***This article originally ran in the February ‘20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 297)***
You would never think that the dark art of 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch would serve as the inspiration for a children’s cartoon. Well, thanks to Dana Terrace and her wild imagination, the strange creatures conjured by the European painter have found their way in the new Disney Channel series The Owl House. The show, which debuts in January, and is already in production of its second season, follows the adventures of a young teenage girl named Luz who decides to pursue her dreams of becoming a witch after she stumbles into a strange realm, inhabited by feisty witch Eda and her tiny warrior friend King.
Terrace, a former director on DuckTales and storyboard artist on Gravity Falls, recalls starting to collect her notes and images and putting together her pitch for the story back in 2015. Then, she finally began pitching her story about a young girl who becomes a witch’s apprentice only a few months after she started directing DuckTales.
“Many of the characters have barely changed since then,” recalls Terrace. “I knew I wanted an older witch mentor figure and a young optimistic girl who was the main character, who learns and grows throughout the show. There’s also this trickster little jerk character named King (voiced by Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch).”
The setting for The Owl House changed a little bit since its early days. Terrace says for a brief time, she was toying with the idea of the whole show being set after the young character dies, so that the Owl House is all set in the afterlife. What really had a clear impact on her work is the work of artists such as Bosch, John Bauer, Remedios Varos and the puppetry of Jim Henson.
In addition to the crazy creatures of Bosch and religious illuminated manuscripts, Terrace found inspiration in some of the familiar elements in her life as well. “I have always wanted to tell a story about a rough-around-the-edges mother figure, based off of my aunt, nana and mother who raised me,” she recalls.
Terrace says the show’s central character Luz evolved from late-night conversations she used to have with her former roommate roommate and close college friend. “We were both dorks together,” she recalls. “We tried to cut our own hair and it never worked out. We didn’t have many friends. So, in a way, Luz bubbled out of our conversations. When I told her that I was going to base the main character on her, she said, ‘Yes , but you’ll have to make her Dominican.’ So that’s what happened. Luz now also works on the show as a storyboard artist and consultant, and I get to work with my best friend every day.”
As a young girl, Terrace used sneak into the living room to watch cartoons and copy what she liked in her flip books. Her love for shows such as The Simpsons, Pokémon, The PowerPuff Girls and Studio Ghibli movies finally lead her to study animation at School of Visual Arts in New York and make her way out to L.A. to pursue a career in the animation business. Her first big break happened when someone discovered her art blog and sent her a storyboarding test, which led to her landing a job at Gravity Falls and opened other doors as well.
During her big pitch to Disney, Terrace says she was a bit worried to mention Bosch and his odd, evil creatures, but to her surprise, one of the executive’s response was, “Heck, yeah!” “They have been nothing more than enthusiastic and helpful from day one,” she notes.
After spending a good year writing and making the pilot, Terrace began building her production team in 2018. Art director Ricky Cometa and supervising producer Stephen Sandoval also joined the Disney TV Animation production. At capacity, the show has about 50 staffers as part of its pre-production crew, and an overall count of 120 including the overseas teams at Sunwoo, Rough Draft and Sugarcube in Korea. We’ve been very fortunate to work with all of them,” says Terrace. “They’ve made the show really, really spark.”
The Owl House has attracted a top-notch list of vocal talent as well, including Wendie Malick as Eda, Hirsch as King and Sarah-Nicole Robles as Luz. Among the guest star lineup for the show’s first season are Matthew Rhys, Isabella Rossellini, Tati Gabrielle, Issac Ryan Brown, Mae Whitman, Bumper Robinson and Parvesh Cheena. Terrace points out that having a sterling class led by Malick has been a real treat. “Our witch could have been a very hard character to cast, because we wanted to have sass and energy, and Wendie was absolutely perfect. She came in with all her talent and experience, and my first instinct was ‘You don’t need any direction. Do whatever you want to do because you are amazing!”
She also mentions that she knew Alex Hirsch was going to end up playing the little sidekick King. “I used to hear him pitch when I worked on Gravity Falls. I knew that he can bring a lot to the characters he plays. He would also give me some helpful advice about running his own show and working at Disney.”
Art director Ricky Cometa (Steven Universe, Costume Quest) says he was swept away by Terrace’s wild ideas and spectacular imagery, things that were not usually seen in children’s animation. “The second she came in and said, ‘I want you to read this show bible. The first thing that caught my eye was ‘Bosch and the demon world?’ I very much needed help to figure out what this world looks like. We had this blank canvas and there was a lot of religious iconography. I knew we were going to push the boundaries. I mean we are doing the demon realm on the Disney Channel? You bet I’m in!”
Cometa points out that it was clear that they needed to balance the darker aspects of the witch’s world with the more light-hearted and fun components of Luz’s comical adventures. “At first, I wasn’t sure how dark we could have made the world this world that Luz jumps into initially. We had to make clear decisions about when the story needed to be scary— when do we highlight the darker moments versus when the story is lighthearted and welcoming. It was all about finding that right balance of warmth and spookiness.”
Terrace agrees. “If we made everything super scary and spooky — which is something I’m not afraid of, scaring my audience — but if we made everything the same color, then the scary parts and the day-to-day light-hearted parts wouldn’t have popped. We needed that contrast for writing purposes.”
Amazingly enough, Terrace is only the fourth woman to solely create and run an animated series for Disney — following in the footsteps of Sue Rose (Pepper Ann), Chris Nee (Doc McStuffins) and Daron Nefcy (Star vs. The Forces of Evil). She says one of her biggest challenges on the show was going through the learning process to run a writer’s room, which includes four other writers and a writer’s assistant. “Before this show I had always written and drawn my own comics and cartoons, but this was the first time I had written scripts professionally. Learning the process of writing scripts and learning to run a writers’ room was probably the biggest challenge for me. Luckily, I was with a team of talented writers, and we all kind of learned together. Most of that team has carried on to the second season, and we’re very excited to keep writing together.
As the show begins its run on Disney Channel, Terrace says that ultimately she hopes audiences will be entertained by Luz’s world and her off-the-wall adventures. “There are so many different kinds of animated shows out there and so many traditional and streaming services, that I don’t think it’s possible to have a gigantic blowout hit anymore. At the end of the day, no matter how much stuff is out there, stories with interesting core characters and relatable, understandable stories will shine through.”
The Owl House premieres on Disney Channel and DisneyNOW on Friday, January 10 at 8:45 p.m. DisneyNOW app will also launch an adventure game set in the world of The Owl House. New shorts featuring Luz, Eda and King will debut in the spring on Disney Channel and Disney Channel YouTube.