Traci Paige Johnson and Jennifer Twomey offered delegates an inside look at the process behind making the hit DreamWorks Animation series Gabby’s Dollhouse at the TV Kids Festival today.
The hybrid live-action/animated series has been a hit for Netflix and has been sold to a number of other platforms by NBCUniversal Global Distribution. You can watch the creative keynote with Paige Johnson and Twomey, moderated by TV Kids’ Kristin Brzoznowski, here, ahead of a clip of the acclaimed series.
Inspiration for the series was drawn from “all the things that we loved as kids,” Twomey explained. “We loved dollhouses, miniatures, cats. We were very tuned in to this unboxing phenomenon and how much preschoolers were into it. We thought there was something there, but we wanted to take it to the next level. So instead of unboxing a toy or a product, what if we unbox a story? We put it all into the mix and came up with the idea for Gabby’s Dollhouse.”
The creators also used their own lives as inspiration for some of the show’s characters: “Pandy is based on Jen’s youngest son Matias, and Gabby is based on her daughter Gabby!” Paige Johnson noted.
“Even the ideas for episodes can come from anywhere,” Twomey continued.
“We’ve raised six kids between us,” Paige Johnson said, “so we have a lot of craft and stories and silly moments that we love to bring into the show. We have that kid at heart that we bring.”
On the mixed-media style used in the show, Paige Johnson noted, “In today’s kids’ landscape, there’s so much out there. You need to find something that feels different. We know that kids, through Blue’s Clues and watching YouTube videos, respond to that live-action person or kid looking into the camera and asking questions. We knew we wanted to bring that in. When we did the unboxing—unboxing is the catalyst to the story—we knew that the animated part would be more fun if she shrunk into the dollhouse and became animated in those worlds and all that wish fulfillment. It started as wanting to feel unique and different. As their little animated characters, they might go into Gabby’s bedroom and see her live-action cat Floyd. It’s just so magical. It makes it stand out.”
Twomey added: “The show is all about wish-fulfillment, so there’s just something so magical about seeing live-action Gabby with these little miniatures playing at the top of the show, and then when you pinch, and you go into that world, it solidifies that magic to kids because they’re like, I just saw that real dollhouse with little characters and now I’m inside of it. Being able to do the mixed media just opened so many areas of creativity for us.”
She continued: “Also, once we’re in animation, the show is a 3D show, but we also do a lot of 2D animation, which is both good for budget and creativity. We’re able to create whole new worlds and environments in the 2D that we wouldn’t be able to afford to create a new set or a world in 3D. So we’ll pick and choose our worlds for 3D. The ability to go into these 2D worlds opens up so many more creative avenues for us and places to go and new places to explore.”
Production on an animation/live-action hybrid requires a significant amount of “forethought and planning,” Twomey explained. “When you’re combining live-action and animation, you know it all has to be meticulously boarded. We have to know exactly what props are going to be used by the animated characters and what props are not, so we know if animation is making that or are the live-action miniature people making that. There’s a lot of thinking and planning that goes into it.”
Brzoznowski asked Paige Johnson and Twomey to discuss the growth mindset curriculum that underpins Gabby’s behavior in the show.
“When we were developing, we came across Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and we were very much inspired by that,” Paige Johnson said. “We’re all about celebrating our mistakes, being perfectly imperfect and letting kids know that, whoops, you made a mistake, and it’s okay! That there’s power in asking for help, and you don’t need to do everything perfectly the first time and let’s give it a go or roll with it. We love to bake that organically into the DNA of the show. Gabby just has that naturally and is role modeling that for our audience. We always have that ‘I don’t know how to do that, yet,’ moment.”
Twomey added, “The growth mindset is about teaching resilience and grit and not being afraid to make mistakes. That’s how you learn. You don’t learn unless you make mistakes. Gabby embodies that. We felt that was one of the most important things you can teach a child: the resilience and self-confidence to be able to make a mistake and be okay with it.”
Episodes also encourage kids to engage in activities off-screen. “We love that we inspire kids to use their creativity once the show is over,” Paige Johnson said. “That just seems sort of the essence of the ecosystem of the internet now, of doing recipes together, doing crafts together.”
When writing for preschoolers, Twomey noted: “You need to base the adventure and story in something that resonates with them and something that they know. With so many preschool shows out there, everybody’s covered everything in the preschool tropes. For Gabby’s, we strive to say, all right, if we’re doing a birthday party, how do we make it a Gabby’s Dollhouse birthday party? Because we’ve put so much thought into the development of the show, now it’s easy and natural for us to say, like, okay, how do we turn this on its head and do it the Gabby’s way? That’s important for the show and us: to keep that quirkiness, that humor, that signature Gabby-ness. There’s a sense of casual play; we want the home viewer to feel like you’re just on a play date. The fact that we get to do a full 23-minute episode allows us to take the time where we can just play and be silly with Baby Box and do a whoopsie moment. Those features are just important to us in the show as the main thrust of the story. So it feels like you’re on a playdate with Gabby and the Gabby cats.”