Matt Braly on Bringing Thai American Representation to Disney Channel’s “Amphibia”

AMPHIBIA - "Anne or Beast" (Disney Channel) ANNE BOONCHUY, SPRIG PLANTAR © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Braly talks about how the works of Nick Park and Hayao Miyazaki have inspired him, how childhood trips to Bangkok served as the inspiration for the show, the importance of having a Thai American as the lead character, and how Song played a big role in developing her character.

After stealing a mysterious treasure chest, Anne Boonchuy suddenly finds herself in the strange new world made up of frog people called Amphibia. While trying to figure out how to get home, she befriends an adventurous young frog named Sprig and his family. With them by her side, she slowly but surely warms up to this home away from home.

Amphibia is an upcoming animated series for Disney Channel created by Matt Braly, whose previous works include Gravity Falls and Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. The show also marks the return of actress Brenda Song to Disney Channel as the voice of Anne. She previously appeared in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, The Suite Life on Deck, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, and more.

In a phone interview, Braly talks about how the works of Nick Park and Hayao Miyazaki have inspired him, how childhood trips to Bangkok served as the inspiration for the show, the importance of having a Thai American as the lead character, and how Song played a big role in developing her character.

-Lauren Lola

AMPHIBIA – Matt Braly, Creator and Executive Producer of Disney Channel’s “Amphibia”. (Disney Channel/Todd Wawrychuk)
MATT BRALY
© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Do you remember how you first developed an interest for drawing and the arts?

Yes, absolutely! I was kind of a sick kid and I was always indoors. From there I did a lot of drawing and was encouraged to draw.

It’s super funny, for all it really takes is for your mom or your dad or your uncle or your cousin to put one of your drawings on the refrigerator and be like, “This is pretty good.” From there, as a little kid, you get a huge confidence boost, and then from there, soon you’re the best artist in your second grade class.

Basically, from a very young age, I’ve always loved to draw; loved to draw Pokémon characters, Transformers, Mortal Kombat, I was obsessed with that stuff.

I remember reading about some [of the characters] that you drew, but I do also remember reading that your animation idols are Nick Park and Hayao Miyazaki.

Yes, definitely! I grew up watching the works of both of those amazing directors. The Wrong Trousers – I was obsessed with, and also, I loved My Neighbor Totoro, I loved Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service – those Studio Ghibli films really carved out my taste.

What is it about their works that inspire you?

I think those two specifically – [their films] had such a great balance of warmth, of comedy, and of action. There was this amazing kind of balance that they had; especially the Ghibli films. There was excitement, there was imagination, but there was always so much warmth to these characters. I remember specifically thinking to myself when I watch Totoro or when I watch Kiki’s Delivery Service how helpful all the supporting characters were to the lead and that was something that I feel like was a little uncommon. I feel that typically in Western storytelling, there is a lot of conflict, and I felt like in those films, there was a lot of support.

How did you come up with the idea for Amphibia and what prompted you to want to pursue it?

As Gravity Falls started to wind down, I really got serious and buckled down about coming up with my own show idea. As I started to brainstorm, I started thinking about my past experiences. When you’re making something, it’s good to draw from your own personal experiences so that the story that you make feels genuine.

I got to thinking a lot about my childhood trips to Bangkok, Thailand. My mother is Thai, and every summer, she would fly me over – with herself, of course – to Bangkok to meet and visit with my Thai side of the family. As a California kid, it really was like being transported to a completely different world. It was so different, the culture, the food, the humidity that hits you like a brick wall when you get off the airplane. I remember very distinctly being very uncomfortable at the beginning of these trips, but then like magic, I would slowly but surely fall in love with the place, and then by the end of the trip, I didn’t want to leave.

So it was that kind of magic, that emotional sensation, that I was looking to bottle up for Amphibia. You’ve got this teenage girl, Anne, who is transported to this crazy frog world, and you better believe she’s going to have an uncomfortable time at first; maybe not love it so much. But then over the course of the first season, she will slowly but surely fall in love with the place.

You mentioned working on Gravity Falls, and I know that you were a storyboard artist for that as well as Steven Universe on Cartoon Network. How has it been for you to work on this project as the show’s creator?

It’s been completely different. Being a board artist, or even being a director on someone else’s show, looking back on it now I’m like, “That was a lot of fun,” because at the end of the day, Steven Universe was a reflection of Rebecca Sugar’s experiences [and] Gravity Falls was a reflection of Alex Hirsch’s experiences. But now that I am show-running my own show, this show is a reflection of my own experiences, which means that everybody is looking to me when it’s time to make a decision. So there’s a lot more weight on my shoulders in terms of those decision-making moments, whereas on Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, I could always default to the showrunner because it was their vision.

This is the first animated series to have a Thai American as the lead character. How important was it for you to have your main protagonist share the same heritage as yours?

It was phenomenally important. It was almost the most important thing. Anne has always been Thai. From the very inception of the project, she was always going to be Thai, and it was something that where when I was growing up, there just wasn’t any kind of Southeast Asian representation onscreen, whether that’s animated or not.

So I remember as a kid, desperately seeking it out. I would watch these 90’s Mortal Kombat films a lot because it was filmed in Ayutthaya, Thailand, just because there were some ruins that looked cool for that sort of movie. I would also watch The King and I. I was very desperate to connect to my heritage because my mother would be like, “Oh, you’re Thai,” and I’d be like, “What does that mean?” and she’d be like, “Well, you know, I can’t explain.”

For me as a creator, having this Thai character was almost a number one priority for me so that other kids like me growing up could look at the TV screen and be like, “Hey it’s me!” or “Hey I’m there too!” I think something this specific was only going to be done by someone who had Thai background.

AMPHIBIA – Recording Session. (Disney Channel/Todd Wawrychuk)
BRENDA SONG
© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Brenda Song is making her return to Disney Channel by bringing this character to life. I don’t know how closely you’ve worked with her, but how is it to have her in this role?

It’s amazing. I do work very closely with her. During development, you don’t really have a staff. It was mostly just me and her hashing out the character in the recording booth, and she’s just been incredible to work with. She has found ways to make the character so inviting and so charismatic and yet so funny. She’s a natural comedian. There are some great unscripted, laugh out loud moments that she definitely authored in the booth, which is fantastic. The icing on the cake is that she herself is half Thai.

Did you grow up watching Disney Channel at all? If so, how does it feel to have a show that you created featured in its lineup?

Oh, great question! So I did not grow up with Disney Channel. My parents – especially my mother – were very anti-TV. They would prefer that we were doing more constructive things, I guess. But honestly, I always thought of Disney Channel as like this premiere, exotic thing that my very lucky friends had. So I would go over to their house and I remember watching Disney Channel or watching the Aladdin TV show or whatever it was, and thinking like, “Man, this is fancy!” How it feels now is like, “Wow! I’m on the fancy channel!”

Your show has already gotten renewed for a second season, even though the first season hasn’t aired yet. What are you most looking forward to regarding the future of Amphibia?

So in the second season, we are doing something very exciting. We are exploring physically a lot more of the world in a way that’s dynamic and fun that I’ve never done before. So I would just say that in the second season, we are doing things, that I have never done before from a storytelling point of view, and it’s making me a little bit nervous, but very excited about them.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add really quick? Maybe something I haven’t asked about?

Sure! Just ultimately that the show at its core is about finding your best self in a strange environment.

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 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 Amphibia will be premiering on Monday June 17th at 10:00PM on Disney Channel.

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