SVA Alumnus Dana Terrace Talks About Showrunning Disney’s ‘The Owl House’
January 10, 2020 by Emma Drew
An image from The Owl House

At the start of the first episode of The Owl House, created by SVA alumnus Dana Terrace (BFA 2013 Animation), the spunky protagonist Luz is an average, if exceptionally imaginative, teenager. She’s bright and self-assured, but isolated and routinely chastised by her school principal and caring, concerned mother for being overly enthusiastic and getting a little too caught up in favorite fantasy stories. "Your fantasy world is holding you back," her mom chides, sending Luz to "Reality Check" summer camp in hopes of tempering her daughter’s excessively creative spirit. "No more weirdness!" Luz promises.

By the end, after missing the bus to camp and stumbling upon a magic portal, Luz is apprenticed to a witch named Eda and shares a room with an adorably tiny warrior named King ... but no spoilers. You need to tune in to find out more. Check out the series premiere, which airs tonight, Friday, January 10, at 8:30pm, on Disney Channel and is also available on the DisneyNOW app.

The much-anticipated animated fantasy-comedy series is Terrace’s first experience as showrunner, the person tasked with driving the creative direction of a show. Still, she honed her skills previously as a storyboard artist on the Disney series Gravity Falls and later, as a director for Disney’s DuckTales reboot. Finding herself between jobs a couple of years ago, Owl House came out of a desire to create something entirely her own. 

"When I first came up with the idea for the show—a young girl goes to another world and learns magic from an older witch—I started gathering all my artistic influences," Terrace says. "All the stuff that got me jazzed to draw and write in the first place—Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Remedios Varo paintings, John Bauer—and thinking, what would this kind of stuff look like as a kids’ cartoon?" The scenery and inhabitants of Boiling Isles, where Owl House is set, are indeed straight out of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, both goofy and grotesque; it’s a kind of Medieval bestiary meets the Addams Family, with many-eyed, winged and hybrid creatures and enchanted objects run amok.

A photograph of "The Owl House" creator and SVA alumnus Dana Terrace.

The Owl House creator and SVA alumnus Dana Terrace.

Credit: Disney Channel

From there came the characters, each one with more personality than the last. Eda, a very cool, clever, and rebellious witch, "is very much based off my nana, my aunt and my mom—the women who raised me," Terrace says. Her comrade-in-arms King is a disgraced master of demons trapped in a puppy-like body and is "basically just like me—a short little jerk who wants to be taller and taken seriously."

Luz, as the main character, required more time and thought if she were to hold the show on her own. "Her personality was very much developed from the conversations I would have with my roommate at the time, Luz Batista [BFA 2014 Animation], who the character is named after," Terrace says. "We would talk about how we would try to cut our own hair in high school, and that’s why we had like a weird little pixie cut." (So does animated Luz; she’s also Dominican like her namesake, at Batista’s request.) Batista now works on Owl House as a story artist and consultant. "It’s just been an utter joy to continue working with her," Terrace says.

Mortal beings mixed with magical ones is a familiar YA trope, and Terrace and her team (including staff writer Molly Knox Ostertag, a BFA 2014 Cartooning graduate) have drawn inspiration from a variety of sources, from the Japanese fantasy film Princess Mononoke to British author C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books (Lewis’ series even gets a nod in the first episode’s title, "A Lying Witch and a Warden"). Amid the action and antics of the premiere, the experience of feeling like an outsider and finding resilience and community through self-expression feels pronounced, and that’s because it’s something that rings true for Terrace. "It took me a long time, into my early 20s, before I found my people, a kind of family I could call my own," she says. "It’s not the only theme we deal with in the show, but that’s how I wanted to introduce Luz as a character."

The Owl House has already been tapped for a second season and, as showrunner, Terrace has a hand in more or less everything. "I’m in the editing bay, I storyboard every now and then, I take passes on the scripts, I read every bit of dialogue," she says. "I’m pitching episodes, I’m communicating with executives and trying to work with the Disney teams to keep my vision clear but also give them what they want. I think probably the most challenging part of this job has been to learn how to collaborate with such a large amount of people." She also has a cameo voice appearance in a few episodes as a conspiracy-spouting critter—see if you can spot her in the series opener.

Notably, Terrace is only the fourth woman to helm a show at Disney, something she tries not to dwell on. "I don’t want to say I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a female showrunner, I’m just glad that I am a showrunner."

The Owl House airs on Disney Channel and stars Wendie Malick (American Housewife) as Eda, Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) as King and Sarah-Nicole Robles (Boss Baby) as Luz. The guest voice cast for season one includes Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Isabella Rossellini (Shut Eye), Tati Gabrielle (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and Mae Whitman (Parenthood), among others. Watch the trailer below and tune into The Owl House tonight.

Credit: Disney Channel
The Owl House - Trailer

Welcome to the Boiling Isles! Luz takes you on a tour of her new (terrifying) fantasy world and introduces her new friends Eda the witch and her "scary" demon roommate King! The Owl House premieres Friday, January 10, on the Disney Channel.