Once a shy kid, now a cartoonist

Pink haired animator grew up drawing for herself, now she draws for your kids.
By Maximilian Rivera
[AP style sample profile written for my Intro to Journalism class, 2013]

(Lou Noble, via Flickr)

Check on the recently watched tab of any new parents’ Netflix feed and you would most likely find “Yo Gabba Gabba!” Created by Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz, the program grabs children with loud colors, catchy musical numbers and quirky animated bits. Subjects range from tiny, ugly germs to eating vegetables, and even mermaids.

It’s over the top and in your face, and a welcome change of pace from Dora’s blank stare as she awaits your answer.

“Yo Gabba Gabba!” is so high energy and irreverent, yet completely on the mark for children that you have to wonder who is behind it? With her pink hair, human-shark hybrid tattoo and liberal swearing, animator Julia Vickerman might not come to the forefront when picturing children’s television. But as she was lead animator and storyboard artist for the program, she has plenty of experience making cartoons.

I tried to grab an interview with Vickerman earlier in the week, but she had to reschedule because it was her roommate’s birthday. They went to dinner theater at Medieval Times. “It’s the Las Vegas of Renaissance Faires,” she said, erupting in laughter. Vickerman has been a friend for over a decade, and I know that she’s been working with the Jacobs and Schultz since the very beginning.

“When they tried to pitch ‘Yo Gabba Gabba!,’ no one wanted it. Everyone said no… So Scott and Christian made their own pilot,” Vickerman said. “They made a teaser trailer, put it online and it went viral in an hour.”

Their gambit paid off, too, with “Yo Gabba Gabba!” not only having multiple seasons, but also toys, a live show and even a guest spot in a Kia ad during the Super Bowl. “Seeing kids watch it is so gratifying,” she said. “Especially going to the live shows and seeing this giant auditorium full of people watching what you did, it’s pretty exciting.” Art is Vickerman’s livelihood. Some might believe that working artists have it easy, but the business can be daunting. Dealing with self-criticism can be harder than television executives.

“The first thing I draw, I’m just like this is awful,” Vickerman says. “But that was a big thing for me, don’t be scared of having your first few tries suck. Just don’t show anyone.”

But the responsibility of crafting visuals for children’s media builds high expectations. How do parents know kids are in good hands? Well, it turns out animation is a lifelong goal of Vickerman.

“I guess I’ve been drawing my entire life, and it’s the only thing I showed a propensity for – is that a word? […] It’s one of the only things I seemed interested in and kind of seemed okay at doing,” she says. “I really only wanted to watch cartoons all the time.”

It’s not just animation that Vickerman is known for. Over the past years, she’s curated a few art shows, including Just People, a Jurassic Park themed gallery featuring no dinosaurs, and MUCHOS KSTEW, a Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) themed gallery.

“People […] would not have come to a Kristen Stewart show unless it was because the weird way in which I presented Kristen Stewart in my artwork,” Vickerman said. “It was supposed to be, like, a celebration of creepiness. And I think people got that.”

(Vickerman’s “Secret Vows (Equestrian KStew)“)

Having a gallery based around a relevant movie star may seem odd, especially with pieces having Stewart riding a Stewart-horse hybrid, and half-naked Stewarts doing each other’s hair. But has Stewart seen any of the pieces?

“A friend of a friend showed her one of the pieces, and [Stewart’s] response was, ‘Ummm.’ It was exciting to hear that reaction happening in real life.” Vickerman’s smile lights up her face as she talks.

It’s these charming and genuine moments that explain her so well. She’s just a big kid; still sitting alone in her room sketching ideas she’d never show anyone. “That’s been a running theme in my life – stunted maturity,” Vickerman said as she adjusted her Looney Tunes Tasmanian devil t-shirt.

While her pink hair might make it easy to spot her in a crowded room, it’s the tattoo that really sets her apart. Splashed across her forearm is an Old World style tattoo of her father’s head with a shark body. The Victorian lines and odd anatomy are as intriguing as the premise itself.

“I’ve always liked the way old scientific drawings looked,” she said. “They didn’t have cameras, so it’s not like classically trained artist were on the seven seas. A lot of old drawings of sharks had human noses or human parts. I mean, I knew I’d always like my dad and I’d always like sharks.”

With multiple projects in the pipe for Vickerman, it’s a crucial time in her career. As her brows furrow and her voice rises, she explains to me the process of development hell many shows end in. She has two pilots in the making, one which she pitched two-and-a-half years ago, the other six months ago. After having a friend’s show canned after a four year vetting process, she knows anything can happen.

“If your show goes from pilot to series within a year, you’re lucky” said Vickerman, just a hint of that shy kid trailing in her voice.

“I’m hoping this thing I’m working on for Cartoon Network becomes what I’m most proud of,” It’s Vickerman’s passion and sincerity that makes her work so genuine. Don’t trust her because she researches what kids are into these days; trust her because she taps into her childhood for her art.

“It’s helped me a lot that I kept journals and dairies as a kid,” she said. “Going back and reading what I thought was most important enough to actually write down is pretty cool.”

While she has a firm grip on life now, I wonder what is in store for Vickerman? Where will she be ten years from now?

“I want to make a surreal movie, kind of in the vein of “Labyrinth” and “Weird Science”, starring two young girls. I don’t know what it’s about, but I know the tone.” She laughs as she says it, but I can already see her filmmaking future.

“Most of my best ideas start out as jokes.”