It was a rainy, freezy day this past week when I met up with Kaitlyn Kieronski, a fellow alum of the always lovely Avery Coonley School and a current senior at NYU. We rendezvoused at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the West Village (a venue that offers much more than it’s name suggests) to warm up with a cup of coffee and chat about graphic art – one part of Kaitlyn’s very complicated, self-designed major.
We talked about Walt Disney, voice acting, Cartoon Network, Seinfeld, Pokemon, a brief history of Pixar, Japanese computer games, and a lot of other fun, fantastic, and amazing stuff.
What do you call your major?
I call it “a mix of my four concentrations.” Or just “Kaitlyn Kieronski,” which people always laugh at and I’m like, “It’s me, guys! It’s everything I learned until now.” But, it’s art history, cinema studies, media studies, and French studies.
So you don’t have a name for it?
I have a name, it’s what I did on my senior project: Retelling Stories Through Animation, so it’s everything I just mentioned put into analyzing animation.
…right. I wanted to ask you about…animation. Not cartoons, right?
Why don’t you call it cartoons?
A lot of people think cartoons are these sort of little gimmicks that don’t really have a plot. So when I’m studying animation I can study some of those, because it’s important to Walt Disney’s history and Studio Ghibli and all the animators usually start out that way, but…
I’ve heard of Walt.
You’ve heard of Walt? That’s great…have you seen a picture of him?
Yeah, I’ve seen a picture.
But, could you recognize him?
I think so.
Hopefully you could because it would kill me…that’s probably why I started studying animation.
Because nobody knew who Walt Disney was?
No, not that! It’s just become sort of a lost art form in a way. 2D animation. Anyway, to answer the earlier question: so, animation we’re talking about a full plot with actual characters that have actual emotion, et cetera.
So you’re not into little cartoons. But, what about those types of cartoons that are stretched out into stories that happen over multiple episodes?
Yeah that’s actually really popular in anime. Actually, a lot of what you see on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network – a lot of them are actually Japanese animations that they just dub in English. So we don’t realize it, but it’s actually Japanese.
Especially because it’s not in Japanese. Because if it was in Japanese I’d be like “that’s not English.”
Like what cartoons?
Right now what comes to mind is a lot of the superhero ones where there is a plot that you do follow where it’s like, “Which character is gonna end up with who? Oh my god there’s romance!”
And they transcribe and translate it word for word?
Mmm…this is actually a difficulty because there are cultural difference in speech patterns too, where, for example, the word “ouch” wouldn’t show up in an Asian dialect.
Oh, they don’t get hurt in Asia?
No they do get hurt they just make a different sound.
What is the sound?
It’s not “ouch.” They don’t say “ouch.” In Korean it’s “aigoo” (“I go!”) Yeah, it’s different.
But I also wouldn’t say “ouch” if I got hurt.
What would you say?
I would probably grunt too. Actually, I would probably swear.
But, yeah, if you’re doing it right you have to be careful and try to match up the words with the way the mouths move.
Yeah it would be funny if they didn’t match up at all. It wouldn’t work.
In cartoons it’s a bit easier because usually, unless it’s a closeup they’re not very defined so you can get away with it more because they have to produce so many sequences in a short amount of time than movies.
It reminds me of that thing…have you seen…oh, what are those videos called? Bad lip dubbing or something like that?
Mmm..mmm mmm, nope sorry.
No? Okay I’ll stop talking about it then.
It’s okay, don’t worry. On a lot of the DVDs for Studio Ghibli, the main Japanese studio, they have a lot of behind the scenes videos about the Disney translations of it. So you see the process of them dubbing it and it’s really hard. For every line, you have a group of people who try to translate it to fit the feeling of the script and the mouth and then you have the casting director trying to emote it correctly and the art director too is there. And for every little noise or line you have to make you’ll hear “boop, boop, boop!” and you’re watching the film play out in front of you and you try to act it to the movie in front of you. So it’s really hard.
It seems almost harder than starting the movie over from scratch in some ways. Well, it puts the difficulty on the voice actor I guess.
In the Miyazaki stuff and Studio Ghibli they start with just the storyboards and the layouts and then they make an animatic and they set it to music to make a full production and they have the voice actors do the voices so the animators animate around their voices.
Yeah I was kind of wondering about that. Okay, so I know nothing about animation, clearly.
So for a long time I didn’t watch any animated shows because I didn’t find it as funny as real life and I really only watch comedy animated shows. But I’m wondering…have you seen stuff like Archer and Bojack Horseman and stuff like that?
Are you talking about Cartoon Network / Adult Swim stuff?
Mmmm…I like really witty humor and sometimes that stuff has it, but the humor stuff I like is play on words and making fun of the style of a character imitating someone in the animation or even just making fun of a cultural nuance. And in Disney you can find that. Do you know the really subtle jokes in Disney that I’m talking about?
You get what I’m saying – I can’t find a concrete example. A lot of the villains do a lot of funny jokes.
Oh yeah! That happened to me when I was watching Friends recently when I realized that they always tell all these sexual jokes. And I’d watch it when I was like ten and I’d be like “Ha ha!” But I totally wouldn’t have gotten that.
Yeah it’s more of a hint: alluding to that rather than just outright in Disney.
The songs usually have a lot of cool stuff that’s just for adults too because there are so many small details you can’t get as a kid. Like in The Beauty and the Beast, the mob scene…
What’s The Beauty and the Beast?
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?! You don’t…how do you not know that?!
Oh my god! I was about to be so angry. Like, what is your childhood? But, in the mob song where the mob storms the castle they’re referring to a lot of Shakespeare plays throughout it and so you have to have this background knowledge. And it was because one of the lead animators was just really into Shakespeare and that’s why they wrote those in – it was kind of an homage to him.
I don’t mean to be rude, but I think it’s pronounced “homage.”
I just spent eight months in France so I’ll pronounce it however I want, okay?
How do they say it there?
Yeah, see that’s better.
So what are your other questions?
So basically you don’t like dumb cartoons.
I don’t like crass humor and on Cartoon Network they do have some really witty humor, but at the same time…you know how American comedians are a very stereotypical personality and their humor is more based around how that personality is funny rather than making a true joke? And playing off of something? I see a lot more of that in American cartoons or making fun of a situation rather than deeper thought. Some people see it the other way too, but that’s just not my style of humor. And I know it’s produced which much less value; I find it unartistic in a way because it’s not fluid. And I appreciate when animation has a lot of different layers and fluidity to it and I know “Wow, this took so much effort!” For me it’s just not the same.
I get the sense that the purpose of comedies is “to be funny” rather than “to tell a good story” a lot of times, which can keep it from being more interesting.
Yeah a lot of the times, over the course of several episodes or a season, there’s no character progression – there’s no change shown. And each story or episode usually stands alone and so you don’t even need to know who the characters are or anything.
Yeah that’s also part of the reason why I don’t like a lot of those shows. And with real, well, “not animated” TV shows – you know what I’m saying? A lot of times I also feel like it’s just “here are these characters interacting” to just make joke after joke instead of actual progression.
Also a lot of the animated comedy shows have some of the same gags or episode tropes so to it’s way more important to create a full, embodied story. Where the character falls in love with the friend or whatever. Oh, but I can’t knock Seinfeld. Seinfeld is so great.
You know Seinfeld isn’t animated, right?
Yeah but it has so many storylines that other people haven’t done. I’ll never forget the episode where George has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Jerry and everybody’s like, “do you want to date Jerry?”
Yeah one episode I remember in particular is the Chinese restaurant one, which I think a lot of people talk about. They do weird stuff like that where they do one whole show inside one restaurant, which is great.
I feel like I should watch more of Seinfeld because I’ve only seen collectively maybe 20 full episodes and I’ve seen other clips on television all the time and I think it’s so good.
Yeah I tried to restart them from the beginning once and I think I got through the first season, but there’s a lot.
I tried doing that with The Office and I got tired after a couple of seasons.
The Office strikes me as one of those shows where it has very defined stereotyped characters, like you were saying. Generally the same show over and over again.
Yeah, but I do like The Office.
I do too.
I think The Office does really exemplify American comedy though if you think about it because you could center a show on each person and it would be like a stand up routine. And because of the way they filmed it too, just them staring into the camera.
It sounds like you’re just not a fan of stand up.
No! I like some stand up comedians. I saw Michelle Wolf do stand up at the Comedy Cellar and she was amazing. I really like her stuff.
Yeah, she’s awesome.
I really find her funny, because if you consider her looks, she has that really crazy red hair and she could be one of those stereotypical comedians where she’s making fun of herself all the time but she’s not. She did really smart comedy. …And Seth Meyers is really great too – I love him.
He had an animated show too!
Yeah it was some superhero show and he was the main character.
What channel was this on? What was it called? I’m going to look this up. I have a crush on Seth Meyers —
You said that.
…even though he’s married. I loved him since SNL.
[ then we talked about National Treasure and American Pickers for 7 minutes ]
…it sounds like something that would happen in a cartoon. Oops, sorry I said cartoon again.
It’s okay – I know you’re not well versed in this world. So I think I told you I’m TA-ing, but I’m trying to teach a Studio Ghibli film through…
I’m probably saying it wrong. It’s either gibbly or jibbly. I don’t know. But, Studio Ghibli is kind of the Walt Disney of the East. It’s so prevalent in Japanese society and now it’s crossing into the universal foreground.
How do you spell it?
Oh, see your pronunciation probably won’t come through on the transcription.
That is fine. Ohhh, I didn’t consider that. I should have considered that before explaining myself.
Well, I’m not going to transcribe everything.
No I know, but now that I’m re-thinking it, why did I have to explain it?
Well, we were having a conversation. It’s fine.
So this film (showing me) is based World War II Japan and the post war period so it’s really relevant to this course and I’m going to be teaching all the themes and motifs and shift of exterior and interior through this.
Can you talk more about that. Because I feel like I’m just asking you about humor stuff. I don’t want to do that. Like, what was that? When you went “all that interior/exterior stuff” – what is that?
It’s very hard to explain. See I need to take a step back and remember people don’t know as much about it as I do.
It’s hard when you’re so smart and you have to dumb it down so much for other people. I get what you’re saying.
No, no – see, I’m learning about this stuff as I go along because I’m not a Japanese historian expert —
You’re not even Japanese, are you?
I’m not. I’m not Japanese. I’m clearly not Japanese.
So you can’t be a Japanese historian expert. You can’t be, even if you tried.
No, I can’t. But it’s really hard learning about this because I’ve been speaking English my whole life and I’ve never learned Japanese. I know a few hundred words through just watching films, but that’s it.
Oh, so you gotta have subtitles?
Yeah, I usually watch the English translation after I watch the Japanese version with subtitles…
Yeah, me too.
…because there are differences in the way they explain things. And it’s a lot easier to understand I find when you watch subtitles in the Japanese stuff. Because certain cultural differences just don’t make sense. But in terms of teaching animation, whether it’s Disney or studio Ghibli, or any independent film…
Sorry, Jibbly sounds really funny to me now. That’s not how I would have pronounced it.
How would you pronounce it?
It’s actually the name of an airplane or airplane company. The director, Miyazaki, his dad sold airplanes in World War II to Japan and he has this weird fascination with airplanes, but also he’s really anti-war so that’s what this film is about – why he made it. So he’s super obsessed with airplanes and a lot of people had no idea where that name came from, like, “Was it the name of a pet or something?” And he’s like, “Noooo…it’s this, like, fighter plane.”
It is a good pet name. It also sounds like a Pokemon.
It’s kind of the first half of Jigglypuff.
It is like the first half of Jigglypuff! It’s also like a vitamin. Cuz all the Pokemon are like vitamin names. There’s a game “vitamin or Pokemon” and it’s really hard.
Medical stuff to me also sounds like Pokemon. Like, cellulite. That totally sounds like an electric-type Pokemon. Doesn’t it?
Cellulite? You…do you…?
I know what that is.
That would not be a very pretty Pokemon. Like a flesh-colored rock.
Yeah. A really bumpy rock thing.
There’s so many generations of Pokemon, they probably just use vitamin names and don’t even try to change it.
Okay, but I’ve never heard “Pokemon vitamin A.” …you know how there are different stereotypes about different human generations?
Yeah, and the “now” or “me” or “smartphone” generation or whatever. I wonder if there are those stereotypes for Pokemon. Like first generation Pokemon are just like, “Ugh, this new generation is so…techy.”
Actually a lot of the modern pokemon are more technological, which mirrors the advancement of cityscapes in Japan. And the backgrounds in cartoons have developed to match the high end contemporary technology.
[ SHE SAID CARTOONS!!! ]
So have you studied Pokemon stuff or is that not really your thing?
The only context that I’ve studied Pokemon in is that I watched it when I was little!
So I studied it a little bit, too.
But, actually that reminds me of this one guy who is a really famous voice actor in Japan and he does a ton of the vices in different seasons of Pokemon. And in Japan it’s a really respected job to be a seiyuu.
It means a voice actor. But they do some really weird stuff there. Like the anime games (called otome games) are really popular and there’s this one for girls that’s a dating game. Anyways, the voice actors who did all the original voices in the anime also do all the voices in the games, so it’s a huge industry and they can make so much money off of it.
I gotta get in on that stuff and be super famous.
You could be. If you spoke Japanese you probably could be a famous character actor because they like really deep-voiced people.
I can also be a “super high voice!” I have a great range. You tell them that.
Who do I know in Japan? I don’t know anyone. I’m trying to get with Disney or Pixar. But, the sad part for me is that I really love 2D animation but everyone’s doing 3D animation now. A lot of independent studios are trying to revive it, but people at Disney don’t think 2D will come back because this whole new generation is used to seeing 3D and so you wouldn’t make as much money off a 2D film.
How did all the 3D stuff happen?
Well the head of art direction at Disney, his name is John Lasseter, what happened was he went to college through Disney’s animation program and then he graduated and was this great animator and storyteller, but he wanted to do 3D animation. And he made a 3D short and after he showed it to his boss he got fired the next day because his boss was like, “No, what are you doing?” So he was out of a job so he got together with scientists and they made Pixar. And they did a bunch of animated shorts. And then when that got really popular Disney bought out Pixar and John Lasseter said, “Okay you can do this only if I become Head of Art Direction.” And pretty much the entire studio for 2D animation got thrown out of the offices, and people were like “Oh my god now all we have is a computer.” And a lot of people left because they didn’t want to do 3D animation. And now, like I said, we’re in a period where independent studios are trying to re-bolster 2D and it’s not really working because John Lasseter is still head of Disney and he sees the future as 3D, not 2D.
He really likes 3D.
He REALLY likes 3D.
So everyone knows about Disney. What is the other stuff that people don’t know about?
One kind of unsung hero that most people don’t think about as animation (although obviously it is) is Tim Burton, which is under Disney.
Is any of that stop-motion stuff?
Stop motion is animation.
Oh, I didn’t know if that was distinguished or not.
Tim Burton worked at Disney and if you work there and you have your own separate style then you’re expected to do that at home or in your own creative time. And they were like “I don’t think this is gonna work out for you as an animator on the normal Disney stuff.” So they gave him the opportunity to work on his own right and he produced these amazing things, like The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. And that has really good comedy in it.
Really? I think I saw it once but I don’t remember it. I believe you.
Yeah, it’s got really humor. And then under stop motion you have Wallace and Gromit and that’s from a place called Aardman Studios.
This is another problem with studying animation, but luckily I speak French. There’s a lot more written on it in France, Italy, and Japan than the U.S. So I can get study materials through French stuff because they’re the founders of animation so they’ve been dealing with these topics for a really long time. And while I was in France I got to study all this animation stuff through there rather than through the U.S. I didn’t even think about studying animation until I was in France spring of last year. And then I realized, “Oh wow there’s a lot more I could do with this.” …I guess the real reason I’m studying animation is not to reignite the interest in 2D animation, but more the competitive spirit in me to analytically study the films the way I do in the U.S. and get my research out there before other people can.
So 2D animation is not as much a thing here as in other places is what you’re saying and you want to be on top of that here?
Some people are studying it, but there’s not a lot of stuff. Because a lot of people are like “Oh, cartoons! I see this, I see that” and they say, “Oh I remember that film when I was a kid” and they don’t re-visit it later, which I think is stupid.
They don’t think about it on a deeper level other than “I like Toy Story.”
Yeah, something like that.
“Ends rather abruptly.” – Someone who I had read this interview after I typed it up.
Kaitlyn is currently teaching a course on Japanese history through an animation called The Wind Rises. The Wind Rises is set during the early 1900s and shows many of the themes common to is shifting period: Western encounter and the modernization of Japan, death from tuberculosis (rampant at the time) before advancements in medicine, the loss of historic Japan and its re-building, artistic ideal vs use of art for war (the main character, Jiro, is an airplane engineer). She’s trying to teach her class not only basic animation techniques, technology, and directing but also how to implement history, art history, math, and science into an animation from the specific outline of a movie plot and setting. Sounds tough!
If you’re wondering, Kaitlyn also does some of her own animation and I got to see a lot of her awesome sketches. Check some of them out!
Also, if you liked this sort of interview thing, please comment, like, or share! I want to know if I should do it again!