• [English] Interview: Aliki T. Grafft

    Aliki T Grafft was here, at the Annecy International Animation Festival, to support her first directing effort, the short Doctor Lollipop, produced by Cartoon Hangover. In love with her work, it was impossible for Madmoiselle Murieta to miss her back then !

    So, for our readers and all of us who don't know you, can you do a little presentation ?

    I come from a greek family, first generation, I grew up in San Diego in Southern California, had a dream to work in animation and came to Los Angeles for school and eventually got a couple internships. It was at Hanna Barbera where they made Dexter Laboratory or Johnny Bravo, and another at Spümcø where they made Ren & Stimpy.

    So I found there that I was excited by creator-driven cartoons. When I was at Spümcø, John K. talked a lot about why cartoons were better and funny and at the same time I had an internship at Hanna Barbera where creators were writing their own story and making these shorts. It was driven by a man named Fred Seibert who at the time was president at Hanna Barbera. Today, we know him as Fred from Frederator, right ?

    John Kricfalusi, aka John K., creator of Ren & Stimpy
    So I was at the time, very aware that this guy named Fred Seibert started this short program which was based on the idea that cartoons should be written by cartoonists and he has the same theory that John K. has, which is interesting because it's not a rule, as shows like the Simpsons are script driven, but I just thought it was interesting, and noticed it was that I liked the best, these silly and cartoony things.

    When I grew up, in my family, there were the Looney Tunes cartoons and I loved those, and I also loved the Disney features, Dumbo, Peter Pan and The Jungle Book, so I wanted to be part of that one day, so I got these interships and I got to a school called USC and at that time there was no animation program so when I graduated I found I needed more classes and took some and eventually I was accepted in the Disney animated feature training program.

    And so there were four of us. We were trained for three months, the principles of animation, from the very basics all the way to the more advanced skills and by the time I graduated from it, I was hired on the movie Hercules

    So when I was at the feature animation I've done animation on Hercules, Mulan, Treasure Planet, Atlantis, Fantasia 2000... I think that's all of them !

    I love Hercules, the gospel songs, the geometric style. You talked about Dexter Laboratory and Hanna-Barbera, all my childhood !
    Oh really ! That's cool, and I was sad when the studio closed down, you know, but I'm glad those show still finding their way on the internet. So at the time I was trained by animators like Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg, John Ripa, Brian Ferguson, I learned so much but 2D animation was dying and the studio wouldn't make that kind of film any more.

    And I missed holding the pencil and drawing. Pointing and clicking and the wireframes, I coudn't connect with the same way as drawing, not it's thre anything wrong with it but, as we can see the beautiful films made in CG, but it wasn't what I fell in love with. So I had to figure what I'll gonna do, and a huge lesson in my story has been, being able to reinvent myself and knowing to learn new skills and really paying attention to what you love about animation.

    So I took a lot of classes and I found I liked story a lot, at the same time I was offered a job by Eric Goldberg to assist him on the Looney Tunes movie but also by Nickelodeon to be a story revisionnist and clean-up artist, a very entry level job. But it's a very important job to break into the industry because it requires to learn on others storyboards and most of the time, complete it.

    Can you explain for those who don't know what is a story revisionnist ?

    Sure. When the storyboard is too rough or when the general idea isn't enough developped on the board, the story revisionnist makes a pass before validation and all of them go overseas to be animated.

    So I took that job and I worked on ChalkZone and I was also asked to do character design on the Pamela Anderson show Stripperella which was in development.

    I ignored that. I don't even know that show, it didn't find his way to France.

    Yeah, Stan Lee ended up  to write on it, but I don't think I've ever seen a episode, but I didn't have a TV ! Anyway, I had to make a big decision : staying with Eric Goldberg on Looney Tunes or going as a story assistant on ChalkZone. 

    And Eric told me : "Go and break in television, 2D animation is a dying art, TV animation is very much alive, go work in there." So it was his best advice because a whole new venture began when I came to Nickelodeon.

    And... Am I talking too much ? (laughs)

    No, no, not at all ! You answered to pretty much of my questions with that one ! (laughs) But how do you lived the fact to go from TV to the internet ? Are there differences ?

    No, not really. Fred has always done short programs. There was always that idea that if the audience connect with it, it gains popularity. It's a little bit low risk, so if it does gain popularity, more people watching it then, they can make a choice to make more or not.

    But it was interesting, because when I came to Nickelodeon, Fred was starting another short program so while I was working on ChalkZone then, I pitched some ideas to him and end up doing two shorts back then.

    Fred Seibert in his desk-free office at Frederator Studios
    They were the first shorts I created way before directing on Kelly Martin's Doctor Lollipop. One was called Girls on the go! and the other Yaki & Yumi. So these shorts were created with Fred and I worked on a couple shows at Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, the shorts I did with him were not picked up to lauch as TV shows but they aired and people saw them.

    Dan Povenmire, who is one of the creators of Phineas & Ferb, saw them and I was hired on the show and so for years I worked on it and learned a lot about story because on Phineas & Ferb you don't make just the boards, but you write the story too. You write the story, the dialogs, the jokes and you do the drawings.

    I didn't know that either.

    Yeah, that's a big deal ! Not everybody can do that. There are people who draw really well but they doesn't know how to make a story, and the opposite is true too, and the interesting thing is Phineas & Ferb was made the same way that John K was talking about or like Fred was doing with the shorts. It's a full circle !

    When I first started in animation, that was what I saw : people writing their own ideas, drawing their own characters made for a really great work, that's how it was done. Aside all of this work, I developped a pre-school show but it didn't make out as a series and it's a lot of work, to to that, but I felt I was ready to direct.

    About Doctor Lollipop, what was the primary idea ? Where does it come from ?

    Eric Homan, who is the VP of Frederator, brought Doctor Lollipop to me and to see if I was interested in directing it. So I didn't created it actually. A girl called Kelly Martin created it.

    The original version of Doctor Lollipop was less cartoony. 

    Yeah, you advised me to follow her on twitter (laughs), I remember that.

    Oh yeah ! (laughs) So Kelly made her own little comics of Doctor Lollipop. She went to conventions and the people at Frederator discovered her comic and asked Kelly to make a storyboard but she never worked in animation so she did it but they needed someone who could restoryboard and restructured it to give it clarity, to make it viable for animation, for an episode and what is required to do so during all the steps : animation, post-production, etc.

    So I got to direct the show, which was a really great challenge and a lot of fun. I think it turned out pretty well.

    So, how about a new episode, a sequel maybe ?

    I'd like to ! I've talked to Kelly to get ready for a second pitch. I think there is a great world there, with strong characters and very different from what you find out there, This is a strange and interesting world with potential so I'd love to see more. I think the fans would love to see more.

    When I talked about Doctor Lollipop in my article on Focus on Animation (nota : in french), It was well received. In France, the audience liked it.

    Oh, that's good to know, you always wonder how the audience could react, if the jokes are good, I'm glad to hear that.

    They liked the references, like Grey's Anatomy, the unicorn...

    Yeah, this is a strange mixture of medical drama and a unicorn fantasy, somehow it works and that make it very unique. I think the humor is fun, it was fun to make it, adding some jokes and just having fun and being free to take an idea from Kelly and pushing it and going as far as possible with it.

    I read you write songs too and had a nomination for it. Do you play an instrument ? How it works for you ?

    I always loved music and I like make up songs and I used to play piano when I was a kid and I can play by ear, I hear a song and I don't need to look at the notes but I can play it. So even if I played piano as a kid I didn't had a formal training, but I love music so in Phineas & Ferb, which is a musical show, I wrote songs.

    My first one was in the episode called I, Brobot, it was the song Phineadroids & Ferbots, so I had an idea of a robot song which would be fun with these characters so I tried writing one and brought it to Dan and Swampy, and they loved it. And the great thing about working on Phineas & Ferb, it's very open. Nobody said you can't do it because you're not a composer. If you have a great idea nobody was close-minded.

    It was just like "ok, sure, yeah." so you just worked on the song and it went well and it was actually in a Disneyland attraction, where the characters show up and do the dance as it was animated in my storyboard, it's crazy ! 

    So after that, I wanted to do more so when I worked on an episode and I had time, I wrote another song, that's how it happened for "Come home Perry" where It was funny but emotional by capturing the feeling of what Perry meant to them but it is Phineas & Ferb so it also needs to be fun.

    I also saw you took part on some panel for the organisation Women in Animation. Can you tell us more about it ?

    Working many years in the industry and you can't help notice there aren't a lot of women. There are women painters and animators, but not as many women animators but even less women in writers and directors, I feel like it's a point of view which isn't represented enough in animation. It's an important point of view.

    Look at Frozen, which has been co-directed by a woman and I feel like, it's not enough.

    She did a lot on that movie, remodeling the script...

    Yeah, Jennifer Lee created strong female characters and showed they don't need to wield a sword to be strong or go go to battle to show how strong a female protagonist can be. We need more of that. And it's a tough break because a lot of studio want to make boys shows because they say "girls will watch boys show, boys will watch boys show, but boys won't watch a girl show".

    Yeah, I remember a comic made by Giancarlo Volpe ranting about the pressure of the executives.

    And also, they think boys are funnier, and Dan Povenmire used to say "okay, let the producers of the other shows think girls aren't funny…because then I get to hire all of the funny girls." (laughs) because we were two female storyboarders and writers and then we had a few of them. There was just one female director.

    Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh
    In the show, we have Candace, we have the female characters and we felt the neccessity to capture what it was to be a teenage girl. Same thing for Isabella: she's girly, she wears pink and she has a crush on Phineas, but at the same time she's tough. She rallies the team and comes up with solutions to the problems, so they're both really great characters and I think we need to see more of that in our industry.

    And I think, getting more women as driver wheels will allow more female characters to be into focus. It's not about a girl show, it's not about pink and glitter and girly stuff, it's about great characters that happens to be female, and that's my goal. I want it badly. Did you see Eau de Minnie ? That's the lastest Mickey Mouse short.

    Not yet. It hasn't been released in France as we speak.

    Oh, you must check it out as soon as possible, because it's a Minnie Mouse short, she's the principal character, she isn't Mickey's sidekick and the way I wanted to handle her was like Tina Fey, Lucille Ball, just funny, comedic, not precious, not perfect, not helpless like "oh, save me Mickey".

    A storyboard of Eau de Minnie, from Aliki's tumblr
    Minnie is really her own comedic character, and by being her own character and driving the story, she ends up being a strong female character. She 's not fighting a dragon, she's just make strong choices and she makes mistakes and she's cartoony, imperfect and at the end, she finds the solution to the problem that she caused herself. But she rocks it at the end, she feels good about herself.

    I want to see that !

    Yeah, and I want to see more of that in cartoons and I certainly want to do my part to provide that in any of the character I work on, so it's very important, especially with the fact I have a daughter. 

    I see her reactions, when she says "why's there's no good girl characters in this show?", she notices these things and I don't want her to feel she's not represented or she's not important and to think she's only has to be pink and girly. Of course she likes that kind of stuff, and I want to say, there is nothing wrong with that…but can't girls be a little more than that?  Can't they be more than the side-kick or the 'token female' character? Can't they be strong characters without having to do karate?


    And we know, as kids, we have layers so characters which represents us should have theirs too.

    Thank you to talk about that. That's important to me because I feel that way, as a part of an audience. As an exemple, I am the only female in the Focus on Animation team and my three colleagues are males.

    Yeah, I'm used to it too. When we work, I don't think of it because we work together and there's no problem to do so, but for the children, their first contact with a representation of themselves is with cartoons, so it matters. Those are made for them and are important in what it show and mean, about our world.

    And now ? What are your projects ?

    I was working on a show at Disney TV animation but the studio decided to not continue the project, judging it wasn't strong enough to make a series.  Now I am developping a project on my own, and it has a female lead character that has nothing to do with being girly or sperkly, she's just a strong character that happens to be a girl.

    Are you authorized to speak about it ?

    Not really. I can says it has a strong female lead, it's a comedy with boys and girls, it's not "made for girls, made for boys". It's a cartoon comedy with a lot of heart, very warm, funny and coming from a very personnal place, being greek with parents having a big thick accent, very greek culture but they didn't teach me greek.

    I was split in the middle, living in this beach and summer town, surrounded by blonde hairs, blue eyes, with names like "Stephanie Smith" and "Jenny Pendleton" and I was Aliki Theofilopoulos with the parents with thick greek accent.

    And when the greek side of family came over, I wasn't enough greek for them because I didn't speak greek and I wasn't blonde and blue eyed girl for the US youngsters so I was stuck somewhere in the middle, I had a lot of awkward fellings, where do I belong ?

    So the show I work on is about that time and life, where you don't know who you are without attaching youself with other groups because they didn't define you. It's about the importance of being your own person, that kind of thing.

    And there's so much more that can happen when I'll be back there!

    Thank you Aliki for this interview ! 

    To go further : 

    Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft, aka Aliki T Grafft has a youtube channel, where you can watch her Random Cartoons! produced at Nickelodeon. She has a twitter and a tumblr where she posts her drawings and animation tests.

    To read this interview in french, click here
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