Fans of classic 1980s Saturday morning cartoons and strong female protagonists have been patiently counting the days until DreamWorks Animation Television’s new reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power premieres on Netflix. The new series, which is created and produced by Eisner Award-winning comic-book artist Noelle Stevenson (Nimona, Lumberjanes), centers on an adventurous orphan named Adora, who escapes her life in the evil Horde after she discovers a magical sword that transforms her into the mystical warrior She-Ra!
Thanks to Stevenson and the team of artists and writers working on the show, this is not your standard fantasy adventure series, as it features wonderful anime-inspired visuals, dynamic and interesting characters and exciting serial format storylines. “We wanted to make sure the characters were true to the spirit of the original show, but we took some liberties,” says Stevenson during a recent phone interview. “We loved the sci-fi fantasy elements and the ‘80s origins of the show, but we also wanted to update the characters for today’s audiences. So we have diverse body types, diverse races, shapes, and characters dressing in different ways.”
The talented show runner and exec producer says she found visual inspirations in a wide variety of sources — from fantasies of the ‘70s and ‘80s to some of her favorite artists who work in the comic-book realm. “A lot of young illustrators working today are influenced by anime,” she notes. “They learned to draw by focusing on their favorite anime and manga characters, so that is definitely reflected in the style of the show. It was also about finding this new version of a favorite character that was unique and fresh, which felt very much of today.”
Stevenson praises the work of art director Lamb Chamberlin, design supervisor Elizabeth Kresin and character designers Xanthe Bouma, Rachel Geiger, Keiko Murayama and Mariko Yamashin. She also raves about the work of South Korea-based animation studio NE 4 U, which helped produce the animation for the series (as it does for other DreamWorks TV titles such as Harvey Street Kids and Trolls: The Beat Goes On).
A Speedy Development Cycle
Since She-Ra was a major property that Netflix had expressed interest in over two years ago, the production and development phase happened around the same time, in April of 2016. “Once the first season was greenlit, we were immediately boarding, designing and writing,” Stevenson recalls. “When I first pitched the show, I approached it as if had one season, but we now have four arcs of 13 episodes done. I had ideas for the big overall scheme for the show. The first thing I did was create a vision board, pulling inspiration from a variety of sources. I had the incredible luxury of working with a team of great writers. It was great to brainstorm and come up with this rich world in great detail. Get a lot of ideas and throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.”
She also gives a lot of credit to the series’ creative and innovative board artists. “They’re incredible storytellers, and we write for them, keeping in mind what they’ll do the best in. Our story editor Josie Campbell is amazing to work with, and she’s great at keeping track of all the details of this very serialized show.”
Stevenson says about 45 people work in house on the show at DreamWorks’ Glendale offices. “It’s all hand-drawn 2D animation except for some CG work used on complicated machinery,” she says. “It’s been great to watch them bring so much life into this animation.”
Interestingly enough, Stevenson didn’t watch a lot of animated shows on TV when she was growing up. The 26-year-old artist’s parents were very religious, so her early exposures to animation were limited to DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt and a Christian-themed TV series called Superbook, which focused on Biblical stories. “I watched Prince of Egypt over and over again, and I knew all the songs,” she recalls. “I think it totally holds up, both in terms of story and hand-drawn animation. I was also allowed to watch Scooby-Doo, so I hold that show very close to my heart as well.”
Later on, she was able to catch up on some other sources of inspiration, including Disney’s Kim Possible, Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender. “I watched Avatar when I was in college, and I think it is an incredible influence because it also is a serialized show and very heavy on mythology.”
It wasn’t until years later, when she got her big break working on Craig McCracken’s Disney XD show Wander Over Yonder that she learned about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe from many of the team members on that show. “We did homages to that show, and I developed a love for that show, and that was the first time She-Ra appeared on my radar, and then I really started to get into it.”
Stevenson is quick to express her pleasure when asked about the current climate in which studios are actively seeking female shows with female protagonists. “It is so exciting that there are so many shows with a wide variety of female characters,” she notes. “Even five years ago, there weren’t so many options. Before, we had two female-centric shows, and we didn’t have a choice if we didn’t like them. Now, viewers have a chance to pick from a wide selection based on which ones speak to them. Back in the ’80s, She-Ra was ahead of its time. The fact that it was a fantasy, action-adventure show with a cast that was majority female made it stand out. That was something very different.”
“She-Ra is a female protagonist, but there are so many different types of characters featured on the show — from comedic to dramatic,” Stevenson adds. “The female characters all get to have their own story arcs and be able to develop in their own time. They don’t have the burden of being the only female in the story. They can have flaws and don’t have to be perfect.”
For Stevenson, it was equally important to empower women to work behind the scenes of the show as well. “I wanted the show to also elevate female voices all around,” she notes. “We want to give women the chance to tell stories that were important to them. For example, we have a very interesting relationship between Glimmer and her mother. DreamWorks has been very supportive of that.”
Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. Stevenson says being a showrunner for the first time in her impressive career also came with a lot of built-in pressure. “You have to learn those skills very quickly, and you have to catch on fast because it affects the crew and the production. It’s like falling off a cliff and figuring how to land quickly. Thankfully, the crew has been very supportive, and I’m also supported by them. I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve learned so much and grown, and I don’t want to make a mistake and let my crew down, but it happens, and you learn from it. It makes you a better creator and a better leader.”
Now that the first 13 episodes of the show will be ready for fans to dive into in November, Stevenson hopes that young audiences will learn new lessons from the imaginative world of She-Ra and her friends. “I want them to know that you can tell your own stories,” she says. “There is a big wealth of stories out there. The world will be a better place with new ideas and points of view. Nobody should feel that that ideas are not as important as others’. They can and should make their voices heard, even if they don’t feel confident.”
DreamWorks Animation’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power arrives on Netflix on November 13.