Disney’s upcoming animated series, Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, tells the story of one of the smartest people in the MCU — a 13-year-old Black girl named Lunella Lafayette. Set to premiere on Disney Channel on February 10th, 2023, the series revolves around the young girl, her accidental pet dinosaur, and the adventures they get into as superhero duo Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. APA spoke with Ben Juwono, supervising director of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, to learn more about his work on the series, his career journey, and the importance of diversity in entertainment.
Having previously worked with Disney on Big Hero 6: The Series, Juwono was approached to work on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur in 2019. “[Disney] had reached out to me to help out with the pilot and the development, and they had a very specific style for the show that intrigued me. The first pitch to me on the show was that they wanted to make Baby Driver, but animated. It’s not a musical, but it’s very musically driven in a sense that music is integrated into the crafting of the story, and this was such a cool and different project, so I jumped on it,” he shared. Working on it since its conception, Juwono’s role in the show is all-encompassing. “I’m the supervising director for Season One and Season Two. I am here day-to-day, and I’m more of the on-the-floor guy. I manage my storyboard artists, my actors, my editors, and all three directors on the show. We have about four writers and two story editors on the show, so they work on the script, and my job is to help manage my directors and artists as they take the script and visualize it,” he explained. “My team is responsible for creating the animatic for executive screenings, and I also continue on through animation, working with our studio and animation lead. When the animation comes back after going through all the scenes and building, I’m responsible for locking in the picture, taking the final color, and basically assembling it into something that you’ll see on Disney.” To sum it up, he does a little bit of everything. “Aside from the writing and design, I’m at least involved in everything else,” he said.
While the show is animated and can be seen as geared toward children, Juwono believes it’s for more than just one specific group. “For a lot of us in this industry, we’re still children at heart. We always want to create a show that’s for everyone,” he shared, thinking about his wishes for parents and children alike to enjoy and understand the show both individually and together. As the show revolves around a kid genius, making it understandable for all audiences and balancing the barrier between factual and fantasy was also a big part of production. Luckily, Juwono‘s background in STEM helped the crew: “The thing that always comes up quite a lot is checking to make sure that what shows on screen makes sense. Even though a lot of [scenes] are sometimes fantastical, making sure that the stuff that we show isn’t completely bogus [is important], so it’s not just like three plus five equals eight. I’ve also been fortunate to sneak in some of my favorite physics equations that are kind of related, but there are some parts where Lunella really goes into some scientific facts, and it’s like, well, we should use this equation because it’s something that relates to what she’s trying to do.”
Every episode holds something memorable for Juwono, as each episode focuses on different paths and challenges for the main characters: “I’ve never been on a show where every episode feels like something new, but I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing that in Season One.” The highlight of this season for Juwono, however, was the mixtape moment, in which a scene was paired with a specific song, and movements and sound effects matched with the soundtrack. “The music is truly integrated into the visuals, and every episode has one of those mixtape moments. Every episode has a different style of song, and it was a lot of trial and error and having to start over, but it really gave us something different and fun.” Another thing Juwono loved about working on the show was Lunella’s character, and what she and her story means to the viewers. “I hope [Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur] gives people confidence. The core of the show is community, and people coming together. My personal hope is that, when people watch this, it gives them the confidence to be less of an individual and more of a community. You know, as Asians, we’re all about the community in our culture, so it’s a message I really love. I think the show emphasizes a lot on that, so hopefully, that will help communicate to kids that there is something beautiful in being part of a community, and they need to be able to be brave enough to stand up to protect that.”
Growing up in Jakarta, he moved to the U.S. at age 16 with a limited knowledge of the English language, and earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in physics. When he couldn’t find work as a teacher in this field, he made the life-changing decision to switch his career: “[Science and math were] one of those things I was good at, and at one point, I hit a wall. I was clearly at my limit, and no matter how much I pushed, I couldn’t get past it. Honestly, it was really depressing at the time, because all I’ve ever focused on was that one path. When that one path didn’t work, it was like, ‘What am I gonna do?,’ and that’s when the opportunity to pivot happened.” Despite never having considered TV and film as a career, Juwono always had an interest in art and animation. “In grad school, I had always been drawing comics on the side. I used to go to Anime Expo and sell One Piece fan art in the Artist’s Alley, and I had found a community among the artists. [We were] amateur artists, just selling our drawings with a $20 commission, and stuff like that. Around 2011, some of them started getting jobs in the industry, and they came to me and asked why I didn’t try storyboarding. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I took a few classes, put together a portfolio, and got my first job in 2012 on Ultimate Spider Man as a storyboard artist and revisionist. I was very fortunate because I didn’t go to any art school and had no degree or connection, but someone just took a chance on me.”
Another thing Ben feels grateful for is the support he’s received from his family on his search for a career path. “I’m very lucky that my parents were never like, ‘Oh, you have to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer.’ My parents have always said they just want me to be happy. A lot of the time, it was about ‘What do you think will make you happiest?,’ never ‘Which one will make you more money or give you the most success?’ Back then, I went into physics because it made me happy, until it didn’t. When I went into animation, it was because I really love drawing, and as I got deeper into it, I found a lot of love in filmmaking and visual storytelling. [Animation] allows me to do things that I don’t in real life, so now, animation and filmmaking is my adventure.” Taking note from his years studying in the STEM field, Ben believes the biggest lesson he’s learned is problem solving. “I manage a team of directors, artists, and editors, and I have my own system that helps create a pipeline workflow for everyone to follow, to make sure everything is efficient. Years and years and years of deriving equations and figuring out systems and physics really helped me craft that pipeline and system.”
For young adults in the AAPI communities, hearing Juwono‘s story can be inspiring, as we’re often led to believe our lives are on a deadline, and we need to accomplish things by a certain age to be deemed successful. Understanding the harm this kind of thinking can cause, Ben says the most important thing to remember is that it’s never too late. “I made my career shift when I was 28. I think there’s always this sort of fear from a lot of people that if they’re not somewhere by the time they’re 25, it’s too late. I think [things like the] Forbes 30 Under 30 don’t help, either, because ultimately, everyone’s paths are different. Some of my artists got their first job when they were 21, and some of my co-workers have been working since they were very young, but I also have friends who didn’t get into the industry until they were around 40. It’s a cliche, but age is just a number. It’s always a journey for people, and finding what makes them happy. If you know what makes you happy and you pursue it, it really doesn’t matter at what age. Sometimes you don’t even realize what makes you happy until you’re older as well.” Smiling confidently, Juwono affirms that he’s incredibly happy where he is now.
Ben also feels that things happen the way they do for a reason, and we shouldn’t be afraid to move forward, even if it isn’t in the direction we originally set out in. “If I had wanted to go into this industry a lot sooner, I can safely admit that I did not have the mental maturity to survive at 21 or 22, and that’s okay. [What’s most important is] always having the courage to follow something that makes you happy, and also realizing when it no longer makes you happy and doing something about it. There are people who follow that path, and if it doesn’t make them happy anymore, they think they’ve been doing it for so long that they should [just keep going].” Sharing more on his mindset, Ben believes it’s best to take things slowly. Instead of thinking too far into the future, his only goal presently is to get Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur out and work on the second season. “One of my biggest philosophies was actually said by Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. He says, ‘Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.’ For me, I just decided to focus on this first, and whatever comes next, I’ll just cross that bridge when I get there.”
On AAPI representation in the entertainment industry, Juwono acknowledges the slow growth is good progress. “Things are always moving slower than we want it to, but someone wise once told me that it’s an evolution, not a revolution. I think all of us who are in the industry are pushing for more and more, just like [projects such as] Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s amazing, and that’s just proof that all the work that has been done the last decade or so has culminated. Things have to stumble in order for something to be able to walk, and something has to walk in order for the next thing to be able to walk faster. Something then has to walk faster for the next thing to be able to run. I don’t think we’re at the point where it runs yet, but we’re walking faster and faster.” Diversity and inclusivity are key to driving Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and telling Lunella’s story. “I’m not a young Black girl, but if I can help in the effort to create content that is diverse, progressive, and has meaning to different communities, then I’m happy to help, and that’s why I’m here.”
Although superheroes can be simple, light-hearted fun, Juwono thinks deeply, even when deciding his favorite Marvel character. “My favorite [Avenger] is Steve Rogers, because he knows who he is. He’s very strong in his convictions, and sometimes he’s a little too idealistic, and that’s something I wish I could be. Going back to what I said about people needing to figure out what makes them happy, a lot of that is about understanding who you are. In order for me to decide on what I want to do and what path I should go towards to make me happy, I need to know who I am. People like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, they know who they are, and they stick with it. I admire people with very strong convictions. They don’t get swayed even in the face of conflicts, and they use their core values to decide their actions.” Relating this to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Ben also says that, although young, Lunella very clearly knows who she is, and that’s what makes her such a strong character, and one of the main reasons people should tune in to her story.