Centaurworld’s Megan Nicole Dong on Animating Horses, Making a Good Musical, and the Importance of Trust

Netflix is set to release the new animated musical series Centaurworld later this month on July 30th. As the name implies, it is largely about a world of centaurs. And by “world,” it really does mean “world.” There are centaur mountains and centaur tornadoes. It can be a bit difficult to describe, but the short version is a war horse named Horse gets sucked into a magical world full of singing and wild creatures and all she wants to do is get back to her rider… named Rider. At least, that’s what she calls her, anyway. ComicBook.com had the opportunity to speak with Centaurworld creator and executive producer Megan Nicole Dong all about the show, what makes a good musical, animating horses, and more.

It’s worth noting that, as a musical, it should come as no surprise that the cast is stacked. Kimiko Glenn voices Horse, Jessie Mueller voices her rider named Rider, Megan Hilty voices Wammawink, Josh Radnor voices Durpleton, Parvesh Cheena voices Zulius, Chris Diamantopoulos voices Ched, and Megan Nicole Dong herself voices Glendale. And that’s not even getting into the guest stars and other featured voices like Lea Salonga and Flula Borg, among many others.

As noted above, the first season of Centaurworld is set to premiere on Netflix on July 30th. You can check out all of our previous coverage of the upcoming animated series right here.

What do you think about what we have seen of Centaurworld so far? Are you excited to check out the full series when it premieres later this month? Let us know in the comments, or feel free to reach out and hit me up directly over on Twitter at @rollinbishop to talk about all things animation! And keep reading to check out our full interview with showrunner and creator Megan Nicole Dong!

The following interview was lightly edited for lengthy and clarity.

On What Centaurworld Even Is

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(Photo: Netflix)

ComicBook.com: What is Centaurworld? I’ve tried to explain this to a couple of different people and it’s always a little difficult to get down succinctly.

Megan Nicole Dong: It is, it truly is. There is no really easy way to describe the show. It is the story of a war horse who gets magicked into a Muppet-y realm of singing and dancing creatures of every shape and size, and she has to take a Wizard of Oz-like journey to get back home to be reunited with her rider, who is her closest companion and only family that she has left.

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On Horses and Animation

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, I am not an animator or an illustrator, but my understanding is that horses are notoriously hard to illustrate and animate, and yet here we are. So, why horses? And did you have any trouble with that?

Yes. This has been kind of an ongoing joke internally with the crew because yes, horses are very, very hard to draw. We were lucky at the beginning. James Baxter, who animated Spirit and Beast from Beauty and the Beast was at the studio and did a couple of lectures for us about how horses work, which was immensely helpful. But fortunately, everyone quickly learned how to draw horses, but also we had her expressing herself in ways that weren’t entirely anatomically correct. She would move her hooves and stuff in ways that would break physics a little bit, so there was a little bit of leeway there.

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On the Show Being a Musical

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(Photo: Netflix)

Did you always know Centaurworld would be a musical?

Yes. Yeah. That was one thing that I always knew going into this. Musical theater is a big thing that was important for me and I wanted to do a show that would have musical storytelling, something that was going to be visually really fun and engaging and really took advantage of the medium. But I also, it was really important for me to have a show that would use music in a way that was narrative, that was character driven, that would express all the main emotional points. But also, because there were so many disparate elements for the show, it was going to be one of the things that would thread it all together and connect it.

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On What Makes a Good Musical

Is that what makes a good musical? Character-driven moments and narrative?

I think that good musicals, yeah, the songs shouldn’t just be songs happening for no reason. Songs can be used to really express so much about the emotional happenings. They can be used for comedy as well, but I feel like if they’re not relevant to what the character is going through, then they’re not going to be as strong, or it’s not going to be as interwoven to the story.

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On Casting a Musical

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(Photo: Netflix)

With this being a somewhat unusual animated show/musical, was casting particularly difficult?

Yeah. We knew from the get-go that we wanted everyone who was cast to be able to sing as well. So with casting, they had to audition with singing as well. So, that definitely made it more complicated because we were looking for good comedic actors, but also people with musical backgrounds. So, a lot of the actors we ended up casting have theater backgrounds.

Speaking of casting, you voice Glendale, correct? A klepto… is she a deer centaur? Is that what she is?

She’s a gerenuk centaur, which is — it’s a specific kind of antelope. There’s an enclosure at the LA Zoo that only has gerenuks and I’ve always been fascinated by them because they look… I think gerenuk means “giraffe neck,” that’s actually what the name means. But they’re such cartoonish-looking deer creatures.

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On Voicing Glendale

Were you always going to voice a character on the show, or did you find yourself identifying with Glendale, or how did that work?

I wasn’t at the beginning. I auditioned with everyone else. I knew I wanted one of these characters — I wanted Glendale specifically to be really Muppet-y. And so I had this really specific pushed voice in mind, and it was something that was really hard to describe, you know like this Cookie Monster kind of thing. And going back and forth between that and singing was really specific and hard to describe, so I ended up auditioning and eventually just deciding to play the role. Yeah, because it was something really specific that I had in mind.

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On Designing So Many Odd Centaurs

Speaking of centaur creatures and Glendale being an odd one, she’s not alone. There are plenty of wild mixes in the show, including a whale-taur. How did you go about deciding what -taur critters to make, and was there ever one that you were just like, “I don’t know, maybe that’s too far.”

Really, I think for all of us, we never said “too far.” It was always like, “If you can imagine it, it’s going to probably be in the show.” Even in some of the background elements, some of the mountains are centaurs. There was never really a hard rule of like, “This is too far to be a centaur.” It was like anything could be. So we’ve had some of the leaves and the trees, many of them are also centaurs. And that was the fun of it, was there were always some surprises that came up when it was either in design or in the storyboarding process or when we were writing. Sometimes we would just think, “Would it be funny if this was also a centaur and/or a character?”

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On Sweaty Centaurs

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(Photo: Netflix)

Now, it’s something — it’s very specific, but I wrote it down several times in my notes while I was watching. The mole-taurs. They’re very sweaty, Megan.

Yes.

Why are they so sweaty?

Why are they so sweaty? That’s an excellent question.

Thank you. I thought so.

I mean, in the first place, they’re living underground. There’s moisture down there.

Sure.

I think when we were thinking of all these different locations, we were settling on a vibe for the inhabitants there, and we thought that under the ground would probably feel extremely alien to the rest of the centaurs. To us, I think the sweatiness and this clash between being really, really bureaucratic and all about paperwork and orderliness, and also into like sexy singing, kind of Britney Spears-style singing and just a general sweaty vibe was really funny to us. And yeah, it was something that we ran with. It was something that always consistently made us laugh, so.

Every time Flula Borg showed up, I was like, “OK, all right, lots of sweat. Love it.”

Lots of sweat. And Flula was amazing to work with. He was hilarious and he did a lot of ad-libbing, and he instantly understood the character? Which again, the character was difficult to describe, but he instantly got it, and just gave us a lot of material to work with.

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On Navigating Comedy and Darkness

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(Photo: Netflix)

Speaking of finding the right mix of things, from the initial trailer obviously there’s this hint of something darker behind this candy-coated rainbow world, but the first season really dives into that. How did you go about navigating that, without producing tonal whiplash?

When I was developing the show, I was starting to write some of the music, but I was also working on the Bible and it was important for me to — I know we were just about all these wild visual elements and silliness, but we did write a 50-page Bible and we dove into the lore and the backstory; how these worlds were connected, what was the backstory of these worlds.

And so when we were writing the whole thing, we really wanted to write a big overarching story and just find that balance with tracking the emotional arcs and the stories of our characters. We wanted to make sure it was all told through the lens of Horse, and our herd.

I always felt like if we prioritize the emotional journey, we would find a way to make it all work together. And I think that the music does help to bridge some of that too, in terms of like, it’s like a cement that puts some of these puzzle pieces together.

That makes a lot of sense. The first introduction of the song for the antagonist, with the flowers singing, is certainly that mix that you’re talking about. Very melancholy, but also kind of, everything’s there in the mix all at once.

Yeah. We took a lot of consideration in terms of how we wrote the songs, and from the beginning, we had mapped out where the songs would be, what kinds of general style would be most appropriate. And for that, it was the creepy nursery rhyme lullaby thing felt most appropriate for like, “How do we introduce some of the darker elements while staying within what we’ve established?”

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On Her First Time as Creator and Showrunner

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(Photo: Netflix)

More broadly, Centaurworld marks your first time as a creator and showrunner of a series. How was that experience compared to what you’ve done previously?

Centaurworld… It was new for me as a showrunner, but it was also new for pretty much everyone who worked on it, just because of the way that the production was, having two different styles of animation, having this much music, it was kind of like a fresh start for everyone because no one had ever worked on a production quite like this.

So, everyone from our producers to our other supervisors, we all had to put our heads together and figure out a way to make it work. So to that end, it was exciting, because it was something new for all of us. I was fortunate that I got the opportunity to do storyboards for a number of years, but also in my last job to be a supervising director, and that was important for me to learn how a pipeline works, to learn how a show is run. And I think having that supervisory experience really helped me coming into this.

And I think just being able to build the team that we did really helped, because everyone… A show like this required a lot of trust. I was able to trust those around me and that trickled down to everyone else, and it ended up being just a really fun process to make this because we were all going through something new together.

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On Hindsight

You’re not exactly at the end of the tunnel, but the first season’s about to launch. Is there anything you would’ve done differently in hindsight?

In hindsight? I mean, it was such a wild process because the first part of it we were all in the studio, and then later on, we all went home. So in terms of what I would do differently, there were things that I wish happened differently. There was a global pandemic that did occur that definitely threw a wrench in the process, but by and large, I don’t think I would have really changed much of the process.

I was really, really lucky that from pitch on, everyone got on board with something that seems like it would be difficult to get people on board with, because it’s a difficult show to describe. But I think the main thing for me was from the very beginning, when I was still pitching it, I basically worked on making the first episode and making sure that the first songs were written and was able to do a storyboard pitch for people and sing the songs live to them, and that established the tone of the show, and that was able to help us get the right team in place and for them to all run with it.

So, yeah, I think if I were to go back, I would just lean into that and just work on just making things to prove out at the beginning.

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On Not Being a Tough Sell

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(Photo: Netflix)

Just to clarify here, this wasn’t a tough sell? I’ve seen, I believe, all of the first season and I love what I saw, but I can imagine trying to describe this to a bunch of executives and getting blank stares, but that wasn’t the case for you?

I think that’s why Netflix was the best home for it. I think that at other studios, a lot of times, there’s a brand or there’s sort of a house style to stick with. At most studios that I’ve worked with before, there’s so much pre-existing content. And with Netflix being so much about creator-driven stuff and also about just having a very wide range of content for everyone, I think it was the right place to make it.

And yeah, certainly just describing the show and saying, “It’s going to be a musical, it’s going to have action, it’s going to have comedy, and all that.” I think that alone would have made it a really tough sell. So for me, I definitely had to write some of the songs and put something together that was visual that you could get more of a sense of what it was going to be.

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On Hopes for Launch

How does it feel to be this close to the launch of the first season where the public is really going to get a taste of Centaurworld for the first time?

I’m really excited. I’m really nervous. Like you said, this is my first time as a show creator, so it feels a little bit like waiting for a kid to go to school for the first time. No matter how it’s received, this was a really, just a very joyful experience making this. I had so much fun, our crew had a lot of fun, and our cast was amazing to work with. So I just hope some of that translates, and that it’s something that people can find some joy in.

So if I were to say, “What do you hope people take away from it?” Your answer is joy.

Yeah. I hope that some of the messages that we have in there, or just — It’s a combination of things. I do want people to take away joy from it. But also, I think our characters, despite being really goofy and happy and silly, they have flaws and we allude to them coming from some traumatic backgrounds. And so, I do want people to take some of that away as well, just to find some comfort and to be able to relate to these characters, as goofy as they are.

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On Earworms

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(Photo: Netflix)

Your relationship to the show is obviously vastly different than mine, but I find myself with snippets of songs just absolutely stuck in my head. The “drums of war” line, I don’t know why, but that line just continuously repeats. Did you and the crew have similar earworms? Is there any particular song that really stood out to you folks?

Yes. Yeah, for sure. I think depending on the day, different songs get stuck in different people’s heads. My co-EP, Dominic Bisignano, wrote a lot of the songs as well. We just divide and conquer here, we had to write as many as we could. But for me, a lot of his songs get stuck in my head. He wrote “Comfortable Doug,” that one gets stuck in my head all the time. So yeah, that one in particular, I think. I find myself humming that around the house sometimes.

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On Final Thoughts

Is there anything else you would like to add about Centaurworld, about working as a showrunner for the first time, anything at all?

I think that the biggest thing that I’ve learned from being a showrunner and from working on the show has just been the importance of trust, and that was really nice for me because that’s something that our main character in our show is learning about. But for me, I feel like there were so many things happening here. So many things to juggle that there was no way that something this ambitious with so many moving parts would have gotten made without being able to give trust to the people around me, and that was honestly my biggest takeaway from the whole experience.

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