Director Caitlin Wilbert Created an Alien Language… Here’s Why

As a director, Caitlin Wilbert does it all. From collecting research to selecting just the right voice-over artist, deciding on the animation style, choosing the music and directing that process, and overseeing sound design, there’s virtually no aspect of the creation of an animated storybook that Caitlin doesn’t touch in some way. She is the glue that pulls together all of the creative and ensures it all works as one, cohesive experience. To prove that she really does it all: Caitlin created an alien language for one of our newer titles, Mr. Wuffles!

We recently chatted with Caitlin about how she found her way to directing (it all started with a childhood love of film), the process of developing a new language (it’s as fun as it sounds!), and more.

Tell us a little bit about your background. What got you interested in this career path?

My parents were writers and my dad was a film buff. I watched tons of movies, read a lot of books, and wrote my own stories from a very young age. When I was six, I amalgamated the plots of Citizen Kane and Field of Dreams into a hand-written, 60-page story starring cats. Ending up in film was inevitable.

What were you like as a kid? What was your favorite book?

Have you seen Rushmore? Max Fisher—that was me. I brought all of the neighborhood kids together to perform plays and put on carnivals and other events. I was on student council. I was in multiple bands and all the extracurricular activities. I was a leader and organizer but in a weird, artsy, introverted way. I liked animals a lot so books were often animal themed like Watership Down or Old Yeller. I was also really into Sherlock Holmes stories.

What is something that you do in your role as Director that you think most people don’t know about or would find surprising?

I love directing voice-over talent. After we run through the script, we go back and have the voice actor do “efforts.” These are all the grunts and sighs and laughs and extra noises that aren’t in the book but help the sound designer bring the story to life. It can be a really fun and silly process. The voice-over talent we work with are so good, I always come away laughing to the point of tears.

You were the Director of many Vooks stories, including one of our newer titles, Mr. Wuffles!, a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book by David Wiesner. What was the process for bringing that title to life?

Mr. Wuffles! was a challenge! A story with no words is different for our platform. Going into it, I knew this title could serve as extra inspiration for parents. After a long day and a tired brain, it’s hard to enthusiastically make up languages on the spot. This book has many characters—aliens, ants, ladybugs, cats, people. A lot of new sounds to make! I initially made a short script for the voice-over audition. I asked people to use the made-up language I had created, as well as improvise a read with their own on-the-fly language. I quickly learned that it would be much more successful if I scripted out the whole book so the talent could focus on their acting and not worry about making up new words. I wrote a script by creating a long list of phonic sounds for each language—aliens, ants, and ladybugs. Aliens were a little softer and more recognizable. The bugs were a bit more guttural with lots of Xs, Ks, and Zs. I found a language generator to plug my sounds into. It was a loose tool to help piece the phonics together. Then I would rearrange things until they sounded good, or I would go in and make sure that certain symbols matched to certain plot points. For example, every time the cat showed up, I had a word for “monster” that was repeated. But I was careful to not make the story decipherable. I read that the author made the written version un-decodable on purpose, so things were pretty loose.

To help the voice talent create unique deliveries for each character, I made further character notes. I envisioned a strong, verbose captain, a Scotty-from-Star-Trek engineer, and three blue aliens who were more prone to emotional outbursts. Although the cutest of the cast, the ladybug had the most grizzled voice of them all after years of successfully battling the giant feline.

During the voice-over recording, I gave the talent instructions to use the script as a rough guide, but she was able to change words or improvise as necessary. It was a really fun recording. During the picture-taking scene, they all say the alien version of “cheese,” which is “eeeephle.” She had to record all of the different voices and then the sound designer layered them together. She recorded a different “eephle” for three aliens, three ants, and a ladybug. While we were recording I thought, the bugs are just learning the alien language so they might have a harder time with the sounds. So there are some “zeeeezays” in there. I still think about that any time I take a picture and ask my kids to say “cheese.” In my mind I think, “eeeephle” or “zeeeezay.”

What is your favorite/the most rewarding part of directing animated storybooks? What’s the most challenging?

Directing storybooks is similar to bringing any other project to life, the difference being that instead of a script, you are presented with what are often beautiful works of art. In some ways, part of the creative process is already done. The world is already created. You get to come in and make it move! Using time, camera movement, and character movement to enhance an already great story is always a challenge, but giving life to artwork is really rewarding. Another challenge is deciding what to animate and what to leave still. We don’t make full-blown animations; the art and the words are the most important at the end of the day. Reigning ideas in and keeping movement to just the most important elements can be a challenge to navigate.

What’s next for you? What future projects are you most excited about?

I have a lot going on. I shoot, edit, animate, and direct. There’s always something new. I’m about to go on a shoot. It has been three years (thanks, Covid!) since I have shot something I edited, so it will be nice to get those skills back up and running again. I’m also starting a media company with my best friend of 20 years. We have a lot of projects and new clients that we are looking forward to working with.

Lastly, what’s your favorite way to enjoy a good book?

Between work and kids, there’s not much time to sit alone with a book anymore. But I do read to my children a lot. I would say the best way to enjoy a book these days is curled up with my two girls. We’re really into reading graphic novels—the art and stories are so stunning. I find a lot of inspiration for Vooks animations in them.