See Jane Spotlight

Dino Dana Takes Huge Steps to Advance Diversity, Break Gender Stereotypes and Embrace STEM

By Mary Ellen Holden

Debuting its fourth season on Amazon on April 17, Dino Dana has emerged as a bona fide brand appealing to boys and girls alike. This preschool franchise is based on two male-led series (Dino Dana and the Emmy award-winning Dino Dana: Trek’s Adventures) created by J.J. Johnson, the creative force and founding partner of Sinking Ship Entertainment. J.J. credits the star of his first preschool series (This is Daniel Cook) and the young star’s love of all things prehistoric and his desire to be a paleontologist as the genesis of the Dino Dana series, which brought dinosaurs into the present through a combination of CGI animation and live-action production.

Photo Credit: Sinking Ship Entertainment

Approximately six years ago, J.J. reimagined the show. After seeing the Geena Davis Institute’s research on the dearth of female characters in children’s programming, he decided to make the lead character(s) girls. He posited that the series would hold its audience at a 50/50 split whether the lead was a boy or a girl, and he was right.

Today, the franchise follows Dana, a young girl who loves dinosaurs and spends all her time learning about them. One day, she gains the ability to imagine dinosaurs into real life, which makes her prehistoric encounters relevant to current events. Later this year, the television series will be supplemented with a feature-length movie and a museum cut-down version of the film featuring companion interactive experiences. I had the pleasure of interviewing J.J. Johnson, Michela Luci, and Saara Chaudry to get an inside look at the vision behind the franchise and why representation and imagination in children’s programming matters.

Mary Ellen Holden: How do diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion inform the production? Onscreen and behind the camera?

J.J. Johnson: Since reading about the gender imbalance in Children’s television we have aimed to put gender equity and diversity at the forefront of our company. Kids are wonderfully honest, and it is important to listen to them. For me, it goes back to Annedroids; I realized that we were underrepresenting women behind the scenes. What I saw was a little girl lead surrounded by white older guys and made a commitment to myself that I would bring in female directors via a mentorship program. At the time, women represented 18% of the Director’s Guild in Canada. We asked our existing directors to mentor new female directors and those women were guaranteed a directing slot on the series. There was suddenly a new base of talent. In fact, after seeing the program in action, Michela told me that she wants to be a director when she is older.

We found that female directors brought more diversity into the entire production. They came in ready to kick ass, and they did. They discovered more women’s voices, people of color and others with different points of view. The program worked because we made sure that they had power… they were introduced on set as a director and not a shadowing director, so the crew immediately treated them that way. We’re learning every day. On screen diversity came first, and now we’re building diversity behind the camera.

Mary Ellen: Now entering its 4th season, what gives this multi-media brand its staying power?

J.J.: I hope it’s because we talk up to the audience, and it’s a show you need to lean into. When you create a show, you write to your younger self – kids were not being seen – our job is to make kids feel a little less lonely in the world. Our story structure showcases a blended family, which allows us to show more diverse faces and represents the real world that kids are living in today.

This show also challenges notions of dinosaurs… it is unafraid to dive into evolution, real-world tie-ins – science becomes understandable when it ties back into the real world.

Mary Ellen: Why is Dino Dana transforming into a multi-platform, experiential brand now?

J.J.: It is impossible to compete with large budget pictures, so we decided to broaden the platform for our STEM show told through a story. Since museums are “home to dinosaurs” – we wanted to use this venue to offer audiences the chance to be like Dana. Using a documentary-style VR/AR experience is a very cool bridge. It’s an experiment that can allow us to tell stories with a broader footprint.

Mary Ellen: How has the Geena Davis Institute inspired your work? Can you share an example?

J.J.: The Institute shines a spotlight on facts. When content creators are confronted with the facts, they are more likely to pay attention… After meeting with Geena and Madeline about six years ago, I decided to reimagine the Dino Dan series with female lead characters and a blended family. I was convinced that it was essential that girls and boys both see girls with STEM interests and roles. In doing so, the programming could help to break stereotypes and reposition thoughts on gender and what girls are capable of. As Geena Davis says, “If They Can See It, They Can Be It.” No one thought that gender parity in leads would come this quickly in kids programming – now we need to go beyond leads to the entire production.

Mary Ellen: What are the key viewer takeaways that you’d like to see from the Dino Dana programming/experience?

J.J.: We want kids to come away with a sense of awe regarding science. They need to understand that failure is just a step to success… science is about asking questions even if we are afraid of the answers. Science is our friend, and asking a question is just the start of an adventure.

Kids have a voice and space in this world – not just with STEM but also with regards to the family. Dino Dana burst through the Bechtel Test! Her life informs her experiments and vice versa. I stay in my lane and I don’t respond to market forces – I try to share what kids want and need to hear. There are too many kids programs out there that are escapist – I get kids to lean in and deal with things… they learn to empathize.

Close Up with Michela and Saara

Mary Ellen: What was it about Dino Dana that prompted you to first audition?

Saara Chaudry: I had worked with Sinking Ship before, and I had the most fun on-set with J.J. and the kids there. I found it to be an inviting and open space for kids to work on-set, and I wanted to land the role of Dana’s older sister.

Michela Luci: Dana is such a fantastic character and a role model for young girls and boys. I loved how unique the character was and I watched Dino Dan when prepping for the audition. Saara and I were paired together for the audition.

Both: Usually, you worry about a chemistry read as they can be nerve-wracking; but we had an instant connection. We knew that we were working to be cast as sisters!

Mary Ellen: How have your roles evolved over the years?

Michela: My character (Dana) is a spunky, adventurous paleontologist in training and loves to imagine. She solves many “dino” experiments and applies them to real life, modern-day situations. Dana’s personality draws in the younger kids – both, boys and girls.

Saara: I play Dana’s older sister, she is closed off at the beginning of the series, it took a lot for her to come out of her shell. She is sarcastic and fun loving but she is always there for Dana. Our personal bond grew over the years, as did our sisterly bond.

Mary Ellen: How did the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media influence your aspirations and your opportunities?

Michela: The motto #SeeItBeIt is quite an eyeopener. When I am at home watching TV, I think that I could be that one day. #SeeItBeIt is applied to my life as an actor and behind the camera.

Mary Ellen: Before the series, did you ever imagine that you would become a role model?

Saara: I started acting at drama camp at age 5. My life changed forever. It was a hobby, and I didn’t expect to have a global impact. I became a role model and trailblazer for young brown girls; I understand that I have a responsibility to authentically represent these girls, especially since there are not many of us onscreen.

Michela: I grew up in a STEM family as both of my parents are involved in the field. Today, I can be a leader as a young girl in STEM. It is incredible to be this role model as most kids don’t grow up with the in-home examples that I have had.

Mary Ellen: What advice do you have for females entering this industry?

Michela: Go for it! Do what makes you happy and what you’re comfortable with. I have turned down roles that I’m uncomfortable with.

Saara: Don’t be afraid and don’t limit yourself. Just because you see a stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed girl on screen doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for a brown, Muslim girl. Create a sound support system to push you through your doubts.

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT