After interning at Hanna-Barbera and Spumco, California native, Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft truly began her career when she was hired by Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1995 to animate on such films as “Hercules,” “Tarzan,” and “Treasure Planet.” In 2002 she left Disney Features to continue her animated adventures in the world of television. Aliki has worked at Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, and Disney T.V. as a Character Designer, Story Artist, and Writer. While at Nickelodeon, she created and co-executive produced two shorts for Nickelodeon/Frederator’s “Random Cartoons” show entitled, “Yaki and Yumi” and “Girls on the GO.” She has spent the last several years working at Disney TV as a Writer, Story Artist, and Emmy-nominated Songwriter on the highly-acclaimed show, “Phineas and Ferb.” Recently, she has also written and story boarded a short featuring Minnie Mouse for the new Mickey Mouse Shorts program. Aliki has enjoyed developing various projects for both Nickelodeon and Disney, and took particular pleasure in directing and co-executive producing Cartoon Hangover’s, “Doctor Lollipop” which was accepted to the prestigious Annecy Animation Festival and Toronto Animation Arts Festival International in 2014. Currently, Aliki is directing at Disney TV on a “to be announced” Disney TV series as well as helping to develop various projects.
How did you first get into animating? What cartoons and shows first inspired you?
It was my dream to get into animation in some way or form since I was a child. I absolutely loved cartoons! From Popeye, to Looney Tunes, to Rocky and Bullwinkle to the Disney films — I loved it all.
I always loved drawing, and studied art in college, however the true study of the craft came after I graduated when I signed up for classes at The Animation Guild, and later got into the Disney Feature Animation Training Program.
I saw you pursued Fine Arts at USC — was it difficult to transition to animation? Would you recommend want-to-be animators pursue a more formal arts education first?
When I was applying for school, I really had no idea what I was doing, or what type of program I should be looking for for proper training to become an animator. My father felt a regular degree at a traditional university was important, so I did not entertain the idea of going to places like Cal Arts and such (though I really wish I had). I did enjoy my years at USC, but found afterward I had a lot of catching up to do to compete with my peers who had had more formal training. At the time USC did not have an animation program and in fact had only one animation class, which I did take of course! I think of my years at USC as being more about shaping my thinking skills, than the practical training for the craft. That had to come later both in classes I took, and on the job.
You sure wear a lot of hats! From Emmy nominated songwriter to story boarder, director to voice over actor, producer and development. Is it common for someone in animation to do such a range of work?
I am lucky to have dabbled in different facets of the job. I have found that I really like being in a position where I can wear different hats. Currently I am directing on a new series for Disney, and I’m absolutely LOVING it. I don’t know if it’s common, I think it depends on the individual. I think there are people who master one specific skill and become the best at that specific thing they do (painting, animating, etc). But I have always most enjoyed myself when I’m a part of the whole process. My dream job is to have my own show, though what I’m doing now is pretty dreamy 😉
What is your inspiration for coming up with a show and character ideas?
I find inspiration in my life, my memories, and people I’ve known. My children are also constant inspiration to me. I feel like my characters have come more to life since they’ve been a part of mine.
Who’s your favorite character to draw or write for and why?
I absolutely loved writing and drawing Candace from Phineas and Ferb. I love imperfect characters, and she is definitely one of them. She is so driven by her emotions that it makes it fun to write for her and play around with her acting. Plus I might just know a little bit about what it feels like to be an angsty teenaged girl!
You’ve done both your own shorts (Yaki and Yumi and Girls on the Go) as well as larger productions like Phineas and Ferb — how does it differ working on a solo cartoon as opposed to a team?
I can’t say if I love one more than the other. Creating my own show is truly my dream, so having a vision, and then bringing it to life every step of the process is exciting for me. But I absolutely love the collaborative effort of being on a show like Phineas and Ferb. Nothing is more fun than being in a story room with my colleagues from the show. I got to laugh HARD every single day I came into work! Being paid to laugh and make others laugh is a pretty fine way to spend the day!
How much of your work is still based on drawing and how much has moved over to computers? Last year Disney’s Chief Exec revealed none of the company’s studios were working on 2d hand-drawn animated movies. What are you thoughts on that?
Although I am now drawing on a Cintiq instead of paper, I am still drawing! Yes, currently, Disney Features is producing CG films, but happily over here in TV we are still making 2D animated television shows. Whether a project is done in 2D or 3D, the storyboarding process is still the same…drawn, by hand, by a human!
I read in the annual 2013 Celluloid Ceiling survey of employment in the top-grossing 250 domestic pics found that overall employment for women in 2013 came in at 16% — with women “least likely to work in animation, sci-fi and horror titles.” Does that reflect your experience as well?
That question could be saved for a whole article in itself! As of now, I believe there are only two female directors that I know of at the TV studio, and one female creator. I hear that the class ratio of women to men at Cal Arts is now 50/50. So, I’m hopeful this will mean more women in creative leadership roles! I think the hours and demands perhaps turn many women away because of their concerns about being able to balance career and their desire to be a mom. I have found a way to do it and am happy to say that I have a thriving career AND thriving, happy children!
Are there any skills you’ve acquired as an animator, writer, producer for hit kid tv shows that make you a better mom?
Making decisions quickly, time management, trusting my gut, committing, letting go, being silly, making up songs, doing funny voices while reading stories, being in a creative space all the time — isn’t parenting so much about being creative with ideas, solutions, and play?
You work in an industry that’s aimed at children. However as a mom, where do you fall on the debate of TV watching and kids?
At Disney we have a whole department that ensures that our shows are safe for kids, and empower and inspire children. Many times my children may be going through something in their lives, and will cite an example from DIsney Jr. shows like Sofia the First, or Callie to help work through or understand a problem. We do not overuse the TV, but instead are sure to balance TV time with one on one time, play and reading!
Do you recommend any resources (websites, organizations, books, etc) for people interested in pursuing a career in animation?
Any hints as to what’s coming up next for you?
I am directing on a new animated series, and *think* I may be directing on a TV movie for the studio as well…stay tuned!! (Or tooned??) 😉
Thanks so much to Aliki for giving us a sneak-peek into the world of animation! We loved exploring her work and getting to see a little more of the behind-the-scenes process that goes into these cartoons. It’s pretty amazing and will definitely make me appreciate watching cartoons with my kids that much more.
And just in case all that isn’t enough, she also draws the cutest napkins for her kids’ lunch boxes.