Israeli-American Animator Draws on Love of Time-travel to Help Viewers Flee Trump

Leigh Lahav’s web series 'Frozen is the New Black' has over 8 million views on YouTube, and now she’s tackling time travel (with the aid of anti-nausea pills).

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A still from "Belle & Tina are Time Travelers."
A still from "Belle & Tina are Time Travelers."Credit: Leigh Lahav
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

The “fandom” communities are invisible to the eye. They exist online, comprising millions of fantasy and comic-book fans who are prepared to wage war to defend their favorite characters. It used to be a markedly male domain, often characterized by misogyny and violence toward female characters in series and films, as well as on actual internet forums where female fans were treated with cold disdain.

In recent years, though, there’s been a positive development in these communities, and they’ve seemingly become more tolerant toward women. One of the key contributors has been the rise in the number of web campaigns demanding to see stronger female characters on-screen who are central to the plot, not incidental to it.

Animator Leigh Lahav.
Animator Leigh Lahav. "Personally I don’t get a lot of negative reactions."Credit: Leigh Lahav

Israeli-American animator Leigh Lahav is an honorary member of various fandom clubs, even if she herself doesn’t actually consider herself a fan. A graduate of Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, her success comes in the wake of a web series she created called “Fan Girls,” where she pokes fun at fantasy and sci-fi fans, but does so with a winning charm and sarcasm that comes from a love of the genre and its fans.

In her 2014 video “Frozen is the New Black,” she merged Disney princesses (with Elsa from “Frozen” as the lead heroine) with the location and plot of the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black.” The result was a brilliant, biting parody that has garnered over eight million views to date. The video received praise from prominent magazines such as Time, which shared the video and called it “a very entertaining mash-up.”

More recently, Lahav – together with her husband, Oren Mendezitsky (Mendez) – released a pilot for a new web series called “Belle & Tina are Time Travelers.” The story revolves around two girls who work in the last DVD store in the world. They embark on journeys through time, each outing via a different film. In the pilot, the two girls take an entertaining trip full of jokes that are meaningful only to fans of the venerable British TV series “Doctor Who.”

Lahav and Mendez found their inspiration for the characters in their own lives: In their student days, they worked together in a DVD store in Herzliya.

“It started out as a kind of parodic homage to ‘Bill & Ted,’” Lahav explains, referring to the two comedy films (from 1989 and 1991) starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter as slacker teenagers traveling through time. “Then, slowly, it began to take shape as something that stood on its own. We pitched it to all kinds of networks, and then a production company called New Form Digital was enthusiastic about the project and decided to fund it. They’re making it possible for us to upload it to YouTube, so this is really nice.”

How important is it for you that the protagonists are girls?

“It all started from the notion that we wanted to created a female version of ‘Bill & Ted,’ because we thought about how there were hardly any science-fiction series and films in which women are at the center and use time machines. There are a few examples, like what happened recently with the miniseries ‘Time Traveling Bong,’ cocreated by Ilana Glazer” (of “Broad City” fame). “I was really happy to see this, but it’s still rare. Usually, if Hollywood puts women into time-travel films, they’re mostly the sidekick, or the love interest, or the trigger for setting out on the journey. A while back we saw ‘The Time Machine’ [2002] with Guy Pearce, in which, of course, there’s a time machine – and his reason for embarking on the journey is the death of the woman he loved. In web jargon this is called a ‘refrigerator’ – slang for a case in which the protagonist sets out on a journey following the death of a female character.”

A still from the web series "Frozen is the New Black" (2014).
A still from the web series "Frozen is the New Black" (2014).Credit: Leigh Lahav

There’s been a surge of female communities for comics and fantasy of late, transforming this male world into something far more varied and heterogeneous. Prime examples include the Black Widow campaign, in which female fans demanded a separate film for their beloved “Avengers” comic character (played by Scarlett Johansson in the movies); the revival and release (next year) of a “Wonder Woman” movie, starring Gal Gadot; and new adaptations like the forthcoming “Ghostbusters,” in which the protagonists are all women (including Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig).

“When you see my videos, it’s quite clear that I’m part of this world of comics and fantasy,” says Lahav. “There have already been people who have seen my videos and said that I’m riding this feminist wave. That’s really funny to me because that’s exactly what I’m doing irrespective of one wave or another. My work, as I see it, is very personal, so it’s kind of hard for me to see it as part of something broader. It’s exactly like really loving some series or film you thought no one has ever seen, and then discovering that, in fact, you’re part of a much larger community.”

To what extent do you share the sense that the geek world is especially prone to misogyny? Do you think some sort of change is happening?

“I think that every wave of feminism is accompanied by some sort of counterreaction. And because we’re living in the current era, everything happens very quickly. We’re talking here about a few months of extremely serious feminist growth, and then along come the horrible reactions. It was possible to see this with ‘Ghostbusters’: When the trailer came out [in March], it became the least-liked trailer in the history of YouTube. I think there are some people who simply don’t like it when their favorite brands are messed with – but the feeling here is that the hatred is coming from a much less legitimate place. Personally, I don’t get a lot of negative reactions, maybe because it’s animation and my face is not on the screen.”

Are you active in any kind of fandom forum?

Lahav laughs. “I’m a ‘freelancer’ in that world. Sometimes I enter those discussions and sometimes I don’t. I try to handle this with humor and a light touch, but sometimes it happens that I enter the more serious discussions. Most of my friends are people I’ve met through shared areas of interest that are connected to fandoms. TV series. Movies.”

How do you choose the series you’re referencing?

“I just write about the things I like. In the [‘Belle & Tina’] pilot we used ‘Doctor Who’ because it was perfectly suited to this issue of time travel. I get a lot of inspiration from my love for many kinds of media and content, so it’s hard for me to say what will happen down the road. Right now, I really like ‘UnREAL,’ that’s an excellent series.”

There’s been a spate of time-travel series recently and now “Belle & Tina” is part of that trend.

“Right. We worked on the pilot and every day Oren was coming to me with another series on time travel that was about to come out, and I started wondering if that was good or bad. I was a bit worried about it, but he reassured me and said it’s great that there’s a trend like this, because there’s nothing that production companies love more than to say that some topic is hot right now. I think there hasn’t been an animation series about time travel in recent years, so at least in that respect we are innovators. As for the reason for this overload, maybe people are alarmed by this whole Donald Trump thing and really want to escape from the present to some other possible future or past.”

One of your protagonists, Tina, throws up during the actual time traveling. Didn’t you take pity on her?

“First of all, I find it funny. There’s something childish and helpless about it, in the good sense of the word. You immediately take pity on this character, but the second character is disgusted by her. She’ll take anti-nausea pills in upcoming episodes. I really love characters who have a kind of almost unconscious self-awareness – and she’s that sort of character. Like Homer Simpson. She has no problem talking about whatever pops into her head.”