Sisters Nirali and Anokhi Somaia channeled their lifelong love of 2D animation and 90s anime into a new animation studio and original series, about sketchbook characters that come to life at the stroke of midnight; the show's pilot debuts this summer on YouTube.
Since she was in elementary school, Nirali Somaia knew she wanted to be an artist, specifically a 2D animation artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios. But, when 15-year-old Nirali arrived home from school one day to find her dreams shattered after hearing Disney shut down their 2D animation department, her sister Anokhi gave the aspiring animator a promise to hold onto.
“Anokhi, who was around 10 at the time, said, ‘Don't cry. I'll make a 2D animation studio and you can be a 2D animator at my studio,’” remembers Nirali, whose credits have since included animating on shows such as Nickelodeon’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Glitch Techs, and Sesame Street.
She continues, “We were just kids at the time, but it's always been something that we've been working towards since that day. I remember, on Anokhi’s first day at university, she asked her advisor, ‘What classes do I need to take to start a 2D animation studio?’ And the advisor was like, ‘That’s a very random and specific question.’”
Anokhi, who became the youngest graduate with a Screen Business Masters from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School adds, “Well, I had a very specific goal.”
Over a decade later, the Somaia sisters’ childhood dream is coming to fruition, having founded their own animation studio, Choc Chip Animation – named after their two dogs “Choc” and “Chip” – in 2020 and are in the final stages of production on the pilot for their first original animated series, The Art of Murder, set to release on YouTube this summer.
“We both went off into our different careers, but then, during the pandemic, everyone was in lockdown, and we were together. It gave us the time to develop this idea of the studio a bit further,” says Nirali, who serves as the show’s director. “Eventually, we decided, ‘Let’s take the plunge and do it.’ Career-wise, it seemed like a good time for both of us.”
Based in the sisters’ home of Australia, Choc Chip focuses on traditional 2D animation and storytelling, with its core mission revolving around “creating quirky stories with heart,” as stated on the website. The Art of Murder is one such quirky story, a pop-culture-inspired murder mystery musical series that takes place in a world where sketchbook characters come to life when the clock strikes midnight.
In the series, Pip, an aspiring young artist who loves all things pop culture and avidly collects figurines and posters of her favorite characters – martial arts combat master Sousuke, elegant and outspoken princess Almond Blossom (or “Albie”), witty and whimsical Winn, and charming detective Giorgio – creates doodles of said characters in her sketchbook.
But Pip has no idea her drawings come to life each night after she falls asleep, or that these fictional characters she loves have to solve the murder of one of Pip’s original characters, OC, of which they are all suspect. Though Nirali and Anokhi always planned to produce a murder mystery as their first project, their main goal for the series, and their studio as a whole, is to pay homage to a variety of entertainment genres.
The series will consist of four episodes total, with each episode roughly 20 minutes long.
“We really wanted this [series] to be like an amalgamation of everything we love from Disney to anime to gaming,” says Nirali. “Anokhi and I both grew up watching Sailor Moon and Pokemon and all those 90s anime, and we still love them. We wanted all those things to come together and be like a clashing of pop culture genres.”
Hence the personality and design of each of Pip’s favorite characters – save for OC – derive from an already established realm of animated TV or film. Inspiration for Sousuke came from Shonen anime, which focuses on action and adventure, fighting monsters or other forces of evil. Albie is meant to embody the Disney Renaissance princess era, reflecting Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Winn’s character is meant to remind viewers of Cartoon Network series like Adventure Time, and also Disney’s Star vs. the Forces of Evil and Gravity Falls.
“When you write about something that you know and love, that's when you really bring out the best,” says Anokhi, who produces the show. “And make sure to pay attention to Pip’s room. We added in a lot of merch that call back to other parts of pop culture that a lot of us know and love and probably have in our own rooms.”
But as fun as it was to “pump up the nostalgia,” as Anokhi says, Nirali notes there were plenty of challenges in creating a nostalgic world that’s also original.
“The biggest challenge was that we wanted each of the characters to be immediately recognizable for the genres that they were depicting, but not look like a rip-off of a character that already exists,” she adds. “With Princess Albie, we didn't want her to look like a rip-off of Ariel, but like she could still have her own movie in the Disney Renaissance. We wanted each character to look like they have their own franchise and their own world inside this story.”
And detective-meets-ideal-husband Giorgio proved the toughest to crack.
“All the others came together really easily, but Giorgio was the one we played around with a lot,” says Nirali. “He was probably the toughest character to make. We experimented with different genres, and nothing was working. But we’ve always loved visual novel games like Professor Layton and Ace Attorney, so we took it a step further with a dating sim kind of game and decided Giorgio could be a typical Husbando character. We thought that could be a funny aspect to bring to the show.”
The sisters based Giorgio specifically on Otome games, also known as "maiden games.” They are story-based video games targeted towards women where one of the goals is to develop a romantic relationship between the main female character and one of the second-lead male characters. This was one of the only genres represented in the series that was new to both Anokhi and Nirali, but Anokhi says it didn’t take long for her to become a fan.
“I was like, ‘Well, I better play one for research,’ and then it was so addictive,” she admits. “I started playing another one, and another one, and another one.”
The research was “the best part of the process” according to both sisters, but not only for the pleasure of getting to revisit shows and films from their past, or because they’ve been introduced to new fandoms. It was getting to study the minute details of character features they’d never noticed before – even in films they’d seen hundreds of times – in an effort to highlight certain tropes of each genre.
“In almost all the Disney Renaissance princess movies, the eyes have a distinct black outline, whereas in anime, between the white of the eyes and the skin, that line is clear, basically invisible,” says Nirali. “We wanted to hone in on those really fine details and try and make everything as accurate to the genre as possible while still being different with our own designs.”
The Art of Murder’s honoring of pop-culture is two-fold, its tribute present in aesthetics as well as in the voice casting.
“As we’ve said, the whole project is really a celebration of pop culture, but we didn't want that to end with the characters in the story,” says Anokhi. “We really wanted that to continue in all departments of production. And that included the voice actors. They're all notable figures in their own area of pop culture and have a lot of influence in the space that they work in.”
YouTube’s The Anime Man, Joey Bizinger, voices for Sousuke; founding members of musical theater company Team Starkid, Lauren Lopez and Joey Richter, voice for Albie and Giorgio; Winn is voiced by Megan Lee from Nikelodeon’s Make it Pop; and Lizzie Freeman, known for her roles in Gnshin Impact, Pokemon, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, voices for both Pip and OC.
Composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, who composed the music for Netflix's The Witcher and wrote the song “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” also joined The Art of Murder team and wrote the music for the series.
“We're working with such an incredible team on this project and we're just really grateful,” says Anokhi. “It’s been fun to see it come together with Souske speaking in Japanese and Winn having this very Western Animation cartoon voice. It was fun to see how it all meshed and how these genres harmonized.”
Nirali adds, “We couldn't imagine anyone who could bring these characters to life better than these actors could. They brought such a unique quality to the life of the characters.”
Though The Art of Murder’s pilot will definitely be released on YouTube in, as of now, summer 2023, Nirali and Anokhi say it’s up to audiences and fans to ensure that the other three episodes get made.
The sisters are urging everyone to share, share, and share again about their pilot and series plans, hoping to snag the attention of streaming platforms who may be willing to pick up the series. Choc Chip is also currently brainstorming ideas for how to give willing fans the chance to contribute and help get this series finished and out in the world. More details will be announced on Choc Chip’s social media (@chocchipanimation).
“Everyone's been so supportive, and it really means a lot to us,” says Anokhi. “That’s such a special part of pop culture, its ability to bring communities together around these shows and these characters. The audience really gives these shows a life of their own and they help the characters to live on even after the shows have finished. We hope to continue that tradition with The Art of Murder and its characters.”
You can follow the progress of the project on Choc Chip Animation’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.