In a few short years, Dani Bowman has created an animation empire. She’s the chief creative officer, animator, illustrator, and graphic artist at Powerlight Studios, which she first dreamed up at 11. Recently, ABILITY Magazine’s David Zimmerman chatted with Bowman; her aunt, Sandra Vielma; and uncle, Patrick Eidemiller, over a scrumptious Mediterranean lunch in Los Angeles. David Zimmerman: You’ve been busy.
Dani Bowman: I had four animated shorts premiere at the recent San Diego Comic Con, and I’m working on a fifth animated short, which is going to premiere later this year. It’s called The Adventures of Pelican Pete: A Bird is Born [based on a book by Frances and Hugh Keiser].
Zimmerman: You founded your own studio at the age of 14.
Bowman: I actually came up with the concept of Powerlight Animation Studios when I was 11, and launched it at 14.
Sandra Vielma: When she was 10, she started to draw everything. She used to do animation with books—
Patrick Eidemiller: Stop motion—
Vielma: And one day she came to me with a little flipbook, and said, “I want to publish this. I want to sell this. I want to make money.” It was perfect. Even though the whole thing was handwritten, it was perfect from beginning to end. It had a dedication, it had everything. She stapled it together. I was like, “This is great, Dani, but we can’t publish this.” She turns around and goes, “Nobody ever listens to me.” … My heart broke, and I said, “No, Dani, come here, let’s look at that book. We’ll figure out how to do this.”
Bowman: My original career was illustrating books. Aunt Sandy thought I was kidding when I said I wanted to start my own company.
Vielma: Now she’s got five published books.
Bowman: My company is named after my Nintendo DS user name. It was originally called Volt Girl because I was into the character, Nine Volt, from Nintendo. But then I got bored, and the flashlight commercial just got in my head, so I renamed the company Powerlight.
Eidemiller: She would start with Microsoft Paint and Pixel. She would do simple PowerPoint animation. She’d grab a camera and do stop motion when she was 5 years old.
Bowman: They were originally just my Dani doodles, tiny simplistic stick figures. You don’t need backgrounds or any complicated character design. All you need is a good story.
Eidemiller: She would do the characters, the dialogue, the story in a six-panel format.
Bowman: Usually graphic novel style.
Zimmerman: I was looking on your website, and discovered all these characters that you created.
Bowman: There’s Fleen the Alien, Gemstar, and Hydro the Mako. So far there are 10 different series I’m working on. Gemstar and Friends is one of my animated shorts that was recently released on DVD. Also The Namazu is out on DVD; it has [section on it with] the information about what I’ve done over the years, including Tom Kenny. Do you know Tom Kenny?
Zimmerman: He voices SpongeBob!
Bowman: Right. I also have some videos of Tom doing his SpongeBob Squarepants voice on YouTube in the behind-the-scenes part of The Namazu.
Zimmerman: Do you do any voices for your shorts?
Bowman: Typically for the minor roles, except for Air- Burst: The Soda of Doom, where I did some of the major roles.
Zimmerman: So you do it all—direct, animate, voice, etc?
Bowman: For some projects. For Mr. Raindrop, The Namazu, and Hannah Lost Her Smile, I did the animation. Ray Martino from Inclusion Films directed Hannah. It’s about a little girl who lost her tooth. When I was teaching animation at HEAL Foundation in Jacksonville, FL, he gave me the script.
Zimmerman: I cast the short film Spud for Joey Travolta and Ray Martino years ago. In fact, I saw a picture on your website, and the Spud poster was behind you, and I thought: “Small world!”
Vielma: Mr. Raindrop was a story by a woman who wrote it at 15, but it didn’t get made until she was almost 80. So Mr. Raindrop is meant to look like an old animated short from way back when; it’s done really well and has won a lot of awards. The woman wanted a girl to animate her; that was Dani’s first animated short, from when she was about 15 or 16.
Bowman: The Namazu is based on the 2011 Japanese Tohoku earthquake; it’s also one of my first animated shorts.
Vielma: Dani started animating when she was little; she [was inspired by] playing Airburst, a video game.
Bowman: When I was, like, 11, my uncle downloaded Airburst Extreme, the sequel. The Airburst designers, Aaron and Adam Fothergill, are two brothers from England. I got to meet them there.
Vielma: They had become friends on Facebook a couple years before, when Dani did a fan page for Airburst. They liked it, contacted Dani, and said, “Can we put it on our website?”
Vielma: So last year, she emailed them and asked: “Is it okay if I do this animation, and gave them the whole pitch. And they gave her the rights. Mostly everybody involved, including the voice actors, is in the autism community. Every time Dani meets a big actor, she says, “Would you ever do a voice for me?” They always say “yes,” and she always records it. (laughs)
Zimmerman: How long is The Adventures of Pelican Pete?
Bowman: My animated shorts typically last about six minutes, and it takes about four or five months to make them.
Eidemiller: But when she did The Namazu, she did it in three weeks.
Vielma: She had some help.
Zimmerman: I have a friend who animates for Disney, and he did his own five-minute short. It took him three years, mostly because he was animating for major films, and could only work on his project when he had a week off or day off. He drew everything by hand.
Eidemiller: That’s time-intensive.
Bowman: CG animation is not so time-intensive as 2D. It also conserves trees.
Zimmerman: You teach for Inclusion Films?
Bowman: I teach animation at their camp. So far I’ve been to five of them.
Zimmerman: Do you animate on your computer?
Bowman: Typically on my tablet. I use Toon Boom Studio to do most of it. I know a little bit of Autodesk Maya, but it uses a lot of data, so when I get a better computer, then I can use it to do models. Someday I’ll include 3D effects in my 2D animation.
Zimmerman: So this is one of your novels?
Vielma: Yeah, these are all hers.
Bowman: All the books I illustrated are published.
Eidemiller: That’s her adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which she did when she was 15 or 16. She did it in a couple of weeks with her original characters.
Zimmerman: You wrote the text?
Bowman: More like dialogue.
Eidemiller: It has Dani-isms in it.
Bowman: A Dani-ism is a word that’s considered to be incorrect—
Zimmerman: Yet by putting your own stamp on it, it becomes correct for you?
Bowman: That’s right.The first actual book I published was Danny and Goliath, which took six hours.
Vielma: She didn’t do the dialogue or layout on that one, but she did all the art.
Zimmerman: Beautiful. Were you at Inclusion Films at that time?
Vielma: Not at that point.
Zimmerman: So he just found you?
Vielma: After we realized how talented she was, we wanted to tell everybody, and then one of Patrick’s friends—
Eidemiller: was at a dinner party and he said, “What do you do?” At that point I’d left the company I was working for, and was focused on getting Dani going. When I told him about her, he said, “You’ve got to talk to Joey.” And we were like, “Joey Who?” He said, “Joey Travolta. He and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Here’s his phone number.”
Vielma: So we set up a meeting and Dani did a presentation for Joey.
Bowman: I got to show him my whole portfolio.
Eidemiller: I have a friend from college and he had a friend named, Robert Kirkland, who has a production company in LA. In World War II England, Kirkland’s aunt helped facilitate The Underground. So my friend was talking to him about trying to get his aunt’s story produced, and with Kirkland it was the same old, “What do you do?” “What do you do?” thing, and he said, “Well, I’m just starting up an animation production group. I’m bringing in a guy from Chicago.”
Eidemiller: So we started thinking about doing something together.
Bowman: I did a pitch for my animation company.
Vielma: And we took her to Joey, who was blown away. He goes, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything that I could do for you, because you guys have everything.” And Dani goes, “Yeah, I know, but what can we do for you?” (laughs) So he started giving her little projects to do. Then he asked her to teach animation.
Zimmerman: Do you enjoy it?
Bowman: I do.
Zimmerman: What do you like about it?
Bowman: My students and the way they express themselves through animation.
Vielma: She tells them: “If I could do it, then you guys can do it.”
Eidemiller: These are her original scripts, and each one of has a little storyboard about what the series is. She has 640 original characters. Each one of those series has about 10 major characters, and about 20 to 30 characters total.
For many years, Dani was mostly non-communicative. Yet you would pick up a piece of paper with all this art on it and say, “What’s this?” and she would go, “This is Fleen’s world. This is Fleen’s planet. This is the atmosphere. This is all the life forms.” She’d go on for 30 minutes.
Vielma: And there was no hesitation, no speech delay, none of the communication struggles. All gone when she was telling her stories. It’s one of these really weird dichotomies of autism. Some kids with autism who are nonverbal can sing. Dani has a friend who’s mute but writes beautiful poetry.
Zimmerman: So how do you focus?
Bowman: When a series gets into my head, I write things down, and come up with characters. I collect them all together and recombine.
Eidemiller: She’s able to really focus. Gnomeo and Juliet is an example. It was a CG film that she had. It’s about two gnomes—basically Romeo and Juliet—except with the white gnomes and—
Bowman: I threw in the red gnomes.
Eidemiller: She wrote 45 pages of the sequel in two hours. Just sat down and started banging the thing out.
Zimmerman: Does anything get in your way ever?
Bowman: School stuff.
Zimmerman: (laughs) Define “school stuff.”
Bowman: High school, college. I graduated high school with a 4.0.
Vielma: We always stress, “School, school, school, that’s the most important thing…” And Dani says, “But school’s getting in the way of my career!”
Bowman: I’m finishing my sophomore year at Glendale Community College. I just finished a Design 2 class, and now I’m waiting for the finals of a web design, composition and reading classes. I’m transferring to Woodbury University in Burbank during my junior year.
Vielma: It’s a really good school for animation and business. She’s been working with the chair of animation, Dori Littell-Herrick, who took Dani under her wing.
Zimmerman: I love it! When I say Dani Bowman, what comes up for you?
Bowman: I think: highly optimistic animator who lives in an enchanted world that I create and it’s still expanding.
Zimmerman: I love that! Listening to you makes me feel empowered. I have a few projects in my head and sometimes I run into roadblocks. So I’m thankful to be here with you because you’re teaching me… I notice that you also do some public speaking. How do you like that?
Bowman: I like it. It’s people’s worst fear, but I wasn’t afraid of it.
Vielma: Dani’s taken a lot of public-speaking classes in college and so on. She practices and has it down.
Bowman: I was a keynote speaker back at the last year’s OCALICON formed by the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence in Columbus, OH.
Zimmerman: So you give speeches around the country?
Bowman: And outside the country, too: I did the runway and autism event in London. Anna Kennedy nominated me as one of the first American adults with autism to represent the US. They flew us out during London Fashion Week, and there was a fundraiser to raise awareness for people with autism.
Zimmerman: How was it to be at the Temple Grandin and Friends benefit in LA recently?
Bowman: It was wonderful. I first had lunch with Dr. Grandin at the Arts of Autism event.
Zimmerman: For some people, years go by while they say, “I want to do this or that,” but you pick up the pen and do it now.
Bowman: That’s right.
Vielma: Most kids on the autism spectrum are fearless. They don’t understand that there are normal blocks in the world. It’s like when she told me she wanted to start her own company. And I was like, “People don’t start their own company.” I had just retired from my own company. Patrick had his own company. I used to own a travel agency [booking trips] for Patrick’s company at that time. So Dani thought, “You guys have your own companies, it’s natural for people to have their own companies, and I want a company, too.” She doesn’t understand the “why not.” She’s just like, “This is what I want and I’m gonna get it.”
Zimmerman: I’m gonna throw another word out, and you tell me what your first thought: “Autism.”
Bowman: I think of it as a disability, but there’s also the positive side, the ability. Unfortunately, most adults on the autism spectrum are underemployed and many live in poverty.
Zimmerman: You’re doing a lot better than most people I know, with or without autism.
Bowman: The most important thing is social skills. Nobody succeeds with academics alone. They must also have the social skills to have people work with them on their projects.
Zimmerman: Do you compose the scores for your projects?
Bowman: I’ve done some musical scores. I did the original score for my recent PSA, “Autism, We Are One.”
Vielma: It’s about the different groups within the autism community, including Autism Speaks, the Vaxxers (those against vaccination), the advocates… The PSA said, “Stop it. We just need jobs. Stop it.”
Eidemiller: If you look at each person with a disability, it’s how do you enable them to get whatever they need? Support them as they go forward, and help them be successful. At the end of the day, people need a fulfilling life, and a fulfilling career. The rest is immaterial.
Zimmerman: What’s your biggest dream?
Bowman: To have a husband and kids, to be as successful as I can be, and to change the world’s perception of autism.