Brothers Roy and Arturo Ambriz’s musical kids’ series, about an enthusiastic ‘ghost writer' and her book of scary stories, brings a modern twist to classic horror, now available on HBO Max Latin America.
It’s part musical, part horror, and part animated comedy adventure. Frankelda’s Book of Spooks, a stop-motion kids’ series created and directed by brothers Roy and Arturo Ambriz, features an enthusiastic and literal ghost writer, her grumpy and enchanted book and a plethora of terrifying stories meant to send kids on a psychological journey through their greatest fears.
Produced by Mexico’s Cinema Fantasma with Dark Frame, the show is now available on HBO Max Latin America.
“We have always been fans of monsters, both physically and metaphorically, because monsters usually represent our biggest fears,” explains Arturo. “And, based on that idea, we wanted to bring a modern twist to the classic horror anthology series. And to Mexican folklore.”
Frankelda’s Book of Spooks has five episodes, each 13 minutes long, with “ghost host” Frankelda and her book of scary stories ready to recount another terrifying tale. The stories always feature new kid characters - each modeled after members of Roy and Arturo’s film crew - and new monsters, which represent the worst fears of the kids in each episode. While these monsters come from traditional Mexican fables, such as “El Coco,” who Americans might know as “The Boogeyman,” the stories themselves are originals, meant to have, as Arturo puts it, “a universal appeal.”
“Each boy or girl in these stories thinks that their life is going to improve when they give into their fears, when they give into their monsters,” says Arturo. “But actually, every episode has a twist ending, where there is a negative moral of the story that shows how wrong they were.”
“A key element was never to underestimate the children we were making this for,” adds Roy. “We wanted to explore different themes and challenge the boundaries of what’s considered ‘for children’ and what's not.”
Cartoon Network Latin America released a pilot episode on YouTube in November 2019; only four minutes long, it followed the tragic story of a young boy duped by the monster under his bed, who convinces the child to tell it his name in exchange for it doing all his chores and homework. Life seems pretty great for a while, until the boy himself turns into a monster and the creature from under his bed steals both his identity and his life.
Arturo and Roy had the makings of a unique kids’ series. But when HBO Max decided to lend their support, the Ambriz brothers decided, in their words, to “up our game,” and bring in award winning, multi-instrumentalist composer Kevin Smithers to improve the sound and help increase the impact of each story.
“When we discussed the idea of turning that little pilot into a whole series, we realized that we needed more of a cinematographic quality in the sound and image,” says Arturo. “And immediately we gravitated toward Kevin. I think the music is one of the most important characteristics of this series.”
Smithers, who had worked with Cinema Fantasma before on Victor and Valentino, adds, “In this particular case, it was actually a little bit out of my comfort zone, because most of my work has been in scoring, being only a composer, not so much of a songwriter. And when we started discussing the show, one of the episodes had a musical number. I wasn't sure if I should approach the song, or if I should let a songwriter do it. But Roy and Arturo really wanted me to be the one to write it.”
While it was never the brothers’ intention to make Frankelda’s Book of Spooks a musical, Smithers’ song convinced them otherwise, believing the music would make their show sing - pun intended. “We thought that it would be more iconic and also help us with the storytelling,” explains Roy. “The music created an opportunity to give more depth to some of the meanings that we wanted to transmit to viewers.”
“But our crew was definitely surprised,” says Arturo.
Smithers adds, “So was I.”
Luckily, while no animation had yet been produced, there was still plenty of production work to rewind and start over now that the show was being re-developed as a musical. “Everything had to change,” notes Arturo. “We had to create extra puppets, extra sets, and new storyboards.”
In the end, the team created 122 puppets and 42 different sets.
“But we had nothing to lose,” he continues. “Some say that doing animation in Mexico is like playing a video game in the extra hard mode. We have one shot. If we are given the opportunity to make an animated series, we have to make the best animated series ever. Not even just for us, but also to open the gates for more animation that can be produced in Latin America.”
Frankelda’s Book of Spooks is just one of more than 100 projects HBO Max plans to develop in Latin America in the next two years. And Roy, Arturo, and Smithers plan to usher in future projects with a diverse range of music, each episode tackling not only new characters, but a new musical genre, from opera and Broadway-style to songs that are rooted in gothic romance.
“Originally, when we worked on that 2019 pilot, it was supposed to be a small web series,” notes Arturo. “But now, being backed by HBO, we wanted to dig deeper, analyze our characters more, as well as their motivations and the things they’re scared of. As the storytelling grew, so did everything else, and we were able to make something more artistic and a little less silly.”
And for Smithers, who has done plenty of horror and kids’ content but rarely where the two combine, it was an opportunity to collaborate more intimately on a project than ever before.
“I've always gravitated toward creepy and dark sonorities,” explains Smithers. “But more than anything, I just like a good story and good characters. Even though it is a show that kids can watch, I feel like anyone of any age can be attracted to it because there are elements for everyone. The intricacies in the script actually makes it a pretty mature read - and watch - because of the depth of the characters. And working on those musical numbers is where we ironed out what the vibe of this show was going to be.”
In a very non-traditional fashion, the team decided to tackle Frankelda’s sound before redesigning the animation. This gave Smithers the chance to add input to actual character animation and, in a sense, stage performance.
“In the first episode, during a song, the inflection of the singer’s voice changes to be more aggressive, and I asked Roy and Arturo if they could change the face of the character to reflect that,” remembers Smithers. “They loved the idea. It's that kind of collaboration that I am rarely able to be part of. Usually, by the time the filmmakers get to my part in everything, the animation is already done. So, with this, it was so much fun to be able to pitch an idea. I think that's one of the key things that makes a show grow into something even better, when collaboration is nurtured on both sides.”
“There are a lot of common elements in musical theater that we use in stop-motion,” adds Roy. “Because we have to resolve everything in front of the camera in a physical form, taking input from Kevin and watching stage musicals gave us an idea of how best to illuminate those parts of the show.”
Frankelda is the first, full-length stop-motion series that Smithers has composed for. It’s also one of the first stop-motion animated musical TV series to come out of Mexico. “When there is a song, there's a bigger connection when you watch a movie or a show,” says Arturo. “Music can chill you. It can give you goosebumps and create a memory. I think these are some things that we have been able to do with these fantastic pieces composed by Kevin. Overall, it has become a more profound project and, truthfully, more weird. I don’t think that the world will be expecting this. It doesn't look like anything else on the market. We're really thrilled for people to start seeing it.”
Roy adds, “This is our opportunity to show the world what we can produce here in Mexico at our studio. And we really hope this production opens new opportunities for us to tell more stories, because we have a lot of stories that we want to share with the world.”
As of now, a global release date has yet to be announced for Frankelda’s Book of Spooks, but further info about future releases and details for the series can be found by following Cinema Fantasma on Instagram (@cinemafantasma).