Premiering today on Netflix, Chris Nee’s brand-new CG animated series about an eight-year-old scientist, produced with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, celebrates the magic of adventure in our own backyards.
Whether exploring the deserts and jungles of museum exhibits with Ridley Jones or healing broken toys with Doc McStuffins, Peabody and Emmy Award-winner Chris Nee has made a career out of creating animated children’s programs that effortlessly find wonder in the every day.
“I think we forget the perspective of a kid that everything is new, everything is the first time, and that the world right around you is enough to feel like an adventure,” says Nee. “And I do think we live in a world where we're being told all these stories of needing an Instagram life or some other perfected version of what we have to curate. But the world is so magical right around us, right in our backyard, right in our space.”
It’s a concept Nee explores even further in her newest series, Ada Twist, Scientist, premiering today, September 28, on Netflix. Based on the best-selling book series of the same name by author Andrea Beaty and illustrator David Roberts, the 40 x 12 series is executive produced by Nee (Laughing Wild); Mark Burton (Wonder Worldwide); Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan (Higher Ground); Beaty; and Roberts.
Ada Twist, Scientist follows the adventures of Ada, an 8-year-old scientist who aspires to discover the truth about absolutely everything - be it stinky shoes or making pancakes - with the help of her two best friends, engineer Rosie Revere and architect Iggy Peck. Each episode ends with a live-action segment featuring a real-life scientist whose work relates to the theme of the story.
The goal of the series is to show how there is science in everything, it can be used in our everyday lives, and that everyone can be a scientist.
“It was interesting with this project, because we could have created a show where we went to space one day and under the water another day,” notes Nee, who worked with consultants Dr. Knatokie Ford, a former senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Alie Ward, a science correspondent for CBS’ The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca.
She continues, “That's one way to do a science show. But I was really excited about the sense of saying science is all around us. The problems and the stuff that they're investigating really should resonate to kids as the stuff they're trying to figure out in their own space. When science gets put on a humanistic level, I love it.”
But Ada Twist, in addition to being about everyday science, is also focused on everyday diversity. The series is made in collaboration with Laughing Wild, Wonder Worldwide and Higher Ground, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company. Mira, Royal Detective’s Kerri Grant serves as the series’ showrunner, co-executive producer, and editor.
“Kerri is someone I have known for at least 15 years, and we worked together on Doc McStuffins,” says Nee. “I have watched her career grow and I knew when I took on this show that there was only one person I wanted to do the day-to-day showrunning, which was Kerri.”
She adds, “In this particular show, the number of diverse perspectives involved is huge. And I think it's so important that Kerri is the person really running this show because there's so much flavor and specificity to her point of view, to the dynamics of this family, to how important getting the hair right is, to making sure that the skin tone is consistent. All things I know to do, but they're so personal to Kerri.”
Like Doc McStuffins, Ada Twist features a young, sciences-minded Black female lead. But unlike Doc McStuffins, Nee wanted to do things a little differently with showrunning, making sure that certain voices were at the forefront of Ada’s design and character.
“Doc came during a very different era,” says Nee. “I got offered a lot of shows with Black lead characters thereafter and my whole take was, ‘We're past that point.’ I don't want to showrun for the next Doc McStuffins. I wanted Kerri running it. Kerri and I worked very hand in hand through the initial designs and setting up the show. We lifted it up and kicked it off together. But when I look at it, her hand is all over it, her visual style, her sense of what was important. At this point, it’s her baby.”
And for Grant, Ada Twist was a chance to, as she says, “change the landscape in children’s media.” “Doc was powerful in that way, which inspired ‘We are Doc McStuffins,’ a group of Black female physicians,” says Grant. “I am hoping Ada Twist has the same power. It’s so cool to see a little Black girl in the lead role and as a scientist. I have been seeing parents sharing images of their Black daughters saying, ‘Ada looks just like me.’ I want little girls everywhere to see themselves in Ada. I want them to know that no matter what they look like, they can be anything when they grow up, including a scientist. I want Ada to build confidence in all kids and spark a curiosity in them to explore the science in everyday things.”
Michelle Obama was also a contributing consultant on Ada’s character.
“I got very lucky at the beginning of this process to fly to D.C. and sit down with Mrs. Obama and talk very specifically about the project and about the pilot,” says Nee. “We looked at an original set of designs so that she could weigh-in, and we’d gotten a lot right because I'm thinking about this stuff in a very holistic way as best I can. But, at one point she said, ‘Well that hairdo looks like it really hurts because it's so tight.’ The more voices you have in a room, the more authenticity you get on screen.”
And there were many voices needed for Ada Twist, not only regarding race and culture, but for different family dynamics.
“It's the classic thing in preschool shows where the parents will be present for a very short period of time and often it's only one of them and it's because you know you only want to pay one actor,” says Nee. “So, it was important to us to show supportive, loving families because, to be honest, that's a depiction that we also need. And, of course, we are looking at different family structures for all of the families in the show.”
From single mothers to divorced parents, Ada Twist’s depiction of diverse family structures is a rarity among kid shows, which are often much more focused on the kids than the support systems behind them. “Some of these parents are not together, and we talk about it, but we also very clearly show how supportive those parents are,” says Nee. “We wanted to show all the ways in which kids are growing up loved and supported in life and in their curiosity. Then once we got Susan Kelechi Watson and Taye Diggs to play the parents, how dare you not use them?”
As the push for diversity in television and film grows - especially in kids’ animation - there is still, according to Nee, a tendency among productions to try and limit the number of diverse topics they funnel into the minds of viewers. Ada Twist’s ability to naturally and unforcefully pack so much diversity of culture, friendships, family, and science into one show is well worth applauding.
“The reality is, we walk through our days with so much diversity around us, and yet we have become so used to a majority presentation that once you put one piece of diversity on screen, there is something in the back of your head that goes ‘Oh, that's too much to also add someone who has a disability,’” says Nee. “But that's actually the reality of how the world is. So many families have something that makes them what we’ve come to know as the quintessential family order. I think once you can let that go in your head, you can allow a space that has a lot going on, as long as the storylines and the characters are strong.”