Dana Terrace traces the origin of her Disney cartoon to a simple logline: “A girl becomes a witch and learns under this old woman mentor.”
Terrace cultivated that short sentence into a “spooky, magical comedy-horror-adventure” series, “The Owl House,” which premieres Friday. It follows Luz, a fantasy-loving human teen who finds herself in the demon realm, where she meets a witch named Eda and her tiny warrior of a roommate, King. After a joint adventure, Luz decides to become the witch’s apprentice.
On a recent afternoon at Disney’s TV animation studios in Glendale, Terrace — whose résumé includes work on “Gravity Falls” and “DuckTales” — explained that part of what motivated her to develop that initial concept was her desire to prove someone wrong.
“I was working with someone at the time who kept discouraging me from working on the story and writing in general,” said Terrace, who with “Owl House” joins a short list of women who have solo-created a Disney animated series.
This former colleague thought “it was a dumb idea.” Disney has already renewed the show for a second season.
From early in the first episode, it’s apparent that Luz’s imagination and interests set her apart from her classmates. And neither her mother nor her teachers understand how to handle her creativity and dramatic flair.
It takes traveling through a magical portal for Luz to find kindred misfits in Eda and King. Their developing relationship, as Luz tries to learn magic under Eda’s tutelage, is at the series’ core.
Luz’s emotional journey is one familiar to Terrace.
“When I was a kid, and I think a lot of kids feel like this — especially if you’re artsy or creative or have any kind of offbeat hobby — you feel a little left out. You feel a little detached from people and it might take you a little longer than most to find your crowd, your community,” said Terrace. The Connecticut native said that it wasn’t until she moved to California in her early 20s that she met people she truly connected with.
Discovering this sense of belonging is a theme that resonates with other members of the “Owl House” team.
“The whole crew, we’re just a band of weirdos who found family amongst each other and want to create with each other,” said art director Ricky Cometa. “It’s a message near and dear to all of us.”
Terrace’s distinctive, even “offbeat” tastes shaped “The Owl House” from the start.
Before developing the characters, she drew inspiration for the series’ aesthetic from some of her favorite artists, including Hieronymus Bosch and Remedios Varo.
Having attended Catholic school, Terrace grew up surrounded by stained glass, Gothic architecture and medieval illuminations. So she turned to illuminated manuscripts and old Christian artists and looked “at all the wacky designs they put into their work.”
“The most fun part about making stuff is when you’re at the beginning of a project. It’s just an empty canvas,” said Terrace. “I just started drawing monster ideas, demon ideas. Like, ‘What would this little Hieronymus Bosch creature look like as a cute cartoon?’”
Though the series is set on the Boiling Isles — which is basically the decaying corpse of a titan — and doesn’t shy away from scary situations, Cometa said they “didn’t necessarily want to make this place like Horror Town central.”
The goal was to make the world livable and friendly for all of the demon realm’s creatures.
“The demons in this world, they’re not your typical scary demons,” said Cometa. “They’re actually functional families and everyday people.”
The two characters Terrace had a grasp on earliest were the sharp and sassy Eda the Owl Lady (voiced by Wendie Malick) and the cute little demon King (Alex Hirsch).
The showrunner describes Eda as a “tough-love kind of woman”: “Her personality is very much based off of my mom and my aunt and my Nana — the women who raised me,” Terrace said.
King, on the other hand, is a “little trickster jerk” reflecting pieces of Terrace’s ego in a Pokémon-like package.
“He’s just a little guy that wants to be big, so I always related to him,” said Terrace. “He’s tiny and no one takes him seriously. He just wants to be taken seriously.”
Luz (Sarah-Nicole Robles) was harder for Terrace to pin down. Her character only started coming together through conversations Terrace had with her roommate at the time about what they were like in high school — how they would try to cut their own hair, or made fashion choices based on “Final Fantasy” games.
“Luz [Noceda] the character started molding herself out of those stories, so I asked my roommate if I could name the character after her,” said Terrace. “The real Luz [Batista] works on the show as a story artist and consultant.”
Batista’s one stipulation was that, like her, Luz the character had to be Dominican. So Terrace made her Dominican.
Although there are an increasing number of cartoons with Latinx protagonists — including Cartoon Network’s “Victor and Valentino,” Nickelodeon’s “The Casagrandes” and Disney’s own “Elena of Avalor” — “The Owl House’s” Latina representation is still notable. Year after year, reports show that Latinos are underrepresented in Hollywood.
Despite accounting for more than 18% of the U.S. population, Latinos receive only 5.2% of the top film roles and 6.2% of scripted television roles, according to a 2019 UCLA study. Another recent study, from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, concluded that on the occasions Latinos are included in films, their portrayals are often stereotypical.
“More diversity in fantasy, I think, not only helps audiences see themselves in these stories but I think it could help diversify the kind of fantasy stories we’re telling,” said Terrace. “New perspectives and new stories. I think it helps the medium itself as well.”
Perhaps those new perspectives will have another effect: to stop people from writing off certain stories as “dumb ideas.”
‘The Owl House’
When: 8:45 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)