The world of animation is experiencing a new golden age. With shows like Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe, there has never been a better time to jump in and enjoy what is out there. From complex stories to fun adventures, animation today has something for everyone.
Known for his work on Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Big City Greens, Matt Braly has a new show on Disney titled Amphibia. The show follows the adventures of Anne Boonchuy, who steals a mysterious music box and is transported to a magical marshland filled with talking animals. Following in the footsteps of the fantastic animated television from the last several years, this new outing is filled with fun as well as complex, engaging concepts that are a joy to jump into. We were lucky enough to catch Matt on a call, where we discussed his career, animation, and what it’s like crafting his own show.
*This interview has been edited for clarity*
CGM: You’ve had a very storied career up to this point, working on some of the biggest Kids’ TV shows there have been in the last while. How did you get involved, and how did you end up in the place you are in right now?
Matt Braly: I went to the University of California Institute for the Arts in Valencia. After I graduated, I went to DreamWorks Features, where I worked on a movie called Turbo. I had been working in features my whole life, and it had been my dream to work at a feature animation studio. When I got there, though, I was a little impatient with how long it took to make movies.
It often takes about four years to make one animated feature. As someone who was just starting out as a storyboard artist, I just felt like I didn’t have much work to do and I didn’t feel very challenged. And then I heard word on the street that this cool new show was starting up called Gravity Falls by Alex Hirsch, who I did not know personally in school but was an upperclassman when I was there. I always admired his work and loved his student films; I thought they were hilarious. So one day me and a handful of other DreamWorks board artists went to go visit Alex at the studio and he pitched us the show and showed us some artwork. He was very interested in having us test for the show. A test for TV storyboarding is basically they give you a couple of pages of the script, you board it out, you send it in and they tell you whether you got the job or not.
Basically I went over and I thought the show looked amazing. I thought it looked like a shot in the arm and I was so into the concept. This adventure-sitcom-mystery, I thought it was pushing boundaries, telling stories in TV animation that weren’t happening at the time—serialized storytelling where there was long-form arc building over a season. I tested for the show, got the job, and never looked back. I cut my teeth on Gravity Falls. It was such a formative experience for me, working with show creator Alex Hirsch, who is now a dear friend and mentor of mine. He taught me so much about storytelling, about developing characters and developing a world. He’s actually the one who put the bug in my ear about pitching my own show. Over the years, I have worked on a few projects. I’ve worked on Steven Universe for a little bit. I worked on Big City Greens for a stint. But all the while in the background, I was developing my own project.
CGM: Let’s talk about this new show. How did you pitch it? Did the end result come out as you wanted to? How much did the process change as you worked on the show and worked with Disney to create it?
MB: Now that is a great question. The development process when you’re working with a studio, you bring them an idea. But that idea needs to have a little bit of flexibility, you know what I mean? It’s exactly what you’re talking about, where you develop the characters and prove them out, you’ll discover new things about them together, working with the studio to create the best show possible. To answer your question, it is a little bit different from what I initially pitched to Disney, there are subtle differences here and there. But I can say with complete confidence that the show that has come out is the best possible version of this pitch.
It’s better than I ever dreamed it would be, which I’m so happy to be able to stand here and say because development is difficult. It’s hard to build completely new characters in a new world. Especially in a studio system, where the studio and the network have very specific objectives and needs at times. For example, I would say specifically for Amphibia, the character of Sprig went through the most changes. I feel like Anne—her personality, her look, her journey—was always very constant throughout development. But Sprig took a couple of turns where we toyed with the idea of him being a little bit older, a little bit more of age, before we landed on something we felt good about, which was more of him as a sort of younger brother figure for [Anne] where he was very clearly younger than her and brought this nice positive effervescent, youthful energy to the table to bring some nice contrast and somewhat worldly point of view.
CGM: Animation has evolved over the last few years, with so many shows offering deeper experiences that both kids and adults can enjoy. Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall are just a few examples of this trend. Are you pleased with how animation is bridging generational gaps and is no longer made purely for kids?
MB: I’m incredibly pleased with it. And those are two amazing shows to cite, I will say that Gravity Falls, Over The Garden Wall, and especially Steven Universe are just amazing stories, and you almost forget while watching that they’re specifically made for kids. And that’s absolutely the same thing we’re going for Amphibia. There’s this great Pixar mentality with these projects where sure they’re for kids, but the whole family can really sit down and enjoy them. There are obviously bright colours and animation that are easy for younger kids to latch on to, but I think for older people there will be sophisticated character development and a long-form story arc that they can latch on to and track at the same time.
CGM: On that note, how, as a creator do you bridge that gap? What is the process in the writers’ and creators’ rooms to craft this balance?
MB: The only thing we can do as creatives—and I think this actually goes for any age group that you’re developing content for—you have got to make yourself laugh. It’s got to be something that you yourself would want to watch. Be it for kids, be it for adults, be it for preschoolers. So I think that that is one of our core creative tenets, which is basically we’re making something that we ourselves would also enjoy watching. I think that’s what helps Amphibia and also those other shows feel like they’re intended for all audiences.
The caveat is, as we write, and as we explore this world and develop these characters and put them in sometimes scary situations, we do occasionally think about the level of intensity, like, “Oh, is this scene a little bit too graphic? Will this give a kid nightmares for the rest of his life?” And if that’s the objective of the episode, great, let’s do it. I feel like all of these shows have their fair share of nightmare fuel. Especially Adventure Time, but I think that generally as a whole we develop a show that we would want to watch, but keep it in the back of our mind that kids are going to be watching this. So in that sense, we’re on the lookout for themes and ideas and situations that might be deemed too intense. But on the whole, we’re not looking to do anything too disgusting or too gory that would be off-putting to us. We’re big kids ourselves over here.
CGM: Why do you think animation has had such a resurgence over the last few years, and what you would attest it to?
MB: I feel that we had a resurgence a few years ago and now we are reaping the benefits. In conjunction, of course, with this streaming gold rush, I feel like content is getting made now that never would have gotten made five-to-ten years ago because studios are willing to take more risks, because they’re making more content. In general, I think the four or five shows that we’ve been talking about this entire interview have generally inspired and emboldened animation creatives across the world. I think that these are the shows that people can point to and say, “Those were successful and pushed boundaries, we have nothing to be afraid of, let’s do it.” That gives us ammo when we have discussions with a conservative executive who worries that something seems a little bit too risky. You can now point to these shows that exist. I think that combined with this gold rush has led to the most opportunities I’ve ever seen in the industry. I feel like the they would not have been greenlit for a cable network a few years ago. But at the same time, I’m so happy that these kinds of shows can live on streaming services.
CGM: You mentioned that you started working with DreamWorks on Turbo, which is a computer animated movie, and have now moved over to traditional animation. Do you see yourself moving back into computer generated animation, or doing a mix the two or any of that sort in the future?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not really tied to a medium specifically, I think that you can tell great stories in any medium. I love hand-drawn animation. I grew up on it, especially Studio Ghibli movies. I’m a huge fan have always loved the look and feel of it. I feel like hand-drawn animation is very warm, and I love that about it. But I feel like today the tech is there for any CG animation you want. So I really believe that. I’m super open to working in a CG space. Again, that’s really exciting.
CGM: Now, one last question, as I just want to quickly touch on your career. Is this the pinnacle? Where do you go next? How do you see your career evolving past creating your own show?
MB: That’s a great question. I would say that Amphibia is incredibly exciting. It means so much to me because it’s my first show, I’m doing some story stuff that in the second season, especially in this season, as well, that I’ve never done before. I’m very excited about it, and a little bit nervous about it, but totally, totally up for the challenge. I will say that in the future, whatever my next project is, I’d love to get a little bit crazier, take more risks, push boundaries even further, maybe even try for some cross-medium stuff. I think that animation specifically is so broad, and there’s so much that you can do, I would not be opposed to exploring different ways to tell stories other than the linear format. I feel like Amphibia is such a great legacy tent pole start for me that I can always look back on and say, “Okay, well, this worked for us in Amphibia, and then after this, maybe I can go crazy.”
CGM: Awesome. Thank you so much. Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t touch on about your show or your career in general?
MB: I just want to leave you with the idea that and Amphibia, at its core, is a show about finding your best self in a strange new environment. I hope that in watching the entire season, audiences really feel that.
New episodes of Amphibia air every Saturday and Sunday morning on Disney Channel.