Part of the fun of following animation is how you, over time, increasingly accumulate a list of studios to follow. Of course, you’ll still be checking out what the larger studios release, especially since companies like Disney, Comcast, Viacom, etc. have such an omnipresence in theatrical animation that even their subsidiaries produce triple-A pictures. That said, the vast scope of the animation industry— made more expansive because of the internet (particularly social media platforms) and growing accessibility to more means of creating and distributing animation— gives audience members interested in looking for a sense of discovery when following up-and-coming studios and artists. More than just allowing you the bragging rights of ‘knowing them before they made it,’ it becomes an exciting experience watching artists evolve— seeing what idiosyncrasies get smoothed out; and which persist throughout their filmography. Recently, I had an experience like this when watching the newest short from Chromosphere, the Elizabeth Ito-directed Mall Stories.
However, before we talk about Mall Stories, we first have to understand where and who the short comes from– namely, the film’s director, Elizabeth Ito, and the studio, Chromosphere. Elizabeth Ito, herself an Emmy-winning animator whose work includes Adventure Time and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, has persisted as a frequent and striking creative collaborator of Chromosphere since the company’s inspection in 2014. Indeed, one of Chromosphere’s first big projects was contributing additional animation and designs to Ito’s pilot for a potential Cartoon Network series, Welcome to My Life. Despite Cartoon Network eventually passing on the short, Welcome to My Life garnered critical praise and a substantial fanbase; the pilot became the second most viewed pilot on Cartoon Network‘s YouTube channel (beaten out only by the pilot for Infinity Train) and accumulated over 5.6 million views. Following this, Chromosphere has continued to work all throughout animation; animating the acclaimed Age of Sails and The Good Guest Guild for Japan shorts in collaboration respectively with Google and Airbnb, helping with the recent Carmen Sandiego series on Netflix, and self-releasing the underrated but cult-favorite web-series cartoon YUKI-7 (a show that— from its delightful designs to its low-poly style, to its abundance of halftones— is up my ally that it feels like pandering). Moreover, Ito has remained a consistent collaborator with Chromosphere, acting as the executive producer on YUKI-7 and creating the studio’s breakout hit, City of Ghosts.
Released in 2021 by TeamTO and Netflix Animation, City of Ghosts is an animated mockumentary series created by Elizabeth Ito and animated by Chromosphere, which follows a group of young ghost hunters as they investigate and interview ghosts around their hometown. In many ways, City of Ghosts gives Ito and Chromosphere the license to evolve many of the ideas presented in the Welcome to My Life pilot. Although the two animations share many similarities (similar themes, a mockumentary framework, a naturalistic approach to the dialogue and voice direction for its characters, etc.), they most notably both have remarkably similar tones, and both accomplish a style of storytelling that remains casual but heartwarming. Moreover, the time between these two projects gave Chromosphere years more experience to better execute their multimedia approach to the visuals. Like Welcome to My Life, City of Ghost primarily uses 3D CGI animation but also blends 2D hand-drawn, digital puppets, photography, and digital painting to create a world of simplistically designed characters set in a highly geometrized and kaleidoscopically realized world.
Moreover, City of Ghosts is an excellent series in its own right! Admittedly, I remember entering the show trepidatiously because of its younger intended demographic, but it honestly became one of my favorite shows of last year. Primarily, Ito’s keen sense of empathy in her direction and writing allows the series a pervasive humanism which becomes one of its greatest strengths— a show about ghosts that focuses foremost on life and the joys in life that make us who we are. Ito’s aforementioned naturalistic approach to dialogue and voice direction lends the characters an extra dimension of authenticity to the characters as they describe their interests and background with a notably genuine delivery. The mockumentary style compounded by intentionally leaving in the actors’ flubbed lines, strutting, or laughter to enable a deeper comfort with their characters. Indeed, comfort remains the aptest word to describe City of Ghosts. Let’s hold back the SAT words for a moment and be completely honest: the show is adorable. I wish nothing but the best for these fictional children; I would lay my life down for Bagels the ghost. In large part, the show aims to teach its younger viewers lessons about different cultures and identities and showing compassion for others— and each of its six episodes does an excellent job exploring these topics in a sensitive and easy-to-understand manner. However, sometimes— no matter the demographic— you don’t need a story about saving the world or fighting a great evil as much as you need a gentle hug from a welcoming show like City of Ghosts— stories full of quaint and personable people who enjoy learning more about their new friend. A show welcoming to everyone, and brilliant enough to have earned a Peabody Award.
In turn, the improvements set by City of Ghosts make Mall Stories not just a delightful film in itself, but a fascinating evolution of the groundwork Chromosphere and Ito have built upon since Welcome to My Life. Mall Stories, also known by its full title of MALL STORIES / Atilla the Grilla, follows Chef Minnie and her employees as they give interviews about their experiences working in the food court of the fictional Tropico Hills Mall. The film pushes Ito’s documentary style into a bold new direction by intertwining the real and fictitious to present an authentic and creative portrait of Minnie’s world and the restaurant. For starters, the film delves further into documentary filmmaking than any of Ito and Chromosphere’s past work, utilizing actual interviews of the employees of the Mongolian Grill in Burbank Town Center. Mall Stories adapts these testimonials into its own imaginative flair to help underscore the heart of these interviews; the writers and storyboard artists use animation not just for striking visuals and cinematography— but to punctuate the subtlety of the character acting and implement new elements that accentuate the topics discussed. Much like City of Ghosts, Mall Stories carries with it a respect for the societal and interpersonal cultures/ history that paved the way for the world around us; however, Mall Stories manifests this reverence primarily through nostalgia. In this way, the decision to set the story— a mall story, if you will— in a fictional mall works in the filmmakers’ favor; it removes the necessity for them to depict the location literally and instead allows them the opportunity to better visually describe how being in a mall feels. Elevated by its neo-retro aesthetics and vaporwave-esque use of lo-fi-pop, the short creates a cozy atmosphere— a letter in praise of all the sunny afternoons wandering aimlessly ambling through the mall and of all the hardworking people who helped make them happen.
Furthermore, this sense of nostalgia moves to the forefront in the companion piece to Mall Stories, Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam. Plot twist— I get to talk about something signalwave-adjacent— again— but I’ve cited too many sources to be stopped now. Regardless, Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam is a shot of the atrium of the mall from Mall Stories, exhibiting that mall’s patrons as they go from store to store. Whereas Mall Stories utilized its sentimental atmosphere to accentuate its narrative Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam contains just the atmosphere. In other words: if Mall Stories elicited the feelings of actively exploring the mall, Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam finding an empty bench to sit on and people-watch as the world goes by. In doing so, Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam recreates the lackadaisical comforts of shopping malls, aided beautifully by the increased attention paid to exhibiting the films’ relaxed soundtrack treated through mallsoft-esque sound design and occasionally interrupted by endearing intercom announcements.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to acquaint yourself with everything in Elizabeth Ito’s or Chromoshpere’s filmographies to understand why Mall Stories or Tropico Hills Mall / Live Cam work so well. I highly recommend everything discussed, certainly, but, Welcome to My Life, YUKI-7, City of Ghosts, and, of course, Mall Stories can all be watched, shared, and enjoyed on their own merits. However, having that context and being able to follow along as an artist sharpens their art and can allow viewers to form a more appreciative connection to their work. In Ito’s words, artists must understand that “sometimes things don’t happen in the order you wanted or expected, but your dreams can adapt & expand.” As a viewer, watching that development as it unfolds is not just one of the most fun aspects of the following animation; but one of the most inspiring aspects.