Kids are the intended audience of Netflix’s latest food show, Waffles + Mochi, in which the two namesake characters — a yeti/frozen waffle hybrid and a pink puck of rice cake — escape from frozen-food land and begin exploring the wide world of fresh food. Over 10 episodes, the duo learns about tomatoes, potatoes, salt, herbs and spices, pickles, rice, mushrooms, and more. They’re aided by Michelle Obama (one of the show’s producers) and a panoply of celebrity chefs and plain old celebrities, including Jose Andres, Samin Nosrat, Massimo Bottura, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, and Tan France.
As with the best children’s programming, Waffles + Mochi is layered with winks and nods to parents who are likely listening in the background. In fact, adults would do well just to plunk themselves down on the couch and watch the show — especially for its detailed animation sequences, primarily directed by Philadelphia native Musa Brooker, the creative director for Six Point Harness animation studio.
The sequences serve several purposes. Some illustrate stories such as the history of mint toothpaste, delivered by child narrators. Others are dedicated to informative musical interludes, as when a cucumber belts out, “I need some fermentation and I need a lot of brine ... Don’t rush me, darling. Good things take time.” Another recurring segment features the characters Salty, Bitter, Sour, Sweet, and Umami, taste buds that weather incoming flavors in a sort of air-traffic control tower inside Mochi’s mouth.
We asked Brooker about his Philly roots, the show’s animation, and his advice to young artists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What part of Philly are you from, and what role did it play in your career?
I grew up in Mantua and my mom, Virginia Brooker, still lives there. And my dad got remarried and he moved to Society Hill, so I spent some time there, and then in my last year in high school, he and my stepmom moved to Germantown.
My father, Moe Brooker, is an artist, a painter, and my stepmom, Cheryl McClenney-Brooker, was an executive at the Philly Art Museum. So art was always a part of my world. I knew at 5 I wanted to work in animation. I went to Friends’ Central School and University of the Arts. I used to go see all kinds of animation festivals at the [Theatre of Living Arts], like independent animation different than what I would see on TV with Looney Tunes or whatever. I got my formal education in Philly. I think it played a huge role just in being a minor part of the art world there. It sort of gets steeped in you.
Waffles + Mochi is obviously a very smart show that adults are going to get a lot out of, just as children are. It has a lot of jokes built into the animation — what comes to mind is the egg that’s hard-boiled and walking around in a detective costume, or the pickle in the synchronized swimming sequence, which calls to mind Esther Williams movies. How does that work?
I love Easter eggs, I love burying little hidden things between episodes. And I knew that it was a show that parents would watch with their kids, so I wanted to include things that were callbacks to other episodes and little tidbits that a kid wouldn’t necessarily get, but that the parent would. And some of my favorite shows are like that, whether it’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse or Sesame Street. I actually used to watch Sesame Street in college because there’s just there’s all these fun things that I didn’t get as a kid. But as an adult, it works on multiple levels for multiple age groups.
So some of that certainly was from the writers’ room, and some of that was me just throwing some stuff in. In the history of toothpaste, [the narrator] talks about eggshells, so I thought it was a great opportunity to bring in the Jack Black character — the egg — from a totally different episode. He parachutes in as the narrator’s talking about eggshells. Or in the taste buds musical number, the Umami song, they talked about ketchup, so I included the Sia-voiced tomato from Episode 1 on the ketchup bottle.
One of the things that was fun was that the creators did really allow me to develop things and add things that maybe hadn’t occurred to them. They were so busy filming things all over the world and shooting the live-action stuff, so there was some guidance but also a lot of freedom. I’m a huge Beatles fan and Motown fan, and one of the things that was really fun about the Umami song was including little references. They’re all wearing little Beatle boots when they’re on the concert stage, and Umami has got a Supremes dress on when she’s singing. I really tried to find ways to show my interests and include that in the sequences.
There’s so much layered in the sequences, you could almost pause the show and pick out the details like you would in a painting. And there’s quite a bit of information packed into the show, too.
That’s one of the fun things, to leave little trinkets along the way. Hopefully people will watch the episodes again and again, and maybe see things that they didn’t notice before.
And there were certainly things that I didn’t know. I was getting knowledge about different elements of food and flavor and recipes as I was watching and we were creating the animation. The episode about herbs and spices — I didn’t know what the difference between an herb and spice was. So it was great to learn that stuff, as I was helping to contribute to others learning.
In terms of working with food as the context and content of the show, was that a challenge?
Funny enough, I’ve actually done a lot of food animation in stop-motion. I’ve worked on a lot of commercials and short-form things that actually use real food. I’ve done some Target commercials, a Chipotle commercial, and a bunch of commercials for Sonic Drive-Ins where I’m animating actual food. So that’s sort of fun and messy and enjoyable in a different way.
In this case, we weren’t actually animating the real food. We had to translate the food into animated designs. We wanted to make the food that was drawn and animated look like real food and look appetizing and interesting to whoever was watching, and it was a challenge to do that. Because there are so many different animation styles in the show, every style required a slightly different take on the food that was being presented.
Do you have any advice for young Philly artists?
Of course I do. Actually I’m a teacher, too; I teach animation at University of Southern California. And one of the things that I tell my students is: Never stop learning. Anyone can be a good artist, anyone can be a good animator. It just takes time, it takes practice, like any skill. Sometimes people have an innate skill and don’t need as much practice and rehearsal to get to the point of being really good, and others, it takes a lot more time and a lot more energy and effort, but the time that you put in pays off.