Ex-'Simpsons' animator draws inspiration from toys for 'ZodiX' cartoon

Erick Tran sat in his Burbank home, observing his young daughters playing with their toys.

The 12-year-old cuddled her Hello Kitty plushes while the 9-year-old played with her Littlest Pet Shop figures.

"Why do you like these toys?" Tran, an animator who worked on "The Simpsons" for nearly two decades, asked his daughters.

Because they're so cute, they responded.

It was as simple as that.

Coupling his talents as an animator with his daughters' interests, Tran, 36, decided to create "ZodiX," a cartoon about the zodiac.

The show, which is slated to premiere on Garden Grove-based Vietnamese American Media Network (VAMN-TV) next year, is a far cry from Tran's previous work on "The Simpsons."

While "ZodiX" is friendly for all ages, it is geared toward young girls.

Tran, who was inspired to become an animator after watching "Jurassic Park," the 1993 dinosaur adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg, started working on "The Simpsons" as an intern in 1996, two days after he graduated from high school.

While in high school, Tran had met with Film Roman, the animation production studio for "The Simpsons." The company pushed Tran to create a portfolio to send to art schools.

When Tran was denied entry to the schools he applied to, he went to work for Film Roman.

"When I was working at the lot, I really got to see how big 'The Simpsons' was," he said. "Being an employee of the show at the production company, you don't really see much. Once I worked on the movie ["The Simpsons Movie"] with longtime producer David Silverman. I was like, 'Wow, this is so much bigger than I thought.'"

Being part of a show that has garnered widespread critical acclaim, won dozens of awards and generated a feature-length film started Tran thinking: If he could be part of something that big, perhaps he had potential to do something on his own.

Earlier this year, Tran quit his full-time position with "The Simpsons" to focus on his own endeavors through his company, Chavvo Animation Studios.

Along with "ZodiX," he worked on other cartoons like "Urban Reggie" and "Soccer Papa."

The show, which Tran has been working on for two years, follows animal characters based on the 12 western zodiac signs.

Dominique Thieu, CEO and executive producer for VAMN-TV, said the show was perfect for the network, which began producing it earlier this year.

A schedule of eight shows is being set up to prepare for the launch, but because the network is new, it is still trying to find an outlet, either through television or online.

"We want to bridge the gap between the Vietnamese community and the Hollywood entertainment world," Thieu said. "We don't have any content that's geared toward the younger Vietnamese-American generations. We also wanted to throw back to Saturday morning cartoons."

Seeing his daughters playing with toys simply because they were cute helped Tran see potential for a cartoon and merchandise — not unlike Hello Kitty, which he cited as an inspiration.

Stuffed animals. Video games. Stationery. Car accessories. The possibilities were endless.

He said the crossover between television and the Internet has opened doors for creative people. Now, entertainment falls into four corners, he said: TV/online content, video games, mobile applications and merchandising.

"That's when I thought, 'Hey, these characters don't need any backstory. There's another reason to purchase these products. They're cute,'" Tran said. "It's different from developing stuff for boys, because with them, you need a storyline, and that goes way back to cowboys and Indians. I feel like maybe girls use more of their imaginations. I saw an opportunity to create something new."

Each "ZodiX" character has personality traits of his or her sign, which Tran says will help people relate.

"It's interesting because people who don't believe in the zodiac still know what their zodiac sign is," Tran said. "So there's this instant connection with the characters on 'ZodiX.' This show is not about teaching kids about astrology. I just wanted kids to be able to connect to the characters while also having something cute to look at."

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