‘We the People’s’ Chris Nee on Animating Civics With the Obamas and Netflix

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Creating animated music videos for older children around subjects such as taxes, active citizenship and the Bill of Rights is challenging enough, but with ten directors and ten different animation pipelines, “Doc McStuffins” and “Vampirina” creator Chris Nee has described her latest project as the hardest but most rewarding project she has worked on.

As Netflix released new images of Nee’s latest project “We the People” ahead of its July 4 launch, the Emmy-winning creator and executive producer shared further insights into her new animated series of music videos, designed to educate a new generation on the importance of active citizenship.

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Nee – a self-confessed politics and civics geek – told Netflix director of pre-school Heather Tilert in this morning’s online presentation that the ten-part series was a reaction to the lack of civics education in schools.

“I felt like we lost that common language of civics, that nonpartisan language of how the country is put together and how you can engage regardless of what side you are on. It’s not about sides, but how you can get your point of view across,” she said.

According to Nee, while the idea had floated around as a side project since 2016 – “It was hard to get people interested” she admitted – it was only once Netflix came on board and linked her team up with Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground that doors on the project started opening.

“What I can’t believe is how involved the President actually was. How we really figured out those ten topics through the President. That was one of the most important moments for us,” she said.

“He was the one who said, ‘Let’s think older. Let’s look at actually engaging the generation that is in the moment of looking around saying ‘What the heck are you handing us and what are we going to do about it?’ That changed the trajectory of the project,” she added.

Nee said that reaching out to an older more discerning audience required using music as a “superpower,” so the series features original songs performed by artists including H.E.R., Janelle Monáe, Brandi Carlile, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Lambert, Cordae, Bebe Rexha, KYLE, Andra Day and inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman

Each three-minute episode, executive produced by “Blackish” creator Kendra Ryan, utilizes a mix of animated styles that required ten different directors – a selection of established and up-and-coming artists – as well as an mix of men and women, LGBTQ and races.

Four of the directors involved – Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Jorge Gutierrez (“The Book of Life”), Trisha Gum (“Lego Batman Movie”) and 2D background artist Mabel Ye joined the Annecy session to talk about their experiences.

Guttierez revealed that when he joined the project, he and his family were in the process of becoming U.S. citizens and the idea for his episode was to show a “tapestry of immigrants” from all over the world coming to the US and bringing the best of their culture – as a little Easter egg, his own family represent the Mexican contingent.

He said: “I wanted to give eyeball protein to the audience and then a gazillion cultural references: Armenian dance at weddings; French New Wave films. There are cultural hints of everything, but always with respect and well researched. As we always do, my wife Sandra designed most of the female characters and I designed most of the male characters.”

He added: “Working with [animation studio] Titmouse was great, we had tried to get talent and immigrants from all over the world. A fourth-generation Greek immigrant directed the Greek moment in it… I’d suggest this great artist from Colombia that I admired one week, and I would be working with them the next!”

Peter Ramsey’s opening piece on active citizenship involves a young woman finding her voice, which was done in collaboration with commercial animation house Buck, which Nee praised for adapting its client-focused pipeline to accommodate the specific needs of her directors.

Nee added that she was “blown away” by the “Bill of Rights” episode, which was skillfully brought to life by stop-motion and paper artist Trisha Gum.

Said Gum: “My thoughts were: The Bill of Rights is this document, it’s paper, it’s old… How is that relevant to us now? How do these old rules and laws affect me? So, I was really inspired by the physical paper of it, and I wanted that to come to life and explore ‘How does that affect me?’ ‘How does that affect all of us?’ I wanted the paper to become the character.”

Nee, Ramsey and Gutierrez all said that one of the biggest challenges was keeping up to date with the events of 2020 as they unfolded.

“Adapting to the reality of this new world, especially when referencing other people from other countries, was intense. It’s never really been a challenge for us as animators and I now have the utmost respect for anyone who works in current affairs media,” said Gutierrez.

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