Event Recap: Aliki Theofilopoulos Shares Stories from her Animation Career at WDFM Happily Ever After Hours

Aliki Theofilopoulos has done it all in the animation industry, from animating on Disney features like Hercules and Tarzan to writing on Phineas & Ferb and directing on Descendants: Wicked World. She’s even credited with writing songs and serving as a voice actress and now she’s leading the industry as an Executive Producer at DreamWorks Animation. As a guest of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Happily Ever After Hours series, I learned a lot not only about Aliki’s career, but what it was like to ride the changing animation industry in its transition from animating on paper to computers. Here’s what I learned from this informative virtual event.

Why She Studied Fine Art at USC

“At that time, there was kind of this rebirth happening in animation and there weren’t really undergraduate animation programs at the time,” Aliki Theofilopoulos explained about the options she had for higher education with a goal of entering the animation career. Her options were to go to a technical school like CalArts or get a more traditional degree and learn animation principles on the side. With a father who insisted that she go through a 4-year degree program, she settled on a Fine Art major at USC, where she got to take one animation class. “It was not so much the physical training in fine arts… but it was more just the way to think and analyze story and life and the world in a way that I don’t know I would have had if I had gone to a more traditional art school.”

She Interned at Spümcø and Hannah Barbera While in College

“Those were 2 very important experiences in my story,” Aliki shared, revealing that her earliest inspirations to pursue a career in animation was due to a childhood love of Disney animated features and Looney Tunes shorts. The creator of Ren & Stimpy, John Kricfalusi, had started his own animation company, Spümcø, and even though she didn’t have animation experience, Aliki was able to convince the founder to give her an internship. When a friend of hers got an internship at Hannah Barbera, she talked her way in there as well, working at both studios. While she learned about analyzing story at USC, she got her education in the basics of animation from these two studios.

She Almost Didn’t Get in to Disney’s Animation Trainee Program

“It was such a dream come true,” Aliki shared about her acceptance into the program before revealing that it almost didn’t happen. She was taking animation night classes at a high school and during a portfolio night, she met a recruiter from Disney who invited her to submit for the trainee program. Some of her friends got the call first, who ended up getting in as in-betweeners on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her call finally came, but it was bittersweet news. She didn’t make the cut, but was offered the opportunity to take a test to be admitted into the training program at Disney’s Florida animation studio. It was a decision she had to think about but before taking the test, she convinced the recruiter to take a look at her updated portfolio and they changed their mind. “I did this animation bootcamp for 3 months,” she shared. “And then I was hired onto Hercules from that.” During her time at Disney, she also worked on Mulan, Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range.

When Disney Stopped 2D Animation, She Had to Shift Gears

“My dream was always to go into 2D animation, I hadn’t even considered CG animation when I was coming up,” she shared, revealing that the writing was on the wall at Disney and she saw the change coming from the start of her time there, with an all-CG character in Hercules and the studio producing its first computer animated project, Dinosaur. “When I was on Atlantis, there were a lot of layoffs coming and it was something that I could kind of feel in the air.” When Disney announced that they weren’t going to make hand-drawn films for a while, they gave some artists the opportunity to be trained in CG while a significant number of animators were let go. Forced to re-examine her career in the new environment, she realized that what she really loved about animation was storytelling, not making characters move.

Transitioning to Writing for TV

After Disney, Aliki was offered two positions – work as an assistant animator for Eric Goldberg on another feature or join a friend at Nickelodeon and enter the story department, but in TV. It was a tough decision, one that would take her career in a new direction, and one she asked for Eric Goldberg’s advice on. He told her that 2D animation is dying but there will always be a need for story artists, so she took the job. What she soon learned was that on a feature, lots of people work towards a shared vision, rarely getting the opportunity to make significant contributions. In TV, the fast-paced nature and the amount of stories told make it easier for ideas to come from anywhere in the studio. “I love the magic and the mystery that happens when you put great minds together in one room and everybody starts throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.” One of her TV highlights, Phineas & Ferb, sometimes felt like she was being paid to laugh. “You walk into the room and at first nothing existed and then you walk out and something does, there’s magic there.”

A Family Memory Inspired a Doctor Doofenshmirtz Moment

When asked if her background as a Greek American woman inspired any of her writing, Aliki explained that she’s always drawing on her own experiences in her writing, something she encourages everyone to do. It’s also part of the reason why she’s a huge advocate for diversity in the industry, with different backgrounds and experiences increasing the quality of the stories being told. One personal memory of her father ended up inspiring a moment in Phineas & Ferb. Doctor Doofenshmirtz had lost a science fair to a baking soda volcano, so he switched to poetry. The setup was that he would also lose the poetry competition to the same baking soda volcano, but they needed a really bad poem for him to say. Aliki’s father, a research scientist, had once bragged about how anyone could write poetry and then came up with one on the spot that was laughably bad. She pitched it in the story session and it made it into the episode, which is called “Unfair Science Fair.”

Her Most Proud Moment Was Writing “Eau de Minnie”

When Paul Rudish’s Mickey Mouse shorts series debuted in 2013, it was exactly what Aliki was looking for, combining her first loves of Disney animation with a Looney Tunes style. She was invited to write the first story that would center around Minnie Mouse. “I was like, this is what I got into animation for, what these are is what made me want to become an animator. Getting to do the first Minnie short in that program was such an honor.” Having looked up to Minnie Mouse her whole life, getting invited to show the short at Annecy and be celebrated as a woman in animation along with it was a real honor.

Stay up-to-date on future events from the Walt Disney Family Museum by checking out their event calendar at waltdisney.org/calendar.