***An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the June/July ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 311)***
We all knew that great things were going to happen when Doc McStuffins creator Chris Nee inked an overall deal with Netflix back in November 2018. This summer, we’ll get to see the first of many projects that the Emmy, Peabody and Humanitas Prize-winning kids’ entertainment icon has been developing, producing and overseeing at the streamer when We the People premieres July 4.
This fantastic anthology project is by far one of the most interesting and bold animated undertakings of the year. We the People is a collection of 10 three-minute music videos that aims to educate younger viewers about civic lessons. Top-notch animation directors such as Peter Ramsey (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Trisha Gum (The LEGO Batman Movie), Jorge R. Gutiérrez (Maya and the Three, The Book of Life), Daron Nefcy (Star vs. the Forces of Evil) and Everett Downing, Jr. (Hair Love) tackle topics such as active citizenship, the Bill of Rights, immigration and the First Amendment. Nee also tapped amazing musical artists such as H.E.R., Adam Lambert, Cordae, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Andra Day, Janelle Monáe and poet Amanda Gorman to create the soundtrack to these short animated gems.
“I was feeling that our country was in such a divided space and many people have developed this fear for politics,” says Nee. “I felt like we needed to introduce a common language, where we can all feel this bond as Americans. Civics is not partisan. In 2015, I felt like we needed something like Schoolhouse Rock, which was a work of genius.”
Animation Super Stars and Civics
Nee says she started pitching the idea for this project back in 2016, but it was a hard sell. “Nobody was that interested in doing a show about civics,” she recalls. “They would say, ‘Yeah, but we really like that other show with the singing and dancing characters!’ I happened to be talking to Kenya Barris (black-ish) about this idea, and we met early on when I started at Netflix and decided to team up to make this happen!”
The third addition to the team was none other than former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. “Working with the Obamas was extraordinary,” says Nee. “Mr. Obama was so much more hands-on than I thought he would be. We figured out what the 10 topics for the shorts were going to be. We then decided to age the target audience to be about 14 and 18 — the generation who is just beginning to understand the state of the world around them, and maybe is overwhelmed by it all. Our exciting challenge was, how do we tell this generation to get involved socially and politically?”
To make this project even more iconic, Nee aimed for 10 different animation directors and 10 different styles and pipelines. “We went for 50 percent men and women, with people of color and LGBTQ artists represented. This wasn’t going to be the ‘dead white men’s’ point of view. This was ‘we the people.’ Eight of the 10 directors were established and renowned animation directors, and for the other two, we went with up and coming talent who were in the beginning of their journeys.”
The new helmers Victoria Vincent and Mabel Ye were quite surprised when Nee reached out to them to offer them this amazing opportunity to be part of the show. “When I called Victoria, who is a 20-year-old student, to tell her that we’re offering her the same job as Peter Ramsey, she was still living in her dorm room,” Nee recalls. “She asked me, ‘But what about my senior thesis project?’ and I assured her that since I was a professor at her school [CalArts], she didn’t need to worry about that!”
The show’s animation production was split between the artists at Titmouse and Buck studios. “It was one of the most challenging things that I had done, but it’s something that I’m the most proud of as well,” says Nee. “The hope is that kids are going to find it first, and then it can be used to teach civics at schools as part of the core curriculum. We’re especially pleased to have Amanda Gorman featured in one of the videos, because she is the perfect spokesperson for that generation we are trying to reach — kids who have watched us screw everything so much. We want to tell them it’s important to double down, re-engage in politics. This is your country!”
The Ultimate Interactive Exhibit!
Premiering July 13, Ridley Jones, which is produced in collaboration with 9 Story Media Group’s Brown Bag Films in Ireland, is an action-adventure preschool targeting series which centers a fearless six-year-old girl named Ridley Jones who is a protector of a natural science museum, along with her mom and grandmother. Of course, the animals and creatures on display come to life after the visitors leave the building!
“I have to say that I’m really proud of Ridley Jones, because I applied everything that I learned from doing Doc McStuffins and Vampirina through the years,” says the talented creative. “It’s a project that I made 100 percent for myself. This is the kind of show that I would have loved to watch as a young girl, as it has messages about female empowerment, the importance of community and how we live together and take care of each other despite our differences. I can’t wait for audiences to meet Ridley, who is a smart, bold, adventure-seeking girl who is also a great caretaker of the other characters.”
Interestingly enough, Ridley Jones was the last idea she pitched to Netflix. “This pitch was just sitting in the car, since I had a lot of ideas for things that I wanted to do after Vampirina,” admits Nee. “My mom worked at the Museum of Natural History as a docent and my son and I could go and visit her. She would give us a tour of the place when it was empty. We would all sit on the floor, and she would make the artwork feel real.”
Living in Harmony
Nee says the unique setting also allowed her to address how we can bring different communities together, for example, one storyline looks at what would happen if the elephants wanted to have a dance party, which would be really hard on the ancient pottery exhibit. “Plotlines like that help us talk about how to bring together different communities that might have different needs, which is something we really need to do in our current political climate,” she explains.
The creative team wanted to portray the museum as a bright, colorful place, full of light and excitement, so they used the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis as a source of inspiration. “We have five main characters which belong to different parts of the museum, and the designers and animators really nailed the look and feel of the backgrounds as well as Ridley and all her friends,” notes Nee. “The CG animation really captures the details of fur on the bison, the feathers on the birds, everything looks really fantastic in great detail.”
The acclaimed children’s show creator says she loves to surround herself with a group of trusted collaborators. Having worked with the Dublin-based Brown Bag team on her previous shows, Nee welcomed teaming up with them. “They do such amazing work, and we have a short-hand way of communicating about our projects now,” says Nee. “I am really happy to have Chris Dimond and Michael Kooman, who did the music for Vampirina, as well. I really have the best of the best people working with me on this show.”
Before we let Nee go back to her super busy schedule, we had to ask her to give us the details of her third new project of 2021: Ada Twist, Scientist. “I’m really excited about this show, which is based on the book series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts about an eight-year-old, smart, Black girl scientist who wants to discover the truth about everything. Her friends are a boy who wants to be an architect and a girl who is an engineer. It’s a celebration of both science and scientific thinking. We partnered with the Obama team and our showrunner/co-exec producer is Kerri Grant (Doc McStuffins). Exec producers are Mark Burton (Tallulah), Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan (Crip Camp, Becoming) and Beaty and Roberts. Brown Bag is doing the animation, which is gorgeous. They nailed the illustrations’ gorgeous sensibility and translated it to a stylized 3D space. That’s why it doesn’t look like any other show.”
Looking back at her insanely productive last couple of years, Nee is both grateful and optimistic about the power of children’s entertainment. “It wasn’t easy to leave Disney, but what Netflix did was tell me that they believed in me 100 percent. I care about the work, and I am also thrilled that I can help grow and train the next generation of storytellers for kids. That I can find and empower voices that haven’t had the chance to be included. That’s how we put together the all-Native American writing staff for Karissa Valencia’s upcoming new show Spirit Rangers. She is 100 percent the showrunner on that show, but I’m there to help and to advise her if she needs me.”
The brilliant woman behind Doc McStuffins, one of the most popular and trailblazing preschool shows of the past decade, says she’s grateful to be able to spotlight new visionary voices. “I know that the last few years have been difficult in so many ways. I’m just happy that I get to work every day to solve the problems and make those changes. That is a real privilege.”
A Few Amendments to ‘We the People’
Episode directors Peter Ramsey and Tim Rauch answered more burning questions for us ahead of the series premiere:
Animag: Can you tell us what you loved about working on this project?
Peter Ramsey: I’ve always been interested in politics, and I believe that it’s more important than ever that people understand our political system and realize that they have a role in it. I was really excited about being able to be part of something that would contribute in a really positive way to helping people understand that they’re needed to make democracy work.
Tim Rauch: I loved working with our wildly talented and diverse team of directors. They have such unique strengths — Peter’s inclusiveness, Victoria’s dogged preparation, Benjy’s attention to detail, Jorge’s charisma, Trisha’s invention, Mabel’s quiet, masterful leadership, Daron’s empathy, Everett’s inspired storytelling, and Kendra’s iconic imagery. Working alongside them was like going to directing school with the best in the biz.
What was the most difficult part of creating animation that worked with the specific music of each episode?
Ramsey: I can’t speak for the other episodes – I imagine they had to work hard to convey lots of specific information in some of the other pieces. My piece was more of an anthem, it was less specific and more about the general idea of Active Citizenship, so it was a little more about creating metaphors and feelings. Even so, you have to find clear images that are going to communicate clear ideas in a short amount of time, so I hope we managed to do that.
Rauch: Being adaptable — hopping from folk to show tunes to rap to power pop to R&B, with each director using a totally unique style and creative team. You could never say “that worked — let’s try it again.” Nothing predictable, nothing repeated.
Tell us about your experience working with the Obamas, Chris Nee and Kenya Barris. Any fun memories to share with us? Rauch: President Obama took special interest in curating the books on his shelf and had Working by oral historian Studs Terkel prominently displayed. I made a film about Studs before and know the book well; it’s a compilation of interviews with ordinary people about their jobs and I like that a U.S. President so highly values something like that.
Ramsey: You know, I didn’t really have any contact with the Obamas or Kenya — I would have loved to, but we kind of hit the ground running. We would only hear distant bulletins from them every once in a while! But Chris Nee was at our side from moment one, she was the captain of the ship and did an amazing job of supporting and inspiring us all. She’s just the best. She tells a story about how I hemmed and hawed before joining the project because of my worries about my schedule, but she always knew she had an ace up her sleeve – which was the song by H.E.R., which I ended up directing. She figured I couldn’t resist once I heard it, and she was right!
Can you talk about the specific visual style you used in the episode and why you decided on it?
Rauch: “Fed vs. State” is a character-based song, so big, cartoony performances and dynamic, emotionally driven color felt like a fit. Art director Bill Wray is a master of color — one of the best to ever do it — and [compositor] Dennis Fries was key in establishing a frenetic, high-energy polish to match the track. Animator Rachel Reid also made a massive contribution — poppy, fun, commanding. I’m a big believer in letting talented artists do what they do best.
Ramsey: I was thinking of Schoolhouse Rock and how their animation style was simple, bold and graphic but also kind of rooted in reality; I wanted something along those lines that people could easily relate to and see themselves and their world in, but that also let us be really expressive. Somehow the work of the comic artist Moebius came to mind, his simpler line and flat color work, and when I showed those to the artists I worked with at the production company Buck, they thought of Peter Max’s work, like Yellow Submarine, and the look turned into a mix of those.
The other thing I wanted to do was to tell the story through color; so we start with a very monochromatic feel in the beginning, and then as our heroine uses her voice and begins to inspire others, the colors become bolder and more vibrant, and by the end the piece becomes a celebration of the idea of people making their own future.
We the People and Ridley Jones premiere on Netflix on July 4 and 13, respectively. Ada Twist, Scientist is coming soon to the streamer.