Disney's Gravity Falls Creator on How to Create a Show for All Ages
After a year off, Disney’s Gravity Falls is finally coming back to television for a second season on Aug. 1 on the Disney Channel. The brainchild of wunderkind Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls follows the supernatural misadventures of twins Dipper and Mabel Pines as they spend their summer vacation with their Grunkle (Great Uncle) Stan in the fictional town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. So far, they’ve encountered everything from a gaggle of gnomes to geriatric ghosts in this cartoon that’s part Simpsons, X-Files and Twin Peaks, but pure fun for all ages.
We caught up with Hirsch to talk about all things Gravity Falls.
When did you first know you wanted to make cartoons?
As long as I can recall I’ve always wanted to make cartoons. When I went to California Institute of the Arts, I was classmates with a lot of like-minded weirdoes, some of who have gone on to create other cartoon shows—J.G. Quintel, Regular Show; Pen Ward, Adventure Time. We were all friends in school and pushed each other and made each other laugh. It’s been a direct progression from elementary school kid watching Disney cartoons to kid-at-heart currently making cartoons for kids, for Disney.
What was your favorite cartoon growing up?
The Simpsons. I loved The Simpsons because it didn’t talk down to its audience. A lot of kids shows limit themselves. They are kids shows first and shows second. The Simpsons was something that, growing up, I could tell it was smarter than I was. I could tell there were layers and hidden jokes and references that I didn’t understand, but I understood the characters. Great shows have those kinds of layers and have that sort of broader appeal not just to kids, but to adults.
You talked about wanting to create a show for all ages. How have you gone about that?
There’s one way to do that and that’s to not think about anybody when you make the show. The best way to make a show that’s going to resonate is to make a show that you’d love. It’s to trust yourself, because there’s really no way to test a hypothetical. Do I think this is funny? Do I like it? And if you like it and you think it’s funny, then you just need to trust that others will. I am maybe blessed with the fact that I am a very immature adult. I am sort of a man-child, so if I like something, chances are it’ll appeal to men and children both because I am somewhere in-between.
Your show’s darker than most kids shows. Now that it’s on Disney XD, will the tone remain the same?
We were told that the show was going to be moved to Disney XD halfway through making the season, so there was no coordinated conversation about tone. There’s not a lot of discussion between the creative and programming ends. In terms of the tone of the second season, we’re experimenting a lot more. Season 1 was just about getting to know the characters, about trying to give a hint of the mythology and just trying to be as funny and fun as possible. In Season 2, we’re digging much more heavily into the mythology and our characters are experiencing higher stakes, tenser situations and, in a few instances, more menacing villains. As a result, the conspiracy/X-Files/spookiness aspect of the series definitely gets a stronger highlight in Season 2 than it did in Season 1, but we still hope to balance that out with some traditionally silly Gravity Fallsy-episodes.
What was the first character you ever created?
In second grade I drew a face on a paper bag and I gave him a cape and called him Super Paper Bag Man because my creativity was pretty limited at that stage. Thankfully Super Paper Bag Man got recycled, forcing me to come up with better ideas.
Who is your favorite character in Gravity Falls?
In the penultimate episode of our first season we introduced this villainous, mischievous, triangle, who sort of resembles the eye of providence on the back of the one dollar bill. He’s a pyramid with one eye and a bow tie named Bill. He’s a character we conceived early on in the series that it might be fun to sort of have a Mxyzptlk kind of jerk character who can just pop in and screw things up for our main characters. It seems funny to me to take the most ominous, illuminati-looking symbol and slap Mr. Peanut arms and legs onto him and throw him into the mix. It’s something that always struck me as hilarious. The amount of physical letters I’ve gotten in the mail and the amount of pictures on Twitter I’ve seen of people getting tattoos—yes, tattoos—of this goofy character has given me an affection for this odd thing because whatever I find hilarious about it, clearly the warped children of America feel the same way.
Since Dipper and Mabel are modeled on you and your sister, are there any other characters on the show modeled after relatives or acquaintances?
The handyman Soos, often mistaken for being pronounced “Zeus,” is 100% inspired by my friend named Jesus from college who was this just friendly, lovable and deeply strange human being. He was the kind of guy who gravitated to sticking around college even after he had graduated, just this sort of dude that wanted to help everyone out. I definitely wanted to put a character like him in the series. The reason Mabel has a pet pig named Waddles is because my twin sister always dreamed of having a pet pig when we were growing up, and made a pig shrine of pig objects in her room.
How does it feel to have the voice of Olmec from Legends of the Hidden Temple voice Waddles?
You know, I had no idea. Most of these big top ten voice actors in town, they’ve done everything and I should IMDB all of them and harass them by making them do voices from my childhood. The next time I see Dee I will ask him where the jade monkey is located behind the stone stair and see if he’s got an answer for me.
You voice two characters on your show, Grunkle Stan and Soos. What were your inspirations for those voices?
The inspirations for those voices is primarily the characters they were inspired by. Great Uncle Stan is conceptually loosely based on my Grandpa Stan on my father’s side, who I didn’t know very well. But he was a big, gruff guy, who wore his top button open with gold chains and gold watches and was kind of a pathological “free of truth teller.” I remember him speaking with sort of a gruff lower register. While the character is inspired by my Grandpa Stan, the voice is more inspired by my other grandpa, Grandpa Bill. Every time I see him for Thanksgiving, he always says, “Roll out the red carpet, Mr. Hollywood finally decides to pay us a visit.” He’s always busting my chops, so there’s some of that voice as well.
Soos is inspired by Jesus, my college buddy. The real Jesus is impossible to properly imitate. He has a way of speaking that can’t really be put into words, but there’s a sort of blunt-like consonance to the way he speaks that I try to emulate in spirit with the voice that I do for Soos.
Dipper’s modeled after your own misadventures. Do you have any you’d like to share?
The unsoundbyte-worthy truth of it is that my summers were astonishingly boring. Dipper’s adventures for the most part represent a checklist of all the things I wished for. When I was a kid I would spend these long, long summers out in the woods with my great aunt out in a cabin with my sister, and my great aunt would say, “Alright, three hours of reading time,” and lock us in a room with a window. Because there was so much sensory deprivation, my imagination had to grow to fill the empty space. I imagined that I was beating gnomes or fighting aliens or searching for the Loch Ness monster. With this series, there’s a chance to give a fictionalized version of myself all of those wishes I wished would come true.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make their own TV series?
It’s all about the characters. Regardless of how your series looks, regardless of its high concept, regardless of its celebrity voices or budget or whatever, all of that is secondary to your characters. Are they funny? Do they have personalities that pop and are memorable and are interesting next to each other? And my main advice to any aspiring show creators for finding good characters is to write what you know and to look at your real life. I think the most successful element to the characters in Gravity Falls comes from me writing about my sister or my grandpa–caricaturing them for comedic effect obviously, but if you can take the most outlandish people you know and put them into one series, you’re gonna have a lot better luck than if you focus on “how can I make the most complicated mythology possible.” At the end of the day, that’s why people tune in—to hang out with characters that they love, and that’s the most important part.
Are there any ideas that you’ve had that never make it into the show?
For every one episode that you see, there’s at least 10 broad concepts that were discarded for either being too silly or not silly enough or so hilarious that Disney’s standards team was infuriated by them.
What’s the most challenging part of having your own show?
To try to create something of consistent quality over the duration of 20 episodes all being simultaneously produced, written, directed, designed and voiced, all on top of each other. When you’re in college just making one film in a year, or one film over the course of four years, you have the luxury of making everything perfect, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” When you’re in TV, you’re very much working on a conveyor belt. Not every episode can be an A+ as much as I desperately try to make each thing as good as it can be.
Why you ‘ackin so cray cray?
Deadlines. Deadlines are why I’m ‘ackin so cray cray.
Season 2 of Gravity Falls premieres Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. on the Disney Channel.