Emmy-winning artist Elizabeth Ito, known for writing and directing on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, has a broad relationship with Los Angeles. Her Japanese American family has formed part of the sunny metropolis’s fabric for four generations. Her new Netflix animated series, City of Ghosts, is not only a love letter to the city as an ever-changing physical space but to the diverse groups of people that live or have lived there. A warmhearted treasure, the show follows a group of small children led by Zelda (August Nuñez) that goes around distinct neighborhoods to help a variety of ghostly entities roaming restaurants, a puppet theater, and a Korean-barbecue spot.
Crafted as if it were a nonfiction production, City of Ghosts features Indigenous languages, a nonbinary character, and kid-friendly discussions on gentrification, colonialism, and even internment camps. Head over heels for this lovely and refreshing vision for children’s entertainment (that adults will binge-watch too), we recently chatted with Ito about all things City of Ghosts.
Was there an incident or persistent idea about the city and how its diverse communities are represented that ignited your desire to make the show, or were there other initial motivations?
What drives everything that I make is real people, things that I’ve seen in my life, or interactions between friends. In coming to Netflix, initially I wanted to make a series out of the short film that I had made about my brother and my family, Welcome to My Life, but when it looked like it was going to be a little bit difficult for rights reasons, I started to think about two things. One was storytelling in VR and how a lot of the stuff that I had tried out made me feel like a ghost; in VR, you don’t interact with the world the way that you do when it’s real. The other thing was that sometimes on my drives to wherever I have to go in the city, I’d pass through places where you’ll see a building that looks like it just doesn’t match all the buildings around it, or you’ll see architecture and think, That place looks old, and I don’t understand why. It looks like it came from a certain era or was repurposed. It has signs on it that are different now. Knowing that there have been so many issues with gentrification and neighborhoods changing and becoming something different from what they were before, I wanted to honor what was — and maybe what still is — in some ways.
What was the process of deciding which neighborhoods or stories to highlight in this first season?
It was really difficult to figure out which neighborhoods to talk about, because there are interesting things going on in all of them, but I didn’t want a show that talked about hot political issues. I didn’t want to take a stance on anything that I don’t fully understand. Then, practically speaking, we had to figure out how many episodes we were making and what we could afford to do, both creatively and just actual money-wise. There were some stories I would have loved to explore, but some stories are more difficult than others. There was a point where we had looked into talking about Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium, but we weren’t able to do that. It’s a complex subject matter. It was really hard to figure out how to tell that story from a kid’s perspective.
Why did you believe making the show feel like a documentary series was the ideal approach?
Since I did it for my short with my brother, I always wanted to do this in a documentary style as well. I really value the nuance in people’s actual voices and in talking to them and hearing people. Those are the things that I enjoy. I enjoy a lot of documentaries because they show an unsheltered version of people. There’s certain comedy and just storytelling things, like learned authenticity, in that. Once you start to script that for people, that kind of originality starts to disappear. So I was really eager to make sure that as many characters as we could would be voiced by people that were just talking as themselves. I worked with a documentary producer named Joanne Shen who helped get me started on how documentaries work. I also got together with my writer-comedian friend Jenny Yang, and we made a grid of all the neighborhoods that we could conceivably talk about.
How did you cast the children’s voices, which sound impressively unaffected? Were they given a script at all?
When we first started trying to figure out how we were going to do this, I thought, Is it possible to do this entire thing documentary style without scripting anybody? When I thought about trying to get that type of stuff out of kids, I was like, “We probably will have to script somebody.” So the kids are mostly scripted, but the way that we found them followed the fact that we wanted to use real people. Normally, voices are picked for animation using SAG actors, but since, for our show, the most important thing was using real people, we reached out to Linda Lamontagne — she’s a pretty famous voice-casting person in animation. We said, “We’re not allowed to use any SAG actors because we’re doing this unscripted. So that’s the priority. Is there a way to find children who are actors but not SAG?” Also, I asked, “Can you find kids who might live close to where we actually imagined these characters living in the show?” She is also from L.A., so she’s really attuned to that too.
How were the photo-realistic backgrounds achieved? I believe working with photographer Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin was part of it.
The backgrounds are tons of photographs with CG animation on top. I used that animation style in my short previously. The amount of realism in the background really helped with the story approach. For City of Ghosts, we took that to the next level by getting Kwasi and Chromosphere Studio involved. I was really worried Kwasi would say no to doing it. I had seen his photography before we approached him and thought, This person already has such a great understanding of the beauty of street photography in L.A. specifically. He felt like the right fit, and luckily he was up for it. Then Chromosphere’s additions were things I would have never come up with, like the blurring of the lines between realism and animation by designing the backgrounds in a certain way, or including design elements that you don’t always notice right away. You notice them as you are trying to figure out whether this is a real place or not. They also had this vision of how to achieve the handheld quality so it really feels like kids are shooting it like a documentary.
In the show, the concept of ghosts is nondenominational, and there’s no talk about death. Ghosts are friendly entities, sometimes represented differently from what we often see them as in western pop culture. What’s their symbolism for you?
For one thing, I had a ghost encounter when I was a child, and my remembrance of it is that it was just sort of like a foggy blob. That’s how, initially, the Janet design started. I had this idea that it would be cool if they looked soft, cottony, and touchable. Part of that comes from thinking about what the purpose of a ghost is. In my head, there’s the version of the ghost from horror movies, where they’re coming back to avenge their death or they’re coming back for spooky reasons. But for me, especially with the topic of neighborhood change and wanting to represent what was there before, I thought it was important to show ghosts as a force that’s trying to remind you that they existed — and to get you to see that they’re important, to get you to see them, essentially, which is weird, ’cause they’re not, you know, visible to everybody. If you’re able to see and acknowledge the history of something, or somebody, or some group that was there before, it starts us down a better path.
The episode on the Tongva people, who inhabited the area before Spanish colonization, is the most moving, precisely because of how the supernatural force is handled and who the protagonist is in that story.
We tried really hard to actively listen the whole time we were making that episode. Once Ako Castuera, the director, was onboard, there was a lot of back-and-forth about the right way to tell a story about who should really be the person that this story is about and for. The character of Jasper, played by Honor Calderon, was Ako’s idea. She said, “It should be a kid from this background who leads the charge in searching for answers because it’s important to him.” That was absolutely true. In addition, the choice of how to depict our ghost for that episode, we asked L. Frank Manriquez, who voices the ghost, straightforwardly, “If you were to play a ghost, what do you picture?” They picked the animal that they felt embodied them the way that we depicted them. A lot of the choices in that episode were approached in a similar way. We’d asked them, “Does this feel right to you?” We were open to them saying no and to adjust in order to make it authentic for them.
Was the language element difficult? I’m sure most people aren’t aware that it’s still spoken.
It was difficult to find people who knew about it. It was a really nice message for us when Megan says the line, “We like to say that our language was sleeping rather than it’s dying.” That’s in regard to their entire culture. That was a turning point for me. It was really important for me to hear somebody explain it that way. If people are always assuming that your culture is gone, or that your people are extinct, or referring to it as, “These people used to exist,” like when you see stuff in a museum, it becomes more important to remind people they’re not extinct. The fact that we don’t know a lot about them was intentional.
On the subject of inclusion that’s organic to the storytelling, I believe one of the main children, Thomas, is nonbinary, right? It seems to briefly come up via his pronouns.
You’re correct. We made Thomas, who is played by Blue Chapman, refer to themselves as they. I’m so glad people picked up on it. I hope I get to write more about it in the future. I don’t think I deserve a lot of credit for doing that, because it was such an easy choice for me. A lot of the credit has to go to Netflix. They didn’t stop it. I put it in there, and nobody flagged it or was like, “Can we talk about this? Do we have to do this?” I just made the choice. We had already recorded the first episode before we had Thomas using they/them pronouns in the second episode, and someone on the show actually pointed out, ”Hey, we need to rerecord this one character referring to Thomas, because they didn’t use the right pronoun.” I was like, “Heck yeah, let’s rerecord that.” For me, as a creator, the choice was very easy.
In episode six, which deals with the Oaxacan community of the city, it’s refreshing that you went the extra step to use the Zapotec Indigenous language. How did something so beautifully specific come to be part of the show?
That episode is last because it took me the longest to figure out what I was going to do. In my head, I knew I really wanted to do an episode about Koreatown. Then I realized Koreatown has mostly Korean businesses, or how Historic Filipinotown might have a lot of, like, Filipino businesses, but it doesn’t necessarily mean mostly Koreans or Filipinos live there. Then we found that one thing that was really interesting to me that I didn’t know about before. Joanne sent me a link to something about Zapotec whistlers, people in Oaxaca who whistle to each other across wide-open spaces. I was like, “Oh, this is really fascinating. Maybe it can be specifically about this thing.” We went on this quest to find as much info and as many people here that could either speak that language or knew about Zapotec culture. Once we found Gala Porras-Kim, who plays Lena, and professor Felipe Lopez, they helped us expand the story. My supervising director, Luis Grane, was also a huge part of that episode, because he already had a lot of background info about Oaxacan culture and Zapotec. His whole family is very involved in that particular academia. It came together by getting a lot of information from different people who are much better informed about stuff than I am.
How did Chepe, the ghost in that episode who is absolutely adorable, come to look the way he does?
It’s really funny — it was a combo thing. Luis, really early on working on that particular episode, was like, “There’s these things called alebrijes in Oaxacan culture, and it would be great if something about Chepe reflected that.” He had one in his office and showed me these great pictures of them. But he also had these books full of art — like ancient art that came from Oaxaca. I thought those sculptures were rad. The faces are cool. It’s silly, but then non-authentic stuff came in. I really like those inflatable air puppets that people have in front of businesses sometimes. I was thinking, What if Chepe was this long serpentlike thing? I had also read some Mexican mythological stories that had to do with a big serpent. So I thought, What if he had a long tail that was like one of those air puppets? That’s what the kids see sticking out, and that’s how they know how to find Chepe. Then I also really liked the No-Face ghost from Spirited Away. The faces on some of the sculptures that Luis showed me reminded me of No-Face’s mask. I wanted him to look like a combination of all of those things.
Given the hateful climate in this country, intensified over the past few years, do you see City of Ghosts as a counterpoint to such darkness?
For sure. Even as we were making it, there was this sense of, We really need this show. Whatever we can make to help us recover. Now, I don’t even want to say recover, because it’s just this constant thing that’s always existed and that every once in a while we get reminded of how much it’s like that. We forget for a bit and then it comes back. I hope that it helps. To be totally honest, it helped me to connect to all these communities that are really beautiful and that are as much a part of L.A. as anything.