Meet Jonni Phillips, creator of “Rachel and her Grandfather Control the Island”
Jonni Phillips is a young animator worthy of note – I know, because she was noted to me. At my first “general meeting” with Eric Homan – this is industry speak, in practice we mostly talked about and watched cartoons – but when I met Eric, Frederator Studios’ VP of Development and my now-boss, I also met Jonni Phillips, via her GO! Cartoon, “Rachel and her Grandfather Control the Island”.
Her short was fully mixed, or nearly there, by the time Eric showed it to me. In context, we’d been discussing how for years, most everything pitched to Frederator looked like Adventure Time. “This,” Eric said as “Rachel’s” characters began flopping across the screen, “actually feels completely new”. I could only agree. As Jonni’s career begins within – or perhaps, happily on the outskirts of – an industry that she finds “folds over itself” in its desperation to avoid risks, I hope Eric’s comment appears to her as it does to me: the highest compliment.
You’re in your 3rd year at CalArts – why did you choose experimental animation, over character?
It came down to the differences between the programs. In character animation, there’s a lot more focus on making industry-friendly work, while in experimental they let you focus on the kind of art that you want to be making. I’m also really attracted to the experimental animation film world despite my work being more character/narrative driven, and a big part of my artistic career so far has been trying to find a way to bridge the two.
What are your primary techniques?
I do stop motion, traditional 2d animation, and multiplane techniques: stacking glass planes for depth and shooting with a camera above them. It creates the shadows that you can see in a lot of my films. And all sorts of materials – like I used styrofoam in my 1st year film.
Styrofoam! Awesome. What’s your 1st year film about?
It’s called “The Earth is Flat” and it’s about warped perceptions of reality and perception in general, and using flat earther culture as a jumping off point to try and convey how real warped ways of looking at the world can feel when you actually believe them.
(we proceeded to watch “The Earth is Flat”, which I recommend you also do ❀)
So you stack characters – as physical cut outs – on backgrounds?
Pretty much! My friend Victoria (Vincent, a fellow animator) and I actually made a short with just construction paper cutouts called “Stilton’s in Charge”. It started as a game, where we were taking turns drawing lines, which then became characters, which we made into a film. They look bizarre, which I’m happy with. It actually went to a few fests and screened in front of some small crowds.
What about your next film – 2nd year?
That’s “Goodbye Forever Party” – more than anything else I’ve made, I see it as the direction that I’m going in.
Hol’ on, real quick: what’s the big goal?
My ultimate goal is to make independent animated features. Low budgets, with the focus just on making it. It’s $50 for a thing of paper to cut characters out of – add a couple more materials and you’re solid. It cost me $100 to produce my 20 minute 2nd year film. It’s mostly paper, cut out and animated on glass! I animated it all in 3 months.
(we proceeded to watch “Goodbye Forever Party,” which I also recommend you do ❀)
You must have a lot of paper cut outs.
A whole box of them. I gave a bunch out to friends.
When did you start making films?
I started making lego movies when I was 10, and I incorporated a lot of what I learned through that into making 2d animation. I did a program when I was 16 called CSSSA at CalArts, and went back the next year too. It’s a great program. And then I got into CalArts, turned 18 and pitched to GO! Cartoons.
How similar was your pitch to the final project?
My pitch had all the same plot points. The idea was to pitch for practice, I never expected it to go anywhere. But then they were like, “Ok, let’s make it”. I hadn’t ever pitched anything professionally – I figured it out as I went along.
When did you come up with “Rachel”?
I came up with the characters in like early high school and had been trying to figure out something to do with them for a really long time. I tried different things with it, but never solidified anything, so I opted to use it as a foundation for my GO! Cartoons pitch. At the time I was really interested in Edward Snowden, and government surveillance and intelligence, so all that got brought in. It definitely started out as an “on a whim” thing.
So you were actually still in high school when you pitched?
Yeah! I practiced my pitch with my old animation class at my arts high school, OCSA. My friend Mathieu Libman from that class got into CalArts for EA with me, so he’s seen it at every incarnation, and it’s been cool that he’s been there for the whole process. Kai Lynn Jiang, who voices Rachel and designed the backgrounds, was the first person I ever showed the pitch to.
What turned you to cartoons?
As a kid, I was really into comics, and cartoons. I loved Ed, Edd and Eddy.
What things inspire you most / are your favorites?
Moral Orel -It’s this Adult Swim cartoon that parodies old Christian stop-motion shows like Davey and Goliath. But in the 3rd season, there’s all this exploration of the people in the town it’s set in, their emotional realities. It’s really beautiful in a lot of ways. But I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – the humor is pretty gross. You gotta get past that.
Also – Clone High. And BoJack Horseman, I’m really inspired by the tone. It balances humor and the dramatic really well! Brad Neely, who had an Adult Swim show called China, Illinois – I like his internet work a lot. It’s very specific character humor.
Don Hertzfeldt made a film called It’s Such a Beautiful Day that’s just my favorite thing I’ve ever seen. He’s really interesting, how his work went from kind of stupid jokes, to things that are really existential and beautiful. And there’s a Soviet union era Latvian cartoon called Fantadroms that I like – I’m really just glad and surprised that it exists, it’s so bizarre.
Estonian animator Priit Parn is an inspiration, and Amy Lockhart, who does great cutout work. Sally Cruikshank, who’s amazing and makes a lot of independent animation. And Danielle Kogan, another independent internet animator. Also the comedian Alan Resnick.
What else do you love?
Nathan For You, 30 Rock – they often feel like cartoons. Spongebob. And I love stuff that my friend Victoria Vincent does, like “Cat City” – I voiced the titular cat. Victoria was the voice of Stacy in “Rachel” and she’s also the basis of Stacy’s character design.
What would you be if you weren’t going to be an animator?
My gut impulse is cult leader. No, scratch that. Cult member. Right now, I’m writing my thesis film with my friends Jenna Caravello & Haein Michelle Heo, called “The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia”. I’ll be animating it and doing all the production stuff next year. It’s kind of about sympathizing with cult members – I drew inspiration from Heaven’s Gate. It came about because as I’ve watched videos of Do, the late leader of Heaven’s Gate, he’s sucked me in, making me believe it—although his message resulted in all of his followers killing themselves, so I always have to remind myself that what he’s saying isn’t actually real. So I wanted to make a film exploring how people fall into these sorts of beliefs. In it, they’re actually right – part of the film takes place on the planet only they believe exists. From that basis, I’m looking at how people develop their perspectives, especially really fringe beliefs.
Like in “The Earth is Flat”?
Yeah – I consider all of my movies to take place in the same world. Different visual representations in each film manifest from the character’s different perspectives and worldviews.
Do you like much mainstream animation?
I love the new Mickey Mouse shorts directed by Paul Rudish, The Amazing World of Gumball, Mission Hill, the Simpsons, Spongebob, Bojack, Adventure Time… The main reasons I wanted to pitch to Frederator were Mel Roach’s Rocket Dog and Jesse Moynihan’s Manly. They showed me how Frederator prioritizes what the artist envisions for their short, and how they want to do it.
What do you think distinguishes what you like from what you don’t?
The work I like tends to come from creators who have distinct visions and intentions behind the stories they’re telling and the visuals they’re putting together. I feel like what’s been happening in the animation industry for a while is that a lot of established studios are trying to do the same thing they’ve done in the past or recreate lightning in a bottle or whatever, and everything folds over itself and a lot of stuff ends up feeling the same as everything else. There’s a few exceptions, a lot of which I think I’ve mentioned, but it’s frustrating to see a lot of new and interesting voices not able to emerge because studios want stuff that feels like Spongebob or Adventure Time. I love both of those shows like everyone else, but it’s frustrating to see the same few sensibilities kind of repeated over and over, when there’s so many people out there making really interesting work that I’d love to see be included.
What’s the ultimate remedy, that you imagine?
I don’t know… I’d love to start my own studio, that focuses on amplifying voices we don’t hear from as often: trans directors, directors who are POC, female directors, gay directors, people who have unique sensibilities, etc. Letting them create the work they want to create, unrestricted by industry patterns and trends. I’m surrounded by incredible artists here at CalArts, and the stories they’re telling are profound and unique. And yet, entering the industry, they’re judged by their potential to conform – not to innovate and do things a new way, tell new stories. It’s like we’re all molding our voices to a system that doesn’t necessarily respect or represent us.
So what direction do you want to see the animation industry go in?
I’d love to see it go in a more progressive direction. I think it’s stagnant now – there aren’t enough risks being taken. Things getting green-lit are quite like what’s already been done. I’d like to see the industry empower people who are doing new and interesting things and pushing the field forward – while still creating entertainment. I think we should make room for different takes on filmmaking, timing, pacing, humor, pretty much every aspect of production. Let innovative artists make the work they want to make and celebrate it.
You’re deep in the animation field, before even graduating. What are some dreams totally outside of animation?
I’d love to have an artist’s commune, a sort of utopian refuge for creative people. Not mutually exclusive with the new studio idea. And I’d like to try live action film someday. In Experimental Animation, we’re required to take classes outside of animation, we have to take classes in dance, music, , theater. I started a band called Bug Lime Slush with my friends Haein Heo and Sam Lane… we dress up like birds.
What do you envision as the future of “Rachel”?
I have a LOT of ideas about it. A lot of stuff had to be taken out – I’d like to do a director’s cut. It was always supposed to be very manic and unfocused, and I’m glad that weird energy stayed intact throughout the process.
Basically – global warming has melted everything. The island is left uncovered, and a couple more islands too. I used to be super into the lore, now I’m more interested in the interpersonal relationships between the characters. I always wanted God to be in it – literally looming over them, watching everything, very pissed off. I wrote a scene of Grandfather greeting God from the top of a glass dome that surrounds the island, and Him just turning away in vague disgust.
I’ve come to see Rachel as the brain, and Grandfather as the arms of their operation. And I’ve become pretty interested in the president. When he got elected he abolished democracy and replaced free elections with a new rule, “whoever kills the president becomes the president”, which he thought was going to let him stay president forever because he thought everyone loved him, but now the citizens of the island are always trying to kill him.
Rachel and her Grandfather were originally based on two aspects of my personality, Rachel being productive and isolated and creative, and Grandfather being more hyperactive and social. Rachel as time has gone on has become a lot more smarmy and chaotic, especially when I try to write her now… Grandfather has kind of turned into more of a shy dude who still has a lot of energy, mostly he’s just motivated by trying to help Rachel out with executing their operation.
B…b..bu..bu.. BONUS! question: Care to respond to any YouTube comments?
It’s pretty funny. I’m enjoying responding to a lot of the weirder or more unfounded comments. I’ve noticed some kids think that the animation style looks lazy. I think objectively, it looks like there was a ton of work that went into it (which there was) – I think you just gotta understand how animation works to know how much effort goes into making something look like that, where it’s always morphing and changing and you have to coordinate it all. I think that even if you don’t like the drawings, which are just meant to look rough and loose and intuitive, the animation itself is still pretty impressive.
I feel like that too. Thanks for the meet-up and great talk Jonni! Stoked for the future of your work with Frederator and beyond. Don’t forget to hit me up when that socialist studio launches.
– Cooper ❀
Bumpin’ Jonni’s interview, in honor of “Rachel and Her Grandfather Control the Island”’s 1st Birthday!
I don’t play favorites, but Jonni’s interview is my favorite.