As the students of the Ringling College of Art and Design  class of 2017–18 prepared to take their first steps into their new futures, they paused for one more lesson—this time from Emmy-nominated commencement speaker Sidney Clifton. Producer, development executive, voice director and, currently, creative recruiter for Riot Games—and no stranger to the Ringling College campus, where she’s sought talent and mentored for more than five years—Clifton’s credits include everything from TV and comic books to video games and music, working with names as acclaimed and varied as Dr. Maya Angelou, Ringo Starr, BB King, Tyler Perry and Rob Zombie. Most recently, she has been working with comic book icon Stan Lee as a producer of the Black Panther motion comics. But even as she watches another successful project take shape, Clifton makes time to help mold the minds of the next generation.

Why did you want to take the time to speak with these students before they take the next step?  Sidney Clifton:   I love the school’s commitment to the students, beyond just their craft, and that’s really important to me. As an artist and a lover of artists, I think it’s important for the students to understand what the artist life means. It’s about the way that they approach their lives, and the world, what their responsibility is as an artist on the planet, and that is the crux of my message.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

What is that responsibility? Distilling it down to its basic tenets: leaving the world better than how you found it. And as an artist some of the time you do that visually, some of the time you do that through your craft, often you do that just as a human who recognizes the value of other humans. I don’t want to be quoting Avatar, but it’s like, “I see you, as a person. I see you, I value you, I understand that you have a story that may not be like mine, but we are still equally valuable.” Artists are able to do that and artists are responsible to do that, wherever they are, places large and small.

As a recruiter, what’s your professional impression of the school? Ringling is one of the top art colleges in this country. The students who come here have a passion for what it is they are doing. They are driven by the art, the passion for the art, but also they really seem to have an openness to learning new stuff, an openness to being wrong, an openness to asking questions, a lack of fear of failure because they know they’ll bounce back. You have to make some mistakes. But the craft is really, really high, and now the school is starting a game design major. That is huge, and, if they put the same kind of energy and focus into the game design department as they’ve done with illustration, animation and visual effects, we’re going to have some great talent coming out of this school. We have Oscar winners for alumni, so they’re doing something right.

What advice do you have for students hoping to be noticed by a recruiter?   Target the places they’d like to work or the work that they admire, and see what those people are doing. Try to mimic those techniques. Figure out your way of executing the work, but that’s where the bar is. Look and see what the professionals are doing—that’s the bar, you need to meet that bar, and if you can exceed it, that’s amazing. But I’d also say don’t be afraid of asking for help. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, because hopefully you learn from it and do better the next time. 

Can you think of a time when you had to muster yourself for a bounceback?   Not really a bounce-back, as much as a major pivot. And that was going from producing to recruiting, because that was not exactly a choice, it was more of a matter of what was necessary at the production studio where I was working. And I asked questions. I was not afraid to ask, I was not afraid to be wrong. People seem to be driven by the fear of looking stupid. I didn’t care about that. Other people’s perception of me is not really my business nor should it drive me. I stumbled a little bit, but discovered I love mentoring students. I felt like all these people could be my babies! And also, I love to be helpful. People have been helpful to me and I believe in paying it forward.

What keeps you going and giving? To see the expression on someone’s face when they suddenly realize that they have value, that they’re not crazy for thinking something, that they have someone who gets them, who sees them. Because I’ve mentored or at least interviewed students who don’t have that kind of support in their families, but even just having a conversation with someone saying, “Okay, I get what makes you happy. Keep doing this,” you see people change. 

Black Panther has been hailed as a gamechanger; what does its success mean to you?    I think change does this; I don’t think it’s a straight line, I think it sort of ebbs and flows and, at the moment, the thing that is at the top of mind is “Black Panther proves that black movies can travel overseas, so we have that.” I am not sure if Black Pantherwere not a Marvel movie, the impact would have been the same, but I don’t think that matters. The fact that people are now enjoying, and seeing that other people can enjoy, black faces with black narratives, even in the superhero vein, is a good thing. Because I have been around a little while, I have always cautioned to see what comes next. What we don’t want to do is get complacent and think “now we’ve won,” which is the same thing that happened when Obama was president. It’s cyclic, and now we really must be persistent with our listening to underserved voices and finding advocates who see the value in these voices.