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Sofia The First: A New Addition To Disney’s Royal Reign

When Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President, Original Programming and General Manager, Disney Junior Worldwide, asked Craig Gerber if he had any interest in creating a princess that could be added to the Disney roster, an idea came readily to mind.

“I wanted to make a new type of princess to bring a new personality and quality to the table,” said Gerber.  “First and foremost I wanted her to be school-aged and relatable for our young audience.”

Gerber grew up with an appreciation for animation, particularly the work of Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH) and Disney.  Feeling he wasn’t skilled at drawing, he focused his attention on writing, kick starting his production career working as a writer on live action features for studios including Rogue Pictures and Intrepid Films.  He also wrote, produced and directed a number of well received shorts, including the award winning “Hang Time,” a six minute short that captured the dynamics of an assortment of working-class strangers with virtually no dialogue.  Gerber eventually transitioned into writing for animated fare, and found a great amount of enjoyment in pushing the boundaries of storytelling through fantasy worlds in projects including “Pixie Hollow Games” and “Tinkerbell.”

“Fantasy and science fiction provide an opportunity to present a relatable message in a fantastic setting,” said Gerber.  “You can tell moral tales in a fun, entertaining way.  For Sofia, I wanted to take the classic Disney world but put my own characterizations in it.”

Sofia’s world, Enchancia, is filled with magical elements such as flying horses, talismanic jewels, and mystical spells.  Grounding Sofia’s story into a contemporary sensibility is Sofia’s home life.  A child of a working class single mother and lower class surroundings, she’s stripped of her home and friends and must re-adjust to a life of specific behaviors befitting royalty and must peacefully cohabitate with new siblings.  Her new school is the Royal Prep Academy where she learns to integrate with children who represent a wide berth of nationalities.  A child of divorce himself, Gerber knew the blended family life and the adaptation to new surroundings and routines was relatable to a vast majority of the population, and the lessons that come from adaptation were bountiful.

“Sofia is active, adventurous and she does things outside of the boundaries of her new home because she is a commoner.  She is more like the viewer, making her very relatable,” said Gerber.  “She thinks in a different way than those around her; she has a curiosity and adventurousness that surprises others and that is very exciting to work with.”

Gerber shares executive producer credits with Jamie Mitchell, who oversees all the animation production of the show.  Mitchell, a big fan of Disney animation, referenced the style of classics such as “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Lady and the Tramp” for Sofia’s world.  While those features relied upon hand-drawn animation for their signature look, Mitchell was aware that a TV schedule wouldn’t accommodate the timely process.  After testing a number of styles, he settled on a 2D to CG transfer process that flattened the image.  Toon shading is then applied, a computerized shading that gives the animation a hand-drawn quality.  While Gerber does have final say on the show’s look, he’s been completely taken in by Mitchell’s approach.  One item he did weigh in on was the look of Cedric – a wizard Gerber initially created when trying his hand at drawing.

“The mustache looked too much like Captain Hooks; it was too villainous,” said Gerber.  “Mainly I have great faith in Jamie’s visualization.  He’s the guardian of the story, of getting the themes across clearly.”

With the story and animation style in place, all the producers gathered to cast the voice actors.  They unanimously agreed “Modern Family’s” Ariel Winter embodied Sofia the moment she walked into the audition.  While most all the other vocal talent fell into place as easily, there was one person who had been pre-cast.  Mitchell created the role of the butler to fit designer and “Project Runway” personality Tim Gunn.  With the cast firmly in place the production was ready to roll.  However, there was a story line Gerber felt was lacking that needed to be addressed prior to production.

“There’s a scene where the woodland creatures share with Sofia why they are so helpful.  I thought it would work better with a song,” said Gerber.  “Writing music is something I’d never done before.  I was waiting nervously for (Disney’s) reply and they loved it, and wanted to add two to three more songs!”

Collaborating closely with music director John Kavanagh, Gerber completed the task and continues to write songs for the series, feeling the music helps define the characters and provides a guideline for the young viewers through the scene.

The final detail that completes Sofia’s transformation into a princess is the color of her gowns.  Nancy Kanter and the producers collectively agreed purple should be her signature hue.

“It was a group decision made early on.  Every princess has a signature color,” said Gerber.  “It has nothing to do with me being a big Laker fan!”

Disney will introduce its first little girl princess with the debut of “Sofia the First: Once Upon A Princess,” an enchanting, music-filled animated Disney Junior television movie for the whole family, SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18 (7:00-8:00 p.m., ET/PT) on Disney Channel and THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 22 (9:00-10:00 a.m., ET/PT) on Disney Junior, the 24-hour channel. A “Sofia the First” television series will premiere in early 2013. The movie and series will roll out internationally through mid-2013 on both Disney Channels and Disney Junior channels.

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