In their Annecy 2021 panel, creator Chris Nee and directors Peter Ramsey, Trisha Gum, and Jorge R. Gutiérrez harken back to ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ as they discuss the project, executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, that combines music and animation to educate a new generation of young Americans about the power of the people.
During a Wednesday Annecy 2021 panel, we learned a bit more about Chris Nee’s new music video series, We the People, a set of 10 three-minute animated shorts that covers a range of basic U.S. civics lessons in an anything-but-basic way. Created by Nee, who also executive produces along with Barack and Michelle Obama, the series - much like ABC’s famed Schoolhouse Rock! musical interstitials and shorts - combines music and animation to educate a new generation of young Americans about the power of the people; according to the streamer, it’s an “exuberant call to action for everyone to rethink civics as a living, breathing thing and to reframe their understanding of what government and citizenship mean in a modern world.” The series debuts July 4 on Netflix.
“I am a civics and politics geek,” Nee shared. “I really wanted to be a speech writer. I love everything that has to do with the way our government is run, and, like many people, I’ve been distressed to watch our country lose the sense of what the communal idea of what being an American was. I felt like we had lost the common language of civics, which is a non-partisan language that tells us how this country is put together, and also how you can be engaged, regardless of what side you’re on. It’s not about sides, but how you can get your point of view across.”
Noting she couldn’t believe the extent of former President Obama’s involvement in the show, Nee added, “We really figured out the 10 topics through the President. One of the most important moments for us was that he was the one who said, ‘Let’s think older.’ Let’s look at actually engaging the generation that’s in the moment of looking around and going, ‘What the heck are you handing us? And what am I going to do about it?’ They don’t quite have the vote yet, so how do we tell them that their power is not only coming, but is here? How do we actively engage?”
Artists providing original songs include H.E.R., Adam Lambert, Cordae, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Daveed Diggs, Brittany Howard, Robert Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brandi Carlile, KYLE, Bebe Rexha, Andra Day, Janelle Monáe, and poet Amanda Gorman.
The equally impressive list of animation directors helming episodes includes Peter Ramsey, Trisha Gum, Victoria Vincent, Benjy Brooke, Mabel Ye, Tim Rauch, Jorge R. Gutiérrez, Daron Nefcy, Everett Downing, and Kendra Ryan. The group breaks down 50/50 men/women, representing all races; 10 different animation styles, from 10 different directors, using 10 different production pipelines, all designed to be joyous in color and tone, and provide audiences with what Gutiérrez called “eyeball protein.” Creative studio BUCK produced the animation on four of the shorts, including the first in the series, Active Citizen.
Gutiérrez, who’s 9-chapter epic Mesoamerican adventure series, Maya and the Three, premieres on Netflix this fall, went on to explain, “For anyone who doesn’t know me, I am the most Mexican of Mexicans. You cut me and guacamole comes out of my veins. So, becoming a U.S. citizen was a huge emotional journey for myself. At first, we were really torn but once it happened, it was like a new life had started for us and we felt so welcome. People from all over the world are here; they bring their stories, they bring their cultures, and they bring the best of their countries. This is a country of immigrants and I told Chris, ‘I want to show Americans, look how lucky you are that people from all over the world get to bring their goodness to you and become a part of you.’”
Gum, animation director on The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, worked on the “Bill of Rights” sequence. According to the director, “I come from stop-motion animation and I’m an artist on the side. So, I did a lot of cut paper as my art. And coming from being a cut paper artist, I was like, the Bill of Rights is a document, it’s paper, it’s old. How’s that relevant to us now? How does that paper turn into something that’s alive and affects me and affects all of us? I was really inspired by the actual physical paper of it. I was really into graffiti art and paper stickers. I wanted that to come to life and morph. So, the paper becomes a humanoid character... and spreads its message throughout the world and throughout America.”
Ramsey, who won an Oscar directing Sony Pictures Animation’s groundbreaking animated feature, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, remembers Schoolhouse Rock! “When you’re a kid and you’ve been seeing and hearing those things a few times, you don’t forget them,” he said. “It literally does feel like the ethos of the project permeated the making of the project, which is people coming together and some sincerity and some good faith and goodwill and trying to make something good happen.”
We the People premieres July 4. The show is created by Nee, executive produced by Nee, Barack and Michelle Obama, Kenya Barris, Tonia Davis, and Priya Swaminathan, and produced by Ada Chiaghana, Erynn Sampson, and PeeDee Shindell.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.