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Jamie Mitchell Helps Kids Embrace Their Uniqueness in Disney Junior’s ‘Fancy Nancy’

With Season 2 launching October 4, and a Season 3 renewal in hand, the show’s executive producer discusses his series about an eccentric 6-year-old girl that is aspirational, relatable, and funny.

Season 2 of ‘Fancy Nancy’ premieres October 4 on Disney Junior. The show, executive produced and directed by Emmy Award-nominated Jamie Mitchell, was just picked up for Season 3. All images ©2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

On the eve of the show’s Season 2 October 4 Disney Channel and DisneyNOW premiere, Disney Junior has announced a third season renewal for their hit animated kid’s series, Fancy Nancy.  Based on the New York Times bestselling book series by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, Fancy Nancy centers around a high-spirited, eccentric six-year-old girl, Nancy, whose enthusiasm for all that is exquisite – including language, nature, art and color – transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.  The show aims to encourage viewers to “celebrate who you are and embrace your uniqueness.”

A Disney Television Animation production, the show is executive produced and directed by Emmy Award-nominated Jamie Mitchell (Disney Junior's Sofia the First) with Krista Tucker (Disney Junior's Sheriff Callie's Wild West) as series developer, co-producer and story editor. The series voice cast includes Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother) and Rob Riggle (Modern Family) as Nancy's parents, Claire and Doug; Broadway's Mia Sinclair Jenness as Nancy; and Spencer Moss (Surveillance) as sister JoJo. The recurring guest voice cast includes Tony Award-winner Christine Baranski as Mrs. Devine; George Wendt and John Ratzenberger (both from Cheers) as Grandpa Clancy and Poppy; Kal Penn (Designated Survivor) and Aparna Nancherla (BoJack HorseMan) as Mr. Singh and Mrs. Singh.

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One of the keys to the series’ success is the careful world building used to develop and support all aspects of show’s environments, characters and story arcs. “In the case of Fancy Nancy, we knew that Nancy and her friends were going to have the run of the neighborhood, so the first thing we all agreed on was that we needed to create an environment that would be safe for a six-year-old to wander in, but also be a bit un-constricted,” Mitchell explains. “The cul-de-sac met the criteria. Because of the round shape, we have an infinite amount of camera angles we can shoot from. We can block the street with orange cones and not have to worry about traffic. Because this a CG series, it’s very much like shooting live-action. Cartoon logic doesn’t apply here.”

First and foremost, Fancy Nancy is character driven. “The follow through of every story is always dependent on how the lead and supporting characters react to the situation they are placed in,” Mitchell notes.  “Fancy Nancy stories always spring from real life circumstances and the basic default that Nancy makes a less the perfect decision on how to deal with a situation, and then spends the majority of the episode trying to course correct.”

The show’s story team, led by Tucker, pitches story concepts and writes up premises. With a first draft at hand, Mitchell leads a table read, where he usually adds notes, sometimes big, sometimes small, which Tucker and the writing team address. Once the script is locked, the voice recordings are setup; each actor records separately with voice director Sam Riegel and Mitchell, who directs.  

According to Mitchell, every other episode includes a song. “The lyrics of that song are written by the writer of that particular episode,” he states. “Krista and I pitch out the songs to our song writer Matthew Tishler.  We use a wide range of musical styles in Fancy Nancy - lush ballads, jazz, Broadway, quirky retro, whatever feels right for that particular episode.  We discuss musical style, tone and placement within the episode with Matthew and he follows through with a demo.”

“Sometimes we have notes on lyrics or music and after those are addressed and everyone agrees that the song is ready to go, we bring in Mia Sinclair Jenness (Nancy) to lay tracks down,” he continues. “She is wonderful to work, both as an actress and a singer. She is always extremely well prepared and always delivers a fabulous performance.”

Like many animated TV series, pre-production and post are handled at the show’s L.A. production studio, with the bulk of the animation handled by overseas studios. Mitchell executive produces and directs all the episodes, which each take between 25-30 weeks to complete. “We work closely with the layout and animation teams and review all materials on a daily basis,” he shares. “It’s a constant stream of visual material moving back and forth through the production pipeline. The animation is executed by our partners overseas with background production support from the L.A. team. All creative design is done in L.A., with CG modelling completed by our partners. We also have technical directors who do all post-production as well as some retakes and special sequences.”

One of Mitchell’s biggest challenges has been navigating the road from popular literary property to high-profile CG animated series; it’s never simple, from a narrative or visual perspective, to adapt a hugely successful book series. “Because ‘Fancy Nancy’ is already a very successful book series with millions of devoted readers, there is a pre-conceived notion of the characters, setting and narrative voice,” Mitchell reveals. “From the beginning, Krista and I felt it was important that we make Fancy Nancy our own. Luckily for us, Jane O’Connor [Author] and Robin Preiss Glasser [Illustrator] were incredibly gracious and passed the baton to us. The television series Fancy Nancy has shifted from the book series both narratively and visually.”

“While the focus is always on Nancy, we have really broadened it into a neighborhood comedy,” he adds. “Nancy still dresses up fancy and has dreams for herself, but she also has a lot of interaction with the other kids in the neighborhood, as well as her extended family. Because Nancy is an artist, her dream sequences are illustrated in her own hand, employing a watercolor style similar to Robin’s original book illustrations. We of course have done this deliberately to honor the artistry of the book series.”

Another big challenge is purely technical; with a CG animated series, Mitchell is always pushing the boundaries on what his production team can visually accomplish. “The biggest challenge in the series from a production point of view is the creation of the 3D props, backgrounds and character assets,” he describes. “Because Nancy has a lot of objects and accessories around her, there is an enormous amount of intricate design work to be done for each episode. It must be precise and work in a realistic world. Backgrounds are predominately created in CG, as are all the props, which creates extra challenges you don’t have on a 2D series. The visual style was inspired loosely by Lady and the Tramp (1955) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). The majority of the production is created in 3D, though many of the fantasy sequences utilize 2D matte paintings.”

Mitchell is extremely pleased with the show’s first two seasons and delighted with the Season 3 pickup. “The first two season worked very well from a story perspective,” he concludes. “The characters are engaging, fun and relatable. As the cast has become more comfortable, we have been able to push their characters comedically and emotionally, which of course expands the kind of storytelling we can do. Though the demographic for the series is targeted at 2 to 5 year-olds, we really always expand beyond that age group content wise. The characters are aspirational, relatable, and funny -- I see a continuation of the comedic trend as we move into season three.”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.