The story behind Netflix’s quirky, kid-friendly answer to ‘whitewashed’ L.A.

An animated character holds a map made by a child.
A map of L.A. from “City of Ghosts.”

“City of Ghosts” is Elizabeth Ito’s rebuttal to the people who say they hate Los Angeles without really knowing anything about her beloved hometown.

“There’s a lot you’re saying that you hate when you’re saying you hate Los Angeles,” said Ito, the Emmy Award-winning “Adventure Time” alum whose new animated series is streaming on Netflix.

Mixing 2D and 3D animation over live-action settings, “City of Ghosts” follows a group of kids who have formed a club to look for ghosts around the city to learn about their stories (often helping adults in the process). Over the course of the six-episode season, their adventures take them from a new restaurant in Boyle Heights to a skate park in Venice to a vegan cafe in Leimert Park and beyond.

Through their interviews with ghosts as well as living residents, members of the Ghost Club learn about different L.A. neighborhoods and their histories. There is even an episode where they learn about the Tongva, the Indigenous people of L.A. The gentle love letter to the city and its diverse communities is presented in a kid-friendly format, but it’s plenty informative for adults too.

The series is partly inspired, said Ito, by “reading a lot of articles about how our neighborhoods are just changing and kind of being whitewashed over and [wanting] to talk about what our communities are and what used to be here.”


As L.A. continues to change, she added, the episodes can live on as a reminder of “all the great cultures and things that exist here.”

A girl stands under a tree near a library sign
Zelda stands outside the library in “City of Ghosts.”

As for the series’ supernatural twist? It’s inspired by the showrunner and executive producer’s experience with the paranormal.

“When I was a little kid, I saw a ghost,” said Ito. “I think a lot of little kids see ghosts. They don’t always talk about it like that. [But] there’s a lot of really funny stories that little kids have about seeing ghosts.”

Presented as a homemade documentary series anchored by Ghost Club member Zelda, the show celebrates kids and their inquisitiveness, intelligence and quirky turns of phrase. Each member of the Ghost Club — which also includes Thomas, Eva and Peter — lives in a different neighborhood, and they generally meet up at the library to discuss the cases they’re investigating.

“The hardest part is writing dialogue for kids that is as good as the funny way that kids can talk sometimes,” said Ito. Fortunately, she found that recording sessions with the young actors were a good barometer: If a kid keeps stumbling over a line, it’s probably because it’s something they wouldn’t say.

The ability to capture how people actually speak when telling their personal stories was one of the aspects of the documentary approach that appealed to Ito. The production process involved interviews with L.A. residents, who voiced animated versions of themselves to convey an authenticity that Ito said could be lost in more traditional scripts.

Animated figures stand on the sidewalk and sit at a fountain at a gated park.
Eva waves from Leimert Plaza Park.

“The documentary approach to stuff is really rewarding because it lets you let each person dictate the way things are said,” said Ito. “The way that people talk and the things that they say … it’s so important to it feeling believable.”

The show’s animation is layered over photos of real locations, and plenty of familiar local sites — Koreatown’s Soot Bull Jeep, Leimert Plaza Park, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and the Central Library — make an appearance.

Ito admitted that choosing which neighborhoods to spotlight wasn’t easy, but with the help of writer Jenny Yang, who studied urban policy and planning at UCLA, she was able to step back and consider what was happening in the city before determining which stories were approachable for kids.

Some of the episodes were shaped by Ito’s interest in learning more about neighborhoods and history she wasn’t as familiar with, such as Koreatown.

“I wanted to do an episode about Koreatown, but I didn’t think any of [the episodes] were going to be so on the nose,” said Ito. “Like, ‘It’s Koreatown, so we’re talking about Korean culture.’ Because nothing in L.A. is really like that.”

Animated figures stand outside a theater building.
The Ghost Club visits the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in “City of Ghosts.”

The completed episode offers a nuanced and accurate look at the neighborhood’s diverse communities — it features a Oaxacan music teacher, the Zapotec language and a trip to a Korean BBQ restaurant.

There are also episodes that involve locations that are meaningful to Ito.

“I knew I wanted to do one about Bob Baker [Marionette Theater] because that was something from my childhood where I was like, ‘This is a weird thing that people outside of L.A. do not have,’” she said.

Before the kids get there, they meet the ghost Atomic Nancy and learn about Little Tokyo and Japanese American history. It’s a quirky mashup that works because it’s L.A.

Although Ito had always intended for “City of Ghosts” to be CG animation over photos, her desire to better reflect the diversity of L.A. is what led to the show’s hybrid 2D and 3D visual style.

In an animated scene, adults cheer on children in skateboarding gear at a skate park.
Skaters at a Venice skate park in “City of Ghosts.”

Ito explained that one of the constraints with working in 3DCG animation is that budgets can limit how many models can be built, which may lead to similar-looking characters populating the backgrounds. But by using 2D animation for background characters, the show was able to have more variety.

“It was a choice,” Ito said, “so that we could make the backgrounds look as visually diverse as we wanted them to be for someplace like L.A. where you don’t have the same type of person all over the city.”

Ultimately, Ito hopes “City of Ghosts” can help people realize there is more to L.A. than shallow generalizations and see how fun it is to learn more about the city’s rich diversity.

“It’s really a place that has a lot of history and a lot of stories to be uncovered,” said Ito. “It was really rewarding to be connected to all of these people and all of their cultures and all their families that I didn’t know before, so I feel really fortunate.”

‘City of Ghosts’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7)