Q&A with Elizabeth Ito of City of Ghosts and The Linda Lindas’ “Why” Video

“Why” can be traced to Halloween 2021, when our friend and amazing photographer Zen Sekizawa was shooting Eloise’s paper-cut art for The Linda Lindas’ Growing Up album cover. Since the band was thinking about incorporating animation into their next music video, we asked Zen who made the City of Ghosts series that featured her and her awesome mom Atomic Nancy, proprietor of the first-generation punk hangout Atomic Cafe. In case you haven’t seen the Netflix show, it shines a beautiful light on immigrant neighborhoods around L.A. while addressing topics such as gentrification and displacement in a thoughtful, all-ages manner. Brilliant!

Zen introduced the band to City of Ghosts creator Elizabeth Ito and the ball got rolling. The video finally rolled out today, so I thought I’d do a short Q&A with our new friend since we met over Zoom, shot the video masked and distanced between COVID surges, and still haven’t really had a chance to hang out!

Elizabeth: I feel like we had a lot of mutual connections and I’m surprised I didn’t meet you sooner. Especially because of [Giant Robot co-founder] Eric Nakamura. He remembered my mom playing guitar when she was his grade school teacher! I met Zen because she and her mom agreed to be in City of Ghosts. Also, she’s the daughter of Atomic Nancy, a legendary and totally cool JA icon. My parents had asked me a few times if I was going to talk to Nancy for the show because they have a lot of mutual friends. Coincidentally, I also had come across Zen’s photography when I was coming up with ideas for episodes of City of Ghosts. She had taken some really cool photos around the Crenshaw area, where I lived growing up.

There was actually a storyline we considered for City of Ghosts where I thought about asking The Linda Lindas to be in the episode. This was before I knew you guys, so you all were already on my radar when I was making the show.

Martin: To me, City of Ghosts and The Linda Lindas overlap because they are both uniquely from L.A. and present culture and empowerment in a cool but all-ages format. Do you have thoughts about this?

Elizabeth: This ties into something I think is so damn cool about The Linda Lindas. Punk is a hard thing to introduce to kids. Like there’s songs and music that I won’t necessarily blast on my stereo with my kids around because I don’t want them randomly swearing or using words they don’t understand at school and then get in trouble for it. I also don’t want to explain what the bad words mean yet, haha. The Linda Lindas make punk accessible for kids and parents. They invite kids to the front, and their shows and music in general are a safe space for kids to rock out. But it’s not just some clean KIDZ BOP–style B.S. Parents don’t have to sweat over buying an album for their kids that’s going to take a lot of parenting work on their part, and they can also enjoy it with them! 

I think The Linda Lindas and my work overlap a lot because we were all raised by progressive, rebellious L.A. parents who were willing to expose their kids to their interests in a way that made us feel trusted and loved. My parents exposed me to stuff like Twin Peaks and David Lynch, as well as the adult-leaning writing by Roald Dahl that wasn’t for kids. I remember my mom buying books for me at City Lights bookstore in S.F., even after the woman at the counter asked her if she knew they weren’t really for kids. My mom was a part of our friend Alan Nakagawa’s performance art once with his group Collage Ensemble, too. I also remember my dad, who really likes John Waters, taking my brother to see Serial Mom. But he was still expected to be a good student and The Linda Lindas can probably relate. Our projects and work reflect the same feeling about kids: that we trust them and we want make them feel seen and included. You can be a cool kid, a good person, and a good student at the same time, and we all use our work to speak truth to power in our own ways. 

Martin: When you met The Linda Lindas over Zoom and they shared the concept of Decline of Western Civilization meets Spirited Away, as well as rough storyboards, what were your first thoughts?

Elizabeth: My first thought was, “Oh crap! I have not seen Decline of Western Civilization… I hope my face doesn’t reveal me to be a mega poseur! But Spirited Away I’ve seen many, many times. It’s one of my favorites. After I caught up on Decline, I thought, “This is going to be such a rad opportunity to make the most old-school punk rock video, plus with these wild characters Eloise is drawing… I hope I can make something they’ll feel really reflects how badass they all are.” 

Martin: How about Chungking Express? Did you get that more subtle reference?

Elizabeth: Once I looked it up and refreshed my memory, yes. My friends were more obsessed with In the Mood for Love, and I was more familiar with that as far as Wong Kar-Wai’s cinematic vibe. His movies are dreamy, which makes it hard to keep straight in my memory! I feel the same way about David Lynch and the animated movie Mind Game. It’s like trying to remember a weird dream. This is pretty niche, but if you had said “We want the vibe of Mari Inukai when you first met her at Cal Arts” I would’ve probably gotten that. She looked just like she walked right out of Chungking Express back then! 

Martin: Can you talk a little bit about the team you put together?

Elizabeth: I’ve only really directed animated projects, and I always count on my husband Kevin’s studio, Chromosphere, to handle them. They’re good at pushing the limits of what I do, and I end up looking like a genius, so Kevin was the first person I brought on. For the part I as less familiar with, I asked my friend Suzie Vlcek if she would like to help me direct, since she had already directed live-action music videos. I like the vibe of her work and thought she would know how to nail the Decline aesthetic.

Martin: What were your hopes and concerns? Time and budget and COVID really affected how the video turned out, but I think it became cooler as a result! 

Elizabeth: I really really hoped I could make something that incorporated all the things that seemed important to the band when they pitched their first idea and showed me the storyboards. It took a while for me to absorb everything and sort out how to do it. I really wanted the whole thing to feel like it was handmade by kids, DIY-style, and punk. My biggest worry was disappointing them. 

But I totally agree! Constraints of budget and COVID took the video in a really cool direction. Animation can be really expensive and also hard to do with complex characters like the ones Eloise drew. And because of COVID, we didn’t want to risk shooting with a large crowd indoors. I remember Wendy asked me if the crowd could be animated. I asked our producer, assistant director, and my friend Elizabeth Abrams if I looked panicked during that part of our call, because I knew we couldn’t really afford to do that. But i also didn’t want to give up. I’m a big fan of directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, so I started watching their old videos for a spark of an idea. They really inspired me early in my career, and still do.  

Martin: Can you talk about the puppet tests you send the band early on? 

Elizabeth: I was getting really bummed by all the delays and constraints due to COVID, and felt like the video was going to be too hard to do with animation on the budget we had. Not that it wasn’t a good budget for a normal live-action video, but it’s hard to do a solid animated video without a big-time director budget! And I didn’t want to give you guys something cheap and floaty. But then I started wondering if we could steal from Michel Gondry a little, and use paper puppets placed so that they felt like they were interacting with the band. Kevin is really good at hearing my ideas and plussing them. He and I started brainstorming about how it could be cool and funny to do puppets. We half-joked about having standees made of some of the characters, and then it turned into less of a joke and more like, “We should try this, it sounds so fun!” That was the moment I knew it was the right way to go. I was so relieved you guys were into it!

Did you guys have any idea how the video was going to be? What was your genuine first reaction to the completed thing? I don’t think I had a good idea of if it was going to turn out good or not until we were almost done making it!

Martin: We had no idea, either, but trusted you! And suddenly the post-production work made the lo-fi style look super arty! Wow!

Martin: Got any more recent or upcoming projects we should know about?

Elizabeth: Mall Stories, a project started with Chromosphere through a mega grant from Epic and Unreal Engine, is coming soon. It’s a short about the Mongolian Grill in the Burbank Mall, featuring voices of the people who own it and work there. Beyond that I’m working at Apple TV, coming up with some new projects and helping other people on some stuff there.

Martin: You are an Emmy Award–winning animator, but do you go to a lot of concerts? Who are some of your favorite bands and do The Linda Lindas fit in there somehow? 

Elizabeth: My most recent show was CHAI with Su Lee at the Teragram Ballroom. I haven’t been able to go to shows much since my kids were born, and they’re kind of little still. And then there’s the pandemic. But prior to kids, I’d go to all kinds of stuff. My mom is a musician, and she took me to a lot of different types of shows—my very first was Suzanne Vega at the Wiltern. She also used to be a wedding singer, in a band called Pure Jade.They used to sing ’80s and ’90s hits. By the end of high school I was into a lot of KROQ bands, and I like a lotta ’80s new wave, punk, and Brit pop but also stuff like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes, and Jack White’s other band, The Dead Weathers. Le Tigre and Bikini Kill are some other faves. I really got really into Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra because of a video game and have lately floated into the realm of electronic music like Delia Derbyshire and the Dr. Who theme song, and Mort Garson’s music for plants. Of course I love the Linda Lindas because they’re their own thing, made up of lots of influences I love, and are hella confident. That’s what seals it for me: They seem fearless.

Martin: Will we be seeing you at shows this summer? Because this video takes place in an imaginary Save Music in Chinatown show, I’m jonesing to do another one…

Elizabeth: Heck yeah! As long as there’s not too much COVID happening!

Find out more about Elizabeth HERE.

See Linda Lindas tour dates HERE.

Order Growing Up on wax from your favorite record store or go HERE.

Author: martinkendallwong2014

Co-founder of Giant Robot magazine (RIP) and Save Music in Chinatown (since 2013)

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