As part of our ongoing Saturday Mourning Cartoons interview series, we chat with The Owl House creator Dana Terrace and art director Ricky Cometa about their brand new Disney show. We talk about the fantastical world, the lore of the demon realm, and how the trio of Luz, Eda, and King come together to solve their problems. Plus, Terrace and Cometa tease what’s to come this season and in Season 2, which has already been ordered by Disney Channel!
The Owl House follows Luz, a self-assured teenage girl who stumbles upon a portal to a magical realm where she befriends a rebellious witch, Eda, and a tiny warrior, King. Despite not having magical abilities, Luz pursues her dream of becoming a witch by serving as Eda’s apprentice at the Owl House and ultimately finds a new family in an unlikely setting. Check it out on Disney Channel and DisneyNOW! If you need a little more encouragement, you can read my review here. (Some minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the first episode yet.)
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I’ve been waiting to see The Owl House for quite some time, but obviously, you’ve been hard at work on it for a lot longer. So when did the idea for Owl House first come up?
Dana Terrace: I think it was near the end of 2016, I was 25 when I first came up with the characters and the baseline idea before I pitched it anywhere. So yeah, I’ve been hard at work for the past four years.
And then how did you two end up collaborating together and developing the initial idea into what it has become, which is already two seasons’ worth of an animated series?
Terrace: Oh gosh, yeah. Well, during the pilot phase where I was developing the idea at Disney before they green-lit the show, I was looking for an art director and I was working with a couple artists, but I really wanted to work with someone who I vibed with, someone whose style I knew, that could execute the kind of weird junk I wanted to do. Me and Ricky have been friends for a while, and I’ve always been a fan of his work, and he did a freelance assignment for me and I was like, “This is it.” Did I get that right, `Ricky?
Ricky Cometa: Yeah, totally. Well, also when you first approached me with The Owl House too, I was doing a lot of development stuff at the time, but this is the first time that you were like, “Oh hey, there’s this thing that, you know, it’s getting optioned at Disney and do you want to read the bible?” And the first thing I was like, “Whoa dude, it’s the Demon Realm on Disney. I want to try and design that. That sounds fun as heck.”
How much did the design of your characters and the world itself change from your early concepts to what we see on screen now?
Terrace: Well, my original drawings… I have more of a realistic, detailed style of drawing, personally, so I think a lot of the challenge with the characters was just getting it simplified to a place where it can be easily animated by my team of artists. Luckily, I had help from artists like Alex Kirwan and Marina Gardner, Robertryan Corey… just a score of extremely talented artists. Eda hasn’t changed that much. She’s always had a crazy wild hair and a red dress. King started off… he’s like a cute little teddy bear right now, a cute little dog basically, but he used to have like a man’s body. He used to be like an adult man with a deer skull for head, and I was like, “All right, this is not going to work.” Luz used to have longer hair, but the more I developed her personality and her character, the more I was like, “This is the kind of girl who’s going to try to cut her own hair in the bathroom mirror and she’s going to mess it up.” So, that’s how I came up with her little pixie cut.
As far as the world goes, I always had my ideas like, “Oh, it’s like Hieronymus Bosch for kids.” And I basically just pitched that idea to Ricky and he ran with it.
Cometa: Yeah. A lot of the world is just kind of taking of this horror world and trying to make it a little bit more relatable. Try and show the dualities between the Demon Realm and the human realm, and with a little twist of demons and eyeballs and bones and whatnot.
I love that. And I want to get back to that world a little bit more. But first, one of the characters that really stood out to me from the get go was Warden Wrath. Some interesting elements for design. You’ve got a little plague doctor inspiration, you’ve got some Lovecraft thrown in…
You were both talking about this sort of realm of demons. How do you find the right balance between making something cute versus just kind of spooky versus something downright intimidating or scary? How was that process?
Terrace: Well, we don’t want to pull our punches on the show, so when we get scary and when we get, as you say, intimidating, we really like to just have fun with that. When I was a kid, I loved being a little scared, but I think the balance we strike with keeping those scary moments surrounded by moments of heart, by moments of comedy, I think it helps balance out the scary , so that it’s like, “Oh, this is really intense, but it’s still okay for like a 10 year old to watch this.”
Warden Wrath himself… I remember having a hard time designing him. I had an idea of what he would look like, but I couldn’t quite execute it myself. He was eventually fully designed by Matthieu Cousin, one of our designers, I believe. Just an incredible artist, and he’s the one who kind of solidified the whole plague doctor-esque vibe.
Cometa: Yeah and to touch upon that a little more, if every character we did in this Demon Realm was like ultra scary, it would make our main boss or our main villain of the episode a little less scary. And also the perception of just, “all demons are flesh eating scary monsters’ and we definitely didn’t want to share that outlook on the demons in our realm.
Terrace: Yeah. They’re all just like average Joe’s. Just because you have 18 eyeballs and three sets of teeth doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
Cometa: Yeah, doesn’t mean you don’t have a family.
Yeah. And I would much rather hang out with a dude that eats his own eyeballs versus running into any of those skin-eating fairies out there in the world.
Did you guys have any particularly challenging characters with the designs you came up with? I know you said Warden Wrath was a little tricky. Anybody else that posed a difficulty?
Terrace: Oh, this is going to sound so dumb. But Luz’s outfit literally took me eight months to come up with. I worked with so many designers. Either she looked too young or the outfit was off-show style and it didn’t feel like something a person would actually wear. It felt too much like a costume rather than something you’d go to school in, and that was so challenging. Other than that, difficult characters…
Cometa: I do remember in our very first pass at the pilot we had that spider unicorn that just had too many legs.
Terrace: Yeah, the animators were like, “Never have us animate a spider ever again,” and I was like, “Alright.”
Unless it happens to be coming out of a Griffin’s mouth, as spider-breath, obviously.
Terrace: Yeah, all those spiders.
Speaking about kind of the wider world of the Boiling Isles, which is a fantastic name, and we get some great introductions both in this first episode and in the trailer, but we only get a glimpse of it. So what can you maybe tease about this magical land, how big it is, what you’re excited for viewers to see in this first and second season?
Terrace: Yeah, I mean, I’m really excited for people to get introduced to the world. In a couple of trailers, you see that the Island, the Isles themselves, which is… I always consider it roughly the size of Vermont for my own reference, it’s the body of a giant Titan, like this giant monster that used to walk this world laid down to rest and all this stuff grew on him. And I think, like, that visual is so cool to me.
I’m excited for people to get to know the rules of the world, to get to know the history of this world, the drama. I’m excited for them to get to know the rules of magic and how maybe Luz has a hard time learning it and how she has to find workarounds because she’s not a witch, she’s a human. And I’m just excited to show all the different characters we have planned for every episode.
And then Ricky, how was that for you to get to kind of design, make a cohesive world based on that kind of idea and get to kind of play in that realm?
Cometa: Oh, it’s just great. I mean, the fact that it’s a Titan itself, you think about what kind of life, or lack of life that exists on this Island. So, you know, a lot of our trees stem from that thought of this is like the blood of the Titans that initially was dead and rotting and we had like maroon trees, but to make this world feel strange and welcoming or familiar, we decided to brighten up those blood trees for something a little bit warmer, something more Fall-like.
But also the world, too. It was really fun to just think about what these common places would be like. A playground, what would a demon playground be like? And what kind of people play on it, what do they enjoy? Just developing a lot of concepts and worlds in that area is just so much fun, and a lot of places to play. Yeah. It was cool.
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m looking forward to the eventual lore book that comes out that explores and explains all that as well.
So this first episode is titled “A Lying Witch and a Warden.” So, can we expect more sort of tongue-in-cheek famous puns from other fantasy stories in the future that give us kind of a peek to the inspiration? Or was this just a one-off?
Terrace: Let’s see, I’m looking at my other titles now. You know, we do try to have fun with our titles and play with them a little bit. “A Lying Witch and a Warden” was very much the idea of our season one story editor, Rachel Vine. She immediately came up with the idea like, “Oh, I know what to call the first episode.” I’m like, “Amazing.”
Yeah. You know, our show isn’t totally about parodying other fantasy elements. We’re very much trying to be our own thing. But yeah, we poke fun at a couple of tropes sometimes.
Yeah. And a big part of that story isn’t just the fun of being able to play with magic and exploring this Demon Realm and this otherworldly kind of experience. But there’s also a strong message in support of being yourself, embracing what makes you unique, even if other people think that maybe that’s weird. So why is that message important to you as the creator of the show?
Terrace: Well, I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to. When I was a kid I didn’t know how to communicate with other people. People thought I was kind of a freak because one of my favorite things to do was find roadkill and learn how to draw by drawing that kind of stuff. And people will be like, “What the hell is wrong with you?” And I’m just like, “I’m just trying to learn how to draw.” And that’s kind of where some of Luz’s personality comes from, some of her background. But I think it’s just a very important message for kids to learn: It’s okay to express yourself. You should be able to express yourself in any kind of productive fashion you want to.
It’s not the only theme we deal with in the show. It’s how we introduce the characters, but we do deal with a lot of other kind of emotions and situations with the characters, and we always try to make those grounded and realistic. The magical world and the magic that the characters use are always a framing device for the grounded emotional stories we’re trying to tell.
Yeah, and it’s worked really well so far. Love that first episode. But you guys also have additional ways to kind of reach fans and audiences out there, too. Can you talk a little bit about getting to create both an adventure game and then also designing a unique line of t-shirts specifically designed for the show as well. Can you talk about getting to play in different mediums for the story?
Terrace: Sure. I mean the video game is going to be on the Disney website. The game that’s coming out is being developed by the game team at Disney. They basically write the scripts, they come up with the kind of gameplay and we’d basically just give notes on how to keep everything within show style. They’ve been doing a great job. I just played a beta version of one of their levels and it’s super fun. I can’t wait for it to come out.
Ricky designed the t-shirt and I love it, and I bought one for everyone in my family. If you want to talk about like where you were going with that Ricky?
Cometa: Oh, we just wanted a t-shirt that we wanted to wear.
Cometa: We wanted something that symbolized the show and also something that we’d be proud to wear. You know, we don’t want to… as cool as it would be to have Luz on our t-shirt, we just very much wanted something a little more, I guess low key, and like a nod to all our fellow nerds out there. Just be like, “Hey, I know that shirt.”
Nice, and you can always make more to come. And I’m sure the fans will be more than happy to buy them up, as you release them.
Terrace: Yeah. Hey, Disney merchandising, let us make more stuff.
Exactly. They’re listening in on the call. So weird.
So this first episode we get a great introduction to these characters. We see this kind of new friendship unit forming. We get an idea of the kind of rules of the world and everybody’s kind of stakes and where they fall in line, but what can you tease about the adventures of this new trio that we’re going to get to see in this season?
Terrace: I’m very excited for people to see Luz’s journey, because, to become a witch when you have no magical powers, it’s just a kind of like a handicap for her. And she has to find a lot of workarounds to achieve these goals. She’s not giving up. She’s like, “I’m going to find a way to do this no matter what, because it’s my passion and these are my people and I want to do this.” You know, they’re like a little family of outcasts, and I’m really looking forward to people seeing how their relationships develop, how they clash, how they make up, how they learn from each other.
Congrats on the order of season two. I’m sure that takes some of the pressure off, knowing that you have more episodes to explore, but other than working on that and getting ready for that, what’s up next for the both of you?
Terrace: Oh my gosh, I can’t even think about what’s next because I’m just so busy. There are some other ideas that I want to eventually pitch, some other show ideas, some comic ideas that I want to explore. But right now, my main focus is Owl House stuff.
Cometa: Yeah, I’d say the same for me, too. It’s awesome getting to work in this career and industry, and lot of my creative outlet is this show. So, very much I am a different person outside of here in terms of I just want to be a couch potato, but here I really get to explore everything that I want to do in my head and it’s been real nice.
The Owl House airs on Disney Channel now.