Wonderfully Weird

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Telling the story of a war horse plunged into a wacky musical world, creator and Executive Producer Megan Nicole Dong discovered inspiration in her own high school experience, sought a balance between light and dark, and had a great time stepping outside her comfort zone.

Animated horse and centaurs All images courtesy of Netflix.
Megan Nicole Dong

What are the origins of Centaurworld?

I first thought of the idea for the show about six years ago. Really, it was inspired by my life—growing up in an environment where there was a lot of emphasis on academics, studying hard, and going down a conventional path. Then being placed in a show choir [in high school], just because of a scheduling issue. That was such a shock to the system. It was something that challenged me. Not only did I think I was supposed to be focusing on school and my studies, I was also more introverted. I always loved music and art, but I didn’t think that was a valid thing I should spend all my time on. 

When I joined show choir, I was nervous about it. I ended up loving it, and I did it for the rest of high school. It inspired me to fall in love with theater and music. But what it really did for me was, it gave me the confidence and the knowledge that I had to pursue the arts. I had to do something creative for a living.

So [Centaurworld] is about a character from one life that is duty-bound and focused on one way of living, and is changed by this whimsical environment with music and a lot of singing and dancing. As out there as the concept is, it’s inspired by my [show choir] experience because it changed my life.

Animated horse and centaur

Why is a centaur the perfect creature for your show? 

When I was younger, I also wanted to be a marine biologist. I’ve always loved drawing animals. When it comes to cartooning, I love pushed poses and really exaggerated expressions. So combining some human characteristics with all sorts of animals was something that appealed to me. But also I wanted to create this environment that felt inclusive. That’s one of the themes of our show. And just having such a wide array of creatures to play with, all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, was something that I wanted. We decided to go with centaurs and have every possible iteration be a part of this world.

What are some of the inspirations behind the show’s overall look?

Visually, all of the creatures in Centaurworld and the look of it—that’s how I like to naturally draw. I’ve always like pushing things and making things that are bizarre-looking. I often draw in sketchbooks, and I’ve been drawing some of these centaur characters … for years. So our Art Director, Kimberly Knoll, made sure to incorporate some of that feel for the centaurs. There’s texture to them to try and emulate a little bit of that marker on sketchbook paper, and the lines have a little bit [of] bleed because I just love drawing with felt pens in sketchbooks.

A few years ago, I was working in animation, and we draw in Cintiqs so often. In my down time I was going kind of analog and revisiting sketchbooks as a way of separating from what we do at work. It’s come full circle now. I made a show where we’re trying to make everything look a little bit like the sketchbook explorations that I was doing.

There’s a lot of physical humor. What inspired that?

The physicality [is] naturally a part of my humor. As a cartoonist, that’s one thing I love about animation. You can literally have the characters do anything. I grew up watching Looney Tunes [and] I always loved physical comedy and the absurd physical humor you can get with animation. 

Why does your whimsical show open with such a dark sequence?

One big inspiration was movies I grew up with like The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. I always did love that balance of the fantastical and the whimsical with some genuinely scary and darker [moments]. That was the kind of contrast I enjoyed as a kid. I definitely wanted to incorporate some of that here. I wanted it to really feel like Horse came from an entirely different show. Like she was taken from one show and dropped into another.

Why is vulnerability as strength an important theme in the show? 

Horse came from a dark world. She and Rider are orphaned. They really only have each other. And because I wanted them to be these young soldiers who take their role in a big war seriously, Horse starts off this journey being very serious and thinking feelings are for the weak, and there’s no place for vulnerability—it’s only a liability.

I wanted her to come around just by being a part of this [centaur] family, to realize that there’s so much more that you can gain from opening up and being vulnerable and leaning on and trusting others. That was something that was a powerful thing for me to learn as someone who was more introverted and always kind of walled up. I really wanted to have [that] be a part of the show. I wanted this character who was hard-core to have this powerful internal transformation.

How did you approach writing the songs for the show?

I worked on Pinky Malinky, and I wrote a lot of songs for that. And my Co-EP, Dominic Bisignano, he’s done a lot of music before. We wrote all of the songs. It was a challenge, but we had so much fun doing it. I think the fact that we were in the writers’ room and intimately familiar with all of the parts of it—the visuals and who the characters were—it made the songwriting process feel so integrated … us being able to share the music with our storyboard artists and our writers at various stages. Even at the very beginning of this process, for the first episode, I had rough piano tracks on my iPhone, and when I pitched the episode I [sang] it to the room. There was a lot of stuff that felt like my experience in show choir a long time ago.

Describe the journey you wanted your characters to take.

I think the central conflict at the very outset … is people residing within their comfort zones. I wanted everyone in the show to grow by having to step out of that comfort zone. All these characters have been through some tough things … and they’ve all sort of coped with that. I wanted [them], after meeting each other … to be better and grow together as a group and as individuals, by doing something that was bold and outside what they know. 

Did Centaurworld push you outside your comfort zone? 

Yes, actually, it did. It pushed all of us a little bit out of our comfort zones. One of the nice things about the actual production process of making the show was there were so many themes that were mirrored by the process. In order to make something with this many moving parts happening, I had to learn to really trust everybody. We all had to give each other a lot of trust, and there was so much collaboration and communication and stuff that was outside all of our comfort zones. It made everything work really well. It made it a really joy-filled experience. And it was also a part of the actual story, which was great.

Follow Dong on Instagram at @sketchshark.
Follow her on Twitter at @sketchshark.