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Invisible Universe: Dancing Dolls, Culinary Canines, and Celebrity Collaborations

Led by the Serena Williams-inspired Qai Qai, the internet-first animation studio has been steadily building seven different kids’ franchises, incubating first on social media before expanding the brands into film, TV, and games.

Who would have thought that a baby doll, lying face down in a sandbox or accidentally left behind at the U.S. Open could so quickly become the beacon of representation for the most diverse generation in American history? As the animators and storytellers at Invisible Universe saw it, Qai Qai, a “movin’ groovin’” baby doll come to life, had the potential to guide and teach children, as well as change the way franchises were created in the entertainment industry. 

“Qai Qai is our Mickey Mouse,” says Nerissa Holder Hall, Head of Franchise at Invisible Universe. “She is our very first foray into building a multi-generational brand and she's the furthest along. I think the role she plays inside the company is that of the front runner, laying the tracks for the franchises coming right up behind her.”

Invisible Universe (IU) – an internet-first animation studio incubating a new generation of fan-favorite characters on social media before expanding their brands into film, TV, games, and more – is home to seven different franchises, including the world of Qai Qai, a doll who uses her superpower of dance to take the world by storm. Joined by her DJ and trusted confidant Ruff Ruff, Qai Qai embodies confidence, perseverance, radical self-love, and empowerment to inspire the next generation help children dream big.

“Qai Qai is not a traditional baby doll in the way that we've expressed her in animation,” notes Hall. “She's really her own self-possessed avatar and probably would have something very clever to say if anybody tried to rock her to sleep. We call that her ‘passion delivered with a tell-it-like-it-is.’”

The character of Qai Qai is inspired by a beloved doll of the same name that world-renowned tennis player Serena Williams gifted to her daughter Olympia. Partnering with Williams, IU launched Qai Qai’s Instagram in August of 2018 and, in 2020, gave the 3DCG-animated dance and music-enthused character her own TikTok. Qai Qai’s YouTube launched last year, and IU has now introduced the doll’s newest show, Dance with Qai Qai, earlier this month after Qai Qai’s YouTube reached more than 32 million views, with an additional 1.5 billion views on her other social channels.

“In looking at ways to expand the franchise, it felt very natural to do something that was actually interactive, where kids could actually get up and interact with Qai Qai,” says Hall.

Jonathan Schneider, President of Invisible Universe Studios adds, “To date, we’ve used Maya as our main 3D software, Redshift as our render software, and have been incorporating Unreal Engine and exploring various AI applications going forward. But, given the desire for Qai Qai to dance in a realistic manner while allowing for quick-turn animation, we incorporated Merlano-cap [motion-capture] into our pipeline and have been extremely pleased with the results. We were fortunate that our Merlano-cap actress also acted as the choreographer for the dance series.”

The fourth episode of Dance with Qai Qai launched this past Saturday, August 26, and surprised viewers with a new doll ‘do. You can watch it here

“I feel very privileged and have a great sense of responsibility to dig a little deeper into who Qai Qai is as a character and how she can connect and inspire kids,” shares Hall. “At IU, we like to tell stories through an iterative process and meet audiences where they spend most of their time, which is social media. And that naturally puts us in a dialogue with our audience, to hear feedback and for them to collaborate with us on how we tell stories and what kinds of stories we tell.”

Co-founded in 2018 by the studio’s CEO, Tricia Biggio (former MGM senior vice president) and app developer John Brennan, IU has created a series of franchises that span topics from emotional education for preschoolers with Lovie, to addressing child-versus-parent rebellion through anti-hero-centered Ember

“I started my career at Nickelodeon and my very first job was getting down on the floor with preschoolers and testing episodes of shows of Go, Diego! Go! and Dora the Explorer for the original Dora the Explorer production team,” recalls Hall. “And that was the best training ever, because while you want to have a North Star in a vision, you also have an opportunity in listening to your audience. And I learned that very early from some of the best at Nick and I learned it from five-year-olds who are brutally honest. I have been proven wrong by more five-year-olds than I care to admit.”

IU’s IPs are also celebrity-sponsored. Along with Qai Qai being backed by Williams, IU’s Clydeo comes about through a partnership with actress and producer Jennifer Aniston. 

Clydeo is an animated, adorable, clumsy, loveable rescue pup who lives (virtually) with Aniston and her dogs. Clydeo is from an eccentric family of strays who all have their “thing,” and Clydeo’s thing is food! Even though his dog paws mean he can barely hold a wooden spoon, he loves cooking and baking but, most importantly, eating. His recipes are often a disaster, but Clydeo couldn’t be prouder of his creations. 

In addition, the studio’s Squeaky & Roy series is inspired by Dixie & Charli D’Amelio’s favorite childhood toys, a pink teddy bear named Squeaky and a purple penguin named Roy. These now animated characters live in a fantastical, fashion-forward world with their besties named, no surprise here, Dixie & Charli. In addition to putting together cool outfits and trying out the latest hair and makeup trends, the characters explore how self-expression can bring out the beauty in everyone. This series is also IU’s first foray into 2D animation, using Toon Boom. 

“While our franchises are predominantly CG, we utilize the animation style that best fits the characters,” notes Schneider. “It is very important to us that we don’t have ‘house-style’ at IU. We want each franchise to have a memorable and iconic design that is reflective of the character and the tone of the individual franchise. We are proud of what our animation team has been able to bring to life across all our stories.”

All seven franchises have a social presence on TikTok, four of them also have their own Instagram accounts and three have their own YouTube series. Qai Qai, as the leader of the pack, has two YouTube series to boot. It’s all in an effort to established IU as the "Pixar of the internet," according to co-founder Biggio. 

“We're looking to completely rewrite how entertainment companies develop franchises,” shares Hall. “We are building them more quickly, in a more cost-effective way, and introducing them to consumers at a place where they are spending most of their time and where we can have a conversation with them. Qai Qai’s dog DJ friend Ruff Ruff, was supposed to be a one-time guest appearance on her socials, but people went crazy for this dog. So, we decided to make him an official member of the team.”

But while IU stays in the know with fans and their desires for how they’d like to see characters expanded upon in future stories, they are still, as Hall puts it, “guardians” of their franchises and the core of each story’s purpose. 

“I very much see myself as a sort of guardian of Qai Qai and want her to stand for what's positive and what's at the core of her little dancing heart. We want this to become a multi-generational franchise and, if we want it to resonate, and continue to resonate through generations, we had to find a solid, emotional foundation to focus on, which is her radical self-love. That's what comes through every time she opens her mouth, and what we hope will lead her to receiving more long-form, feature-length story capabilities in the future.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at