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two animated ghosts singing into a microphone

The artist behind YouTube’s cozy, musical ghosts

Has anyone else noticed that ghosts are getting…cuter?

Gone are the days of being haunted by terrifying phantoms, this Halloween is all about adorable and friendly spirits! One of the best examples of this is a series of animated songs sung by two cartoon ghosts. The first video, titled Ghost Duet, took the internet by storm back in 2017 and since then, fans have spent every October anxiously awaiting the release of the newest ghost animation. The whistling, jazzy tracks are pure serotonin for Halloween lovers looking to celebrate with music that’s more spooky than scary.

So who created these cozy masterpieces? Who’s the animator, the musician, the producer? Well, it turns out the answer is both simple and surprising: the songs and animations were all created as fun, side projects by a single person in a matter of days. We sat down with Emmy-nominated animator, musician and illustrator, Louie Zong, to learn more about his creative process and get a behind-the-scenes look at his newest spooky song.

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Animator Louie Zong

To start out, can you tell us how you got started making videos on YouTube?

Louie: Sure! I started my YouTube channel when I was in college studying civil engineering. I was always a math and science kind of kid, but it turns out that wasn't where I wanted to go with my career. So, midway through college, I pivoted to doing animation. I worked on a lot of cartoons and started uploading stuff to YouTube, really short 30 second songs and loops just whenever I had time. I didn't expect anyone to see it.

Since then I started working at various animation studios here in LA. I've checked off all these great things from my childhood dreams working for Cartoon Network and Disney and stuff. While that’s been really nice, I also now especially cherish getting to make my own indie stuff, things that I want to make that don’t require a studio or executives. That's what my YouTube channel is the repository for, it's my brain dump of funny or dumb ideas. I'm happy that people have responded to it well on YouTube overall, because I didn't have any expectations when starting out.

Speaking of working with animation studios, how would you say creating your own videos compares to working on a major production?

Louie: It's all about freedom. I love working on the shows too, because you have the studio and crew comradery. When it comes to my channel though, it’s just me and occasionally a friend who will play music, so it’s really nice to have complete freedom. I just take any fun idea I have while in the shower or eating or whatever, spend the next day or two making it, and then it’s out there! There's something very tactile and immediate about it as opposed to working in entertainment, which takes a while, costs a lot and doesn't always turn out the way you want it.

How did you start incorporating your music into the animations?

Louie: I started making my own music in high school on the family computer. I didn’t actually know how to do it at the time, so I would record with the keyboard on my parents' computer and hold it up to the microphone of my laptop. It was very…lo-fi. I joined the jazz band in high school and then again in college, forming funk bands up to this day basically. (Shout out to Emmet Cohen on YouTube who has gotten me through many work hours!)

I really love all genres of music, so it seemed like a natural fit to make my own music when I started making my own cartoons too. It just seemed right and I like exploring how the two elements can combine and elevate each other. Animation and music are both good on their own, but when you put it together it feels so much more personal to me.

What does your creative process look like? What comes first: the song, the story, the animation?

Louie: I follow a kinda minimal version of the production pipeline we use for TV. I start by brainstorming. Especially for a video like this, I basically play the story in my head, storyboard the major beats, and then I make the music. Then, I pop the music into the animation software and animate it. That's the process for most of the short cartoons that I do, although sometimes I'll just have a funny music idea, like “I got a new wah-wah pedal and it kind of sounds like a duck yelling”, that I just make on the spot.

A blue and red hand loose sketch of a stick figure playing bass next to two ghosts

A storyboard sketch for Louie’s latest video

Now, let’s talk about the ghosts! What was it like creating that initial Ghost Duet video and watching it become so popular?

Louie: I’d been playing with this idea and track for a cute ghost video while working on the show We Bare Bears. I had a couple free hours, so I just loaded it up onto my work computer and animated it. If I look back on that now, it's not very well animated compared to the other ones. It’s super short and minimal, but for some reason it took off in a way that I didn’t expect. Since I made it on my work computer, I actually don’t have the original file and it never made it on my YouTube channel, so I'm happy that other people put it up.

How did you decide what the ghosts were going to sound like?

Louie: I feel like traditionally ghosts just go around sounding kind of like…Oooo. Just a classic, haunted house sound. I knew that old Sci-Fi movies used theremins for that dramatic whistling, warbling sound, so I found a free plugin for a theremin online that probably gave my computer a virus. It wasn't really an intentional thought process so much as it was that I needed a free whistling sound because I was broke at the time.

A split image with the left side showing the final background for Louie's new video and the right showing the 3D shapes created in Blender

A behind-the-scenes look at the CG in Louie’s newest video

Since 2017, you’ve released a new ghost animation every October. How have you built off your initial concept? Where do you get your ideas from?

Louie: Often it's just a matter of what I'm listening to at the moment. All the ghost songs so far have been very influenced by classic '50s, '60s genres like Motown, Doo-Wop and Swing with cute synth sounds. Last year I was listening to a lot of '50s, '60s country, so I just thought “Ghost Cowboys” would be a natural fit.

And this year — because I've made a lot of friends in the local big band that I joined — I thought I’d get everyone together to do a swing song. Maybe another year I’ll go really hard and make a Y2K techno track or something.

Tell us more about this year’s animation!

Louie: I had this swing idea and I wanted to incorporate some 3D stuff this time. I had a difficult time deciding on what the twist would be, because every time they have a framing, like they're in Dracula's Castle, they’re in a grave with a bunch of other ghosts, they meet a skeleton, they're cowboys. This one focuses on my friend who played the upright bass. I've never had a live bass player on something like this and I can only play so many things, so I’m trying to include more people on projects and broaden out the sound. It's very cute and I’m proud of the track. I think it goes very well with the other ones.