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.

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