Everyone has a TV show from childhood that they can never forget. Whether it was a Saturday morning cartoon or a fun animated show before bedtime, you’d huddle towards the TV set, eyes peeled to the screen, ready to be wildly entertained. It was a time where we were innocent and optimistic about the life in front of us.
For many of us, as we grow older, this wide-eyed feeling begins to sadly dissipate. But for some lucky ones it never actually goes away. Rather, it evolves when they reach adulthood. This is the case for animation writer Denise Downer. Children’s animated television is her playground, where she can blend impactful messages with energetic fun.
I had the opportunity to speak with Denise about what it means to be an animation writer, her experience working on the hit show Stillwater, and the joys of creating television for young audiences.
Who is Denise Downer?
Denise Downer grew up with an intense love of storytelling. When making the move to Los Angeles and working in an animation studio assisting producers, a job opened up in the writer’s department. When she was hired on the spot after an interview with the story editor, Denise knew animation writing was what she was meant to pursue.
“You’d go into an executive’s office, and their desks would be lined with toys, and their shelves, and there was just a lot of color and energy that was really good and fun,” Denise says. “This is the place where I want to be.”
Her work has extended to writing for shows like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Marvel’s Avengers: Black Panthers Quest, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Barbie Dreamtopia, among others. Recently, Denise has lent her talents to writing for the Emmy award-winning children’s series Stillwater.
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Along with animation writing, Denise has also written a children’s dark comedic graphic novel called Tombstone Twins. The novel follows children who attend “Underworld Elementary,” a school for young people who have died in wacky ways.
Through speaking with Denise Downer, I was welcomed into the magic of animated storytelling and its long-lasting impact on children and adults alike.
Denise Downer on the animated world: “You’re writing for an audience, but you’re also writing so that the storyboard artists understand what you’re doing.”
In Denise Downer’s mind, animated writing follows a similar format to writing for live-action. The character will face a problem they need to solve, deal with different external and internal factors, and then come to a resolution. “A story is a story, and it has a certain structure no matter who you follow as your mentor, or which writing author you adhere to,” Denise explains.
What makes Denise’s animated work so different is the subject matter. Whether she’s writing for a pre-school audience or kids a little bit older, she knows the importance of understanding children’s comprehension levels. With the help of an education consultant, Denise and her fellow writers can navigate the waters more clearly. “If there’s something that they think the child might not understand then we have to explain it,” she says, “and you have to explain it in an organic way as best you can.”
Denise also stresses that within an animated show, writers must pay attention to how their words will affect the physical creation of these characters and plots. “You have to take into account how this will be drawn,” Denise says. “You have to take into account the storyboard artists. You guide the artists toward knowing what to draw.”
Creating animated television is like a puzzle with many moving parts and Denise works diligently and creatively to make sure her piece accurately fits the mold.
Denise Downer on Stillwater: “It’s just a wonderfully different way of telling a story.”
The children’s animated program Stillwater has made a splash in youth television winning Daytime Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards. Based on the picture book Zen Shorts by J. Muth, the 2020 Apple TV+ show follows 3 siblings, Karl (Judah Mackey), Addy (Eva Ariel Binder), and Michael (Tucker Chandler) who live right next door to a Panda named Stillwater (James Sie). Throughout the series, Stillwater helps the kids understand their feelings while also helping them face different challenges.
Rather than action scenes or big plot points being the focus of the episodes, emotions take center stage. “We had what’s called a writer’s summit where we all came together at the beginning of the season,” Denise Downer explains. “Rob Hoegee (Stillwater’s story editor) started off looking at feelings and from there we focused on possible storylines that could spark these feelings in a particular character. .”
The episodes touch on almost every emotion in an innovative way, ranging from feeling remorse because of a water balloon attack to feeling abandoned when not invited to a Halloween party. While the show may work at a slower pace without the protagonist completely “achieving the goal,” it frames life in a realistic way. “It’s not always resolved in a neat little package, but the child feels better at the end because they’ve reframed the way they were looking at the problem,” Denise says.
In a way, Stillwater teaches kids they won’t always get what they want, but they will see what they have in a different light. That’s something both Denise and I believe adults could learn as well.
Denise Downer shares her most rewarding experience creating animated shows for kids
Any artist, regardless of medium, wants their work to have meaning. What is the purpose? How can someone be fulfilled? For Denise Downer, she feels most rewarded knowing her stories bring laughter.
“A friend of mine shot a video of a young boy that was the son of a friend of his,” Denise says. “He shot a video of the boy watching one of my shows, and the boy was laughing through it. That was just such a nice thing to see. Because it was like, Oh, that’s how it’s affecting the audience, and I love that.”
Joy and laughter is a universal language children know well. With Denise’s stories, she’s able to hold on to that childlike glee a little bit longer. “It’s a very special thing to make them as happy as you were when you were a kid watching animation and Saturday morning cartoons,” she says.
Denise Downer on staying grounded: “It helps with creativity.”
In a job where you create new universes, it’s vital to be in touch with the real world. With a bit of help from Stillwater, Denise makes sure to meditate almost every morning. “I’m not perfect at it, but it grounds me, and it also gets me ready to be creative for the day,” she says.
Denise also makes sure to keep connected to people around her, whether she’s joking around with her 5 siblings or joining her neighborhood group to help give back to the homeless community. “If you’re aware of the world around you, it sparks ideas for stories,” Denise explains. “If you’re in your own little bubble, you won’t see what’s happening.”
Denise Downer’s gives some hope for Hollywood
As Denise reflects on her work, she notices an upward rise of empathy within the Hollywood industry, specifically in children’s animation. Between the divisive political climate and the ongoing pandemic, there’s a need and want to bring people together.
“There seems to be this greater openness for diversity and inclusion in every way when it comes to race, gender, abilities, disabilities,” Denise notes. “There’s sort of a greater desire to have representation.”
Children’s TV programming has the power to influence kids at a transformative period of their lives. When shows illustrate kindness, young people can see that a better world is possible.
What will Denise Downer do next?
Denise Downer’s next gig will be as the story editor for a new animated series called Tom and Jerry Time on Cartoon Network’s Cartoonito. The pre-school series will feature the iconic duo as they use math, literacy, and independent learning skills in hilarious ways. “Their hijinks will be instrumental in teaching preschool children shapes and letters and numbers and all kinds of things that they need to prepare them for school,” Denise explains.
Even though Denise is mum about some of her other future projects, she teases that she’s developing another children’s animated show. “I’ve done some initial work like figuring out the characters and what the story would be,” she says. “I’m hoping that it does continue on and go into further development.”
As Denise Downer opens new worlds and ideas with her storytelling, she will continue to inspire both children and adults, one heartfelt laugh at a time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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