#42. A Conversation with Elizabeth Ito

Jason Anders: So let's talk about your time spent in school at CalArts majoring in Character Animation; what originally inspired you to want to become an artist and what were your four years in college like?

Elizabeth Ito: I'm not really sure what the first thing was to inspire me to be an artist. I was always drawing as a kid, mostly because it was the best way I knew to express my feelings, both good and bad. The first thing I remember wanting to be was a children's book author and illustrator. My parents read to me a lot, so a lot of my early influences were children's book artists, like Richard Scarry, William Steig, Beatrix Potter, and too many more to list. I also always strive be a better artist... I'm not trying to sound like the Stuart Smalley of art, I've just always been my biggest critic. For example, when I was a very small child, my mom enrolled me in a Monart class, which she probably regretted in the end, because I would constantly compare my artwork to the teacher's example. I could see that mine clearly didn't look as good. I thought I sucked. I didn't really understand that maybe, for my age, I had done an OK job.
Regardless of feeling inadequate at a young age, the truth is, no matter what, I don't think I would've stopped drawing, or creating stories. A lot of times it was an outlet for anything I was feeling. I remember being in tears about random kid drama, but needing to get bad feelings out, and the only way I knew how was to draw a picture. On the positive side of that, there were lots of times I would lose track of time, happily drawing diagrams of mice in their houses.

The first thing to make me want to work in animation as a profession was my experience in the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA, now going under the name of Innerspark) in the summer of 1996. I had to fill out an application, and remember thinking, "I guess I'll try animation, I've never really tried that before." I was accepted, but only really decided to go because all my friends from my high school were going away for the summer. It was probably one of the luckiest random decisions I ever made in my life, I really fell in love with animation during that summer. It was only about a month long program, and it sounds like I'm talking about a religious conversion, but the effect it had on my goals, and my life in general, was indescribable. The program really changed my life.
JA: Which cartoons did you grow up watching, and do you have an all-time favorite piece of animation?

EI: I watched a lot of Sesame Street, Silly Symphonies, Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes, Garfield and Friends, Muppet Babies, random Saturday morning cartoons, and various Disney movies. I broke a VHS tape of Disney's Robin Hood that we had taped off the television because I watched it so much. When I was still in grade school I remember going to an animation festival screening at a theater in West LA, which gave me a good perspective on everything you could do, beyond the Disney realm, with animation. I remember a friend of the family went to Japan, and came back with a VHS tape of My Neighbor Totoro, which I loved instantly. I'm surprised I didn't break that tape, too.
My brother is eight years younger than me, so I wound up watching a lot of shows because of him. I would say that Nickelodeon was one of our favorite channels, and I remember seeing Creature Comforts for the first time, as an interstitial on that channel. When I was older I was a big fan of Rocko's Modern Life. Even when I was in college, I was still watching Nicktoons in my spare time. As far as an all-time favorite, it's really hard for me to say, because there are so many that I could watch over and over again. I think right now, it's a toss up between Creature Comforts, My Neighbor Totoro, Rocko's Modern Life (the Wacky Deli episodes) and... probably Disney's Robin Hood for nostalgia's sake.
JA: Tell me about your line of toys and how you got started in creating plush dolls- also tell me about Mister Monster Doll and Flavas Dolls.

EI: I started working as an intern at Mattel during the summer of my sophomore year at Cal Arts, and was the only Cal Arts student in their internship program that summer. Most of the other students who were interns came from Otis's toy design program. The internship came as a result of being noticed for my work in a scholarship program. Three Cal Arts Character Animation students were selected for a scholarship during the school year. We all came in a program at Mattel called, "Project Platypus." Sounds like a joke, but it was actually pretty cool. Twelve employees were chosen from different departments inside Mattel, and brought together to learn new ways to work together, with the common goal of creating a new toy line. Me and my fellow Cal Artians each came up with our own toy line ideas, and at the end of the scholarship program, we presented our ideas, along with the Mattel employees. A few executives at the presentation really liked my work, and my ideas, so they singled me out, and offered me an internship for the summer, with the Girls New Brands division. I got to work in their design center in El Segundo. It was a big privilege, because a lot of people who work at Mattel aren't allowed access to the design center if they aren't working as artists/designers.

At the time, Girls New Brands were making the Flavas dolls, and they gave me a pretty cool assignment, that was very much suited to my strengths. I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to say, so I'll leave it at that. Mattel is a huge place, and it was incredible to see how things work in their design center. It was a great experience for me to work there, as it gave me a much better idea of how toy design, and production, works.... I guess that leads me to Mister Monster...

Mister Monster was a character in my junior year film at Cal Arts. He appears on the desk of the main character, to inspire him, and remind him that once in a while you need to break out, to do your own thing. I randomly showed a sketch of the character to a toy producer when I was out at a party. I had been telling him about my internship from the previous summer, at Mattel, and showed him my sketchbook. He immediately singled out the character who would become Mister Monster, and said he wanted to make a toy of that. I said that would be fun, and to my amazement, it actually happened, and it happened while I was still in school, which was pretty rad. Eventually we made three other paint variations on the toy: a Cal Arts edition (that was sent out to donors to Cal Arts), a Comicon edition (who looked like a ninja), and an edition for Polysics (a Japanese, Devo-like band).
JA: You would eventually work for Dreamworks Animation as a storyboard artist on Bee Movie; tell me about your memories of being involved with this motion picture, and what it was like to work on such a big project for talents like Steve Hickner and Jerry Seinfeld.

EI: Working at Dreamworks was quite an experience. They have a huge pool of very talented artists working there, so it was a little intimidating. After a while the intimidation stops affecting you, and it's easier to get comfortable with the job. Specifically for Bee Movie, it was pretty exciting to pitch my boards to Jerry Seinfeld. I remember I was really nervous, because I was hoping for a good reaction from him, but wasn't sure what to expect. The sequence I pitched went really well, and it was really easy to tell that he liked it, because he had a very loud laugh. It was flattering to have a guy known globally for his comedy, laughing at your storyboards. Luckily, it was supposed to be a funny sequence.
JA: During that same year you would also work at Disney as a storyboard artist on Katbot, and for Fred Wolfe Films on Zula Patrol; tell me about the work you did on these projects.

EI: Katbot and Zula Patrol were both freelance storyboarding jobs. I don't think Katbot ended up making it on the air, though I could be wrong. I never actually got to see the episodes of Zula Patrol that I worked on, but I know that it is still on television. For both these jobs, I enjoyed getting the experience of working fast, and making my own hours- but I think I've found storyboarding to be easier when done in house, because I like having people around to talk to, and to bounce my ideas off.

JA: Tell me about your original pilot for ABC, My Family As Monsters.

EI: I was initially very taken off guard by getting the opportunity to do this. Disney had tried to contact me, but after some failed attempts, a secretary at Cal Arts actually called me, and told me that Disney had been trying to get a hold of me, and she told me who I needed to call. When I went in for a meeting, I was under the impression it was a normal "meet & greet," a kind of meeting where they just want to meet you to tell you they like your work, and see if you would be interested in pitching or working there in the future. I came in, and probably not more than ten minutes into the meeting, I found out they wanted to option my short film, Welcome to My Life, for a prime time series on ABC Family. It took quite a while to get through all the legal contract writing stuff, about a year, and I ended up spending only about half that time actually working on the pilot. I came up with ideas about how to get the same improv/ documentary feeling of my short into a series, and at first it was really cool. It took a lot of time to come up with a format for how to debut the show in a way that both Disney and ABC Family would be happy with, but eventually we decided to do a 22 minute pilot.
I auditioned about 45 actors and actresses for the non-family parts over the course of one day, wrote a bunch of questions out for the record session, recorded my family and actors over the course of two days in a fancy sound studio, built a radio play with a sound designer, and was ready to storyboard an animatic. Then everything ground to a halt. Within the "waiting for permission to storyboard" phase, the executive who had originally brought me and my short to Disney, left the company. Shortly after that my pilot left the company as well. In the end I think it was for the best, because I learned that ABC Family would've wanted to script the show, and use actors for the voices of my family, which I'm certain would remove all of what makes the original short appealing to people in the first place. I was sad about losing the opportunity to make my own show, but happy that my original idea was left undamaged, and uncompromising.

JA: You would go back to storyboard for Disney on the series The Emperor's New School, and also on Phineas and Ferb; what is it like to work on such a popular series with a director like Dan Povenmire, who has come from working on such shows as Family Guy, Rocko's Modern Life, and Spongebob Squarepants?
EI: It was really fun to work on an outline based TV series like Phineas and Ferb. A lot of popular shows, like Simpsons, and Family Guy, are script based. Everything that happens in the show is planned by a writer. On Family Guy, a storyboard artist is given a script that is very specific as to location, action, and dialogue. On outline based shows, the board artist is given a few basic paragraphs, summarizing what needs to happen in the show. The board artist is responsible for writing all the dialogue, and usually has much more freedom to insert their own humor, through both action and dialogue, into the episode.

When working from an outline, essentially you learn to be a comedy writer, since all the dialogue, and gag ideas, come from you. I had never worked on an outline based show like that before, but most TV shows that I was a big fan of, like Spongebob and Rocko, had been (and still are) made that way. I had a blast working this way, and actually found that I prefer working off an outline. It was really great to work with Dan Povenmire, and Swampy Marsh, they are both very funny guys, and sort of heroes of mine, because of my love of Rocko. It's also very important that I mention my storyboarding partners, Kim Roberson, and Aliki Theofilopoulos. They were both a big help to me in learning the ins and outs of boarding from an outline, and working as a team. Also my friend Zac Moncrief was great as a director of one of the episodes that I boarded, and was really good at coming up with funny ideas.
JA: Let's talk about Welcome to My Life, a short film you made which is an animated documentary about a family of monsters trying to lead a normal American life. This film is a brilliant piece of comedy, with great animation and character design- so great, in fact, that it not only won you a nomination for the Student Academy Award in 2004, but also won the Producer's Choice Award in the first Nicktoons Film Festival; what was it like for you to receive so much recognition for a project this early in your career, and did you have any idea that the film would gain the attention and positive feedback that it did?

EI: Thank you very much for your kind words about Welcome to My Life. It's always a big honor to win an award for something you've made (unless it's a Razzie Award, or a Darwin Award), so I was very happy that people liked my film enough to feel it was a winner for anything. Unfortunately I didn't end up winning the Student Academy Award, but I was in the top ten contenders that year. Even though I didn't win, I was really honored to be in the top ten. There were a lot of people who entered, and about two or three elimination rounds that I had to make it through to get that far... so I still felt like I could give myself a high five for making it to the last round.
The funny thing is that I almost didn't make Welcome to My Life, because I had intended to graduate a year early from Cal Arts. At the last minute I changed my mind. I think part of it was because I started getting this new film idea, and I knew I would be disappointed if I never got to make it. For me, this film started from wanting to shine a bit of light on my brother, because I think he is a great writer, and a very funny person. He had written an autobiography of himself for his high school English class, and I found it to be very funny, in a heartfelt and honest kind of way. I really wanted to capture the feeling his writing had. As I started to work on it, I realized that feeling kind of defined my whole family's existence: funny, yet honest and heartfelt.

As my film started to come together, I felt that this was different than the other films I had made at Cal Arts. It made me feel something when I watched it, like when you hear a song you really like- there's a kind of wave that goes through you, where you feel warm, and like your scalp is relaxing... Or at least, that's how I feel, I'm not sure if it's a universal feeling. As a filmmaker, you always hope for a certain reaction from your audience, for me I always want people to connect to my work, to like it, and to remember it. That said, I don't think I expected my film to gain the attention it did, but I certainly hoped people would like it. It was one of the rare moments when I made something personal for myself, that thankfully ended up being personal for a lot of other people, too, while also making them laugh. I'm glad that the world can appreciate my family, and our eccentric way of thinking and joking, the same way that I appreciate it.
JA: Finally, let's talk about your work as a storyboard artist on the new film Astro Boy; tell me about your experiences of being involved on this picture, and what has it been like to work for the director, David Bowers, who has worked on such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Flushed Away, and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Also, what is next for you in your career, and where do you ultimately see yourself in the world of art and animation?

EI: I had a really great time working on Astro Boy. We had to work a lot with Tezuka's company to make sure they were happy with the direction the movie was going, down to something as minute as how many eyelashes Astro should have, or whether he should have them at all. Astro Boy is such an iconic figure, they wanted to make sure we were portraying him correctly. It was tricky, but hopefully the public, both fans and those new to Astro Boy, will like the movie. Dave was a pleasure to work with, and I'm glad I got the chance to get to know him, and work with him. In general, there were so many talented people I got to meet, and work with on that movie, I feel very fortunate. I can't wait to see the movie in October.
As far as my future, there were some temporary financial hang ups at Imagi, and I ended up getting a job story-boarding at Cartoon Network, on Adventure Time. Pendleton Ward is a good friend of mine, and I am a big fan of his work, so I'm very excited and happy to be working on his show. It's a lot of fun, and probably the best show I could ask to work on. I can't wait to see it on the air. As far as the future beyond that... I'm not sure yet, hopefully I have a while to do a lot of different things, and work with a lot of different people... but probably world domination is still at the top of my list. Join my army! Ito out!