This summer, kids around the world will travel to unfamiliar places in search of adventure—whether it’s an unexplored corner of the backyard or the woods of a state or a country hundreds of miles away. This is an experience animator Alex Hirsch is familiar with; he spent many childhood summers with his twin sister visiting relatives in the Northwestern woods. Hirsch’s adventures, both real and imagined, are the inspiration behind his new Disney Channel series, Gravity Falls, which premiers June 29 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time with two episodes.
The animated comedy series centers on twins Dipper and Mabel Pines (voiced by Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal). They’re city kids who are forced to stay with their great uncle for the summer in the mysterious, remote town of Gravity Falls. It’s a place “just west of weird,” where nothing is what it seems. Recently, TFK chatted with Hirsch about how his childhood inspired the series—and why viewers should watch the show with a magnifying glass.
Your childhood was a big inspiration for the series. Can you talk about that?
At the core of the show is a kid [Dipper] who is sort of obsessed with monsters and urban legends and his goofy sister who goes along, but causes him constant headaches anyway. That’s a pretty fair assessment of what my childhood was like. I have a twin sister, Ariel, who would tag along and generally annoy me to her heart’s content during our childhood adventures. Growing up with a twin was definitely the biggest inspiration for the core relationship of the series.
And are you and your sister similar to the personalities of Mabel and Dipper?
Absolutely. Mabel wears a different ridiculous sweater in every episode, such as one with a heart wearing shades. My sister, when we were kids, had a—what some would say—frumpy, unique fashion sense. And that is definitely captured in the series. And I, of course, was the kind of kid [like Dipper] who would carry 15 disposable cameras everywhere I went on the off chance I might see something worth putting in the Weekly World News.
What does your sister think of Mabel and the show?
She’s both very excited and somewhat mortified to have me taking our various childhood squabbles and [putting them] in a TV series. But I think for the most part she’s very excited to be part of the Disney legacy as a cartoon character.
Dipper is always seeking an adventure. Were you very adventurous as a kid?
I thought like Dipper but I didn’t have his guts. I tended to want to go on adventures, but mainly kept them confined to my sketchbook. I basically drew all the time, under the misguided notion that someday it would pay off. But I turned out to be right because now they are paying me to draw all the time!
You studied animation in college. Were cartoons and animated shows a big part of your childhood as well?
Absolutely. My whole life I’ve been an animation addict. I was a kid in the 90s, and that was during the Disney renaissance with Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and all those films, and I loved them. I also lucked out being a kid during the [early] years of The Simpsons. I was obsessed with the idea that you could have a TV show that would be genuinely funny for both kids and adults. I definitely aspire for that with my show.
What were some of your favorite summer adventures growing up?
The sad truth is that most of those summers I spent with my sister out in the woods were incredibly uneventful. They were the most long, boring, dreadful summers you can imagine. But the thing that I realize now, looking back, is that having to be in another town in the middle of nowhere with a relative you’ve never met and your one sibling is actually an incredible bonding experience. I don’t think I was ever a better friend with my sister than I was during those summers.
You are the voice of Grunkle Stan and his employee Soos on Gravity Falls. Why did you want to play these characters?
I think everybody likes doing silly voices, and then you grow up and people tell you to stop doing silly voices and act like an adult. I lucked out to work at a company where you can kind of be a kid forever. Both of those characters were inspired by people I’ve actually known. Grunkle Stan was inspired by my Grandpa Stan, my father’s father who was sort of a crusty character and told a lot of tall tales. Soos is inspired by my friend [from the California Institute of the Arts], who was just always around and always trying to help you out, whether you asked for it or not. I thought it would just be fun to bring those characters I knew into a cartoon show.
Can you give our readers a teaser of some of the adventures that Mabel and Dipper have coming up?
Absolutely. I would definitely say to your readers that if they like mysteries—actual, whodunit mysteries—if they like monsters, ghosts, time travel, pretty much any urban legend you can imagine, we explore it on our show. We’ve got a really amazing Halloween episode, which I’m excited about, that’s genuinely scary. I think kids will love it. And we’ve also got a really exciting time-travel episode. We’ve done something very interesting with that show, where we’ve hidden clues about the time-travel episode in [previous] episodes. So I would tell kids to watch the TV screen with a magnifying glass because there are already clues being hidden in the series.
What’s one of the things that Dipper and Mabel experience that you wish had been a part of your summer vacation?
Pretty much every episode has something that I wish had happened. But there’s one episode where Dipper wakes up one morning to discover that his sister is a millimeter taller than he is. This drives him insane because they’ve always been the exact same height as twins, and now she’s claiming that she’s the alpha-twin. Something very similar to this did happen to me when my sister started going through puberty faster than I did, and she was taller than me, and I would have given anything to grow taller than her. Dipper gets that opportunity and, of course, [messes] it up royally. But for a brief period of time he gets to enjoy lording his newfound height over his sister.
Dipper and Mabel go on many outdoor adventures for Gravity Falls. Do you hope your show influences kids to get outdoors?
Absolutely. That’s another thing I discovered during those summers with my family out in the woods. There was no TV, Internet, cell phones, video games... You go into withdrawal for the first couple of days away from that stuff. Then, you discover the world. You discover nature and reading books and exploring. My sister and I would keep journals, and we would collect twigs and rocks and tape them into our journals and keep souvenirs and hike. I know that being in nature was a really important part of my childhood. As much as I hope that kids are glued to the TV set to watch Gravity Falls, I also hope that they can exit the house and have some of their own summer adventures.
Why should our readers tune into your show?
If they like laughing and adventure and being scared, they will like the show. The only other thing I would say is that this is a show made for the DVR generation. There are hidden clues, there are codes, and there are secret messages. Casual viewers will enjoy the series. But any kids out there who are obsessive conspiracy-seekers like I was, there are Easter eggs for them. Keep a very close eye and freeze frame and find some of the things that are hidden in the show.