The animated preschool Odo has had quite a journey, from early concept stages and creation by Colin Williams (Pajanimals, Pinkalicious & Peterrific) several years ago to final delivery and debut on HBO Max and Cartoonito last year. The beautifully animated show, which is nominated for a 2022 Annie Award for best preschool series, follows the adventures of an eager little owl and a wide variety of diverse feathered friends at the Forest Camp for Young Birds as they learn important life lessons.
We had a chance to talk to the show’s executive producer Jakub Karwowski (Kill It and Leave This Town, Acid Rain) co-founder of acclaimed Polish studio Letko, about bringing Odo and his friends to animated life:
Animation Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of Odo?
Jakub Karwowksi: It all started by shared ideas and creative motivation coming from two studios: Letko from Poland and Sixteen South from Northern Ireland. Letko had optioned a book called Odo with incredible illustrations by Ukrainian artist Alena Tkach, written by Oliver Austria. The visual temperament of the designs and the owl character hypnotized us so much that we decided to make him the character that would lead a great story about self-belief and living in the community.
We re-created the world and wrote the concept from the beginning with the support of the Development funds form Polish Film Institute and Northern Ireland Screen. We presented the project at Cartoon Forum in Toulouse and had overwhelming response from broadcasters, leading to KiKA from Germany, Milkshake! from U.K., Canal+ from France and MiniMini+ from Poland backing up the series.
When did you start producing the series?
We managed to get to greenlight in autumn 2020.The whole production was conducted during pandemic, everyone working from home and us having almost no physical contact between creative teams, co-producers or directors. It was mostly thanks to the relationships we were passionately building for several years with our artists, partners and institutions that allowed us to get the production organized in a way to achieve the level of quality that the Odo series stands for.
Where is the animation produced and how many people work on the series?
During our development period in Letko, we managed to produce the pilot episode during which we established directions in all creative areas, as well as the production work split between Letko and Sixteen South. Colin Williams, Creative Director of Sixteen South, took on the role of showrunner, with the Sixteen South team managing scripts, voices, sound and music. Letko was responsible for managing the production through all its visual stages, starting from directing, storyboards and designs through animation till color grading.
We had a team of almost 80 wonderful people, the majority of whom were in Poland, but at our studio in Warsaw we managed to meet only once during the whole production — for a celebration related to the premiere cinema screening of Odo during Kids Kino Festival.
How do you create the show’s distinctive 2D animation?
We are using Toon Boom Harmony. We have used that for most of our previous shows we worked on. However, this time we feel we really pushed it to the limit of what can be achieved visually. We have developed a technique of lighting and shading that in combination with very specific character design we were able to achieve the look we call 2.5D. That technique not only allowed the characters to pop out from the background, but also gave them more theatrical expression and visual articulation of their personality. Technical solutions followed the creative vision and determination. We are proud of how the show looks and the way it is supporting the meaning of the stories.
What do you love best about this series?
Odo is the show that feels very close to who we are, what we do and what we would like to offer kids to watch. It has a charm that has attracted and united people around a shared goal during production — we were able to feel that especially during all the hassles and challenges that a production of that scale inevitably faces.
Aiming for the highest standards, directors Mikołaj Pilchowski and Piotr Szczepanowicz gave the team enough freedom to experiment but sufficient support so that the vision of what we are trying to achieve was articulated clearly. Thanks to the production overview from Anna Głowik, there was always a clarity on what we can afford without anyone dominating the process and having enough time to make the decision. Finally, the shared understanding of what stories we want to tell under the command of Colin William made that show so special and vital to us.
How do you think it’s different from other animated preschool properties?
We worked hard to make Odo a relatable and lovable character. We feel proud and responsible for who he is. We wanted him to have freedom and fun in friendships he builds and motivations he feels. We think Odo is unique as each kid is unique. If we can help in increasing the self-belief in the viewers at least a little — that is what really matters to us.
Can you talk about the visual style of the show?
This is the area that has its roots in the illustrations by Alena Tkach and went through many stages of transformation at Letko development. We wanted to evoke the feeling of being outside on a sunny day in the forest. We wanted the characters to pop out and feel more attractive to the viewers. We wanted to create the feeling as if kids were playing with little figures of the characters on the floor, watching them closely and making them part of their own stories.
Detailed backgrounds with rich textures and warm colors were set in contrast to the gradient filled characters that had lights and shadows projected on them. That combination worked very well, especially once we have set the balance right. The theatrical posing and experimental perspectives were used to keep the playfulness of the action visible as much as possible. We have characters with certain dramatic roles: toucans and chickens bring jokes, hummingbirds bring music and the peacock or the flamingos create a visual surprise whenever they appear on screen. We have also introduced a color grading stage at the end to make sure that we have enough depth in the scenes and that a very rich environment has the right tone and contrast.
You’ve worked on some amazing animated projects over the past decade… What is your take on the animation scene in 2022?
We are very proud of delivering Odo right now and believe that there couldn’t be a better moment for kids to watch Odo than these days. History has really been speeding up and challenging many foundations of our culture recently. I believe that stories encouraging individual development and responsibility for the community are very helpful and can create change for the better in the long run. Animation is very powerful by communicating in an abstract and playful manner — that channel of communication is a privilege and obligation to take charge of what stories kids will be raised on.
What kind of advice would you give those who want to work in animation for preschoolers?
Kids love stories that matter. They love being entertained, but they also sense the underlying meaning even at a very early age. It is good to know as much as possible about how kids develop and how your story is communicating with them being at that particular stage.
I strongly believe that artistic expression is one of the very important qualities of visual storytelling, but also that the secret lies in the specific balance between art and appeal. Between quality and attracting attention. Between creating something fresh and new and something that feels very close and relatable. There is no fixed formula saying how to achieve that balance, but articulating that idea in the realm of each project can already be the first step forward in that direction.
Odo is nominated for an Annie Award for Best TV/Media – Preschool. The series airs on Cartoon Network’s preschool block Cartoonito and streams on HBO Max as well. For more info, visit odo.tv and letko.co