Carpe Diem Cartoons
Apple TV+ goes zen with Doug Unplugs and Stillwater, two hot new shows about exploring the world and living in the now. By Ramin Zahed
Apple TV+ goes zen with Doug Unplugs and Stillwater, two hot new shows about exploring the world and living in the now.
By Ramin Zahed
Since its launch in late 2019, Apple TV+ has quickly become a great spot to find excellent animated fare aiming at family audiences and fans of top-notch animation. After delivering the acclaimed animated special Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth and the charming musical comedy Central Park earlier this year, it is continuing to raise the bar with two new offerings: Doug Unplugs, which premiered in November, and Stillwater, which will premiere this month. The streamer will also offer Cartoon Saloon’s feature Wolfwalkers, which is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, period. Since we covered that movie in our last issue, we thought it would be nice to catch up with the talented team behind the streamer’s two new children’s series, both of which have important messages about our lives today.
Doug Unplugs is a bright, shiny and instantly lovable show based on the popular Doug Unplugged book series by acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Dan Yaccarino, which follows the adventures of a young robot who learns to enjoy life with his best human friend, Emma. It is exec produced by Jim Nolan (Esme & Roy), Aliki Theofilopoulos (Phineas and Ferb, Hercules) and Yaccarino (Oswald, Willa’s Wild Life), and features the voices of Brandon James Cienfuegos (Doug), Kyrie McAlpin (Emma), Eric Bauza (Bob Bot) and Mae Whitman (Becky Bot).
Yaccarino tells us that the origins of Doug Unplugs go back to the days his own children were making their way to elementary school. “I noticed that they were using online resources more and more, so I started thinking about the sheer wealth of information they had at their fingertips, which was amazing, but what about the other ways we discover and learn about the world?” he asks. Then, about 10 years ago, Yaccarino decided to hang his ideas on a character. “I have an affection for robots, so I tried that. I then decided that a book would be the best initial medium to explore the subject and after about a year, I came up with the concept for Doug Unplugged, which was published a few years after I initially came up with the basic idea.”
Soon after, Yacarinno was approached by DreamWorks Animation Chief Creative Officer Peter Gal, who was interested in developing a show about kids and technology. “Once the brilliantly talented Jim Nolan and Aliki Theofilopoulos were brought on to further develop the idea, things clicked,” says the creator. “The project really kicked into high gear as we met with potential broadcast and streaming partners. Once we formed a partnership with Apple TV+, we went into production.”
‘I hope that audiences will love getting to know Doug and Emma and how wonderful their friendship is. And that they will find delight in silly robots, big and small adventures, great music and, of course, the benefit of plugging in to learn information and stay connected with those we care about.’
— Doug Unplugs exec producer Aliki Theofilopoulos
All the Right People
Both Nolan and Theofilopoulos instantly connected with the show’s message and characters. “We pitched it to Apple who, to their infinite credit, didn’t flee the room as Dan and I literally acted out sections of our pilot script,” recalls Nolan. “Once we officially partnered with them we worked together to continue to develop and fine tune the series. And, of course, Aliki jumped in around then with her boatload of talent and leadership skills in tow.”
Theofilopoulous adds, “By the time I came onto the project, Jim had developed a wonderful take on Dan’s awesome book series building out the world with a slew of fun robots, creating the concept of ‘Rebots,’ and of course adding a best friend for Doug, a spirited human named Emma. I fell in love with the concept and jumped at the opportunity to help develop the project further in partnership with Jim and Dan, also bringing on a great art director, Matt Doering, whom I had worked with on a previous DreamWorks series, Harvey Girls Forever. Matt was instrumental in the creation of the design theory of the robot vs. human world. With this team in place, the Doug Unplugs universe expanded to where it is now!”
The three creatives are quite pleased with the final results of their labor. Theofilopoulos explains, “I absolutely love this idea that we have a show that says, ‘Technology is great, we embrace and love technology. But then, there comes a time where we need to unplug and have an actual experience. Technology can help inform that experience, but it is by actually doing where one really gets to have a personal take away from any given situation.’ This messaging is so appropriate and much needed not only for children, but for us adults, too!”
Nolan adds, “I love that we emphasize balancing technology and experience, that both play an important role and that you need each to get the full picture of a topic. Given my two-year-old son knows how to find videos of himself on my phone, I can’t imagine a more timely takeaway! But more than that, I love our characters; our robots and our humans. I like their big personalities and that, even for a young show, they have foibles and make mistakes, they’re not perfect, they learn. I love their voices, the different ways they move and how they’re designed.
Loving an Innocent Robot
Yaccarino admits that he started to tear up the first time he watched the show’s trailer. “It was so beautiful,” he says. “I suddenly realized it took 10 years to get Doug to the screen! It truly captured the spirit of this innocent robot discovering the human world for the first time. It really touched my heart. The other thing I love about the show is all the talented people who worked together to bring it to life. There are so many wonderfully dedicated people who shared their gifts and passion to realize the characters and their unique world.”
‘I love that we emphasize balancing technology and experience, that both play an important role, and that you need each to get the full picture of a topic. Given my two-year old son knows how to find videos of himself on my phone, I can’t imagine a more timely takeaway!’
— Doug Unplugs exec producer Rob Nolan
Theofilopoulos mentions that it was very important for her to make sure the show upheld 2D animation principles although it was CG-animated. “I didn’t want every character’s animation to feel the same,” she explains. “I wanted Emma to move like Emma, and for Doug to move like Doug. Emma has a more animated personality, so I wanted to see her animation to be really snappy. Doug is a robot, and has a more subdued personality, so I wanted him to feel like a robot as far as weight and such, but to also feel alive like a real boy! I have to say I’m so happy with how the animation turned out! A big thanks to our animation supervisor on the show, James Parris, and to our animation team at CGCG.”
“Since this was my first time in a role like this, the challenge has been learning how to communicate a vision for the series to the team, get everyone kind of pulling in the same direction while still making sure there’s plenty of room for everyone to bring their own creativity and ideas too,” Nolan points out. “Our team was loaded with talent – so sometimes I found it was just best to get out of the way! I’m especially appreciative of our story editor, Noelle Wright, who really drove the writing side of the show and couldn’t have been a better partner, sounding board and leader to our amazing writing team.”
Yaccarino says his intention for the animated series, as well as the books, is that there’s more to learning than just the cold hard facts. “There is also the ineffable joy of experience, something that can’t be expressed in numbers or words,” he notes. “It’s the experience of being a human being. It’s experiencing life itself and it should be celebrated.”
Nolan says he just wants everyone to have fun watching the series. “Hopefully if they do, kids will be inspired by Doug and Emma’s curiosity and the way it sort of leads them into their adventures, encouraged to ‘unplug’ and explore the world around them, too.”
“I hope that they will love getting to know Doug and Emma and how wonderful their friendship is,” says Theofilopoulos. “That they will find delight in silly robots, big and small adventures, great music and, of course, the benefit of plugging in to learn information and stay connected with those we care about, but also, unplugging and having great experiences with friends and family!” ◆
The first season of Doug Unplugs is currently streaming on AppleTV+.