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From Matisse to McGuire: An Interview with Debra Solomon

Chris Robinson interviews indie animator Debra Solomon, the creator of the animated Lizzie McGuire persona, about finding a way to do what you want and make money doing it.

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Debra Solomon (left) made the transition from independent filmmaker to mainstream success with Lizzie McGuire. Courtesy of Disney.

Sometimes you gotta pay the bills. Well, actually, you've ALWAYS gotta pay the bills. Most of the time that necessitates leaving behind your unprofitable passions to slug away at a mindless job for the benefit of everyone but you and me. But if you're lucky, you sometimes manage to find a way to do what you want and make money doing it. Take New York animator and illustrator, Debra Solomon. After working as a successful illustrator, she gave it up to make her own, personal animation films. She was a hit from the start. Her films, Mrs. Matisse and Everybodys Pregnant, respectively, turned the topics of adultery and infertility into light-hearted comedy, and were accepted and acclaimed by film festivals around the world.

This was all fine and dandy, but as most independent animators know, fame is rarely stalked by fortune. In fact, most of the time fame leaves you broke. To resuscitate the family bank account, Solomon turned her attention to television animation. After making a pilot (Nikki) and The Private Eye Princess special, both for Cartoon Network, she landed a job with a new live-action Disney Channel show called Lizzie McGuire. The show follows the life of a teenage girl, Lizzie McGuire, who is confronted with an assortment of real life issues (e.g., self-respect, buying your first bra, loyalty etc.) facing pre-adults.

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Before you know it, Lizzie McGuire is the hottest thing in teen culture, and millions are seeing the short animated Lizzie monologues that Solomon has created for each episode. To top things off, the show was recently turned into the very successful Lizzie McGuire Movie.

But as my old pal, Robert Pollard said, "As we go up, we go down." Just as Lizzie McGuire hit the top of the pops, the TV show was cancelled and talks of a second Lizzie movie, along with a possible ABC pick-up, were put on hold when a May 23, 2003 Los Angeles Times article announced that actress Hilary Duff (who plays Lizzie) and Disney had divorced.

Chris Robinson recently spoke with Debra Solomon about her experience working on Lizzie McGuire, what it meant for an independent animator, and where she goes from here.

Chris Robinson: How did you land, what is, for an indie animator, a pretty sweet gig?

Debra Solomon: I had worked on a pilot called Nikki for Cartoon Network. It didn't end up going forward, but in that business equation I picked up a manager (Tracy Kramer). Tracy was a big fan of my work and he sent my reel to Adam Bonnett at the Disney Channel. Adam actually came to my house in New York and I showed him my films. We sat and talked, and a few months later, he started working with Stan Rogow (Lizzie producer). They both loved Nikki and we starting work on Lizzie McGuire. Nikki was about an 11- or 12-year-old girl coming into her own and experiencing all the stuff Lizzie did. It was sort of my version of Lizzie. They really liked the emotionality of what I did with Nikki

CR: And you ended up fusing Nikki and Lizzie together in a sense.

DS: Right. Stan came to me. He said that they were looking for a talking head in the corner of the screen. I didn't want to do that. I didn't think that that was what animation was about. It was so much more inventive. And he just said, "Ok, give me full-bore Debby. And he let me do whatever I wanted.

CR: How different was your Nikki from the animated Lizzie?

DS: First of all they gave me Hillary Duff's audition tape. Hillary Duff was incredibly beautiful, a little lightbulb. I hadn't imagined Nikki to be quite so wonderful looking. She was about to bloom whereas Hilary was quite magnificent at 12. Hilary was also quite hip. She had a sense of style. Nikki had cargo pants and had a big nose. And people even wondered if it was a girl or a boy. With Hillary there was no doubting. She wore very cropped shirts with trim pants and high flip-flops. She was more a teen girl sensation. As I started working on it I realized that Hilary was the girl that little girls would like to identify with. They said to me that they didn't want a caricature of Hillary but something that captured her essence. I literally took an outfit she had about six outfit changes during the audition and used a muscle tee, little jeans and these high flip-flops. I designed the character to be the essence of whom I thought this little girl was.

A fun moment from The Private Eye Princess, a Cartoon Network special by Debra Solomon. All images from The Private Eye Princess courtesy of Cartoon Network.

A fun moment from The Private Eye Princess, a Cartoon Network special by Debra Solomon. All images from The Private Eye Princess courtesy of Cartoon Network.

CR: Now when do you become involved with each episode? Do they shoot an entire episode and then ask you come in and do a segment wherever it fits best?

DS: What happened in the initial pilot [which Solomon directed] was that they essentially turned me loose. I gave Stan hundreds of sketches. We agreed on one and then it just went forward and he let me do whatever I wanted, no matter how nutty. In the pilot, we had her head explode and buried her in mother's words. I tried to make it like I was turning Hillary inside out.

CR: Were you writing the dialogue for these segments?

DS: Initially the writers not only wrote the lines for the animation character, but they also wrote what she should be doing. And in the way that people have a tendency to do when they're writing for animation but not familiar with it they would have her saying and doing the same thing so it aged it down quite a bit. In the most cooperative, friendly way, I would write in my notes column that this isn't a great idea to have her saying and doing the same thing; it's going to seem like Sesame Street. After a few shows they pretty much stopped writing what they wanted to have the animated character do because they realized that they were getting more of the element of surprise when they left it up to the animation people.

CR: Was there a set number of segments you do per episode?

DS: Because they had such a tiny budget for animation we had two minutes of animation per show. In the movie, we followed the same sort of breakdown (six-minutes).

CR: How much time did you spend creating each two-minute segment?

DS: The troubling thing for Tapehouse (the animation producers of Lizzie) is that the two minutes really took the same length of time as most shows do because it was spread out over time in the production of the live-action show. They had to keep the same number of crew people even though they were making less per episode. It really wasn't that much of a savings in time. But, generally, I would get the script in and we would have up to a week. I had three days to work on ideas for the script and then it would go to the board artist (Richard Codor).

CR: How did you come to work with Tapehouse?

DS: Yes, originally Stan Rogow came to me to produce the animation but when they first wanted to do the show, they were talking about rotoscoping and all sorts of expensive things, and I figured it would be best to bring the production to Tapehouse.

CR: How many animation people were you working with?

DS: There were about 18 people.

CR: How did you find working at this faster pace? How did it compare to doing your own films?

DS: I went into animation to work with other people. Little did I know that when I worked on my own films I would rarely leave my house for weeks on end. I had worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for about 12 years before animation. I had major cabin fever so this was the fruition of what I had wanted, which was to work with really talented artists. The pace seemed fine because there were always other people to consult about all of the stuff that you rip your hair out over alone when you're making your own film. It's really wonderful with other people and I really found that working with the people at Tapehouse was everything I wanted.

Hilary Duff's hip and stylish personality made a big impression on how Solomon approached the animated Lizzie character. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Rob McEwan.

Hilary Duff's hip and stylish personality made a big impression on how Solomon approached the animated Lizzie character. © Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Rob McEwan.

CR: And you're also creating some jobs along the way

DS: Oh yeah, and as the show progressed it I think everyone really loved working together on it. Tony Kluck was the timing director and worked on layouts. Richard Codor was the storyboard artist. Luciano DiGeronimo did the compositing and special effects, and Dave Lipson was the executive producer. Kevin Mercado was the producer.

CR: Do you want to thank your parents too (laughing)?

DS: No, no (laughing). It would just be really bad if I left somebody out of that core group of people.

CR: Did the process change for the Lizzie McGuire movie?

DS: We had six-minutes for the feature (including the titles). It was basically the same process but it was harder. When you're working on the series, it gets to be like a well-oiled machine. They know what you need. The live-action directors know the shots you need. So it was harder, because all of a sudden the crew was in Italy shooting and there was not a final script yet and they shot all these backplates. Then, many lines changed enormously, so we had to make it work. But that has always been my sort of m.o. no matter what I've been doing during my career: make it work. You get a story to illustrate that isn't funny then you have to find a way to make it funny. That's also the haiku of my animation: making stuff work and getting at the essence of a line or a feeling.

Money earned on projects like The Private Eye Princess allow Solomon to work on personal short work.

Money earned on projects like The Private Eye Princess allow Solomon to work on personal short work.

CR: Tell me a bit about the animated credit sequence.

DS: That came about early during one of the very first conference calls. There were about a dozen people including the producer, director and some Disney executives. They didn't know how to start the movie. I had just gotten the script a few hours before. I sped read the opening part and I came up with the idea of having an animated Lizzie introducing the credits. It worked out well because it interwove the animation into the movie right from the start.

CR: Was it a challenge to work with the live-action background?

DS: Initially it was. But after getting the pictures of the set, I just traced off the ground line and, for me, from that point on, it was just a matter of a ground line, where the character sat in the background and what her size relationship was supposed to be. It was pretty easy.

CR: It's almost taking you back to illustration

DS: In a way that's very true.

CR: What's up for you next, especially now that Hillary and Disney have apparently broken up?

DS: We had hoped that the series might go to ABC, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen. I was asked to do a thing for Nick Jr., which didn't work out, but that did get me back into work mode. I've got a little independent thing that I've started working on and I've got a few people interested in me in working on projects none of which are solid enough to start talking about.

CR: It seems to me that the real positive thing from an independent perspective, aside from the money, is that you've been able to keep your own style in Lizzie and in doing so, find a much larger audience. That's a nice ad for your work. In theory, that must help enormously.

DS: That was incredibly exciting for me that the character looks like my work. The other thing that was that very exciting was that it kept the essence of my work. My films are about feelings; anger at a cheating husband (Mrs. Matisse), sadness and frustration and loss (Everybodys Pregnant), and embarrassment, confusion and the mixed bag of emotions that engulf a teen every moment of the day are there in Lizzie McGuire.

CR: After working with all these people don't you just want to go back into hibernation?

DS: Actually, I do. I remember those long holiday weekends when I didn't have to do anything but listen to NPR and draw. There's always that part that wants to go backwards. After working on Private Eye Princess [Cartoon Network], I used some of the money to buy a computer and an ink-and-paint system so that I could completely do short films in my studio from start to finish and just output to film or video. I bought Animo because it's a very user-friendly system and my intention is to eventually learn that and be able to continue to do shorts.

The recent parting between Duff and Disney means the end of Lizzie McGuire. Courtesy of Disney.

The recent parting between Duff and Disney means the end of Lizzie McGuire. Courtesy of Disney.

CR: You don't really think that doing shorts is a step backwards do you?

DS: No, I don't but I guess the thing is that after doing my own shorts I'd depleted my savings. I spent about $80,000 on my films. I'm happy that I did that, but part of my desire to get a series was to help my husband do what he did for me, which was to be the artist. I wanted to really shore up the family's finances and it's hard to do that when you're making indie films. I realize that there are people out there making money from their independent films, but part of my problem is that I'm incredibly unorganized in creating that well-oiled machine that creates the films and gets them out there. I just saw them as my art and I once I made them, I wanted them to get into festivals but

CR: well even that step is a full-time job. Filling out forms, making prints and videos and all that mundane stuff is a whole new job and one that can't be particularly inspiring after you've just made a film

DS: Right and I had a distributor (Italtoons) and they were really wonderful. When I did Mrs. Matisse it was like going to heaven. Working as an illustrator, I never felt that I was going where I wanted to go. It wasn't really ever your work. I worked on Mrs. Matisse for two years, and when it got into the New York Film Festival I thought I'd died and went to heaven. I finally felt like I had some talent. I'd earned a living as an illustrator but I just felt that it wasn't enough. I wanted to sing and go on stage and animation allowed me to do that.

This is an expensive world to live in. Emily Hubley and Bill Plympton are the essence of the independent spirit, but I guess everyone follows their own river and you follow it where it takes you. Right now I got steered into Lizzie and it was a rewarding experience. It helped me meet a lot of great people at Disney like Adam Bonnett who became this really big supporter of my work. It was a wonderful experience and I'm sad that it may be over.

CR: But you've opened all these corporate doors now.

DS: Right and I'm happy about that.

CR: Would you like to do your own series or an independent film next?

DS: I would like to do both because they're very different rewards involved with both of them. One is the joy of collaboration and, secondly, the independent film is the deepening and strengthening of your voice. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, I'm going to be straddling both those worlds for the rest of my career.

CR: That's the reality for any independent animator today.

DS: Right because you really have to nurture your own voice with your own work and it's very hard to leap back and forth between the two.

CR: But you can "Make it work."

DS: And that's what I'm going to try and do.

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is also the editor of the semi-annual ASIFA Magazine. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column ("The Animation Pimp") for Animation World Network and has written for Salon.com, Cinemascope, Take One, 12gauge, City Pages and others. Robinson contributed a chapter on English-Canadian animation to the book, North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980. His book Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation was published in May 2003. He is currently at work on a strange book about childhood, alcoholism and an ex-hockey player tentatively called The Boy Who Never Grew Up.

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