Julia Pott Has a New Cartoon Network Series & A Ton of Creative Advice
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Member Julia Pott, the masterful British Animator and Illustrator, now has her own Cartoon Network series. After working as a staff writer on Adventure Time, she's made the jump to creating her own animated world. It's called Summer Camp Island and tells the story of Oscar and Hedgehog, who arrive on Summer Camp Island and figure out pretty quickly that most normal summer camps don't have witch-counselors, aliens, and talking trees.
Below, Julia tells us how she settled on the tone of the show, what it means to have plenty of Adventure Time alum by her side on this journey, and what she's learned about herself and the world of showrunning that she's excited to bring to Season 2. "Working on the show has taught me that the more you expose yourself to feedback early on, the better the work can be. It gets easier for you to have a dialogue about your work in the early stages without becoming a puddle on the floor. It’s like developing a muscle. It’s pushing against that feeling you have when you’re a kid to retreat, to get your mum to pick you up from school because everything is too hard and you want to be in a cozy place."
When did you first start toying with the idea of creating your own animated series? And what ultimately led you commit to the notion?
I moved to New York shortly after graduating from the RCA [Royal College of Art] in London. I was making commercials and music videos, but the thing I was most passionate about was making short films and touring around festivals with them. Someone suggested that I pitch a TV show, as it’s like a series of short films with the same cast of characters. That idea really appealed to me and I started working on the pitch bible in New York, flying out to LA to pitch it a few months later. I started developing the pilot with Cartoon Network and moved to LA a few months into the process. Working on the pilot was the closest thing I had found to making my own short films. Growing up watching Rugrats and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, it was so appealing to me to be in that same world.
What’s the premise to "Summer Camp Island"? Was summer camp a fundamental plot point in your childhood arc?
Summer Camp Island is about two best friends, Oscar and Hedgehog, who arrive at a seemingly normal summer camp. As soon as the parents leave, all of the magical things on the island reveal themselves. The camp counselors are three teen witches, the horses are unicorns, there are monsters under the bed, yetis, aliens, monsters and time-travelling quicksand. It’s about navigating this magical world and all the newness of being away from home. I, in fact, did not attend summer camp myself - it’s not a big deal in England. I did, however, spend most summers visiting my grandparents in the states. We would stay in a motel down the street and swim and explore all day with other kids who were staying there which felt very similar to what I imagined the summer camp experience to be. That space between school where you can be a different person and really lean into being a kid.
What expectations did you have going into the whole process of writing, pitching, and making a series, and in what ways were you surprised early on?
I honestly had very little expectation for what it would be like, having never worked in television before. When I first started working on the pilot with Mike Roth and Nick Cross, it was a real eye-opener as to how little I actually knew. I would sit in meetings and never ask questions because I wanted to give the impression I knew what I was doing. At a certain point, this tactic became very restrictive, and I started asking what I considered ‘stupid’ questions about what was going on. Everyone was so kind to me and explained all the minutiae of every part of the process.
Working on Adventure Time taught me a lot about running a show. Adam Muto is a machine and puts so much of himself into every part of the production. His work ethic and attention to detail were hugely inspiring. But honestly, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how intense the first six months of production are. You’re making so many decisions about every single element of the show, and it can sometimes feel like a runaway train. But the collaboration process was brilliant - watching the characters grow and develop as everyone put their own personalities into them felt like a cool dream. It felt like the first time I felt that this thing could actually be a real show. Every time a board was pitched or a new character design was created, it felt like Christmas.
Were their certain shows or other works that served as early influences?
Charlie Brown was a huge influence for the sincerity and gentleness we wanted to parlay into the show. It is also heavily inspired by a lot of the things I loved when I was growing up - E.T., Gremlins, Maurice Sendak, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy, Nora Ephron, The Worst Witch, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, etc. I was always most in love with stories about normal characters living in a slightly stranger world than our own that still seemingly made sense. Twin Peaks was a huge influence in that regard.
How would you describe the tone of the show?
I always wanted it to feel like crawling into a warm blanket, much like watching Gilmore Girls. The stakes are never super high, but you’re still invested because the characters are warm and inviting and funny.
What is your writing process? Is it collaborative or solitary? Did your time in the "Adventure Time" writing room help prepare you?
It is a collaborative writing process - we pretty much matched the Adventure Time model for Summer Camp Island. I was in the writer’s room for Adventure Time with Jack Pendarvis and Kent Osborne, who also became the two writers on Summer Camp Island. I cannot describe how helpful that was in learning how to write for a board-driven show through them. Kent and Jack are an absolute dream. I’m pretty sure that Jack knows about every single thing that has ever existed - I have never seen him stumped about any reference that is brought up, and it often results in him coming back to his computer with some important looking book on the subject. Kent is the most brilliant human being. His jokes are the perfect mix of being totally ridiculous and completely sincere. He has a way of simplifying a story down to its most poetic core. It’s a board-driven show, so we write a premise and an outline a week, then hand it out to the storyboarders who beef out what we have written and add more nuance and jokes and bananas and beautiful drawings.
How many artists were there on the creative team? Was it a challenge staying true to your vision while tapping into each artist’s individual skillset?
The network wanted to make sure that the show held onto its specific voice and vision when in the hands of a new group of artists. I was so lucky that a lot of the creative team from Adventure Time moved on to Summer Camp Island and they are all such gentle, sincere creatures, and they got the tone of the show immediately. The process only helped develop Oscar and Hedgehog and the other characters on the show. People fed all their anxieties and clumsiness through Oscar and their bolder, self-possessed tendencies through Hedgehog. It happened organically and really helped us all get a grasp on who those characters were. We have four storyboard teams of two storyboarders.
Do you feel like the end product is similar to what you initially envisioned, or has it changed a lot as it’s come to life?
In essence, it is still the same idea, and the influences are still very present in the show, but it is definitely constantly morphing and adapting as we get a better understanding of the world and the characters.
What are some of the biggest takeaways and creative lessons that you can share with fellow artists?
I spent so much of my freelance career hiding my work away until it was finished and being very afraid of feedback or outside criticism. Working in network television, I very quickly had to build up a thick skin for feedback while still staying excited about the work I was doing. It can almost feel like you’re getting your heart broken every time you get notes on an episode you’re really attached to, but they’re always helpful and you learn to think of creative ways to solve the problem that makes the episode better. Collaborating with a group of incredibly talented artists has been such a dream and has made the show feel like this entity that we’re all invested in, rather than this idea that belongs to one person alone. Working on the show has taught me that the more you expose yourself to feedback early on, the better the work can be. It gets easier for you to have a dialogue about your work in the early stages without becoming a puddle on the floor. It’s like developing a muscle. It’s pushing against that feeling you have when you’re a kid to retreat, to get your mum to pick you up from school because everything is too hard and you want to be in a cozy place.
In the same vein, learning not to be too hard on yourself, not to stew in your own self-criticism. If something isn’t turning out the way you want, just use your energy to fix that problem rather than beating yourself up for a considered failure. It’s such a waste of energy.
ALSO – sorry, I just had some coffee! – the work can make you feel quite overwhelmed at first, and learning how to take on that challenge while still keeping yourself open emotionally was an interesting balance. Our most successful episodes are the ones we had the most fun writing; when you’re stressed out, you’re not having fun, and that will come across in the work.