID had just hit. There was nobody on campus, but one of the faculty made time for us and gave us a personal tour. I was like, oh, yeah, I'm going here.

What do you want to do after graduation?

I am a cinema and TV production major with minor in psychology. With my degree, I want to go into film and be a director or combine film and psychology in a way. I feel like psychology and film go hand in hand. For people to understand your work, you have to understand what they might be thinking when they're watching your film. I feel like art helps people heal. Incorporating art and sciences together, especially psychology, and dealing with people's mental states, is a really beneficial thing. It helps people with mental health. Art really helps in all walks of life.

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