Tonight, Elena of Avalor premieres on Disney Channel and Disney Junior, amidst a swarm of excitement and anticipation. This is, after all, the first Disney royal inspired by Latin culture. And that’s huge. But what’s also striking about Elena of Avalor is how beutiful it is; the quality of the computer animation is very nearly worthy of theatrical fairy tales like Tangled and Frozen. It’s that good. A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to the Elena offices, to learn all about how this amazing new series came to life. While there I found out just how the team assembled a new princess worthy of the lineage, how Avalor was created, and the surprising Disney-based inspiration for the feel of the show.
When you watch Elena of Avalor, which concerns a teenage princess (Aimee Carrero) who has been trapped in a magical amulet (thanks, evil wizard!), emerging after 41 years in captivity with some new supernatural abilities and serious responsibilities, you’re overwhelmed by the amount of life that’s packed into every frame. There are crazy creatures, wonderful detail, excellent music, and the kind of stylistic flourishes and vitality that Latin culture is known for. One of Elena’s best friends is a flying creature who’s part macaw, part jaguar; in the first episode she fights off a band of tiny pirate creatures, and there’s also a terrific musical number. It’s embroidered with the spirit and culture both specific and universal, but totally inspiring and charming.
The Elena of Avalor offices are kind of like this:
All around the office, there is artwork: images of characters from the series are pinned to the walls (next to photos of the actors who voice them), designs for upcoming creatures (again derived from Latin mythology) are grouped together in a giant mosaic, and photos of the places that inspired the land of Avalor (everywhere from Cuba to Portugal) comprise a huge inspiration board. One staffer decorated her cube with a castle-like façade, crafted by her husband. As in the series, color seems to burst from every corner.
The first person I spoke to was Craig Gerber, the creator and executive producer of the show, who was also responsible for Sofia the First (the two series share a connection that will be expanded upon in a forthcoming episode, although unlike Sofia, Elena won’t interact with characters from other Disney films). Gerber said that he initially thought about a Latina princess for Sofia the First, before quickly realizing the idea deserved its own series. When I asked why it was set in a magical land, instead of a real-world location, he gave a wonderful response. “What Disney really does well is create fairytale kingdoms,” he explained. “It makes it very inclusive—you don’t have to pick just one nationality. No one really asked if Arendelle was Norway or Sweden, it’s just inspired by a Scandinavian country. The idea for us was that we wanted Avalor to be more broadly accessible.” He added that without tying it to a specific time or place, then the magical world can have a lot more possibilities, both for the story and character.
When I complemented the look of the show (because, really, it cannot be overstated just how beautiful this series is), Gerber said, “Thank you for noticing.” He said that refining the look of the series was “really, really hard,” and after initially thinking about making the series with traditional 2D animation, they instead went with computer animation because the most recent animated fairy tales were done in that style. “What it boiled down to was a lot of people here, at our studio in Burbank, and at our overseas partners in Canada, really just giving it their all,” Gerber said. “This is a big passion project for a lot of people who are working on it. There’s a sense that this is an important show, that Elena is an important princess, and there are a lot of people on the crew who are really excited to be creating this first Latina princess.” There were a number of technical challenges, particularly when it came to modeling things like hair and the feathers on some of the show’s mythical creatures, but they made it work, thanks to some really creative workarounds and “amazing paintwork” by the animators and artists.
When you watch the first episode, you also might be amazed at just how much story there is, particularly in the first few minutes, which sets up the Elena’s world before she emerges from the amulet (included: familial tragedy, dark wizards, and the like). According to Gerber, that will all get explored. “There will be a special that will air later this fall that will basically explain that story at greater length,” Gerber promised. “And then it’s a rich universe and there’s a lot more to the world beyond that, but at least you’ll get a better idea of what that story is about.”
Elena is a big deal, obviously, with all of the merchandise and upcoming appearances in the Disney Parks just adding to the excitement that’s already been building for quite sometime. But Gerber doesn’t feel the pressure. “The only pressure I feel is the pressure to deliver a great character and a great show because so many people have been waiting for this princess for so long it seems,” he said. “But it’s the opposite; I am just thrilled and relieved and happy that the company has gotten behind Elena in such a strong way. It’s such a precedent to have this much merchandise in the stores prior to the show even launching. I think it just shows you how important Elena is to Disney, and that they care about this character.” He then went on to show me the magical scepter that you can buy right now (at shopDisney!), describing it as “the coolest thing ever.” You can tell by talking to Gerber that he really does love this show and cannot wait for people to see it and be engaged by it.
But what could he tease about the first season of the series? Well, he said that there will be a lot of new creatures based on Latin folklore, a special Day of the Dead episode of the series, and, of course, lots of magical hijinks. Oh and a potentially huge, season-ending twist that will shake up the already established paradigm of the show. “We’re treating the season like the first act of a movie, so at the end of our first season there’s going to be a twist, a wrinkle thrown in that will set things in a new direction that we weren’t expecting,” Gerber teases. “And I think that will be very exciting for people to see that what they’re seeing Elena experiencing now is the first few steps in a much bigger journey.”
After Craig, I stepped next door to talk to Elliot Bour, the supervising director on the series. You might not know his name, but Elliot has had an amazing career at Disney, starting out at the Walt Disney Feature Animation unit in Orlando, Florida, where he worked on movies like Beauty and the Beast (that was his first job–he was an in-betweener on Belle), The Lion King, Pocahontas, Aladdin, and Mulan. In Florida the legendary Mark Henn mentored him, before Bour became a full-fledged animator himself. After the Florida unit closed, he worked for smaller companies for a bit, before returning to Disney to work at the Disney Toon Studio, where he worked on the Tinker Bell films and got additional mentorship from John Lasseter. When Elena was starting up, Gerber called on Bour.
“He wanted to work with a supervising director that worked with him and maybe had a similar vision,” Bour explained to me about how he came aboard. Bour told Gerber that he wanted “to use my experience in the feature world to bring more of a feature look and feel to the show.” Gerber agreed, especially when Bour told him, “I said I think we can push the humor, I think we should push the action.” Also, it should be noted that the first five minutes of my chat with Elliot were just about his office, which is mind-blowing. It’s so colorful and he has a truly jaw-dropping amount of memorabilia, with an entire bookcase devoted exclusively to his extensive Vinylmation collection.
One of the joys of the project, Bour told me, was being able to reconnect with an old collaborator, who knew exactly how to capture the spirit of the earlier Disney royals, as well as the complexities and color of the Latin culture. “Coming onto this I knew right away that I wanted my art director to be Frank Montagna,” Bour told me. “Frank also started at Disney Florida and he and I had gotten to know each other. Then we didn’t work together for 10 years, but we always kept in touch. I knew similar to me he has a deep love for classic Disney, a deep love for Mary Blair, a deep love for trying to raise the bar for everything that you do for Disney. He came on and immediately it was like yeah we got to do Saludos Amigos and Three Caberollos and Mary Blair and pay homage to them. We talked about the art direction and really brought a 2D feel while it’s in a CG world.” To that end they wanted to “pop the colors.”
And he cites his time with Lasseter as teaching him the importance of really doing the research, to make sure Elena of Avalor felt authentic and true. ”Because everything I worked on with him was always research, research, research. I better make sure I did my research because he would catch you on it,” Bour said. “It was also very important to me to bring on Latin artists because I definitely wanted to get their influences something that I didn’t obviously, I’m not Latin, I did not grow up in the culture. But I knew that bringing on those artists would bring a level of authenticity that maybe we haven’t thought of.”
Bour had a simple mandate for the production: “How do we raise the bar for TV animation? How do we achieve something that feels classically Disney, but for a modern audience?” This, of course, proved incredibly difficult. “It has seriously been hands down one of the hardest, most challenging directing jobs I’ve ever done, but ultimately the most rewarding,” Bour admitted. “I have to say with everything I’ve had in my career I’ve had the most fun and the most satisfaction on this job. Because I love our crew. Craig and I did manage to get a crew of people that are super passionate about the show, super passionate about making Disney’s first Latina princess something special.” Mission: accomplished.
Right after I wrapped with Elliot, I got to chat with two of the insanely creative people Bour gets to work with everyday: his right-hand man, Frank Montagna, art director on Elena of Avalor, and Ritsuko Notani, character designer for the show. Of course the first thing I had to ask was about Montagna’s research into past Disney classics. “We did go through a lot of the Saludos Amigos, Three Caballeros look, but we didn’t want it to be so poppy and so crazy, but whenever we can give nods to that, we do, especially with the color I think is a big thing,” Montagna explained. “Of course you have Mary Blair colors. The kind of look of everything was very romanticized.”
Montagna also said that one of their chief inspirations for the look of the series will be familiar to any Disney die-hard: “Our stepping off point was the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, and it’s one of my favorite things,” he said. “Elliot and I worked at Feature Animation in Florida, and we talked about, like, ‘It should be that.’ The Pavilions mixes Mesoamerican, Mayan, Aztec area, and then you come out to this village, and there’s a volcano and these Mayan things. We’re like, ‘It’s the Mexican pavilion!’ Montagna then went to Imagineering and dug up concept images and photographs of the pavilion. “That started to dictate what we wanted Avalor to be. When you step into that pyramid, it’s that magical whoa moment. We really just wanted that for Elena, like you’re in this exotic place that is unlike anywhere else.”
When designing certain elements, too, they would look back to classic Disney animation. Elena has a spirit animal in the show, like a ghostly Jiminy Cricket. And the creature is a fox. But initially it looked too fearsome. “He looked like a dog,” Montagna said. “And we were like, ‘No, it’s a fox! It’s a Disney fox, it has to look like Robin Hood.’ He doesn’t really look like Robin Hood, but you can get the stepping off point. I could tell you we talked about The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Aladdin all the time.” Notani added: “We wanted them to relate more to the Disney family.”
Along the wall, in the room where I was chatting with Frank and Ritsuko, was a board of all of Elena’s many looks–the different costumes, outfits, and dresses she wears throughout the season. So I had to ask about her costumes. “So when I joined the show they were looking for the fashion to be culturally authentic looking, but not too old fashioned,” Notani explained. “Also, she is 16 years-old, and a really active person, too. Even when she wears a long dress, she can move.” Montagna jumped in: “That was the mandate for this characters — that she was going to be very active, so that explains why we ended up creating an adventure outfit, which is like pants, because there are certain episodes where she’s chasing, and on vines, and swinging, and we’re just like, There’s no way we can do that with a dress.” Notami added; “She’s not like an ordinary princess.” Well, that’s for sure.
Elena of Avalor airs at 7 pm tonight on Disney Channel and Disney Junior.