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Creating “Vampirina”: An Interview With Executive Producer Chris Nee

Chris Nee, Executive Producer, Disney Junior’s “Doc McStuffins” and “Vamprina.” (Disney Junior/Craig Sjodin)
© 2017 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

By: Marjorie Galas

Chris Nee was familiar with the “Vampirina” book series when Disney Junior approached her about developing a show based on the character.  The Peabody, Humanitas and Emmy Award winning executive producer who’s the mind behind the network’s popular “Doc McStuffins” (for which Nee has three consecutive Daytime Emmy nominations from 2015-17) was sent a short, dialogue-free clip of the animated character happily skipping. Upon reviewing that clip, Nee was instantly enthralled with the possibilities for a series.

Although the concept for the character sprung from Anne Marie Pace’s book creation, Nee had a wide breadth of character development.  Pace had created three imaged-based Vampirina books, providing text that merged with illustrations by LeUyen Pham.  In Disney Junior’s first season of “Vampirina” there are roughly 50 stories the writing team developed.  Vampirina Hauntley, or Vee, and her family are recent transplants to urban Pennsylvania from small town Transylvania. Nee and the writing team highlight the themes of community, inclusion and diversity as the young vampire girl explores her new community, accepts the traits that make her different and creates new friendships.

“The stories are intrinsic to who I am, and what I want TV to reflect,” said Nee.  “We’re telling stories about community and very relatable human emotions.”

Something Nee and her team were very conscious of during the early development of the character was limiting the scare factor associated with vampires.  First and foremost, the Hauntleys are presented as a loving family.  It was important that the parents have that same level of relatability that Vee has for the young viewers. They focused on creating a family unit that enabled their audience to make connections with their own home life.  Special care in voice casting further minimized the creep factor James Van Der Beek as father Borris and Lauren Graham as mother Osana provide warmth and an underlying humor and goofiness to the characters that aids in their likability.  Nee and her team also softened the typical genre elements associated with creature movies and haunted houses; a ghost who passes through the walls forgets what room he’s in while a mummy provides gleeful song and dance numbers , for example.

The aspects of the “monster lifestyle” are also exhibited in the design of the show.  The Hauntley’s city-based high-rise displays magic and curiosity at nearly every turn, from talking portraits to helpful, multifaceted bookcases.   To get the look of the series just right, Nee reached out to Brown Bag Films. Nee has collaborated with Brown Bag for roughly eight years, working with the animators on such hits including “Doc McStuffins.”  The short-hand they have refined over the years allowed Nee to bring a basic design and mood to the Brown Bag animators, and receive the exact result she was looking for.

“We work together hand-in-hand.  The work they do is so wonderful,” said Nee.  “Together with (the) writing team we’ve been able to put together that is engaging and sophisticated, with stories that show skill and craft.”

Alongside the writing team – many of whom have worked with Nee on other projects including “Doc McStuffins”, Nee is looking for those stories that are well-defined and represent Vee’s strong moral compass.  Part of what makes Nee’s story telling so effects is her team’s ability to craft a story that will highlight a conflict or issue, such as those instances where Vee’s up bring prove challenging for her friends.  The team will work the story up to the point a young viewer would want to turn away.  At that point a character may state “This is weird for me, but I liked you before so why wouldn’t I still like you?”  Nee’s experiences highlights that moment when a child delights in finding the love between the two characters; where the child can share in the joy they experience when the characters acknowledge their differences and confirm their friendship.

As a creator, finding a strong personal bond and connection to a character she wants to develop is paramount.  Her introduction into the production world was as a writer with Sesame Workshop, where she was instilled with the passion to help children learn and grow through the production of educational content.  Through the course of her career she’s been able to work on projects with history and depth, and never imagined a creation such as “Doc McStuffins” would have the kind of legs it had.  Recognizing the series success as a “lightening in a bottle” moment, it did not causer her a second’s delay when “Vampirina” was brought to her.  She immediately saw the possibilities the character could bring to share her personal values and beliefs in a united community.

“I had to let myself be guided by falling for a character, and I Love her more than I ever thought I could,” said Nee.  “This is a character I want to spend time with.”