Elizabeth Ito is the writer-director behind the Netflix animated series City of Ghosts.
EI: So when I was six years old, my great-grandmother had passed away the previous year. I happened to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night [one night]. I remember I was in our bathroom where I was sitting facing out towards the hallway and I thought I saw sort of a foggy shape in the hallway. So I called out to my parents whose bedroom was in another part of the house. I just said: “uh, I'm scared! There's a ghost out here! Somebody come help me!” My parents shouted back: “just finish up and go to bed, please. Like, you know, we're sleeping!” So I did that and then the next morning, my dad asked me about it. It turned out that he had also seen the same thing in a hallway a little bit earlier and didn't want to come out because he was scared.
AH: That’s Elizabeth Ito – creator of City of Ghosts, one of the most inventive and soothing children’s TV shows in recent memory. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a documentary-style animated series about a little girl named Zelda, who has a ghost club – a group of like-minded kids, who seek out ghosts, interviewing them about who they were in life and what they’re up to in the afterlife. It has the same hypnotic feel as Adventure Time, a show that Elizabeth previously worked on, but a naturalism that’s Elizabeth’s own. For the 15-year animation industry veteran, there’s a beauty in the way that real-people tell their stories that she’s always keen to center in her charming kids TV.
EI: I would probably define the kinds of stories that I like to tell… I guess [as] really personal stories that come from people's lived experiences. I think it's just like what I like to hear about. And specific to my kind of storytelling, I usually like to hear them in the voice of the person whose story it is. So, I guess that's how I would define it. For me personally, I think it really bothers me when I hear dialogue that feels scripted in a way where I don't think people actually ever speak that way, like, in real life. It kind of, I don't know, it just kind of makes it more real and more personal for kids.
AH: I’m Al Horner, and today on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – Elizabeth Ito breaks down the innovative way she went about writing one of the most uplifting and ambitious animated series of the year: giving actors background information on characters and scenarios, then interviewing them about it and turning their recorded answers into teleplays full of naturalism and real-life voices. We also get into why Elizabeth has to turn off all thoughts about what studios might want to really get creative, and why the best kids TV doesn’t talk down to the children it seeks to entertain.
EI: To me, it's just chaotic because I think every time we would meet with the studio to explain the writing process on the show, I would feel like I was like going into The Matrix or something, trying to describe our process. [laughs]
AH: That’s all to come today on How I Write, presented by Arc Studio Pro – the screenwriting software that lets writers stay focused on the stories they’re trying to tell on the page. Get your free trial today to check out its intuitive design, seamless real-time collaboration feature, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on Arc Studio Pro later – but for now, with no further adieu…
EI: I'm Elizabeth Ito and this is how I write.
AH: Elizabeth is a writer-director with an interesting running thread to her own animated creations. Both City of Ghosts, and the breakthrough short film titled Welcome To My Family that came before it, feature otherworldly characters depicted in the most grounded of ways. In Welcome To My Family, that’s mild-mannered monsters, casually discussing their lives and favourite TV shows. In City of Ghosts, it’s ghosts. Obviously. The contrast between the otherworldliness of the characters and the naturalistic tone of these shows is a lot of fun – and stems from a need to make the most out of the animated format, explains Elizabeth.
EI: That contrast in my work where it's realistic voices combined with a fantasy element, I think it's because for me, animation is so much work that I always think if I'm going to do a story that’s real to some extent, there has to be some element of it that's worth doing all that work to do it in animation. So I think that's really the reason why anything that I do so far has had that contrasting element. I've always, really felt strongly that if you're gonna do all of the work that it takes to make animation, you should sort of like have a reason to do it that way.
AH: Since entering the industry as a storyboard artist and working her way up to writer-director, Elizabeth has always been looking for ways to disrupt the status quo – both in what sort of stories can be told on kids TV and the ways they might be written.
EI: I think City of Ghosts is a bit of an anomaly. It's been a little bit of a struggle each time. Not like an insurmountable one, because I've been able to produce things, like the short and the series. But it has always been a lot of convincing people in charge that this is possible. Like, it's possible to do things in a way that isn't written exactly like how that other show is written or it isn't planned out that way. Coming into this industry, it was sort of like, there were two options for the way that you write these shows. Like, it's either scripted or it's board-driven. I always kind of gravitated towards board-driven, which sort of means like you're given an outline and then you're basically relying on board artists to fill it in with dialogue and fill in a lot of the details. I think like I just wanted to carry that to the next level of that, where it's like, there's gotta be other other options. It can't just be two ways, two ways to do this. So I was really searching for a way to make this different and make it feel different.
AH: Elizabeth’s process begins with listening out for real-life stories of interesting people, and the dramas or dilemmas they might be navigating, both big and small. To find these, she opens magazines and newspapers, and ventures out into the vibrant Los Angeles neighborhoods around her, keeping her ears and eyes open for unusual people and practices. In fact, just yesterday, she spotted something she might use in the queue for her booster jab.
EI: Ideas come to me both through the stuff that I was about to consume – that’s such a weird term to use – but like, through the stuff that I watch, sometimes it'll spark ideas in me, like: “how can I achieve something that feels that way?” And then also just like, honestly, it’s reading articles and reading interviews with people or listening to interviews with them where something about their story and what's happening inspires me to think: “man, that's really interesting to me. How can I make something in my world that kind of delivers that, that depicts a character like this or depicts this thing that somebody's talking about that I find really interesting?” I definitely go places. To me it's like just being given fuel to produce funny stories, about funny things that happened, things that I noticed around me. I really do think it's something about just being really observant and curious about what's going on with people. I try hard to not interrupt moments that I see happening and instead I’m just kind of processing it in my mind and like absorbing it. So I think it very much is just kind of like a combo of going out and being observant of these moments.
AH: To do her best work, and to be her best creative self, Elizabeth has learned the hard way that she has to tune out the voice in her head that worries about what’s sellable, what the industry wants.
EI: The first steps are always really, I don’t know – it's almost like the first steps are really scary and sometimes, in some ways, it actually starts with me feeling frustrated. I definitely am always trying to figure out: “How do I make this as entertaining as I feel it can be?” For any studio, when you kind of come to them or even before you come to them with an idea, they usually have aspects that they tell you, like: “this is the thing that's important to us.” Or like: “this is the way that we like ideas” or things like that. So sometimes I'll try to frame it in a way where I think: “oh, they want to see this type of character, this type of story.” But the best ideas and the best way that I've found to work them out is really like, have to put those thoughts aside, of “how do I sell this?” It's more just sort of the idea of: “how is this interesting to me? What is the most innovative way I can think of to tell this story?” And also just like, “what way will this feel different than things that I've seen before?” Because I think once I'm trying to fit it into the traditional way things have been done, it starts to fall really flat for me. So it definitely has to start from an inspired place.
AH: Beginning to map out a series like City of Ghosts begins with a long list of locations and topics the show can get into. If you’ve watched it on Netflix already, you’ll know that each episode takes place in a different LA location, as Zelda and her friends investigate ghostly goings-on in coffee shops, dumpling restaurants and skate parks and so on. In doing so, they dig into some surprisingly deep topics: City of Ghosts deals with everything from gentrification to Native American place names and Japanese internment camps. At this point you might be wondering: how do they whittle down what to spend each episode exploring?
EI: Once we sort of had an idea of like, “we have this amount of episodes and they're each going to be roughly around this long” – it was sort of just [a case of] deciding within LA [where to set episodes]. We had a literal chart of neighborhoods, stories, characters, things like that. And I think for me, with this particular show, it was like, which of these feel like they're going to be relatively easy to tell and also fit within this amount of time? And then also, honestly, like just not wanting to kind of have episodes that were just incredibly depressing. I don't know how else to say it, but for kids, at least for me, you have to have each story be kind of hopeful. So I think I was looking for which of these [stories would] have the capacity to do that, and also just like: “which of these can I honestly handle, where I feel that we would know enough about the subject matter and we would be talking to the right people to do this in a in a way that appreciates everything about something that I might not have the deepest knowledge about?” So yeah, it was tough.
AH: City of Ghosts may break from tradition in terms of its unique digital animation and the innovative way episodes are written (which we’re getting to, I promise). But structurally, the show follows a classic kids TV template: present our characters with a problem, then step back as they solve it, through teamwork and togetherness.
EI: I think the thing that makes it rich and accessible is probably just that, that's sort of honestly, I guess what kids face on a micro level every day. All of us, really. Every day, every week, every so often our lives are like that. You're faced with something that might be a challenge or a question or a thing that you're dealing with that you want to figure out. And you have to figure out how you're going to do that. I think one of the definite themes of the show from early on was like me wanting to have a show that showed kids that it's not always like adults who are going to answer your questions and problems. Sometimes you're really capable of teaching adults something or seeing something in a way that adults might not see. Because they're not kids anymore. Kids have a fresh way of approaching a lot of things. I think that's something that I picked up on from what my mom would observe as a teacher. Just some of the things that she would talk about, the things that she would say about sometimes like, um, not understanding where a kid was coming from and then finally hearing their explanation of something and being like: “oh, wow, that was, that was actually so advanced. And I didn't see that. The sensitivity of children [means] they have these wide eyes that are not affected by the kinds of things we're affected by when we grow up.
AH: Still to come – why Elizabeth and her collaborators use improv and interviews as a way to write naturalistic dialogue, and why kids TV is at its best when it doesn’t talk down to its audience. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.
Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in that dreamy fantasy-like state while I weave my story and craft my characters. I don’t want to be distracted by anything and I certainly don’t want to be thinking about text formatting. Arc Studio Pro understands that. It’s so intuitive. It has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to stay completely focused on the story I’m trying to tell. If you like to work with a writing partner, well, good news – Arc Studio Pro has seamless real-time collaboration kind of similar to Google Docs which allows you and whoever you’re working with to stay and literally and figuratively on the same page. Importing and exporting other formats like PDF and Final Draft files is easy. And best of all, it has an always free plan. Meaning you can sign up today and start writing. To take your screenwriting to the next level, visit ArcStudioPro.com. Click the link in today’s show notes to find out more. Okay, back to the conversation.
EI: So specifically, for the topic of gentrification, I was nervous at the beginning to use that as the log line for the show. For me it was like: “how do we say that that's what we wanted to make the show about, without necessarily making it sound like we have a political goal to this?” Because I think in general, most studios, they want to hear about the universal quality to your story. But it's not necessarily like they love it when you add political words to the mix. So I think for me it was sort of saying: “this is a little girl who's interested in the history of our city and how it's changing and how” – honestly, I think one of the first log lines had something about like how “that can be both good and bad for the community.” Because, I mean, honestly, even for me, personally, gentrification is tough. I understand the varying sides of it. I understand how bad it is. I understand the way that it seems like it also benefits certain people in certain areas. It was definitely something where I consciously said at the beginning that I want to avoid tackling things where I feel like people are gonna feel like we're taking a stance. I really just want to talk about things as interesting stories and not talk about it from an angle where we're telling people how to feel about this – not telling people, like, this is the right thing and this is a wrong thing. It really just has to be about problem solving rather than like, um, rather than like getting this gentrifier out of the neighborhood. It's not really about that. It's about, you know, how are we solving this particular problem? [laughs]
AH: As I mentioned, City of Ghosts is pretty intrepid in the way that it deals with topics kids TV shows typically shy away from. Part of the desire to make the show, Elizabeth explains, was to give kids a framework for understanding adult words and topics that might enter their periphery – for example, the very premise of the show involves death, in a roundabout way. That was confronted in the TV I grew up with. Anyways – when it comes to writing episodes, Elizabeth doesn’t sit down with a laptop or pen and paper. Instead, she creates outlines, then hands them to voice actors, who inhabit their character then sit down for an interview with one of Elizabeth’s key collaborators on City of Ghosts, Joanne Shen. The dialogue in each episode is then crafted from the natural rhythms of each actor’s speech.
EI: The episodes wouldn't really start with a script. Similar to board-driven stuff, they would start with an outline where we kind of outline where we thought the story would go and the key moments that we really needed to happen. And then we would know who we're going to record. We would kind of know, which people and characters had signed on to do voices, and [Joanne Shen] would craft an interview basically where she would kind of ask questions that would lead to some of the dialogue and some of the answers that are in the show – most of the dialogue and answers that are in the show. A lot of it was also figuring out things like, doing pre-interviews with people to figure out what stories they had to tell, and knowing what you wanted to hit with them once you were actually recording the interview. So we would start with these interviews and – it’s probably similar to what you do, where it's like you listen through it, try to highlight the dialogue that you think is working for the story you're telling and the episode you’re doing.
AH: From there, Elizabeth and co will write dialogue for the child actors (they’re exempt from this improvisational process) and script things for the adult actors to record to help move between plot points.
EI: We would usually have like a second record where we could get any outstanding answers where we needed something to be more brief or where we just needed them to elaborate on something that we decided was an interesting point. And then I guess sort of working backwards, just so that we would have something to, to show what, what all of the dialogue was, eventually we would have a script, like at the end where it was like something that made sense in a screenwriting way.
AH: After that point, the writing process becomes an animation process, and Elizabeth begins to activate a whole other part of her creative brain. When whatever she’s been working on eventually sees the light of day, it can be a nerve wracking experience – after all, she’s putting parts of herself and her family on screen. Elements of City of Ghosts were inspired by her own children, aged 5 and 7. An episode touching on Japanese internment camps was informed by hardships endured by her own family members. It can bubble up into an anxiety that she has to talk out with family and friends.
EI: Before it comes out, I'm always incredibly nervous. Because you just never know. Starting with my short, I remember before it came out, talking to my husband, talking to friends, but mostly to my husband, because you honestly never know. And so I think like for me, I had to kind of set my expectations at, like: “okay, if there's a lot of negative comments underneath this short, I gotta just not read them and just like power through it somehow. Then figure out if this was valuable to me without having to have the public weighing in on that.” I think that was my first really incredible experience of having something come out and not having people be toxic and hating it underneath it. So that was a huge relief. I had just set myself up to not expect that, so it was very unexpected. With City of Ghosts, it was nice that that felt like an even better outcome. It really touches me when people say things like: “my kid made their own hairbrush, my kid loves the show.” All of that means so much. It means the world to know that people can watch it with their kids. That was something that I had really, really hoped for – that it would be a show that parents didn't feel like they were just tolerating – that they actually also liked it [too]. So that's been incredible.
AH: Far from basking in the glory of a job well done, Elizabeth then pretty immediately begins to look ahead towards her next project. She does this with excitement, and with a note of apprehension – can she top what she just created? What if she’s already peaked, asks a self-doubting voice somewhere within. Her love of writing – as an outlet for emotions, and a chance to explore different lenses through which to see the world – keeps her stepping up to that challenge, though.
EI: This is a weird thing to say, but there's also just this nervousness of wanting every next thing that I do to not disappoint, so I keep kind of building on that. I think there is always this kind of building tension of like: “will I be able to do that again? Will it go as well?” And just hoping that it does. [laugh]. I think the reason that I write is the same reason that I drew when I was really little. Some people learn how to draw because they're wanting to emulate something or they're wanting to draw characters that they like, from cartoons and things like that. I always drew because it was a way to express myself and a way to, I guess I grapple with emotions. So I think one aspect of why I write is the same as why I draw – it's to get out emotions, to get out important things that I'm thinking about. Another aspect of it is how fun it is to describe worlds and describe events and describe things that are fun too – to just let your imagination run with it. It’s just sort of like this necessity, for getting out these thoughts and feelings and ideas, in any way possible. So yeah, for me, it's definitely like animation was something that I was so grateful to find. Because I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator. And this is sort of like the next best thing for me. It's getting to combine all of that with a moving image.
AH: Elizabeth Ito is the writer-director behind the Netflix animated series City of Ghosts. Her beautiful short film, Welcome To My Family, is available on YouTube. Look out for new shows and movies from her on Apple TV, with whom she’s just signed an deal to work on a host of exciting projects. You’ve been listening to How I Write. You’ve been listening to How I Write, hosted by me – Al Horner – with production by Kamil Dymek. Music is by Oliver Knowles. Our theme song is by Nafets. How I Write is brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today by visiting Arc Studio Pro.com. That’s it for the first season of How I Write. We’ll be back soon. Until then, thanks for tuning in – we’ll see you next time.