Interview with Tony Craig: Director of Stitch & Ai!

I had the wonderful experience of interviewing Stitch & Ai director Tony Craig on the evening of February 5, 2018, in honor of the television series’ English premiere in the United States.

 

JC: What was the very first project you ever worked on with Disney?

TC: 1990 clean up in between artist on the Joanna Goanna team for Rescuers Down Under

JC: Do you have a favorite moment or project from your time working on Disney media?

TC: House of Mouse was the most fun, because we got to utilize every animated character from the Disney canon. Too bad Lilo and Stitch hadn’t come out yet, we could have had some real fun with him in that series.

JC: Oh, that would have absolutely been a blast! House of Mouse is probably my favorite iteration of Mickey and friends. But speaking of Stitch, I noticed that you worked on the “Experiment 626” video game that was a tie-in to the original movie. What was that like?

TC: I have to credit it where it is due, to the team that put together the DVDs and marketing. We didn’t have a lot to do with it other than providing materials and taking a look at the final game.

JC: Very neat! So, before we bring up Stitch & Ai, I first wanted to ask about Lilo and Stitch: The Series, and the two TV movies bookending it. What was it like directing and exec. producing those, and what was it like recapturing the essence of that series around a decade later for Stitch & Ai?

TC: At the time of developing Stitch, the Movie (which basically set up the concept of all the other experiments for the series), the world had just experienced 9-11. Executive notes came back that all the experiment pods being dropped on Hawaii were like little terrorist pods waiting to hatch. 9-11 also resulted in major changes to the original Lilo and Stitch movie. Actually, everyone at Disney Television was invited to pitch a concept for the show, and it was narrowed down to Bobs (Gannaway) and my take, Jess Winfield’s take, and a take from the man who created the series, The Weekenders. The show is a combination of those 3 concepts, and Jess teamed up with Bobs and I to executive produce the show. First season directors were the fantastic Victor Cook and Don MacKinnon, and Rob LaDuca replaced Don on the second season. I was able to direct two of the episodes personally, Spike, and Shoe, before moving on to the Leroy and Stitch movie. Leroy and Stitch was one of the things I was happiest with. You always have an image in your head as to how it should look, and this movie was the closest I’ve come to that mental image while working in TV.
When Stitch and Ai came along, it was a surprise. I was actually contacted by Vic to storyboard on the pilot episode. When he found he was too busy to take on the task of working on Stitch and Ai, he suggested that I take it over. I was glad that Panimation decided to stay with the watercolor look of the BGs, and to keep the character designs consistent, although in new costuming. I also appreciated them making something their own while still keeping images of Lilo present in Stitch’s memory and coming up with a plausible explanation of why he couldn’t remember his past that well. I believe the series creator/writer Marc Handler was mostly responsible for that. Marc lives in Asia, he loves it there, and he is enamored with Chinese culture. He was the perfect person to bring it all together. When I came on, pre production was well underway. Many episodes were already storyboarded. I was delayed due to a previous employment issue, but Panimation waited for me. Then came the task of finding where everything was and what could and couldn’t be done. I was able to go over every board, had a hand in every animatic, all the animation, most of the design, and every edit session. One thing I had nothing to do with was the dialogue recordings, as they were done in Los Angeles, and I live in North Carolina. I was flown to Shanghai and taken to see the Huangshan Mountains in person, so I would know first hand what it looked like where Ai lives. I wish everyone could have the chance to see it. Truly, that part of China is a wonder to behold. I found all the people I met to be very friendly and outgoing.

JC: What an incredible experience that must’ve been!
Were any of the locations seen in the series (the shrines, buildings, etc) actual establishments from the real world?
Also, you mentioned Stitch’s memories. It sounds like Stitch only foggily remembers the events of the original series. Am I correct in saying that? And how does the return of Jumba and Pleakley affect his memory?

TC: Yes, the Huangshan Mountains, of course, and the stone lions Ai speaks to at the beginning of episode 2 actually do guard the entrance the the shopping district streets. The tea shop in which JieJie works, is kind of a combination of many of them. The shrines and Ai’s house are creations for the series. Everything was definitely influenced by the surrounding architecture though.
Stitch foggily remembers Lilo and Hawaii, and instantly recognizes Jumba and Pleakley, but that is as far as his memory goes. We wanted to let the audience know that we have not forgotten about Lilo, but we have new stories to tell.

JC: This is fascinating! I love how Stitch never completely forgets his time in Hawaii, as Ohana means, amongst other things, that nobody gets forgotten.
In the spirit of telling new stories, what can you say about Ai Ling and the other new characters to join this series?

TC: Granted, Ai and JieJie are pretty much the Chinese equivalent of Lilo and Nani. Dahu is David. The new element is Ai’s Aunt Daiyu who feels that Ai needs to move to the city and go to school there in order to become a well adjusted young lady. I suppose someone wanting to take Ai away is like Cobra Bubbles, isn’t it? But like Cobra, she only wants what she feels is in the best interests of Ai. Gradually through the series they win her over to appreciating the mountains and the country style of life. At first, she is paranoid about germs in the mountains, to the point of wearing a pair of gloves over her regular gloves. Aunt Daiyu brings one of Ai’s cousins, Bao, to try to sway Ai to want to move to the city, but of course the opposite happens almost immediately, and they are off on an adventure. I think JeiJei and Dahu give Ai a little more independence than Nani afforded Lilo. This results in higher stakes adventures- they are being spied on and hunted by two separate alien races, the Woolagongs, and the Jaboodies. Both sides want Stitch so that they can unleash a hidden DNA program Jumba had implanted in Stitch. Stitch and Ai go all over the Huangshan Mountains and the towns. The series has done a great job of balancing stories that take place with aliens and stories that take place with Ai’s “friends”, Meiying, and her gang of mean girls. Meiying is not nearly as mean as Myrtle was to Lilo. She just thinks it’s not very cool to hang out with Ai. Rather than Gantu being the antagonist, there are many new aliens who take up the role…specimen collectors, bounty hunters and the like. There is quite a lot packed into these 13 episodes.

JC: It sounds like it! It’s great seeing a new yet familiar premise with these new characters and situations. Speaking of which, has there been any word on the future of the series? And if there was to be another season(s), what kind of ideas would you personally like to have be in the show, going forward?

TC: No news yet other than some general kicking around of random ideas. It all depends on how well the series does once ratings from other countries come in, I suppose. I would like to know why Stitch has been searching for a shrine and what happens when he actually finds the one he’s looking for. I’d also like to bring back some of the other experiments.

JC: Oooh, that would be a lot of fun to see!
This next question is a little odd, but there have been some fans asking about this: The Stitch anime in Japan, which you told me you never watched, was met with mixed reception stateside, but there is one episode fans talk a lot about, and it’s one where Stitch reunites with Lilo, now an adult with a child of her own. Given that Stitch remembers Lilo thoroughly during the episode, or for any of the reasons you’ve stated in the past, would it be reasonable to say that the anime is non-canon, and is essentially replaced by Stitch & Ai? Or do both series exist in harmony?

TC: They are just two separate things. Seeing as Stitch and Ai was underway before I came on board, there was no time or really any reason to educate myself about the Japanese version. Therefore, I have to assume that Stitch and Ai is a logical extension of the original series, both in hooking up to it and in style.

JC: Awesome. I personally like to think of both series as existing in tandem, one big world-sprawling ohana, from Hawaii to China to Japan. And furthermore, the visual connective tissue between Stitch & Ai and Lilo & Stitch is one of my favorite parts of the series. (Those watercolor backgrounds!!)
And, my last question: What projects are you currently working on?


TC: Currently, I’m storyboarding on a series with Warner Brothers Animation. It is yet to be announced, so I am not supposed to tell! But we are many episodes into it. I can probably say that it involves guest stars without getting into too much trouble, I hope! I’m also in constant contact with Panimation, and we are still developing original ideas as well as waiting to see what happens with Stitch and Ai. Before doing what I’m doing now, I had done animation exposure sheet timing on Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, and Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek. I’m glad there are many things to go onto. Now if I can just make myself work on my own paintings and writing when I have free time, I think I would be very satisfied…however, it feels so good to take a nap. You’ll see when you get to be as old as I am. Nothing beats a good nap! Thanks for the questions.

JC: And thank you so much for answering them! It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Have a good evening.

 

Stitch & Ai airs February 14, 2018, on Disney Channel.

 

 

 

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