Meet Gyimah Gariba, the maestro behind ‘Big Blue.’
The gifted animator, who was raised in Ghana and resides in Canada, is the central engine behind the revered animation series.
Launched on Nicktoons earlier this month, ‘Big Blue’ follows the adventures of Captain Lettie and the Calypso Crew, who make it their duty to help save the Big Blue and protect its oh-so-unique residents. With each mission comes many a twist and turn, with ample laughter along the way.
That Grape Juice caught up with the creative force to discuss the show, his inspiring journey, working with Timbaland on the theme song, and much more.
Join us after the jump…
That Grape Juice (Sam): Congratulations on the show. It’s so awesome seeing you have this moment. How did you get into animation?
Gyimah Gariba: Just like most of the kids to be honest. Being at school, reading comic books, movies, and stuff like that. And I think X Men, the 90s X-Men. My brother and sister were drawing a lot. They’re a bit older than me. So, they would draw images from the X-Men. And that’s what got me interested in it.
That Grape Juice: Tell us a little about the inspiration behind ‘Big Blue’ and how it came to be?
Gyimah Gariba: Sure. My studio, Guru, was asked if anybody had ideas for pitches. There was me. I would talk about people who got me into drawing, my big sister, my big brother, I immediately thought about our childhood together in Ghana, just like being outside, playing soccer. Just mining those memories. I pitched it to Guru. The show is based on kids being siblings with one another and learning together, with a bunch of fancy elements added. But at the core of it, it’s just about my childhood, and running around with my brother and sister.
That Grape Juice: How has your Ghanaian upbringing inspired the show?
Gyimah Gariba: When I think about my childhood, there was never an adult to kind of clarify the lessons you learn. It was all about your gut instinct, as a child. So, if you’re on the playground, and someone’s not sharing their candy, like the odds of an adult’s intervening, and explaining to you why sharing is important is not going to happen. You have to learn. There’s a purity about it. If you’re playing football, and you’re hogging the ball, man. You’re ruining the game. Like, those are conclusions that kids have to come to by themselves. They really have to follow their gut feelings. And I feel like that was the most exciting part of the show was just thinking about how it’s centered on very human stories. It’s like, why should you share? Why should you take care of each other? Like, why? You know. It’s just kids figuring that stuff out for themselves. So, that was fun to kind of think about in the context of my family and just growing up.
That Grape Juice: How has being Ghanaian shaped you?
Gyimah Gariba: I feel like Ghanaians have a little bit of that, like, I’m gonna tell the stories I want to tell regardless. I think like as a Ghanaian, there’s an essence of ‘I’m gonna say what I am gonna say. Regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it, I’m gonna say it.’ And I think that was one of the things that I carry with me the most.
That Grape Juice: What are some of the animations you were inspired by?
Gyimah Gariba: I would say just classic stuff like Dragon Ball Z, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls. They all had very clear characters, very clear worlds like that were great for me. I loved that stuff.
So, being able to contribute to that aspect. When you’re a kid, like, my parents didn’t know what I was watching. Like, it’s a very specific contract you have with people of a very specific age. The way they dream is different, the way they take in information is different. So, I feel very honored to have that audience, because I remember being that audience.
That Grape Juice: What’s the goal with ‘Big Blue’?
Gyimah Gariba: Oh, just to have a bit of a giggle. That’s all. It’s like, it’s not rocket science. People like to say that it’s about the environment. It is environmentally conscious because it’s literally about the question of what if Mother Nature was your little sister, you know? Really, at its core, it’s just it is a cartoon. It’s just a cartoon. So, I hope that the underlying message comes across in a broader sense. But at the end of the day, when you’re watching it, I hope you just get joy from it. Because I remember being a kid and never thinking: what’s the message behind this show? What’s this an allegory for? I was just sitting down, like just trying to enjoy myself, you know. So, I hope people learn something while they’re enjoying themselves.
That Grape Juice: Great point! Growing up, we just watched shows. There wasn’t this deep sense of “what does this mean?”
Gyimah Gariba: Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of like, you got to bury it. I mean, sometimes you look back at old movies, romance movies. And, like, later on in life, you’re like, wait a minute, like, that’s terrible. So, at the end of the day, as much as you want to make kids laugh and stuff like that, we always pause for a second and say, like, what are we saying here? And then it had to be something pure, just so when you look back on it, or when like your parents check in on it, they’re like, Wait, what did that dolphin just say? It’s like, the answer is like, oh, love is the answer. You’re like, okay, okay, okay, keep going. Keep watching.
That Grape Juice: I hear a playlist was the genesis of the team up with Timbaland (who created the show’s theme). Tell me a little about that?
Gyimah Gariba: There was a point where Timbaland’s name was being floated around as a possibility for being on the project because I made a playlist that featured a couple of his songs just to get into a certain mindset. Because I’ve never done this process. Our director Ricardo Durante – who’s like, amazing – storyboarded so many funny cartoons…classic cartoons. And he’s been through the process of working on shows and going through the whole thing. So, he was basically my guide on it. And he was just saying to me how I just, I just need to have a clearer idea of where the musical space of the show is. So, he was really helpful with that.
So, I went away and I made a playlist and Timbaland was on there just because of the sound of his music. It had [Aaliyah’s] ‘Are You That Somebody.’ It’s so interesting to me musically. It sounds almost bubbly. It sounds like a lava lamp on fast forward. It’s so playful. It’s like something about the beatboxing and the baby sounds that like, yeah.
I wrote all that information down. I was like, ‘this is the feeling of the show when I’m closing my eyes imagining what the show feels like.’ It looks and feels like Dexter and Dee Dee or like The Powerpuff Girls running around. But it sounds like a Timbaland song.
I just had my fingers crossed the entire time through the process. And the song was eventually made, the theme song. And I still, I still, I’m not even joking, cannot believe it. I cannot believe it.
That Grape Juice: What are you listening to more broadly?
Gyimah Gariba: Oh, oh, my friend Dante just put me on to Muni Long’s ’Hrs & Hrs.’ That song has been playing in my house for hours and hours and hours. And Bambi, she’s a DJ, a local DJ, and producer in Toronto. Her music makes you want to wind up in your living room.
That Grape Juice: With ‘Big Blue’ and your own personal story, you’re a part of positive change in the media landscape when it comes to illuminating our stories and our presence on the screen. What would you like to see more of moving forward?
Gyimah Gariba: Honestly, just different people being given chances. Like, I was really excited to make ‘Big Blue’ because I was getting pretty tired of reboots, remakes, and things like that. And I just pray that if I’m ever in a position to give someone that doesn’t look like me a chance, I want to be able to do it. Now that I’ve done it for myself, I’m trying to diversify the pot again, just keep it moving.
So, yeah, I’m just excited about that. Like, because I fought the idea that it was impossible for a long time until other people who look like me did it. And I’m sure there’s a person who doesn’t even have an example. They’re not many like Black animators. Like, Matthew Cherry, like Peter Ramsey, like, LaShawn Thomas, like, I can list off some. I’m sure there are people out there who don’t even have animators from where they’re from to list off or that look like them. Like, I’m the only African animators I can list off. But in terms of Black male animators, there are many in the US. I’m sure for other demographics of people, they don’t even have many – if any. So, hopefully, if I’m ever in a position, I want to be about giving a shot to everybody.
That Grape Juice: What’s your goal moving forward?
Gyimah Gariba: I’m like the Apple spinning wheel, Rainbow spinning wheel. But to be honest, even in this conversation with you, I really miss home, and there are so many injustices and things like that happening back home right now. So many people traveling there (which is great), but the reality of it, at least to me is that there’s like this very crazy anti-LGBTQ bill going around. You can check it out on LGBTQ Rights in Ghana. My passion now is centered on the disconnect between where I’m from and wanting to move it into the future away from the very outdated. I’m not a doctor and I’m not a politician. I’m not even an environmentalist. I’m just a guy wanting change.
At the same time, I feel like my gift is storytelling. So, I think my goal in the future is just to be able to make animated content that feels very connected to the very specific people I’m talking to. Making ‘Big Blue’ was great because I felt like I was talking to myself at six. Almost like: ‘Hey, kid, you like Dexter, Right? You love Timbaland? Watch this.’ Because there wasn’t that. That’s like a hole in my childhood. I was like, ‘ah, man, I wish Dexter had like a, like a friend that looked like Dee Dee and had her three friends.’
There was Dee Dee, Lee Lee and Mee Mee. And Dee Dee was White, Lee Lee was Asian. I think Mee Mee was Black. I always watched Dexter and I was like, What’s Mee Mee’s life like? So, I feel like making ‘Big Blue’ was talking to six-year-old me. And now I would like to talk to like 18-year-old me. Like, I have to make a show about living in Ghana, wearing school uniforms, going to school jams. Life is completely different for kids elsewhere and I want to make content that’s speaking to them.