Monday, September 26, 2011

Queens for a Day

Let me tell you a little bit about the latest chapter of the Travels of Ryan. Yesterday, I went to New York City as I often do, this time to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens to celebrate Jim Henson's 75th birthday.

I took the subway from Times Square to Queens. When I got to Queens, it was very interesting to see, as I had never been there before. It looks somewhat like New York, but at the same time it doesn't, as there are no big skyscrapers or anything. It looks like a regular town, almost. I made my way to the museum and waited for one of my online friends, Dana from The Dragyn's Lair, to come. This was my first time meeting her in person, and she had brought one of her friends, Alison, along as well. It was very nice to meet them.

The highlight of the day- both for the celebration of Henson's birthday and for me personally- was the screening of a compilation film called "Muppet Music Moments." The screening was introduced by Craig Shemin of the Jim Henson Legacy, who introduced the guest of honor, Larry Grossman (the musical director for the first three seasons of The Muppet Show) by showing an old clip of the first project he did with Henson, a sketch from "The Jimmy Dean Show" with Rowlf acting opposite Dean. It was a very funny sketch as Henson as Rowlf was particularly hammy, and the audience got a real kick out of it. Grossman introduced the film by commenting about what it was like to work with Jim Henson, commenting that Henson himself came up with most of the ideas for the musical numbers himself or at least assisted in them. Then, the compilation film was shown, which featured a collection of musical numbers from The Muppet Show. The audience seemed to enjoy it as well, as there were a lot of great moments chosen. (I certainly did). "Mahna Mahna" and Beaker, Animal, and the Swedish Chef as the Leprechaun Brothers are always favorites and the audience seemed to love them, as well as the bizarre Marvin Suggs and his Muppephone. The audience also seemed to get a big kick out of Miss Piggy being her usual self opposite Paul Simon and Elton John, a vaudeville number starring Statler and Waldorf (with Fozzie taking their place in the balcony heckling them), Animal upstaging Rita Moreno on drums while she sings "Fever", a routine with Kermit hallucinating his doctor turning into a witch doctor while singing "Coconut", and two Village People-themed numbers starring pigs. (The "Macho Man" routine has a gang of biker pigs being fought off by Gonzo and his gang of chickens. At one point, Gonzo throws a chicken from a clothesline and knocks it into a pig- I think Gonzo invented Angry Birds!) I kind of got goosebumps (or some sort of joyful feeling) seeing the Muppet Show opening on the big screen, as well as from some of the more touching numbers, such as Kermit's signature song "Rainbow Connection" (performed here alongside Debby Harry of Blondie), "Just One Person" as sung by Bernadette Peters, and Harry Belafonte's "Turn the World Around", an African-themed number whose theme reminded me of "Circle of Life".

Afterwards, Grossman answered questions from the audience about what it was like to work with Jim Henson on the music for the show. Shemin's wife, Stephanie D'Abruzzo (a puppeteer for Sesame Street and Avenue Q), worked as a "Vanna White" as it were, handing out items that were lying around the Henson archives as gifts for the people who asked questions, including a cast T-shirt for season 32 of Sesame Street. (It's starting its 42nd this week, so you can tell how long they were lying around.) Grossman told some interesting and funny stories, including about how The Muppet Show was produced in the UK after all three networks turned it down. Henson commuted from New York to London via Concorde, and Grossman believes that had the show not been produced abroad, it would not have been as good, as it probably would have cost more to produce it stateside what with union labor and all. He also pointed out that the US and UK had different senses of humor, but tried to make the show appeal to both of them in terms of comedy and music selection. The same 10-piece band was used for all five seasons of the show. Grossman pointed out that one day, Henson was snowed in for a weekend at JFK, and he passed the time by writing the first draft for The Dark Crystal. There were also a few other interesting stories he told, about having to go through all five hours of Tchiakovsky's Swan Lake to find a particular piece from it for Rudolf Nureyev (who was incredibly happy when they found it), and the fact that the staff of the hotel in London where they would rehearse with the guest stars was always giddy with anticipation to discover who the next guest would be and get their autograph. Bonnie Erickson, the designer of Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf (as well as the Phillie Phanatic), was also there, and said a few words about how Miss Piggy evolved and became an icon- she joked that Piggy herself was probably the only one who expected her to become one.

Afterwards, I said goodbye to my friends and explored the rest of the museum. I saw a short film by Jim Henson called "Time Piece", which was an interesting experimental film in which Jim Henson himself stars, using some unusual visuals to tell a story of the average life of work, sex, money, and death. It's a really bizarre yet interesting film. The Henson exhibit itself was interesting, as there were various sketches from Henson on display as well as actual Muppets. Many of the things I had seen before in books and such, but there was some stuff I hadn't seen. One of the puppets- a king for an unsold pilot- was incredibly large. I was surprised at how large some of the hand puppets were. I also got a kick out of a reel of some of the early commercials Jim Henson did, and the other guests seemed to as well, especially the La Choy dragon (a big dragon character whose full-body costume was later used as the inspiration for Big Bird) and an ad for Muppet dolls in which a group of Kermits chant the bizarre slogan, "Oh buy us oh buy us oh buy us we beg! If you do not buy us, we will bite you in the leg!" The reel also had a vintage interview where Henson was pointing out the earliest commercials he did were sponsor tags for coffee and such which were only eight seconds long. These tags have gotten a second life on YouTube, so I think it's easy to see that he was able to make them funny even with such a small amount of time granted for them. Photography was not allowed in the Henson exhibit, so I will link this article so you can see a sample of what was on display.

Then, I explored the permanent collection of the museum, which had samples of the various aspects of the visual arts and what goes into making them, including scripts, costumes, makeup, and merchandising. The visual form of video games was also represented with some classic arcade games, an Atari 2600, and a NES, all of which the guests seemed to enjoy. My personal favorite part of the permanent collection was an artwork called "Tut's Fever", an actual working movie theater which is designed in part to look like an old-fashioned "movie palace" such as Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood but also as a tribute/parody to ancient Egyptian stereotypes such as mummies, hieroglyphics, etc. The walls are all made to look like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, except the figures are old-time movie icons such as the Marx Brothers, Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, and others.

All in all, it was a very fun day.

Here are some photos of Tut's Fever:

Photography ©2011 by Ryan W. Mead. Tut's Fever installation ©1986, 1987, 1988 Red Grooms and Lysiane Luong.

Friday, September 23, 2011

An Interview with...Phineas and Ferb's Aliki T. Grafft

Recently, I was delighted to have my paths cross, as it were, with Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft. Ms. Grafft works as a writer and storyboard artist on the popular Disney Channel animated series Phineas and Ferb, which has been a topic I've talked about many times on this blog. She also provided the voice of Mandy in the episode "Thaddeus and Thor" and co-wrote a number of songs for the series, including "Come Home Perry", for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of asking her a few questions about her life, her career, and working with Phineas and Ferb.

Courtesy Kent Osborne
Every story has to start somewhere, so could you tell us a little bit about your life and career and how you made your way to Phineas and Ferb? Where did you grow up? What else have you worked on and in what capacity? What got you interested in writing/animation? Did you go to school to get into animation, or were you self-trained?

Aliki: I grew up in La Jolla, California in an immigrant Greek family. I loved cartoons my whole life, from Popeye to Looney Tunes to all the Disney films- I just knew I had to be a part of this animation thing. Of course, I drew my whole life, and later I studied art at USC where I landed an internship at Hanna-Barbera. I also became an intern at Spumco after meeting John Krisfaluci (my hero at the time) at an animation conference. After college I took various more focused classes at The American Animation Institue [a school in Burbank run by the Animation Guild, the animators' union] (studied life drawing with Glenn Vilppu), as well an after-school class offered at Rowland Heights. A recruiter showed up at the school's portfolio review and I ended up landing a life-changing animation training internship at Walt Disney Feature Animation. I worked in the animation department on such films as Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, and Treasure Planet under the amazing mentorship of people like Brian Ferguson, Eric Goldberg, and John Ripa. I was also lucky to be a part of the monthly drawing lessons from the late Walt Stanchfield, who is definitely one of my greatest influences. When it became clear that Disney was going to fold the traditional animation department, we all jumped into computer classes. Maya really did not appeal to me as I loved to draw, so I began to look elsewhere. A friend at Nickelodeon suggested I submit my character designs to the studio as they were looking for new talent. I knew nothing about TV, but thought I would go for it. I was hired by Larry Huber as a Storyboard Revisionist for a show called Chalk Zone. At this time I also met Alison Dexter and Fred Seibert, who were both very encouraging about pitching my own ideas. And so I began the path of creating and pitching. When Chalk Zone ended, I worked on a show called Catscratch as a designer. However, I wanted to move back into story and heard they were hiring at Warner Brothers, so I submitted my work and by the end of the week I was offered a job assisting Chris Savino with storyboard work on Johnny Test. I then sold a short to Frederator/Nickelodeon just as the production was ending, so I hopped on back to Nickelodeon to co-produce, create, write, and storyboard (as well as voice act and voice direct) "Yaki and Yumi". I then sold my second short "Girls on the GO!" and had an incredible time creating a second film. My agent at The Gotham Group submitted my storyboards to a new show from Disney, Phineas and Ferb, in 2006, and I was hired on a sort of "trial basis". I had never worked as a writer/board artist on a production before, aside from doing it for my own films. Luckily, only a quarter of the way through my very first episode ("Mom's Birthday") I was asked to stay on as an official member of the team!

Who are your influences, and how have they influenced the way you write/draw?

Aliki: My Grandfather- If it weren’t for his love for cartoons and drawing and his constant encouragement, I would not be here!

Brian Ferguson- He was my assigned mentor for the Disney training program, and hired me to be his assistant on Hercules. He was the supervising animator on the character “Panic”. He was a gentle guide, a giant support, and an excellent animator. He was very patient and encouraging. I will be forever grateful for his giving me my break!

Walt Stanchfield- It would be difficult for me to talk about Walt without tearing up. It is best for me to use a quote from Don Hahn, producer of The Lion King, to describe him: “Once in a lifetime, a truly special teacher comes along who can change your life forever. To me and to many, many of our colleagues in the industry, Walt Stanchfield was that very special teacher. Part artist, part poet, part musician, part tennis pro, part eccentric savant, part wizened professor, Walt inspired a generation of young artists not only with his vast understanding of the animator's craft, but with his enthusiasm and love of life.” Walt changed my life. His passion for drawing and for life in general was infectious. He had been an animator on films like Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book, had since retired and moved away, but he would come to the studio once a month and teach gesture drawing class for three days. He taught me how to see what I was drawing, how to feel it, and how to express feeling and emotions in my drawings completely. The number one thing people always tell me about my drawings, no matter how loose or sketchy they are, are that they are full of life. Walt is the one who taught me this. Sadly we lost him to cancer, and I will forever miss him. Any student of animation or drawing in general should find anything and everything they can about this lesser known “Walt” from Disney.

John Ripa- I saw an animation test that John had done for the movie Tarzan. I knew I needed to find out who he was and work with him. I was lucky to assist him on the movie Tarzan on “Young and Baby Tarzan”, as well as on ''Treasure Planet'' on “Jim Hawkins”. He is one of the greatest artists and animators I will ever know, and certainly one of the greatest people. I owe so much to him, and I am forever grateful that he took me under his wing. He still works for Disney Features as a supervising animator as well as in the story department. Probably my greatest regret about leaving Feature Animation is that I didn’t get to continue mentoring with John.

Eric Goldberg- Between Tarzan and Treasure Planet, I was lucky to mentor with Eric Goldberg. I am grateful that he helped me develop my more cartoony side, as he is not only a great animator, but a true cartoonist. He is very giving with his knowledge and has a true love and passion for animation. He also gave me great advice to pass on working the the Warner Brothers film he was leaving the studio to direct and take the offer I had to get into story on the TV side, as the world of TV has opened up many opportunities for me. 

Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh [Phineas and Ferb creators]- Although due to the deadlines that come with television there really is not time for mentoring, they have taught me by example. As we have seen by the success of the show, they know how to tell stories that connect with audiences everywhere. They have great sense of timing and are just plain hilarious to boot. I have grown the most as a storyteller since my journey began on Phineas and Ferb, and I have them to thank.

Photo by Rick Andreoli
It looks like you've been working for Phineas and Ferb for nearly its entire run. About how far into production did you join the crew?

Aliki: Before my actual start date for the show, I cleaned up a board for Sherm Cohen, which was the episode "Flop Starz". I think it was the second board after "Rollercoaster"? After that, I began officially on "Mom's Birthday" and was lucky to be partnered with Kent Osborne, though the show did not air until a little later in the season. But yes, I have been there from just about the start.

Exactly how many jobs do you do on Phineas and Ferb? And what's the difference between them- how does being a writer differ from being a storyboard artist, etc.?

Aliki: The board artists on our show must also be able to write as well.  I also write songs, and am the voice of the character Mandy.

How did you end up doing a voice for an episode of the series, anyway?

Aliki: I kept goofing off in the bullpen during pitches imitating the way some of the girls I grew up with sounded like. Dan thought it was funny, and vowed to put it in the show someday...and he did!
Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Have you done any other voice work in the past?

Aliki: I have. Most notable for animation peeps out there is that I was the voice for the character "Zero" on the series SD Gundam Force (as well as Dr. Bellwood) which used to be on Cartoon Network. I also have done voice work for my own shorts, "Yaki and Yumi" and "Girls on the GO!".

Is Mandy based on you in any way?

Aliki: No. Not me at all. 

An announcement for an episode of Phineas and Ferb which will air later this month makes mention of Candace being taken to a group to help deal with her busting urge by someone named Mandy. Does this mean we'll be hearing you again soon, or is this another Mandy entirely?

Aliki: Yes, it's the same Mandy and it's a great episode!  

Your on-screen credit has evolved from Aliki Theofilopoulos to Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft. You share a few songwriting credits for Phineas and Ferb with your husband Baron. Does he work on the show as well? If so, is that how you met him?

Aliki: No, my husband does not work on the show, but is a huge fan of hip-Hop. So when we were coming up with rhymes for the "Spa Day" song, he had some great ideas that we used as a starting point for writing the song.

What's your favorite Phineas and Ferb episode or episodes that you've worked on and why, both as a writer and as an animator/storyboard artist?

Aliki: "I, Brobot" was a lot of fun, as it was not only a blast to co-write with the incredibly talented Kent Osborne, but also "Phinedroids and Ferbots" was the first song I ever wrote for the show. Animationwise, I had a lot of fun posing out the robot dance moves. I remember laughing so hard with Kent when he said "I'm making a chimney-vator for Perry to go down to his lair. who should he meet there?" and I said "Well, Santa Claus, of course!" We built the whole episode around Santa being in it. At one point Kent said "What's the explanation for Santa being out that time of year" and I said "He's on a summer run!" To which he replied, "I'm going to actually have him say that!"

Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Can you give us an in-depth breakdown of all the steps it takes to make a Phineas and Ferb episode from start to finish?

Aliki: We have an Animation-inator that has been on loan to us from Dr. Doofenshmirtz for about five years now. Perry the Platypus has been gracious enough to not take it from us. The self-destruct button has been disabled.

Tell us a little bit about the writing/storyboarding process for a Phineas and Ferb episode. I believe rather than having one person write most of the script, the entire team comes up with gags during the storyboard process from a general concept for the episode, a la the classic Looney Tunes. How connected are the writing and storyboarding processes? Given the storyboard-driven nature of the show, are they closely connected or separate pieces of the process? Do writers help come up with gags during the storyboarding process and vice versa? How exactly do the writers work- alone, in teams, or as a group?

Aliki: Our show is extremely collaborative, which is why it works so well. We have a few writers on staff who come up with and write three-page outlines for a show idea. An approved outline is handed to a board team, which consists of two people (I think there are 5 or 6 teams of two). The team will break down the outline and then split up sections to draw. Then we basically write the script as we are drawing. We are constantly building on each other's ideas. But unlike other shows, we do not have a script until AFTER the board is complete.  

How much is a storyboard artist allowed to contribute to the story? Can they suggest changes in the episode?

Aliki: Absolutely. In fact, it is a job requirement! If you can not write and add ideas and gags to the story then you can not be a board artist on Phineas and Ferb. This is why we have writing AND boarding credits on our show.

Is there a sort of hierarchy of writers, or does everyone contribute to the gag-writing process?

Aliki: We do have a story editor who oversees the writers, but basically everyone contributes.

Is there any difference between writing for an 11-minute short as opposed to a half-hour or hour-long production? Does the time limit affect the writing process positively/negatively in different ways?

Aliki: Well, longer episodes are definitely harder to pull off as we usually have to add another team, so now there are eight people trying to nail down a story. However, since there is more drawing to do, this is the only way really to do it- for an hour-long, at least. For a half-hour show, there is the option to take a longer rotation with the team you are on or split it with another team. I have done both.

A recent article pointed out that female writers are a rarity now in television, and those that are there often feel isolated from or inferior to the rest of the staff due to their gender. What is the ratio of male to female writers on the show? Does Phineas and Ferb feel like sort of a place where everyone is "one of the guys", or does being a woman make you feel isolated or seperate from the rest of the crew?

Aliki: We are in the minority in our industry, and that is a frustrating fact. There is one other female board artist/writer besides myself, Kim Roberson. Dan said he would have hired more but he couldn't find any! I am sure I have to prove myself a little harder in this business because I’m a woman. Perhaps some guys don’t expect us to be very good, and especially to be funny. But for every man who may feel that way there are many more wonderful men, like my bosses and the mentors I had at Features who truly made me feel that they loved and appreciated me for the work I did. I hope I can be a role model to other women trying to break in the business as more and more women are filling up animation schools from what I hear. I definitely don't feel separate or isolated from the crew, though, as we have all become friends. I do think it's tougher though for female creators (meaning women who are pitching shows). It is my mission to inspire and encourage other women in animation. In fact, I will be a keynote speaker at a career workshop for the organization Women In Animation. You can find more info here.

Are there any characters that are easier, more fun, harder, etc. to write gags for than others?

Aliki: Well, Candace is the easiest for me to write for, as it's quite natural for me to tap into the neurotic and eccentric part of myself. I remember all too well how it felt to be a teenaged girl with two young brothers! But all in all I enjoy writing for all of the characters on our show. There is something that I love about each of them.

What's the hardest thing about writing for Phineas and Ferb? Is it difficult writing for other people's characters?

Aliki: The characters are so well-developed at this point it is not difficult at all for me. It really is pure joy. Of course, my ultimate dream is to write for my own characters, which I am working on. Until then, I will blissfully enjoy writing for Phineas and Ferb

As a woman, does it seem easier to write for female characters such as Candace, Isabella, etc. than male ones? Harder? Or is there no difference?

Aliki: As I said, I really enjoy writing for Candace, but writing for Phineas or Doof is a blast as well.

As long as we're talking about gender, one of our readers was Isabella's pet chihuahua Pinky a boy or a girl?

Aliki: I actually don't know!

Which is more fun to write for- heroes or villains?

Aliki: Both.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz and Major Monogram, both apart and in the few instances where they've appeared together, are two of the funniest characters on the show. They also happen to be voiced by series creators Dan Povenmire and Swampy Marsh, respectively. Do Dan and Swampy ad-lib and/or come up with most of their dialogue themselves, or is it also a collaborative effort?

Aliki: All of the above!

Do the writers leave some lines open for improv by the voice actors, or is everything pretty tightly scripted?

Aliki: Unless something must be read a certain way for the needs of the story, there is room for an actor to ad-lib if he so chooses.  However, a lot of work has been put into getting the writing to be just right, so usually it is not done.

Phineas and Ferb is known for its distinct formula, as well as for its catchphrases and bizarre running gags such as the talking zebra or the giant floating baby head. Do any of these recurring jokes eventually become a crutch or something that gets hard to slip in? Do new running gags or recurring themes end up replacing them as a result?

Aliki: No, I don't think they are crutches, just another fun part of the show.

How do the writers stay so consistent with the series continuity? Is it a collaborative effort or is there a person/persons in charge of continuity?

Aliki: It's a collaborative effort. And when in doubt, we can check the Phineas and Ferb Wiki, right? ;)

Do the writers have things such as the age or gender of the target audience in mind when they write, or do they just write for a general audience?

Aliki: We write the show so that there are different levels of humor. Kids can watch it with their parents and there is something for everyone. If a small child, like my four year old, doesn't understand a joke about "Existentialist Trading Cards", then there'll be another joke soon that she will get.   

Songwriting is also a collaborative process as well. Do certain members of the writing team come up with more contributions to songs than others, as far as the songs you've been involved with are concerned?

Aliki: Well, Dan, Swampy, Martin [Olson], Jon Barry, and Rob [Hughes] have probably contributed the most with the songs on our show, as well as Danny Jacob, our composer, of course...but I try to write songs when I can. If I don't it is usually because I am just too busy.

What's your favorite song you've helped write for Phineas and Ferb?

Aliki: "Come Home Perry" hands down. It was fun having a song I co-wrote be nominated for an Emmy, and it's even more fun hearing my two-year-old sing it. It's his favorite too (and he has no idea I had anything to do with it). Second place would have to be "Phinedroids and Ferbots."

Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Recently, a "Take Two" segment aired featuring Phineas and Ferb interviewing Miss Piggy, who sang "Spa Day." What does it feel like to have a song you helped write be sung by a character as iconic as Miss Piggy?

Aliki: That was a trip. The funny thing is that I had no idea that was happening. My kids were watching a recorded version of the ABC airing of "Phineas and Ferb Across the Second Dimension", and it came on! My husband and I were dumbstruck. Happily dumbstruck that is!

How did you end up being asked to do the "Phineas and Ferb 60-Second Game Show?" What was that like? Were you asked to act more "animated" for it or is that how you normally act?

Aliki: I was asked by the studio if I'd be up for it. It was a lot of fun, and I had a blast. I definitely don't normally act that animated...I just happen to be very excited about game shows...and pineapples.

It's been reported that Phineas and Ferb has been picked up for a fourth season. Has production on that begun yet, or is the team waiting for the move to the new offices in Glendale?

Aliki: We have not heard official word.  If it does happen, we will begin work on it soon.  

There's also a Phineas and Ferb feature film in development. What- if anything- can you tell us about that?
Aliki: I can tell you that there is a Phineas and Ferb feature film in development. Stay tuned!

Are there any future "special" episodes of Phineas and Ferb in the works along the lines of the Christmas special, "Summer Belongs To You", etc.?'

Aliki: Yes, there will be future "special" episodes for sure. There are a couple in particular that I can't wait for the public to see.  One of them was teased at Comic-Con this year at the Phineas and Ferb panel, and it is one that I co-wrote/boarded. 

Phineas and Ferb decide to make something special for you as their big project one day. Knowing full well that it would probably somehow mysteriously disappear at the end of the day, what would they make for you and why?

Aliki: I'd be very happy with a beach in my backyard!  Minus the gnomes.

Let's step away from Phineas and Ferb for a moment. I see you've created a few cartoons of your own. You did two shorts for Nickelodeon and Frederator's Random! Cartoons- "Yaki and Yumi" and "Girls on the GO!" Can you tell us a little bit more about those? Were they meant as pilots for a potential series?

Aliki: Yes, the hope was that Nickelodeon would pick one up for series, however they chose Fanboy and Chum Chum, created by Eric Robles.  Fred [Seibert, founder of Frederator] also sold another short from this series to Cartoon Network, which was Adventure Time, created by Pen Ward. Creating the two shorts were one of the greatest experiences I've had in my career. I learned all about the process of how to make a film from start to finish, and grew so much as a creator. I feel so fortunate to this day that Eric Homan and Fred Seibert gave me the opportunity to make TWO original shorts. The rights to both properties are back in my hands, and I do hope to do something with these characters some day. (Studios, I've got a bat, a dragon, and a pack of teenagers for sale...anyone wanna make me an offer I won't refuse?) I have learned so much since the creation of these little pilots, though, so now when I watch them I see all the things I would do different now.

The main character in "Girls on the GO!", Kat Metropoulos, likes to draw and has a Greek name (or at least the comic equivalent of one). I'm guessing she's inspired by you?

Aliki: Yes the character is based on a younger version of myself. The actress who plays her is Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper from ''The Wonder Years''). Danica is absolutely fabulous!

Besides voicing Mandy in "Thaddeus and Thor", you've done a bit of supporting voice work in your own projects as well as serving as the voice director for them. Do you have any training as a voice-over artist, or are you someone along the lines of Seth MacFarlane or Dan and Swampy themselves- a creator who just also happens to be able to do cartoon voices?

Aliki: I have taken some voice-over classes, but basically fell into it...there was an open call to do "scratch" dialogue on the movie Home on the Range when I was working at Disney Feature Animation, and my Jennifer Tilly imitation landed me the spot. It was great practice and fun, and at that time I got into some classes and got an agent.

Any other projects you'd like to discuss/plug?

Aliki: I am constantly thinking about my different projects and ideas and ways to build or improve on them. I absolutely love creating and pitching ideas and I hope to have my own show one day (or two, or three). Let's just say I'm working on it.

What's the weirdest thing that's happened to you as a writer/animator?

Aliki: One late night, working on Phineas and Ferb, the episode "Unfair Science Fair". We had been working on an episode where Doof keeps entering science fairs, and losing to baking soda volcanos. We thought it would be funny if he lost other contests to a baking soda volcano, and came up with the idea of having him enter a poetry contest. Dan said "Okay, so we need a really lame poem". And I said "oh, I have one". So I told the now infamous story of how when I was a kid, my brother had to do poetry homework and my father, a very prominent research doctor, declared that ANYONE could write poetry. He left the room with a pad of paper and a pen, and then returned with his 'incredible' poem, "The movies are grey, the TV is black. The horses are running. Please bring me some food". Sound familiar? So the weirdest thing (aside from Miss Piggy singing a song I co-write) is hearing Dr. Doofenshmirtz recite a poem my dad wrote when we were kids.

Have you ever been asked to write something in your career that you didn't want to?

Aliki: I had to write about chickens.

What do you aspire to? What is your dream job (and don't say "what you're doing right now")?

Aliki: My ultimate dream is to be the creator of a hit cartoon series of my own!

What advice do you have for those who want to get into animation?

Aliki: Study life. Draw constantly. Learn about story. Learn about who the great animators and directors are of our industry, past and present. Be tenacious. Take a LOT of classes. Introduce yourself to the other players. Draw some more, and when you are done, draw some more.

Thanks so much for your time. One last question before we go: aren't you a little old to be talking about a kids show with someone who isn't even a kid?

Aliki: No, no I'm not!

Courtesy Antoine Guilbaud
Thanks so much to everyone who offered their suggestions for questions, especially Michael Wilson of Michael and Chrissy, who gave me both a lot of great questions and a lot of great advice.

And super-ultra-mega thanks to Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft for agreeing to do this interview and the folks at Disney who were able to make it interview a reality. Check out Aliki's blog and portfolio, and follow her on Twitter.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Two Guys, A Girl, and a Platypus

I've talked about Phineas and Ferb so many times here that...well, that the Kevin Bacon joke is getting old, but now that I've decided to explain why I like it so much as part of Speak Out With Your Geek Out, the actual challenge occurs. How do I explain the show for those who may not have seen it, and why is it my "geek passion" right now as it were? And aren't I a little old to be watching this, anyway?

Well, if you're familiar with Phineas and Ferb, you'll know the answer to the last question is, "yes, yes I am." As for the rest...well, I might as well try.

Phineas and Ferb is an animated series which debuted on the Disney Channel in 2008 after a few preview screenings in 2007. It is also by far the only watchable show on the Disney Channel. Unlike the cheesy sitcoms of the Hannah Montana ilk, Phineas and Ferb is actually written with both kids and adults in mind and features memorable characters, all sorts of humor styles, platypus-related slapstick, and catchy original songs. It uses all sorts of humor- funny dialogue, sight gags, slapstick, running gags, pop culture references, funny music, lowbrow humor (but never too prominently and usually always comically), and just plain insane stuff- and excels with all of them and mixing all of them as well. I can't think of many other shows on TV right now- animated or otherwise- that do it as well as Phineas and Ferb does.

This is probably due to its clever writing team, which includes a number of veterans from The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Rocko's Modern Life, including series creators (and voice actors) Dan Povenmire & Jeff "Swampy" Marsh. Povenmire was by Seth MacFarlane's own admission one of Family Guy's best animation directors, and he and Marsh met on Rocko, where besides writing and/or directing some of the most memorable episodes, including "Zanzibar!" and (my personal favorite) "Wacky Delly", they came up with a concept for a cartoon show of their own which was so out there, every network turned it down until Disney took a risk nearly 15 years later, asking for a number of changes- all of which Povenmire and Marsh refused. The result is the show you're reading about right now.

Practically every episode of Phineas and Ferb has the same basic setup- the titular stepbrothers, the idea man Phineas and the usually-silent builder Ferb, come up with some extravagant way to spend one of their "104 days of summer vacation", be it building a rollercoaster, traveling through time, discovering the lost city of Atlantis- you know, things of that nature. Their older sister Candace attempts to "bust her brothers" by telling her mom what they're doing, ostensibly to prove she's responsible, though mainly it seems she's trying to do it just to prove to herself that she can- especially since for some reason, whatever they're working on that day always seems to mysterious disappear at the exact moment she gets her mother's attention. At the same time all of this is going on, the boys' pet platypus, Perry, has gone off on his daily duty, as he is actually a secret agent whose daily mission is to stop the latest "evil" scheme hatched by Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an incredibly pathetic would-be evil scientist who is more intent on conquering the tri-state area rather than the world and whose plans usually involve making up for some sort of emotionally scarring incident from his childhood. Once destroyed, the invention that Doofenshmirtz is working on just so happens to get rid of whatever Phineas and Ferb are working on that day. (Not that they mind, unlike Candace- they don't need to clean anything up.)

A small sampling of the incredibly pathetic childhood of the incredibly pathetic Dr. Doofenshmirtz.

I was just listening to a podcast which compared the setup and the way it plays out to the "Aristocrats" joke, which is both a very brilliant comparison and an apt one- the setup is always the same, but the real humor comes from what happens in between. It's like a Road Runner cartoon- we know Wile E. Coyote's invention is going to fail. It's seeing how it's going to fail where the fun comes in. For that matter, there are a bunch of running gags and situations that keep popping up, and the writers are aware of not only these, but the basic formula of the series as well, always tweaking and bending the formula for its maximum humor potential.

Besides having great talent both behind the scenes and in its voice cast (running the gamut from Disney Channel mainstays to well-known celebrities to great guest stars to the series's own creators, including Dan Povenmire as Dr. Doofenshmirtz, who never fails to steal the show), the tri-state area is populated with a bunch of memorable characters. Phineas and Ferb themselves more often than not work as a plot setting rather than its main drive, allowing the memorable cast of characters to take center stage. And it's a group of characters that perhaps rivals the Simpsons' town of Springfield in both number and personality, including not only the aformentioned Candace and Dr. Doofenshmirtz (my two personal favorites), but also Doofenshmirtz's extended family (including his ex-wife, sullen teenage daughter, and a hilarious giant robot who looks and talks like a stereotypical 1950s husband), Phineas and Ferb's next-door neighbor who is smitten with Phineas (not that he's aware of it) and leads a troop of literally-do-anything girl scouts, Agent P's boss and his eager assistant whose interactions with the major usually lead to embarrassment, a hair-metal band called Love Handel, and some bizarre, inexplicable recurring characters, including a giant floating baby head and a hallucinatory zebra who calls people "Kevin."

And if that wasn't enough, almost every episode has at least one original song. Povenmire and Marsh have always loved writing songs on the series they've worked on- in part because, as they've joked, it's their attempt at animated immortality. And Phineas and Ferb is pretty much guaranteeing it, as the songs they and the talented writing staff have written for the series run the gamut from practically every genre you can imagine, mixing the catchy music with memorable and often comical lyrics like "science can't improve upon a mother's heart, but given time it can trick out her spleen" and "like a ninja of love rappelling down from above, you snuck your way right into my heart."

Phineas and Ferb is getting to the point that it can truly be called what the New York Times did last year- "The New SpongeBob"- in terms of both popularity and merchandisability. The only sure way you can tell if you'll like it (and you probably will) is to take a look at it. So, in honor of Speak Out with Your Geek Out week, I'm giving those of you who may not have seen it a taste with an appropriate episode for the occasion, "Nerds of a Feather", in which our heroes find themselves in the middle of the ultimate genre-war at a comic convention. Besides its nerdy references, a fun twist on the Doofenshmirtz subplot, and guest appearances by Kevin Smith and Povenmire's old boss Seth MacFarlane mixed in to the typical Phineas and Ferb style of humor, it has a couple of lessons that I think really sum up this event and what it's meant to promote- embrace your geekiness. Share your geek passions with others rather than fighting over them. And, as Candace shows, don't be afraid to flout your inner geek, no matter how embarrassing your passion may be. Because you're probably not as neurotic as Candace is, so you have nothing to lose.

A true jack of all trades and master of none, Ryan W. Mead has enchanted and/or annoyed tens of people with his random observations, jokes, and interests in various realms, specifically the goings-on and history of the entertainment and animation industries. When he's not moonlighting in his secret identity as a mild-mannered grocery clerk, he can be found sharing and discussing his random thoughts on such things on Twitter, Robot and Peanut, and Mostly From Sugar Packets (the latter of which you are most likely reading now). As far as Phineas and Ferb is concerned, he serves as the co-editor of the Phineas and Ferb Wiki Twitter feed and Facebook page, has done a few guest posts on the subject for Disney blog The Dragyn's Lair, and also recently appeared as a guest on the GeekCast Radio Network to discuss the recent telefilm Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension.

This post is a contribution to Speak Out with Your Geek Out, a week-long celebration of all things geeky where bloggers share their passions in order to foster geek pride and combat recent negative stereotypes of personal nerdy passions.

Portions of this post were previously posted on Mostly from Sugar Packets and elsewhere online in a slightly modified form.

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied.

NEXT WEEK: An interview with Phineas and Ferb writer/animator Aliki Grafft!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pineapples and Oranges

The question mark means "we have no idea." (Photo: ABC News)
SpongeBob SquarePants: he's been on the year for over a decade and has gotten a lot of praise, a lot of money, and a lot of controversy. Given his popularity, that's not surprising. For the most part, the religious right has been doing most of the sponge-bashing, accusing him of spreading the gay agenda, then the green agenda. But the news outlets have been discussing him even more as the word is going around that he actually makes kids stupider.

Researchers at the University of Virginia recently did a study whose results were published in the journal Pediatrics. The study tested 60 four-year-olds and their executive function after doing an activity for nine minutes. One-third were asked to draw a picture, one-third watched an episode of SpongeBob, while one-third watched an episode of Calliou, a plodding, slow-paced Canadian series for preschoolers which airs on PBS. They were then asked to perform a number of activities, including the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, touching the opposite body part of that they were told (for example, touching their toes when they were asked to touch their head and vice versa), and a delayed gratification test involving seeing whether or not they could wait for a snack when it was placed in front of them. The children who watched the sponge performed poorer on the activities than those who watched the bald-headed Canuck or drew a picture.

Of course, the news media is discussing this as if it is gospel, proof that SpongeBob and similar cartoons make kids stupider. This study as a whole reminds me of a study that was done on cartoon violence I discussed on Sugared Tomatoes back when that was a thing, both in subject matter and methodology. If anything, this study is an interesting Step One in researching and studying whether or not television has a long-term negative effect on children's intelligence/reaction, but there's a lot more to be done. The Step Two and beyond, however, will probably never be done- or at least not right now.

A number of interesting questions and thoughts this study brings up: first and foremost, as was pointed out, SpongeBob isn't really meant for four-year-olds. A representative for Nickelodeon stated: "SpongeBob is produced for 6-to-11-year-olds. Four-year-olds are clearly not the intended demographic for this show...having 60 non-diverse kids who are not part of the show's target demographic watch 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology." For that matter, it was only 20 kids who watched the sponge, which is a pretty small sample size.

Also, given said small sample size as well as the smaller specifics of the study, there's a lot more research that could be done. As my buddy over at Stitch Kingdom joked, so far the study only seems to show that you shouldn't show SpongeBob immediately before a test. One would need to study the long-term effects of television watching on children to see if there was any negative effect, not just the effects of attention span immediately afterwards.

For that matter, a larger sampling, not only of test subjects, but of material, would be interesting to see as well. For example, the study makes reference to another study that pointed out that there seemed to be no difference in reaction in kids who watched a slow-paced segment of Sesame Street and a fast-paced one- also pointing out that that study was done in 1977 and the pace of Sesame has increased in the years since. In this case, this is a comparison between similar material, in that it comes from the same program. Comparing SpongeBob and Caillou is like comparing apples and oranges- or perhaps given the sponge's abode, pineapples and oranges. As Matt Blum over at Wired's GeekDad pointed out, it would be interesting to see testing with other series added to the mix as well. He points out Phineas and Ferb, and I have to disagree with his statement that that series goes for multiple levels of humor where the sponge doesn't- I think both shows are quite similar both in terms of humor style and aiming for both adults and kids. It would be very interesting to compare and contrast groups of shows meant for various target audeinces like Caillou and Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob, Ferb, and WordGirl, a series on PBS meant for an older demographic which has a Bullwinkleesque self-aware humor style much in the same vein as the sponge and the platypus. Compare different episodes of the series too, like the Sesame study- there are a few SpongeBob episodes that take place in a single setting, I recall, such as one of the first where Squidward tries in vain to learn how to blow bubbles. The use of drawing as a control is intriguing, too- some children would be more violent or overactive in their art than others, I would assume. Is there any influence in that?

There are so many directions you could go to elaborate on the findings, though sadly, it probably won't happen- at least not right now. Certainly, the SpongeBob study is interesting to think about, but right now, much like the sponge itself, it's so thin that it's full of holes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's All Geek To Me

Remember Magicgate? Well, at least that's what I'm calling it. I know, putting "-gate" after every controversy since Watergate is getting incredibly old. But anyway...

Last month, Alyssa Bereznak wrote a post about her experience with Internet blind dating, and the horror that occurred when she discovered that the man of her dreams ended up the man of her nightmares, for she ended up dating the grand champion of the popular collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Ms. Bereznak wrote that "judging people on shallow stuff is human nature", and the overall tone of the article got her a lot of flak...especially since it's sort of a case of the pot calling the kettle black, since she happens to write for the tech site Gizmodo, with her name attached to such just-as-geeky-as-a-card-game-about-wizards articles like "Parents Can Have Text Message Slang, Too!", "The Gizmodo vs. Deadspin iPhone Repair Contest", and perhaps most telling of all, "Kanex's C247DL DVI Hooks Your Computer Up to Apple's Clear, Crisp Cinema Display." (Though, to be fair, as one of my friends pointed out, taking her to a one-man show about the infamous serial killer-and-eater Jeffrey Dahmer is probably not the best first date Mr. Magic could have given her. That still doesn't excuse the way she treated him solely due to his choice in hobbies, though.)

Ms. Bereznak has been criticized so many times and much better than I could have done it that it's pointless to do so again. But I am going to do the next best thing...

Next week is a blogging event created as a rebuttal of sorts to the Bereznak controversy, Speak Out with Your Geek Out. Founded by female geek/author/freelance consultant to equally geeky cartoonist John Kovalic of Dork Tower fame Monica Valentinelli, the goal of this event is to create a positive stereotype of geek culture and what geeky things people enjoy in order to combat the shunning and negativity that Ms. Bereznak and others have created controversy with.

I've written about Phineas and Ferb so much on this blog that they're practically becoming my Kevin Bacon (and this is like the fourth time I've used that joke), and since Mr. Kovalic, Matt Blum over at GeekDad, and my pals at the GeekCast Radio Network (with whom I recently did a podcast on the subject) prove it's a geeky thing (and I agree with them), I might as well make that my subject. The only problem? I've already written a post about why I like the show. But, then again, looking back at the post, I could probably write a better one. So I have two Phineas and Ferb-related events in store for Speak Out with Your Geek Out.

The first will be a rewrite of my previous post on why I like the show, in order to fulfill the main goal of the event- to "post about what geeky hobby you love...[and] tell us why we should try it, too." But, I have something else I've been working on long before I heard about this event, which I'm going to make a part of it...

Aliki Grafft with Phineas and Ferb creators Dan Povenmire (center) and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh. Photo by Rick Andreoli, courtesy Phineas and Ferb Wiki.
I'm currently writing and collecting questions for an interview with Aliki Grafft, a writer and storyboard artist for Phineas and Ferb who's been working on it pretty much since the beginning. I'm glad things worked this way for multiple reasons- not only for the event itself, but because I'm getting the chance to interview a woman who works on a popular animated program with various demographics in particular. Although Speak Out is an all-in event, Ms. Valintinelli originally hoped to "reach out to...the demographic that bucks the stereotype, my fellow female geeks", no doubt because of the Magic kerfuffle. Plus, given the fact that women working as writers in television are becoming rarer and rarer, I've coincidentally picked an interview subject (or did she pick me?) that seems to be a perfect fit for the event.

I've come up with a lot of questions, and I've been getting a lot of great ones from my friends and fellow P&F fans online. But this serves as one more plug and call for questions: what do you want to know about what it's like writing/storyboarding for Phineas and Ferb or for working on an animated series in general? This is your chance to find out. Send me your best questions as comments on this post, and look for the interview with Aliki next week.