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Elizabeth Ito Embarks on a New Animation Mission with ‘Mall Stories’

The ‘City of Ghosts’ creator’s knack for capturing funny aspects of often mundane everyday life is on full display in her first of a hoped set of animated short film documentaries, ‘Atilla the Grilla,’ made with an Epic MegaGrant, about how her favorite Mongolian Grill eatery at the Burbank Town Center mall survived the pandemic.

Over the course of the pandemic, one of the things Elizabeth Ito says she’s missed most, despite how simple a pleasure it may seem, is hanging out at the mall. 

“I had watched this documentary called Jasper Mall that was about the economic hardship of this mall in Alabama, and also coming off City of Ghosts… it got me thinking about how much I missed going to shopping malls,” says Ito. “I mentioned it to [Chromosphere Studios creative director] Kevin Dart, and that it would be fun to do my own thing about malls.”

Dart had already been working on his own project with one of Epic Game’s Epic MegaGrants – supporting developers from a variety of industries working with Unreal Engine – and told Ito that her pitch “Mall Stories” seemed like a good opportunity to apply for her own such grant. Dart suggested Ito pitch the idea as a short, start there, and “who knows where it could lead.”

Ito chose to profile one of her favorite eateries, the Mongolian Grill at Burbank Town Center, a third-generation family business of 21 years. “I used to eat there when I was working at Cartoon Network,” she says. “Also, because of the pandemic, a lot of restaurants and places that serve food were closing. And I was like, ‘I wonder if they've survived.’ It’s just hard to run a restaurant during this time. When I found out they were still open, and adapting to the newly renovated Burbank Town Center mall, I pitched that as an Unreal project, and I got the grant.”

The first and only of Ito’s Mall Stories shorts thus far, Atilla the Grilla, was just released on YouTube by the animation and design studio, Chromosphere, who partnered with Ito to animate the 7-minute documentary focused on Mini Yoon, who owns and operates the Asian-fusion buffet with her father Tai Yoon. The documentary features beautiful animation of grilling noodles and veggies, talks about Mini’s relationship with a stoic but loving Korean father and business partner, seeing the business through COVID, and profiles the eatery’s employees. 

Take a few minutes for a hearty chuckle and smile:

Most notably, the micro-Manager Patricia Won, who is hilariously shown obsessing over tong placement, staring down customers who break bowls by overfilling them, sending cleaning critics to Mini into the wee hours of the morning, and checking the cleanliness of employee shirts. Despite Patricia’s intensity, Mini describes her in the documentary as more of a mom figure, and an iconic, invaluable part of the business’ success. 

“I read some of the reviews of their restaurant on Yelp, and she came up a few times,” says Ito with a laugh. “I don't think they named her, they just said something like, ‘this grumpy employee.’ And it was just so interesting talking to Mini about her because when Mini first met Patricia, she had the same impression as a lot of people. But then this nice feeling of gratitude also came out, where she understood that this person is behaving this way because she wants the restaurant to succeed. So, I didn’t want to make this person mean or seem evil.”

Ito and Chromosphere’s simple, colorful, toy-like character animation style in the short lends itself surprisingly well to depicting characters exactly as they are, but in a comedic way. Though their bodies are made up of oval shapes and their faces consist of nothing more than two dots for eyes, a line for a mouth and two more, slightly thicker lines for eyebrows, it’s an ingenious animation design that focuses more on the timing of character actions rather than the detail put into their features. 

A slow turn of the head by Mini’s father in the background when she casually mentions to the camera that it might be time for him to retire, all conversation coming to a sudden halt when Patricia checks Mini’s shoulder for dust, cook Michael Izquieta stuttering and running into the grill by accident when trying to show his work burns, Mini’s voice slowing down and lowering when Patricia cold-shoulders her praise, it’s all based on dry, subtle humor that Ito is known for instilling into her work, including her Peabody Award-winning Netflix kids series, City of Ghosts

“I have a love of comedy that really leans into timing, whether it’s people's facial expressions or their movements,” says Ito. “The way that they’re making a facial expression or the sound of their voices, that’s the thing that's making the scene funny. They don’t have to say anything.”

On top of her gift for it’s-what-you-see-not-what-you-say comedy, Ito also has a unique gift of taking everyday, almost mundane places or activities, like hanging out in a mall food court, and turning it into a place that you desperately want to learn more about, with some of the most hilarious and interesting characters. Whether she’s profiling mall stories, ghost stories around businesses in Los Angeles, or putting on a green, bug-eyed, stuffed fish hat and recording herself dancing around the city to Fitz and The Tantrums, Ito has an unconscious flare for making a sometimes-boring real world really fun. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it, but it’s absolutely true,” Ito shares. “Without being the annoying version, I do enjoy being that friend who knows all the right places to recommend for people to go and explore. Hopefully, I'm sort of the easygoing, goofy version of that.”

Ito also wants to invite audiences even more into her every day, fun mall world. Working with Chromosphere, Ito created Tropico Hills Mall, an entirely fake, 3D-animated mall with a website that will serve as a hub for real mall stories, like Atilla the Grilla, which Ito hopes to collect over time and, eventually, even turn into a virtual reality experience. 

“My fantasy is that we can not only find other stories about characters that we know that we can make into shorts and told in the same way as Atilla the Grilla, but also make it an interactive space for people,” explains Ito. “If we get more funding, we could build this into almost a game space where, if you have a VR set, you could experience walking around this mall, or you could sit in the mall and just kind of space out on a bench.”

She adds “That's what we were trying to accomplish with the video loop of the mall that’s on the website. There’s pleasant mall music playing and then one of our storyboarders on the short makes mall announcements. The loop is under 20 minutes, but it’s really fun to let it play on the monitor. A lot of credit to Chromosphere for building all of it and designing it and just being a good collaborator. I'm just so grateful for them and how good it feels to work with them and hash out ideas together.”

One of those ideas includes collecting multiple stories of the same business and its employees and allowing VR visitors to Tropico Hills Mall to follow employees in their day-to-day shifts and learn more about them. Though, in a very “non-stalker way” as Ito is careful to include. 

“We’re still trying to figure out the next steps,” she says. “The tough thing is it feels like there are so few studios that are doing anything this forward. Everybody is in this pattern of lockdown safety time where they're throwing all the ideas that are the least bit risky overboard. So it takes a while to get an answer on things that are not traditionally understandable.”

But since the success and high praise that followed the 2021 release of City of Ghosts, Ito is much more optimistic about the future of projects like Mall Stories

“I was a judge for a few different shorts festivals, and it’s been really nice to see what students and people who are just coming up in this world are doing,” notes Ito. “Sometimes I can see how what I’ve been doing has influenced what they’re starting to do and there’s this excitement that comes with figuring out the next thing to work on, because there’s a lot of new people who seem like they would be interesting in telling stories the way I’d like to tell them.”

She continues, “It's getting a little bit easier for me to create things that people will actually help make. It’s a whole new mental space for me to be in. I talked about this years ago in therapy where my therapist told me, ‘You just need to have people trust you. You're an innovative, female, creative thinker who does things differently than other people and there are so many things that are a challenge for you…but you'll feel most gratified when you feel that people trust you and empower you and other people will get excited by seeing you grow into that power.’ It was nice to have that freedom on this project and I can't wait to have more to show people.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at