Having spent a mere eight years at Nickelodeon—working her way up from an intern to a production assistant to a color stylist—Niki Lopez is now taking the helm on her first original animated series The Swashbuckling Adventures of Capitán Calavera (working title) for the kidcaster.
Announced at Nick’s upfront in March, the 20-episode CG-animated preschool series will follow the treasure-hunting adventures of an eight-year-old boy in a fanciful Caribbean world. Lopez, the showrunner, created the series alongside Leslie Valdes and Valerie Walsh Valdes (Dora the Explorer), both of whom are serving as executive producers.
“For me, animation has always been my North Star,” says Lopez. “Ever since I was little, I always needed to find a pad of paper, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was storyboarding, creating these characters and their backstories—I wanted to create a world.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Lopez felt she had to head to the United States if she wanted to make it in animation. She got on board with Nickelodeon after being accepted to its 2010 summer internship program where she was able to work on Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness as a production intern. After completing the three-month internship, she was hired on as a full-time production assistant.
“I thought, I’ve got my foot in the door, now let me show them what I’ve got so they don’t feel like they can let go of me,” says Lopez.
During her time on Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness—and later on as a color stylist for Fairly OddParents and Harvey Beaks—Lopez worked to build relationships and acquaint herself with every aspect of the production pipeline. Her imagination brimming with original show ideas, Lopez began pitching to Nick’s preschool development team. Her first few ideas were turned down, but with feedback she worked to develop a series that included a strong curriculum and play pattern—both crucial aspects of what Nick was seeking.
While Lopez was able to create something that fit the kidcaster’s style and needs, Calavera also represents aspects of her personal history (including the show’s Spanish-language curriculum).
“Coming from a Latina background, representation is of the utmost importance to me, as well as pushing forth ideas of empathy and inclusivity,” she says. “The thing I remember fondly about my childhood back home was going on trips to the rainforest and imagining this wondrous, fantastical world and thinking of treasure hunts or mythical characters. I love the idea of planting these wonderful little nuggets and germinating them into something epic for kids.”
The Spanish-language lessons embedded in the series were also a no-brainer for Lopez’s co-creators Leslie Valdes and Valerie Walsh Valdes, having co-created Dora the Explorer. Now while Lopez is working out of Nick’s Burbank studio, the other two frequently call her from New York where they’re working with the writing team to discuss aspects of the story. The whole thing has been a dream come true for Lopez.
“They’re like my fairy godparents,” says Lopez. “They’ll help me with any tasks I might have on my side, and they definitely provide their own bounty of wonderful expertise. They’ve helped expand this world into something greater than I would have originally imagined.”
The team is rounded out by co-executive producer Dave Palmer (Wallykazam!, Shimmer and Shine) while the series is getting a visual boost from art director Jang Chol Lee (Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph). Though it’s still early days, Lopez is happy with how it’s turning out. “The world feels so lush and vivid, like you almost want to live there,” she says.
Having climbed up the kidcaster ladder, Lopez wants to help others follow in her footsteps. There’s no treasure map leading to showrunner success, but she emphasizes the importance of taking the time to understand your audience and never being defeated by rejection.
“I know for certain that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all those other failed pitches. They allowed me to improve and see those areas where I was lacking,” says Lopez. “I would say that if anybody has an idea they want to pitch, do as much research as possible, that’s part of the adventure.”