Many of us succumb to desperation in finding our one true soulmate; but how far down the rabbit hole would you go to seek the love that you crave? In director, writer, and animator Angela Stempel’s beautiful short film Heart Chakra, a young girl falls prey to the promises of a spiritual awakening and a direct path to the man of her dreams – so long as she aligns all her chakras just so, and utilizes the right set of crystals and numerology. But in a dark and unexpected turn, our heroine, Mae, is led astray from the path she believes she is on, and her devotion to horoscopes, spiritual predictions, and a diversion from reality is revealed to be all that much deeper than we realized.
Stempel’s distinct art style flings us into the throes of her film – hyper-stylized in a way that feels immensely personal, Mae’s journey begins while sitting on the toilet. She listens intently via iPad to the words of an online crystal healer, and then on another, separate device trails the voice of something called an “iProphetess,” who relays to Mae that, today, “your soulmate will come into your life unexpectedly. Your life will suddenly gain meaning, a new purpose in love. You must be ready to receive it.” Mae, a girl whose apartment is littered with incense, lucky numbers, and an infinitesimal amount of sparkling rocks that line the walls of an entire closet, not to mention her room itself, takes this advice to more than her heart. She allows it to guide her whole life.
Mae knows exactly what each of her crystals do by heart, and she utilizes a rock called “adularia,” meant to show light on the true self – for Mae, her true self is a tall, curvy, busty beauty. Mae meets with a friend at a local café and finds herself on the path to obsession in seeking out her soulmate in patrons and servers alike, searching for meaning in the menu items all much to the confusion of Mae’s tarot-reading pal. But through the use of her lucky numbers, she allows the universe to guide her as she lands on an unidentifiable beetle crawling on the floor as the answer to her soulmate dilemma. With the use of a little calcite, her beetle boyfriend becomes as swole as Mae dreams her perfect man might be.
She then treats the beetle like her lover, taking it on a picnic date and going out with it for a drive as beetle boy takes the wheel. But with the eerie voice of Mae’s online crystal healer ever-echoing inside her head, the words “join us, join us, join us,” become almost like the suicide pact call of a cult leader, and Mae’s mind is upsettingly laid bare for what it truly is.
The 7-minute film is an interesting and tantalizing critique on not only the lengths we’ll go for love, but on the misguided methods of self-made spirituality. Instead of letting crystals and horoscopes enlighten her life, Mae uses them as a compass, the needle of which she never strays from – even to the ends of the earth. But Mae is only meant to be an empathetic character, her dedication to her crystals a form of passion and enthusiasm as opposed to blind fanaticism. Angela Stempel – a Venezuelan-American artist and film director based in California – combined her own fascination with crystals and astrology with her skills as an animator to create her first narrative film, the path to which was laced in long hours and a love of her craft.
“I’d recently moved to LA from NY and I was confronted by the amount of crystal shops that I encountered in my new city, and also by how modern they were, how much they appealed to me and my generation,” says Stempel, on her choice to center her film on crystals. “They didn’t fit the ‘new age hippie’ stereotype at all, but rather seemed new, like going to an Apple store, with dance beats and young bleach blonde men tending to the counter.” It all fits in well with the atmosphere Stempel creates in Heart Chakra – a mixture of modern tech trendiness as opposed to down-the-earth Bohemian sensibilities, from the “iProphetess” to the spiritually-sensed café Mae visits, like an internet café for astrology lovers.
The film took Stempel about a year and a half to create in full – beginning with the inception of the idea, to subsequent versions of the film done and redone, to the time spent in a lengthy preproduction process. “I wanted to feel confident in the tone of the narrative and the portrayal of my main character before beginning animation,” said Stempel. “It was really important to me to be compassionate towards [Mae], while trying to put her on a humorous and absurd journey.” Voice actors were combed through in a search for the tone Stempel was looking for, eventually landing on Phylicia Fuentes, Stempel’s initial pick who she ended up circling back to after trying out different voices. Once that was done, she was ready to start animating.
After beginning with an animatic – a simple storyboard rough draft of a film – she began creating the linework and backgrounds of the film in a program called TVPaint, with help given to her filling in the color for the scenes. The lush sound effects of the film are courtesy of the SFX artist Stempel worked with, Daniel Eaton. “I gave him some reference from online crystal healing videos I’d seen and he knew exactly how to develop it. The end of the production was mostly mixing and mastering the sound, which was a super fun process because it really feels like the whole films comes together at that stage.”
Looking through Stempel’s past work, you see a portrait emerge of an immensely unique artist with a uniting flair that colors every animated project she’s done. Her garish palettes and bizarre, expressive forms complement a syrupy movement to her characters – a weirdness that feels like it could only come from one individual with a distinct vision. With clips ranging from The New York Times to Adult Swim and Apple Music, it’s clear that Stempel is a major creative force, the love she has for her chosen medium one that does not see itself letting go from her anytime soon. “I’m a huge believer in the power of animation to encapsulate energy, personality and feeling,” she says. “I think there’s something about the act of drawing and translating these feelings onto a visual medium that allows a bit of that magic to infiltrate the animation and hopefully touch the viewer.”
On how she believes animation adds to a film narrative, it’s something to do with freedom of expression creating a deeper empathetic connection. “I think that as a viewer, it is easier to access empathy or to put oneself in the place of the animated characters than it is with real people. Maybe the abstraction of the cartoon is a blanker canvas for me as a viewer to fill with my own interpretation of them and their motivations. Nothing in the world of animation is tied to the real world, and I think that freedom from reality is very alluring as a creator as well. I can transition from a world or rules and physics to one of shapes and colors if it suits what I’m trying to say better.”
Though animation can be a grueling process, it can also be a reflective one for those with a deep love of the medium. From giving her characters personalities to animating their facial features, to picking out the color palettes for reflecting her specific ideas, Stempel appreciated the effort put into seeing her vision become a reality. “If I dare to speak for anyone else, I’d say most of us are in it for seeing our drawings come alive, and that moment after the animation is complete and you watch it all for the first time.”
Heart Chakra was a labor of love from beginning to end, but it won’t be the last you see of Angela Stempel. “Heart Chakra was my first real attempt at narrative, and I’m proud of my effort in that, but I hope to dig deeper and to get better at it in the future.”