Interview with Ellation's Sofia Alexander
Written by Ross Locksley on 20 Nov 2020
Crunchyroll have been kind enough to provide us an exclusive interview with Sofia Alexander, creator of Ellation Studio's latest series, Onyx Equinox. The series will premiere on November 21st, exclusively on Crunchyroll.
How did you come up with the idea for Onyx Equinox?
Well, I grew up in Cancun, Mexico. So I was surrounded by all this beauty and there's a lot of archaeological sites there. So for me, it was not an obvious choice because it was something that I knew and going to art school, our professors always told us to know the story. Know the story that you're going to be telling them from your point of view. And since this was part of my childhood, part of growing up, I wanted to set an epic fantasy story based in Mesoamerican, Mexico, because I saw a lack of it. And frankly, I thought, "Well, no one's doing it might as well, right?" It's an incredible culture. I want people to see it. So Onyx is very near and dear to my heart and the characters there, I hope people can relate to.
Were the Aztecs an obvious choice for you because of the gods and the mysticism and the legend?
Well, yes. We're going to be seeing two of the more media prevalent cultures. The Aztecs and the Maya. However, my goal was to go across Mesoamerican, Mexico, which is a pretty big region in modern-day Mexico, and I wanted to show other cultures because there's so much richness. I hope that's correct. And I thought we're so familiar with these two cultures that have gotten too much of a spotlight because we know more about them. They were one of the ones that survived a little bit more after the Spanish colonialism. A lot was lost to history and just people destroyed a lot of things. And so there are gaps of knowledge that we do not have. And for me, I thought, "I should take this opportunity to be able to share what I do know as growing up in Mexico to share with the world." So we'll be seeing more than, than the Aztec culture, I think is the very short answer.
Can you describe some of the elements that are a bit different?
Well, this is not going to be a historical anime because I know that there's anime that is based on history and that would be super cool because there's a lot of really amazing history. However, for me, as I said, I wanted us to create an epic fantasy and the elements that I added that were more fantastical were again, because of the gaps that were created by the destruction of knowledge and artifacts by colonialism, I was able to expand more on that by saying, "Well I don't want to leave a culture out just because there's not enough." I think that there's enough to be able to tell a story and create characters that people can relate to.
Is this the first time you have created an animation?
Yes. This is my first production. Yeah. And it was an amazing experience really.
Wow, that's kind of a big thing, isn't it? You writing a series?
Yes. Yes. I feel very lucky. It felt like a combination of both being prepared and being there at the right time. I feel very, I don't like to say lucky, but I think that's the only word that comes to mind. It was life-changing.
Is it something that you've always wanted to do? Is that kind of a dream that you've had?
Yes, yes. Yes. I mean obviously growing up, watching anime, and wanting to create stories, I initially wanted to be a comic book artist. I read a lot of manga and the idea of telling a story through a graphic novel was always very attractive to me. However, after going to college I met with a friend who was in the animation department, studying animation and he said, "Hey, can you help me with my thesis." I was like, "Well, I don't know how to animate." He was like, "But you do comic books. You can storyboard."
And that's when I learned what storyboarding was. And that's when I realised, "Oh my gosh, I can make my own series like this." I can be involved in the animation industry and be ... I wished that I could take part in and be part of like ... I wanted the anime style that I grew up with, that I developed on my own to eventually be made into a cartoon. And I'd be able to explore that and to like any animator, we all wish for that opportunity and to tell our own stories. It's surreal to see it on the screen.
You worked on The Powerpuff Girls, didn’t you?
Initially as a revisionist as a freelancer, so I wasn't even on the building. And they liked my work and they thought ... They gave me a chance to board in one of the episodes. And that was my first go as a board artist. But after that, I went on to storyboard for Hasbro's Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters. And after that, I jumped onto the Invader Zim crew and we storyboarded the movie Enter the Florpus. And after that, finally, Cartoon Network again. This time as a full-time board artist and I had the pleasure to work for the Infinity Train team group. And that was ... What a beautiful story. And finally, I'm here at Crunchyroll.
When did you pitch Onyx Equinox?
Very early 2018. I believe.
And did you feel confident? Did you think, "Yeah, I'm going to get my own anime?" Or were you feeling a bit nervous, like, "Oh, I wonder how this is going to go down?"
You know what, the truth is, is that this wasn't even supposed to be a pitch. I had my pitch Bible together because I wanted to pitch it, but this was ... the meeting that I had with Marisa Balkus who is one of the executives there for Crunchyroll Originals, it was just a general meet and greet. Kind of like how we're doing right now. We're just talking, introducing myself. And that's when I thought we were coming to a close of our conversation and we still had a little bit of time. So I thought, "You know what, I'm going to take my shot." And I believed in my story. I believe in it. I don't think I doubted my story. If anything, I doubted myself a little bit, but because I have such love for my story, that fuelled me to be brave and just, because the worst that could have happened was she says, "Oh, not right now." Or, "Let's make a meeting for another time." Right? And now I'm here.
How did you celebrate?
I went to have lunch with my friends. They were obviously all very happy for me. One of them brought a bottle of champagne and it was, I don't know. Honestly, I don't think it even hit me there that it was happening. To a certain point, it hasn't even hit me yet that it's ... obviously, I'm seeing the show come together and the final picture, but I feel that once this is over, everything is wrapped up with a nice ribbon on it, and people start watching it, I feel like that's when it's going to hit me fully. Because the trailer came out and everything and I was like, "Oh my gosh. It's out there. Crazy." But this is going to be different for sure.
Are you nervous about how it will be received by the fandom?
A little bit of yes and a little bit of no. I believe that since anime has such broad diversity when it comes to its content and styles, obviously, I'm excited for people to get to know the characters and relate to them. And I feel that that's, what's going to make Onyx shine. I think that if they love the characters and if they connect with them, I would consider that a success on its own. So I'm nervous because I'll be putting myself out there... Onyx speaks a lot about myself and my team and our own experiences and our own hearts put into it. So of course, it's always nervous about being critiqued so openly, but you know what? It's part of that and I'm pretty confident people will love it.
And do you think that the Mexican audience will get something out of it that maybe the rest of us don't? Do you think that culture will speak to a different audience in a different kind of way?
No, I've actually thought about this from the very first time I started putting the story together. I thought, "Well, all my life, I grew up watching anime," from obviously Japan and they put a lot of their culture and their history into their shows and a lot of times, obviously it will go over my head, but because I'm there with the characters and the story, eventually there's context that makes me go, "Okay, I'm following now." But if there were gaps of things that maybe would have been obvious for someone who lived in Japan and know the history and you know, grew up there, if I didn't understand something, I was so involved with the story and the characters and just kind of wanting to know more that I would go online and Google, what is, for example, the [inaudible 00:13:09]. What is that? And why is this character ... what's their ideology and why is it tied so much to this?
And I hope that Onyx fans that are not from Mexico, that because they're so excited and connected to the characters, I'm hoping that it will be the same for them. Right? Because how many of us did not ... Personally, I learned a lot of like the lyrics to the opening sequences, even though I, for the most part, did not know what they were saying. It was just a cool song, cool music. And it made me feel great. So I'm hoping that Onyx has that kind of a feeling for people and makes them just, I guess I'm being redundant when I just want to say, if you can relate to a character, the setting and the story becomes ... Just it clicks.
Can you name three anime series that influenced you growing up?
To begin with my first ever exposure to anime was Saint Seiya in Spanish and Dragon Ball and Cardcaptor. Again, there's such diversity in anime. There's a little bit for everyone. Having brothers, of course I watched more of the shonen stuff, but even though supposedly the demographic was more towards me as a girl, I was still able to connect to them and their stories. So yeah, those were the big ones.
How many brothers have you got?
Two. No sisters.
Do you go back to Mexico often or you mainly in the States now?
My entire family is in Mexico. My immediate family and my parents and my brothers, they're currently in Texas. But I did recently visit my aunt and uncle in Campeche, if you need me to spell that for you, let me know. And I visited this ... I told them that Onyx was going to happen and that I wanted to go down there and research and visit some of the sites that I grew up with visiting the most. And I visited one of my very favourite ones, which is revealed in the trailer. A lot of people already recognised it and it's a pretty heavily touristic area. So I feel it's safe to mention maybe Bianca, you think? (Bianca says yes).
The Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal. That was one of my favourite ones to go to. And they also took me to another site, which is not even very well known by Mexicans. So I wanted to add that to the story. So like really visiting my family has always brought me back to, "Oh, let's go to the Castilla of Chapultepec or let's go to the pyramid and every single time I would ask them, "Let's go to the Cenote," which is a sinkhole.
So yeah. I guess to answer your question, I do visit. Not as often as I wish because you get busy with work and now COVID.
Are there any people in your life or family that are in that animation? You don't have to mention any names, but are there people around you who are appearing as characters?
Initially, I was going to have my grandfather be a specific character and I was going to model him after him. But then the character took its own personality, but it's very influenced by my grandfather. There's a lot of characters influenced by my aunts and uncles. And I mean, again, it's one of the things I know best. And since they were such a big part of my childhood.
They were the people that were there when we would go as a family to museums and pyramids and just it's everything tied to my childhood is the most precious to me and of course, they were there. So it's kind of obvious for me to have introduced him there. But I'm not going to say who, because I don't want to put them on the spot.
I know that you're married to another animator. I was going to ask you, are you happy to talk about your relationship with her? Or is that something you want to keep private?
Of course. I mean, there's certain things I would like to keep private, of course, as any private life is, but yes. My wife, Anna Lencioni, she is an animator as well. We both went to the same college. We both studied in the same field and we just fell in love there. We've been together for just a little over a decade. And she's one of my core support systems really. She is the one that actually told me, "You got to pitch this. You just have to." Because by then I already had a manager and she was like, "You have to tell him about Onyx. You have to tell him." Because he kept asking me, "Do you have pitches?" And I said, "Not really." She was like, "No, you liar. Tell him about Onyx." And I was like, "Okay." And really she's the reason why the dominoes started falling in place. So I owe her a lot.
I was going to ask if you're competitive animators, but obviously not. You've just answered that question.
We push ourselves. She actually worked on Onyx for a little bit. I was hard on her, but not because I was trying to be mean. It's just because I know she's really good. And she actually gave me, I mean, I say sincerely when I say that she gave me some of my favourite shots and she storyboarded half of the main title. And the shot with all the kids and that Avenger like turn with them fighting and that was her. She actually told me, "This is for you specifically." Because she knows I'm a fan of, we're both fans of comic books of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And she was like, "I want to give it that Avengers feel."
Do you hope there is a second season, and third and a fourth etc?
Yeah. I personally, already have planned. I do not know what will happen from here. I have a positive feeling that it will do well, but from the very start I knew, like before I pitched it, I knew what I wanted, how many seasons, and what will happen to the characters from start to finish and what would their development be. And of course I had, Onyx is 11 years, no. Onyx is about almost 13 years old now from the moment I first started creating the characters and writing the story. So it's been in my head for a while.
About Ross Locksley
Ross founded the UK Anime Network waaay back in 1995 and works in and around the anime world in his spare time.