Wednesday 17 January 2018

The Write Prescription

It's about a little American girl but hit kid's TV series Doc McStuffins is actually made in Ireland and its creator is, herself, Irish

Animation hit: Doc McStuffins
Animation hit: Doc McStuffins

Julia Molony

You might not know Chris Nee's face, but if you have young children, you'll almost certainly know her work. She created and writes Doc McStuffins, the children's TV series about a girl who can talk to and heal toys, launched last year and which immediately took record ratings.

What you also might not know, is that it is made in Ireland. And that Nee, though living in California, is Irish. She doesn't sound Irish, admittedly. But she's got the passport and has two grandparents who moved to Boston from Connemara.

That's not why she chose to make the show here though. She chose Brown Bag, the Emmy-winning animation company with the Midas touch, simply because it was the best in the business.

"We were looking for the best animation house and I just got really lucky -- we put out tests to a number of different companies and Brown Bag's were head and shoulders above everybody else's. There's so much going in animation in Ireland."

We're in the Disney headquarters in London, a slightly surreal corporate space where the ghost of Mickey casts his shadow everywhere from the steel and glass reception to the cafeteria.

Nee has been away from her LA home for a fortnight now and frankly, she's homesick. Mostly she misses her partner Lisa, and their seven-year-old son Theo. Her pride and joy, and also, of late, her muse. For Doc McStuffins was written for him.

At two years old, Theo was diagnosed with asthma. He caught endless colds, one of which developed into pneumonia. And then one night a severe episode landed him in hospital.

"There was a night where we had to call an ambulance and go to the ER and he couldn't breathe," Nee says. "It really was scary. And afterwards, you're a mom and you're trying to figure out a way to make it better, and it just sort of came to me that nobody had done this for doctors in kids' TV."

Her eureka moment came in the shower, when the concept of Doc McStuffins popped, fully formed, into her head.

"I knew. I was in the shower and after 15 minutes start to finish I knew, I knew the world; I knew most of the characters. I knew what the focus would be. And I had the name, which stuck the entire time and that never happens in development.

"It's that classic thing," she adds. "The personal is often the most universal. Every kid wants to talk to his or her toys and play with them, and it's also such a universal thing. Whatever your version of a doctor is or a hospital is, every kid knows what it is to be afraid of shots, or to scrape themselves or bang their head. So it just combines those two very universal things."

Chris grew up in New York and Boston, and her mother ran toys stores when she and her brother were small. "Toys are a very serious business in my family. My brother and I, when my mom first started her business, we were in there putting toys together, so I probably spent a lot of my life thinking about the personalities of toys."

Growing up gay in the Eighties, she always felt a little different. That's part of the inspiration behind Doc McStuffins too. As well as the medical aspect, she wanted to create imaginary characters that take care of each other, regardless of their points of difference. And it's a notion that she was determined to represent in the world of Doc McStuffins. She wanted, she has said, to write "Cheers for pre-schoolers."

"You spend your life feeling a little bit on the outside and looking for the people who are going to just accept you for who you are, and I think every kid feels a little bit outside of the box. You've created something in your head that makes you feel on the outside."

Did she struggle for acceptance growing up? "It was the Eighties," she says, matter of factly. "But my family is absolutely amazing. And it's just been a seismic shift in our culture, and everywhere I look I see a world I couldn't have seen when I was a kid."

That the show features an African-American girl as the central character is part of that vision too.

"People have said to me, you've created this show for your son, why is she a girl? My answer is, we don't need another example of a boy who is the leader of the pack. And it never occurred to me that my son wouldn't watch the show because she was a girl. And we've seen in the States that 50 per cent of our audience is boys. This idea that boys won't watch girls shows? Not if it's well written. People just hadn't really given it a chance. Create a great character, kids will watch it."

If Nee's childhood provided the inspiration for the themes of the show, school holidays spent in Ireland helped to furnish her with the skills to put the story on paper. "I grew up with all the Irish storytellers ... I consider myself, honestly, the least of the storytellers in my family. It's such a national trait. I definitely credit that with some of what I do for a living -- a lifetime of listening to people talk," she says.

Nee had always combined her career writing for children with work as a documentary-film producer. Before her son was born, she worked on the landmark programme Deadliest Catch, about the crab fishermen who put their lives on the line every year in the rough waters of the Bering Strait in the hope of cashing in on a bounty of crab.

"Seven people died on the first week that I was out there on two different boats and there was no storms, and then you're like, 'oh, this is real. This is not made-up drama. This is the real deal'."

Since her son was born however, she's shifted her focus.

"Making animation is a lot less dangerous," she says with a laugh. "It was just a better way to be home for my son. It's a big job being the executive producer and a writer for a huge series, but that said, I was very focused from the beginning that I wasn't going to create a show that would bring, like, joy to millions of kids, and not be home for my own child."

She's lucky that her partner Lisa, who used to work in the same industry as her, now stays at home full-time to take care of their son. "It's easier to go away when you know that there's going to be a parent at home full time with your child... it's hard to be away -- I can't wait to get back, but that makes a huge difference."

Time at home, then is sacrosanct, no matter what deadlines she's dealing with.

"Obviously not now," she says, gesturing to the cafeteria several thousands miles away from where she lives, "but I Skype with him every day. Everyone at Brown Bag knows that right around five o'clock I'm gonna go get on the Skype and have my conversation with him. And when I'm at home, that's my focus. It's very easy in a writing room to say, oh we're going write 'til 10 o'clock, but you don't need to and I just make sure that my whole staff is home for dinner. And I'm home for dinner. Sometimes I go back to work afterwards.

"But it just makes no sense to make kids' TV at the expense of your relationship with your own child."

It's especially important for her, of course, since Theo is not just her child but also her inspiration. "My son, unfortunately while I was away on this trip, lost the big gaping front tooth," she says, "and he's now got that hilarious big gap. On Skype I'm watching him do that thing where he's running his tongue across the bottom of it and I'm like, boy do I remember that. We are in the process of writing a story where Chilly [one of the toy characters] has a button that's dangling, which is the dangling tooth that's been freaking me out for the last two weeks, and has to get it pulled and he's so scared of that. I just went through that exact moment with Theo."

Irish Independent

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