A world underwater – Stephanie Johnstone

Since the ancient times, the sea has always fascinated people. As very few dared to embark on journeys across the oceans, many myths flourished. We’ve heard that the sea was rife with sirens and mermaids, sea monsters and krakens, even entire sunken civilisations. We couldn’t find them, but we were pretty sure they were down there.

This magic died with the invention of the deep-sea diving suit. Suddenly, the sea became mundane – the most exciting thing to find was weird fishes and a few shipwrecks.

Stephanie Johnstone’s animation school graduation projects, “A Tale of Aquatic Affairs” and “The Encyclopedia of Aquatic Affairs” place themselves cheekily into this story by asking the question: “what if people lived down there?”

The answer to this question is an underwater, counter-factual universe of clunky yet ingenious solutions to “The Necessary Affairs of Preservation, Employment and Leisure” ranging from sea current-powered grooming brushes for your diving helmet to underwater umbrellas for deflecting incoming schools of fish.

This universe is presented in two ways: “A Tale of Aquatic Affairs” is a traditional short film, and “The Encyclopedia of Aquatic Affairs” is a smooth, pleasant app available for your smartphone.

A Victorian-age underwater community is certainly a rather unique idea. But Stephanie Johnstone likes these kinds of scenarios. “I find it interesting how capable humans are at adapting to chaos. Setting up an illogical landscape allows me to illustrate this perfectly and creates an ideal canvas to develop my stories,” she said.

“The idea [for the Aquatic Affairs universe] was inspired by an image of a ‘Klingert Suit’ – one of the earliest diving suits made of heavy metal and a long breathing tube leading to the surface of the water. I found it so striking because it was so comical yet so inventive and practical at the same time.

“I suddenly thought it would be fascinating if a whole group actually lived in those suits all the time. After I started building up the environment of the world I developed a loose narrative. My intention with this project was more to amuse than to dictate, but I wanted to present a narrative that makes people think about the shelter of our communities and how this influences our fear of ‘difference.’”

Coming from a background in fine arts, Stephanie naturally segued into animation. From creating narratives using a series of drawings, she progressed to basic charcoal stop-motion setups, to finally making use of professional animation equipment at Central Saint Martins in London.

After getting the chance to direct and animate the short film “Foxy” for Channel 4 Random Acts, she knew she was hooked. She decided to apply for the Royal College of Arts animation program, where her fellow animators, as well as other creative minds at school inspired her.

“When I look at the animations created by people I know, I can always see a bit of them in their characters. I’ve been told I react like the characters in some of my animations. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I do think it’s impossible not to put yourself in there when you spend so much time with the characters you animate,” she said.

Stephanie’s fascination for history, myths and quirkiness goes all the way back to her childhood school days, where she would be more captivated by the stories in History class than those of English Literature – explaining the pseudo-historical theme in “Aquatic Affairs.”

But why make an app? “When I came up with the idea for the film ‘A Tale of Aquatic Affairs’ I began having to construct a whole world underwater, thinking of rational ways a human colony could adapt to the impracticalities of an aquatic life,” she said.

“I began thinking up all sorts of crazy gadgets they might use, taking inspiration from 19th century drawings and machine diagrams. Eventually I had enough ideas to compile a small ‘Encyclopedia.’ Building an app was a perfect way to make an animated ‘book’ of sorts – an almost tangible digital object that could be carried around and dipped in and out of, like you would do with a physical book.

“As ‘The Encyclopedia of Aquatic Affairs’ was the first app I’d developed, there was a learning curve. Constraining my designs to a different proportion was the first thing I had to get used to. Not everything that looks good on a 16:9 screen will look good on a small phone or tablet,” she added.

Stephanie wants to continue exploring non-linear interactive storytelling and new technologies. Her goal is to “entertain people with my imagination and build new worlds for audiences to explore,” she said. Her upcoming projects include an interactive animation project for children and a prototype of a location-based game.

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