Hey, You’re Cool! Katie Wendt of ‘The Jellies’
The lead animator of Tyler The Creator's cartoon feels at home
The Jellies is going primetime. The animated series, created by Tyler the Creator and Lionel “L-Boy” Boyce, has been picked up by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Until now, it’s only been available via Tyler’s Golf app.
The show tells the story of a family of a jellyfish and their adopted human son, Cornell, as he embarks on a search to “find himself.”
We caught up with lead animator Katie Wendt, of the Brooklyn cartoon factory Augenblick Studios, to talk about the creative process, what it’s like to work with Tyler, and what changes are coming with the move to TV.
As the lead animator, she oversees a team of about 30 people (animators, assistants, storyboard artists, and editors). Her thoughts are her own.
In the first iteration of The Jellies, Cornell was white, and now he’s black. How did that change come about?
I don’t 100 percent know. I do know that the old version of the show had a lot of stuff dealing with what it means to be black in America but it was being expressed through this jellyfish family. Like in the original pilot you see them like getting kicked out of restaurants and having a hose turned on them. That’s not so much in the new version but there’s still that underlying tone to it. It was kind of like The Jerk with Steve Martin in that it was kind of a little much to have this blonde hair, blue-eyed white kid going through the same shit, so I think the tone of the humor makes more sense for a black character to be going through what Cornell is going through.
But he’s the same character. The main character is this very sweet, loving, goofy dude and I think that the fact that his core character is the same is what really matters. One of my favorite things about it is the whole Jelly family, including Cornell, all love each other so much and that is definitely still there.
Did it seem weird to make that change from one season to the next?
It seemed cool to me because I think, honestly, that there are plenty of shows about white teenage kids. The whole thing that made me really excited to work at this studio, Augenblick, is I believe really strongly in different voices being allowed to be heard in the animation world because it’s kind of constricted to 20-something white dudes. Pixar makes incredible movies and tells incredible stories but it’s a really specific kind of story for a really specific kind of audience, and I think it’s really important for mainstream animation to open up to different stories and different voices because it’s a really palatable way of consuming narratives. And we’ve got a new cast member for Cornell, Phil LaMarr. He’s amazing so it’s hard to imagine Cornell without him at this point.
Now that Adult Swim is involved will there be a lot of changes?
No, I don’t’ think so. Tyler is still at the helm 100 percent. Tyler and Lionel, and they’re amazing. Tyler is still a pretty young dude but he’s a couple of years older now and is at a point in life where your viewpoints change in a lot of ways and solidify in a lot of other ways and his and Lionel’s voices are still definitely the strongest in the series so it’s a lot of the same tonal stuff. I really trust them to know what they want to say with the show so I’m always leaning on them and they’re definitely keeping the vision focused on what it was but expanding it in a lot of cool ways.
Adult Swim already has a show about squids, now there’s jellyfish. Coincidence?
It’s kind of like how in Aesop’s Fables animals are stand-ins for people. It’s just such a great storytelling device. It helps the audience stop thinking about what kind of person it is and helps them think about the actions that they’re going through.
Tyler was like, “I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be crazy if there were a family that was just jellyfish?” They’ve also got a next-door neighbor who’s a whale. And we’ve gone through this with him in meetings where we’re like, “So is this just a world where some people are jellyfish?” and he’s like, “No, it’s just this family.” So, there are no other jellyfish characters except for this family. And their next-door neighbor is a whale but it’s not like you see whales everywhere. It’s a world with very specific rules.
Do they live in the ocean?
They live in a town that’s kind of a mix between upstate California and, like, Seattle. They live in a house. It’s a very nice house. But it’s funny. Their house is decorated with pieces or coral here and there. But that’s about it. It’s a pretty normal house.
What kind of friends does Cornell have?
He goes to high school.
Is there a lot of diversity there?
A big cornerstone of the show is how diverse it is.
What are the main ways that this will be different?
Technically it’s the first season because we’re starting fresh. Cornell, the main character, is re-designed. The first episode of this is still thought of as the “pilot episode.” The version on the Golf app was definitely really tightly controlled by Tyler. The Adult Swim version is 15 minutes, but on the Golf app, it was however long they wanted.
Then there are standards and practices, like people policing nudity and swearing. It’s kind of crazy. I got into animation because I wanted to do kids animation, like I really love Disney movies, but once I started being in adult animation where that stuff mattered less, like tight control over language and jokes and nudity, I don’t see how I can work in kids animation and be beholden to all of that.
Do you think existing fans will be mad about these changes?
I think the fans, like we do, trust Tyler.
How did Augenblick get involved with The Jellies?
A couple of years ago we heard that Tyler was a fan of the work of Augenblick and he had this idea for series and approached us with it. We generally have been answering to him pretty directly. It was sort of liberating to only have Tyler to answer to in the first round of the series. They come to us with scripts. Tyler has this super clear vision in his head of what he’s looking for and we’re kind of like putting all that on paper or in computers.
At the same time, we always like to hope that we make things a little bit better every time we touch them. We just came off of storyboarding a feature film so now, hopefully, everything we’ve learned from doing a feature film storyboard, we’re bringing that type of cinematic language to an Adult Swim show.
What’s the collaboration process like between you and Tyler?
We get the scripts and we talk to Tyler about what he’s imagining visually for the episode. Then we hit the ground running with storyboards and we’re constantly seeing how he’s feeling about what we’re working on. We’ll send him finished versions, and get notes and then we kind of end up getting to the finished product, checking in with him the whole way through.
Sometimes he’s got some stuff in mind but animation doesn’t really lend itself to certain ideas. We try to not just flat out say no but compromise and work together to get what he wants out and also do something that is doable within a reasonable amount of time and budget. And ultimately it sucks to say no to something just because it would be hard, so we try to never ever do that.
Like what kind of stuff?
Like… “Oh we want a fight scene with 100 characters.” And it’s like, “OK…what if we had a fight scene with 50 characters, but use tons of different settings and locations?” It’s all kind of remaining practical but getting the audience to feel what you want them to feel is the ultimate goal.
Are you expecting any pushback with this season?
It’s hard to say but honestly when you’re working on a project that’s going to be seen by lots of people I expected a wide array of reactions and you just have to do work that you’re proud of and however people respond, they respond.
Is animation a more palatable way to address certain issues?
It’s got to be used carefully. Like any storytelling tool, you don’t want to make light of something to make it palatable. But at the same time, comedy is a great way of approaching topics that are otherwise unapproachable too.
Does this show do that?
I think so. It’s definitely a show that Tyler wants to be making and he’s very involved in.
Are there any Easter eggs?
Ooooh, that is definitely something I cannot say. In the web version there are inside jokes to look out for.
What’s been the coolest thing about working on this project?
Seeing how many different artists can come together and bring totally cool, unique perspectives to something. Everyone working in animation likes to think of themselves as a creative person but we’re more than the sum of our parts. Any team of creative people getting together can come up with some really crazy shit that in a vacuum is just unthinkable.
Tyler and Lionel and the whole writing team have given us, as visual artists, an amazing and hilarious set of ideas and stories to animate. I feel so lucky to be working on the same project as such a creative and funny set of people, but I would never want to speak for them. I have so much respect for them and their brilliant work that I only hope that I’m doing it justice with my animation.