Redirecting career path pays big dividends for Kenan Fellow

Fresh out of high school, Gavin Lankford headed to UNC-Chapel Hill with every intention of majoring in chemistry and then applying to medical school. But after his third year at North Carolina’s flagship university, he knew medicine wasn’t for him.

“I made the safe choice at first. It wasn't so much that I wanted to be a doctor but there was a predictable, laid-out plan to get there and art was scary,” recalls Lankford, who grew up in Rocky Mount.

“I think I stuck with science for so long because I didn’t want my parents to be upset or disappointed. But they knew I wasn’t passionate about it.”

Art won out in the end, specifically a passion for animation sparked by countless hours of watching Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli movies as a boy.

Lankford’s decision to redirect his career path to UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking is paying big dividends these days.

After he graduated with a BFA in Film Animation last May, he spent the summer in Boston as a Kenan Fellow at WGBH, a preeminent public broadcasting network. The fellowship, provided by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at UNCSA, is part of the Institute’s Career Pathways Initiative to broaden opportunities for sustainable careers in the arts.

Now, with a decision by PBS to pick up the new children’s show he helped pilot at WGBH, there’s a good chance Lankford will stay on at the studios. That’s enough to make any parent proud.

“We are all over the moon by the news that PBS wants to green-light the series,” says Dorothea Gillim, an Emmy Award-winning Executive Producer at WGBH who worked with Lankford on the pilot for “Molly of Denali.” The show highlights the adventures of a 10-year-old girl whose parents run a popular trading post in the Denali area of Alaska. It is the first major animated kids’ show featuring Native American lead characters.

“We were all on the edge of our seats.”

When Lankford’s fellowship ended in August, WGBH temporarily extended his employment pending word on the pilot. Now he is a top candidate for the job of production assistant on the “Molly” team.

“We have people on staff who have worked here for 20-plus years who started as an intern,” Gillim says. “The great thing about the fellowship is that it really gives us an opportunity to know the intern and vice-versa. So you have this no-pressure period where you can really get a sense of whether they will be the right fit.”

Lankford says he’d love to put down roots in Boston for a while and work in television animation at WGBH, the nation’s largest producer of PBS content for TV and the Web, including Masterpiece, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Nova, Arthur and more than a dozen other series.

“Now I know exactly what I am capable of and what is expected of me in a professional environment,” says Lankford, 28, who came to the station knowing a lot about the creative side of animation but not so much the production side.

“I learned about scheduling and budgeting and organizing and what’s really important in production. It has given me a much more in-depth idea of what it takes to be in the industry, and a much more structured knowledge of the pipeline and the process for creating something.”

Lankford arrived at WGBH during the animatics review phase of “Molly” and found it challenging not to simply fix the problems identified by his team. That was the job of the production house, he explained. His team’s job was to review the animatics and effectively communicate the changes it wanted.

“I was so used to just fixing it myself, because they were always my own projects. I wasn’t used to working with lots of people and lots of moving parts and having to go through the process,” he says.

“The project itself was really fun, but my favorite part was working with the other producers and professionals at WGBH and learning from them and picking their brains.”

Gillim was most impressed by the initiative Lankford took during the fellowship. One of his jobs was to revise the show’s bible, the document that will serve as the blueprint for writers on “Molly.”

“It includes everything you need to know about the series. We were also at this point where we were preparing schedules and budgets should PBS decide they want to do the series,” Gillim explained. “It involved 40 half-hours — this monster schedule. It looks like an art project. He did a beautiful job.”

The new series is scheduled to launch in 2018.

November 09, 2017