No, that’s not a typo in the title of Amy Winfrey’s Making Fiends. The multifaceted Winfrey (animator, screenwriter, songwriter, director and voice actor) created a children’s horror web series about a murderous little girl whose friends are monsters and whose nemesis is Pollyanna on steroids that was madly delightful enough to be picked up by Nickelodeon in 2008. Winfrey, also known for her work as an animator on South Park, currently serves as a director on the critically acclaimed Netflix series, BoJack Horseman.
Winfrey’s deranged web series, all accessible via her website amywinfrey.com, include Big Bunny, Squid and Frog, and MuffinFilms, in which bad things happen to good desserts. Her newest is Hooray for Hell, created with husband and fellow animator Peter Merryman (South Park, BoJack, Cartoon Network’s The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange). She also serves as a director on Lisa Hanawalt’s new Netflix animated series Tuca & Bertie, which joins BoJack in a bid for Emmys consideration this year.
This is an Animation 101 question, but can you describe the process of directing an animated episode?
We get a script from the writers, and then I start to pull visual references, things I think might be interesting. You know, inspiration. And then I show those to Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, BoJack creator]. Once I get the go-ahead from him, I talk to my board artists and assign out sequences, and we work on trying to make each part of the episode just as visually interesting as possible.
At this stage of your career, you’ve done it all in animation. Why have you chosen to focus on directing?
I really love writing, too, but I do feel like I really admire the writers on BoJack and feel good directing on it. It’s something that I happened into, but BoJack is so well written that I really want to help their scripts come to life.
How did you come to BoJack?
One of the directors that was on my TV show at Nickelodeon, Making Fiends, recommended me as director on BoJack’s first season. I came in, and in the interview they said: “You’ll be directing an episode with a rock opera!” And I’m like, “Cool, that sounds fun!” Of course, I found out that rock opera doesn’t really take place, [but] I could tell something new and interesting was happening at BoJack that made it different from other animation. There’s a darkness to it that just really drew me in.
Do you have more creative freedom in adult animation than on a children’s show like Making Fiends?
I just started making cartoons to entertain myself. Maybe if I had set out to make something for children, it wouldn’t have been as dark. I probably wouldn’t have been like, “I’m going to make a TV show about a girl trying to kill another girl.”
Were you surprised when Nickelodeon said, “Hey, let’s put this on the air for 7-year-olds”?
Certainly they were aware that while SpongeBob Squarepants appealed to young children, it also had a following among adults. But we certainly had different standards than other shows. When our Standards and Practices person went on vacation, somebody else took over and they marked up our scripts like crazy. Then our [regular] person came back and was like, “No, no, no, it’s OK. You can hit children in the head on this show.”
There’s already Emmy buzz surrounding one special BoJack episode, “Free Churro,” in which BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, delivers a bizarre, rambling eulogy for his mother that lasts the entire episode. How did you approach that?
This is an episode [in which] the writing and the voice performance are what shines, so I just didn’t want to get in the way of that. I wanted to make sophisticated, simple choices. This was more of a haiku. I just wanted to complement those things, and make it all work.
How has adult animation changed since you began your career?
I think having BoJack be a success is important. I feel like adult animation was trapped in a sort of Family Guy or Simpsons, hapless Dad sort of state for a while. And yeah, I think having something that’s adult and sophisticated versus adult and crude was important. As much as I loved working on South Park, I think it’s interesting to see there’s more than one way we can go about this.
Has the role of women in animation changed as well?
I think that change is coming. I mean, I co-teach a class at UCLA and more and more women have been coming through the graduate program, very talented people. I just knew at some point those people would start getting jobs in the industry and [begin] affecting the gender balance of all these productions. I think sometimes I still have a little thing where, [when] people meet me and find out I’m an animation director, I’m still a little bit of a unicorn, like something that is rare and mystical. But I think that’s changing. It was so exciting to me on BoJack to suddenly not be the only female director on a show. That was a great moment.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on some pitches. I’ve taken a bit of a break from that for a while, but I do want to start pitching my own ideas. And I have been doing a web cartoon with my husband called Hooray for Hell that we try to work on in our spare time. It’s been really slow going, but fun.