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Making Fiends: Amy Winfrey's Animated Vendetta 

Already a Web hit, Winfrey's monster series prepares to attack kid TV

Wednesday, Aug 6 2008
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The city of Clamburg is overrun with fiends. In the world of Amy Winfrey’s Web series Making Fiends, the titular fiends are diabolical creatures with a taste for havoc. There are fiends in the school classrooms and on the playgrounds. There is even a giant red-cat fiend that terrorizes the citizens, eats a few pianos and streetlamps, then runs away. (Think of him as a twisted cross between Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoros and David Horvath’s Ugly Dolls.) The fiends are cooked up by a wicked little girl named Vendetta, mainly to torment her too-cheerful adversary, Charlotte. They are classic foils for each other, these little girls — evil and good, hatred and love — and make for nice drama and ironically funny dialogue. Vendetta tends to say stuff like, “Come to Charlotte’s birthday party, or you will be shot,” and “I have something special for you. Superbig fleas, with knives.”

 

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Sweetness and blight: Amy Winfrey and her fiends prepare their Nickelodeon attack.

 

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Yet, in the same vein of critical thought that says Hamlet is basically a vehicle for Rosen­crantz and Guildenstern, you could say that Charlotte and Vendetta are basically a vehicle for the fiends.

Winfrey has been drawing these fiend-type creatures for approximately forever. While her roommates at UCLA were cramming for science exams (Winfrey was pre-med at one point and eventually switched to animation), she was sketching fiends. She is the owner of volumes of tiny sketchbooks, each barely bigger than a cocktail napkin, brimming with creatures. She puts one on her living room coffee table, tucks a wisp of blond hair behind her ear and flips through the pages. Her fingers are delicate. Out of this soft-spoken, shy girl tumble armies of fiends. She sketches them at cafés or while watching TV, then hands over the sketchbooks to her friend Aglaia Mortcheva, the show’s character designer. Mortcheva picks out the most promising fiends and scans them in to be inked and colored, which is appropriate, since Mortcheva also happens to be the voice of Vendetta.

“That is Aglaia’s speaking voice,” Winfrey says. “She really does have an eastern Bulgarian accent. But she doesn’t sound that angry, usually.”

Personality-wise, Winfrey is 70 percent Charlotte, 30 percent Vendetta. Aglaia is a touch more Vendetta, Winfrey allows, “But I won’t say how much, or she might hurt me.”

Does Winfrey have a favorite fiend? How to choose? Fiends come shaped like scissors, beavers and rabbits. Kittens, eels and sugar cookies. Sweaters, croissants and topiaries. Even vegetables. Winfrey wanted to do an episode in which vegetables scream, “There is nothing better than screaming broccoli!”

Vegetable fiends are up there, she says, pulling up the episode on the computer. The intro — the musical equivalent of tiptoeing down a creepy, dark hallway — swells, with Charlotte singing in a quavery, saccharine-sweet voice. Winfrey’s speaking voice is softer, deeper — and doesn’t make you want to kill yourself from cupcake-rainbow-bunny-rabbit overload. Though if you listen closely, you can hear Charlotte’s squeaky, indefatigably cheery “hee hee!” in Winfrey’s laugh.

“How did Vendetta learn to make fiends?” people often ask. Is she a witch? A voodoo sorceress? No one knows. We do know that she uses a recipe book and bakes each in her kitchen. Perhaps all will be revealed this October, when TV-length episodes of Making Fiends begin airing. Nickelodeon bought the series and already did a successful test run of Making Fiends on its Web-based TurboNick. Few restrictions were made by the network execs when they made the deal — they told Winfrey, “Just don’t mention Hitler, and don’t hit people on the head.”

“But then again, we do hit people on the head,” she says, “So ... ”

She conceded to a few small changes. A classroom poster that read “A is for Alimony” had to be changed because alimony is a serious issue affecting millions of kids across the nation and should never, ever be made fun of, ironically or not. She was stumped for a while on what A should be for. Aglaia would pop into Winfrey’s office and suggest things: “Alcoholism?” They settled on “Abomination.”


Vendetta’s house will be much more elaborate for TV. It will scream production value. It will look like Winfrey’s parents’ house. “But my parents don’t have a garage [big enough] for a giant cat. Crafted in a style known as “fiend-based architecture,” it will have fiend columns, tables with legs that move, and a staircase with fiends hiding in the banister.

Winfrey’s real-life house in Silver Lake is hidden behind a swath of ivy. It’s the kind of place where you’re apt to be startled by a wall hung with a set of plates painted with cockroaches, a gift from Winfrey’s husband. “He knows my taste,” she explains. “Sure we’ve used them. We served spaghetti on them at a dinner party once.” Or by her parrot, who squawks and hangs upside down from the lamp like a bat. He inspired a fiend.

Almost anything can become a fiend. “A mailbox makes a good fiend,” she says, “or a park bench. This one has teeth. It looks subtle ... until you sit on it.”

Poor residents of Clamburg, always in peril. You never know what is ready to eat you.

Winfrey shows me a preliminary sketch for a fiend store. You can buy fiends? “Oh, no. Vendetta does not promote fiend ownership amongst the populace.” Rather, a small contingent of fiends has been squatting in an abandoned hat shop. They’ve taken to wearing the hats.

If the general public takes a liking to Making Fiends and the show survives in the ratings, it won’t be too long before those who don’t live in Clamburg can buy fiends. I can see $14.99 fiend toys, fiend collectibles, fiend action figures, an encyclopedia of fiends. (At amywinfrey.com you can already buy $15 T-shirts from Winfrey’s earlier Web series, MuffinFilms and Big Bunny.)

And for a wider audience, the demographic extremes seem pretty well covered. Charlotte perpetually thwarts Vendetta’s plans, earning her a soft spot in the moral hearts of the country’s Christian day campers. Vendetta, who dabbles in poison and knives, has carved out a spot in the hearts of bullies, psychopaths and goths.

The fiends have stiff competition, though. They will have to live up to the ratings monster that is Sponge Bob.

“Can we have a giant red cat looming over the booth?” Winfrey asked, thinking promotionally, when Nickelodeon sent her to Comic-Con this year.

“Uh, maybe next year.”

“Can we get a hamster costume and have the guy inside it shove kids around?”

“What!” they said. “Costumes cost, like, a million bucks.”

“Oh well,” she said. “No hamster for us.”

Next year, Amy. Next year.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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