Written by: Richie Holsinger
The Emmy Award-winning mini-series, Over the Garden Wall, which aired on Cartoon Network in November of 2014, was a welcome little surprise to both myself and my friend Holly as we watched it together in college, breaking up the usual Steven Universe conversations we would have around that time. The show follows the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who have found themselves lost and are trying to get back home as they meet a talking bird, pumpkin-headed villagers, and a whole host of strange, whimsical creatures and characters that try to help or harm them along the way. Spanning a week, with two episodes being aired a night rounding out the 10-episode span by Friday night, the show was just absolutely brilliant from start to end. It should probably come as no surprise then that the creator of the show, Patrick McHale, was one of the many early contributors behind “Adventure Time” and its first five seasons, a show that has acted as ground zero for quite a few now-established showrunners, comic creators, artists, and creative types in general still working in and around animation. Over the Garden Wall has received really nothing but praise and appreciation since airing so while little needs to be said of the quality of the show, this would be the perfect opportunity to speak about themes and aesthetic and how they contributed to the success of Over the Garden Wall and can help other writers strike gold as well.
Over the Garden Wall is a lovely concoction of yellows, oranges, browns, and similar rustic, earthy colors as it introduces us to a world that seems to live within a story book found in a musty old attic. The primary focus of the show’s aesthetic certainly seems to be an association with classic Americana with some episodes playing with the more lighthearted, Romantic literary influences of the time while simultaneously maintaining the common good-vs-evil elements of such work, which we clearly see in the main protagonist/antagonist relationship between the two boys and The Beast who, appropriate to old folk legends and stories told to frighten children, wants to lure them into the woods. Many ideas crash together to create the show’s overall aesthetic, though, as the show proves itself to be creepy, unnerving, and sometimes downright scary, and then charming, elegant, and nostalgic as the writing dances between haunted gothic houses reminiscent of Poe, paddle boats on a river manned by frogs who play ragtime music, Aesop’s fables-inspired old crones, and even a few good thematic surprises toward the end of the show.
Plenty of attention is given to some of the earliest animation styles with an entire episode dedicated to the vintage “rubber hose” style of the artform and the soundtrack is almost like it was fished directly out of the past as it features many techniques that try to recreate older recording styles and music genres that were popular over a hundred years ago. All of these themes come together to create an experience that feels authentic, cohesive, and celebratory of the rich history of American culture, writing, music, and art. With some of the themes of this show roughly laid out and explored, it would be a good idea to understand the concept of theme and how such elements contribute to writing at their most basic.
The idea of a “theme” is that it’s a sort of overarching element of what you’re working with that is either constantly present in the visual style, such as the earthy, fairy-tale vibe in Over the Garden Wall, an idea that influences and shapes the dialogue and plot, such as the effort to make the writing fit that nostalgic and magical art style, a piece of culture that you’re wanting to highlight throughout, such as the many elements of old-world America seen throughout the show, or any other similar majorly influencing pieces to the overall puzzle that a writer is attempting to put together while drafting ideas for their next project. Compared to musical harmony and the blending of different instruments, or maybe the mixing of colors to create new palettes, we mix themes to create something new and interesting, often strategically to create a certain mood, to incorporate unusual characters and settings, or to maybe help illustrate a greater idea. Over the Garden Wall is a fantastic example of clever and creative theme blending to arrive at its rich, rustic, immersive aesthetic.
When sitting down to create a new idea, it’s important to understand the things that you like and are able to break them down into little one or two-word bite-size pieces that you can use as ingredients to then add together and slowly craft your work’s aesthetic. Something as general as “set in space” is a massive theme for your work because it already establishes the general setting of your entire idea. This is where you want to start getting creative, though, and test the waters with odd, unlikely pieces such as, perhaps, “elements of non-western philosophy and religion” mixed in with “knights belonging to ancient orders” and, finally, the simple tried-and-true “sword fights.” Before you know it, you’ve accidentally created Star Wars and have gained millions of fans. Much like George Lucas in this example, having pulled from his childhood cinematic loves, truly the power of themes and aesthetics lend themselves to our inherent, unassailable gift of a unique life lived.
In some way or another, you, as the creator, are going to enjoy a slightly different set of ideas, themes, and character archetypes than most other people. You will have been inspired by a set of influencing shows, books, and movies that you can borrow from to help you on your path to finding your own voice and creating your own world. The only limit to how unique your work becomes, is how unique you are as the writer and how willing you are to experiment with silly, unconventional, and potentially risky combinations.
What shows and works stand out to you when you as having a strong sense of aesthetic? What's your creative process and personal inspiration(s) when writing or creating art? Share your thoughts in the comments below!