***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June-July ’22, No. 321)***
Another brilliant young explorer is expected to brighten the preschool television scene when Disney Junior’s Eureka! premieres in June. Created and executive produced by Emmy-winning toon veteran Norton Virgien and author/creator Niamh Sharkey, the show centers on an adventurous young girl who solves problems and shakes things up in a prehistoric environment using the kind of unconventional thinking and determined mindset that can take her anywhere.
Supported by her parents (voiced by Hamilton‘s Renée Elise Goldsberry and Lil Rel Howery), a cherished pet mammoth named Murphy, good friends and her teacher, Eureka (Ruth Righi) is an inventor who designs what she needs — including the wheel — and boldly inspires others to come with her on her journeys. They even invented a word for what she does that is heard in the series’ main title theme song, performed by Lexi Underwood (Disney+’s Sneakerella) …
‘Thinkering’ All the Time!
“There were a couple moments where we had our own Eureka! moments coming up with the names of things like the wheels that the kids use riding around,” says Virgien, whose many credits include Doc McStuffins, Vampirina and Rugrats. “We’re very proud of naming them rock and rollers. Erica [Rothschild] came up with this name for this magical process that seems to happen when you experiment with thinking, called ‘thinkering.’ And Eureka is always doing this. She’s tinkering and thinking, and this is where Erica got that one.”
Rothschild serves as co-executive producer/story editor for the series, and Donna Brown Guillaume and Rusty Cundieff are consulting producers. The show is produced by Brown Bag Films, the same studio behind Doc McStuffins, in association with Disney Junior. Approximately 50 animators at Brown Bag Films worked on the show and an additional 100 animators in India also contribute to the production. The writers’ room is based in the U.S.
The show started production just before the world shut down during the pandemic. Initially they were meeting in person, but soon the crew had to go remote. “We did the show all through lockdown,” says Sharkey, who also created and collaborated with Virgien and Brown Bag on the acclaimed series Henry Hugglemonster. “We started at the end of February 2020 and we went to the states and we had a Eureka! writers’ room for a couple of weeks, and then the world just shut down. So, we became very friendly with Zoom. But what made that interesting was, because we’re on different sides of the ocean, we were very involved in the writers’ room throughout the process, which I think was a nice thing — especially with Erica, just having her every step of the way.”
Rothschild had been with Sharkey and Virgien from early on in the production process. After the pair came up with a central idea for the show, Rothschild worked with them through development, and then they were able to do an animation test which demonstrated the strength of their ideas.
The producers found ways to make Zoom and the lockdown work for them. If they had to collaborate through video chats, then they would try to use them as a way to increase collaboration. “I will say one thing that did work better over Zoom was the involvement between us and the writing team,” says Virgien. “Way back in the Rugrats days, we directors got to sit in the back of the room and sort of attend the writing meetings. And that was actually quite good, because we would have a better sense of what the story was really about. We’d have a chance to offer up some visual ideas now and then, most of the things I’ve worked on over the years, though, the writing has been a little separated from creating the visuals. So, it was a thrill on this show to get back into the writing room, as it were, even if it was through Zoom sometimes.”
Virgien notes that because of the nature of the show, he and the team would have some ideas for visual humor or visual ideas, like what the inventions might look like. He adds, “When we offered up our silly ideas, often the writers would pick them up and run with them — and I felt like we were going to have a more visually rich show where the two elements are integrated because of Zoom, in a way.”
When it came time to carve out a distinct look for the show, Sharkey and Virgien and the entire crew leaned into the prehistoric backdrop. The production design grew out of that place. “For Eureka!, the library is a cave library,” says Sharkey. “So, throughout the whole series, the backdrop is just this kind of beautiful, kind of idealized place of work and play. And all of us would love to live there. It’s technology free, which is also nice for kids to just see that and almost encourage them to get out into the world as well and explore. You also get to see her creative process, when she starts ‘thinkering’ in the animation.”
Sharkey says that the team wanted to show the audience what goes on inside the main character’s head. “With the animation, we get to see how she puts her ideas together,” she adds. “I think sometimes they come from all different places. So, to get to see inside somebody’s head is exciting. I think in most episodes we showed the tinkering, that process and what it looks like and how she comes to her ideas, because I think that makes it unique as well.”
Adds Virgien: “We do also run our ideas by a genuine scientist who gives us a lot of pointers on things and how to be more realistic. She’s an educator in the science field and works with museums and knows how to talk to kids. But, some of the things we do are deliberately nonsensical. For instance, if you want to get a mammoth into your house, it’s probably easier to make a giant door than it is to build a turntable that lowers the mammoth down. However, we find the turntable a lot more silly and fun!”
While the producers loved the process of creating a whole world where the stories could take place and distinct, playful characters for kids to watch, they also have ideas they want their audience to take away from the show. They want them to know that if an idea or an attempt to turn an idea into an invention doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the process. There are still things their young viewers can do.
“That’s definitely a theme of the show,” says Sharkey. “Eureka doesn’t give up. Sometimes you have to fail it to nail it. It’s okay to fail, especially when you’re being a creative person and maybe there’s a mixture of math and engineering as well in your solution to a situation or a problem. It’s okay to make mistakes, and making mistakes is part of your strength, overcoming your weaknesses is part of your strength. We want them to look at Eureka and see that she’s not disappointed when she fails. It doesn’t stop her. She’s still excited and having fun with her friends and family. She just dives in and doesn’t look back.”
Eureka! premieres on Disney Junior on June 22.