Beloved toys come to life often in popular children’s books, TV shows and movies. But we have never seen them blend so beautifully into the live-action world as we do in the new Netflix mini-series Lost Ollie. Inspired by the acclaimed William Joyce book Ollie’s Odyssey, the four-part production was created by industry veteran Shannon Tindle and directed by Oscar winner Peter Ramsey.
The engrossing storyline centers on a lost stuffed toy (voiced by Jonathan Groff) who searches the countryside to be reunited with the sensitive young boy (Kesler Talbot) who lost him. The dynamite cast also features the voices of Mary J. Blige and Tim Blake Nelson, Gina Rodriguez and Jake Johnson. The project is quite impressive in the way it tackles powerful, darker subjects such as loss and separation for a family audience, as well as how it mixes performances by the live-action actors and backgrounds with CG-animated characters (courtesy of the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic).
Tindle, who is best known for his stand-out character design and storyboards on features such as Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline and The Croods and TV series such as Samurai Jack and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, was contacted by Netflix’s director of original series Ted Biaselli in the fall of 2018 about adapting Joyce’s book to a hybrid series. “I remember reading it and connecting to the material immediately,” he recalls. “I know the book came from a very personal place for Bill Joyce; I grew up in the South and wanted to make it personal for me as well, so I decided to set it in my hometown of Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The producers (Shawn Levy, Josh Barry and Emily Morris) seemed to dig my pitch and were crazy enough to hire me, so I started writing it in late 2018, early 2019.”
Although Tindle had always worked in animation, he welcomed the chance to work in this hybrid format. “I was excited because I like telling stories, regardless of the medium,” he mentions. “The producers liked my big swings and interpretations. I have a very different approach to the way the magic works in this world. In the original, there are lots of objects that talk, besides the toys. But in our show, only kids who believe can hear the toys. Ollie is precious to Billy because his mom made it. They don’t have a lot of money to buy things, which is how it was in our family. I wanted to really preserve the core of what it feels like to lose someone.”
“I want audiences to see Ollie, Rosie and Zozo as real characters, not just as toys and puppets. More than anything, I hope the show will lead to families talking about and discussing loss.”
— Creator Shannon Tindle
Tindle says he was also fortunate that his longtime friend and colleague Peter Ramsey was available and came on board to direct. “We worked together at DreamWorks when he was directing Rise of the Guardians (which is, incidentally, also based on a book by William Joyce) and I was also at Sony when he was directing Spider-Verse. We hit it off from the very beginning, and when I moved back to L.A. after working on Kubo, we became instant friends. We always read each other’s stuff, and he read all the drafts of Lost Ollie before I asked him to join the project.”
Ramsey, who is also currently exec producing Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, was initially supposed to direct two of the four episodes of the show, but when Tindle’s other project Ultraman was greenlit around the same time, he agreed to help his friend by helming all four episodes. “If you hear Shannon’s version, he asked me to direct all the episodes, but the way I remember it, he just told me I had to do all four!” jokes the in-demand director/producer. “I’d been reading the scripts for a year and a half before it went to pre-production, even before we had a writing room. I knew the depth that Shannon was going to bring to the story. I’m a huge fan of his writing. That’s what drew me in. He takes material that on the surface looks like a typical family and children’s fare, but he manages to infuse it with such depth and sincerity. He doesn’t shy away from darker, more painful truths and confronts a lot of things that other shows point away from or try to anesthetize.”
“It was a great experience, but we were thrown into the deep end with all the things that you weren’t supposed to have in one project: kids, puppets, weather, animals … all together with one crazy fast schedule,” recalls Ramsey.
One of the project’s biggest challenges for Tindle was making the show’s puppet stars believable as living, breathing characters which interacted with the humans. “We had incredible puppeteers on the set, and we knew from the beginning that we were going to use CG,” he notes. “We were lucky because we had partners that trusted us. We knew early on that ILM was going to help us with the CG animation. From the point of view of Netflix, it was all about going with the best, and it was evident from the first test they knew how to make these characters believable.”
Ramsey agrees. “One of the most challenging aspects was managing the gulf between what you want the show to look like and what it looks like when you begin post!” he admits. “If you could only see the dailies with us, with me narrating while someone is running a puppet around our set! The poor execs were looking at the dailies wondering what was supposed to be happening. They were pretty good about biding their time to see what the results were going to be. Of course, animation is an incremental process. It’s always tough to imagine the end result before the flowers start to bloom.”
The show’s puppet characters were designed by Tindle and Kei Acadera and then, were brought to life by puppet designer Scott Johnson and fabricated by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Tindle praises the work of the project’s puppet consultant Ritamarie Peruggi, a Creature Shop veteran who also worked as a producer on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Earth to Ned and Fraggle Rock, as well as ILM’s VFX producers Hayden Jones and Stefan Drury. “I loved working with them,” he says. “I think one of the reasons our digital characters look so great is that we had the actual puppets built, and they were brought to life by our amazing puppeteers. Then, we added the digital versions of the puppets in post.”
“I knew the depth that Shannon was going to bring to the story. He takes material that on the surface looks like a typical family and children’s fare, but he manages to infuse it with such depth and sincerity.”
— Director Peter Ramsey
Discussing the show’s sources of inspirations, Tindle says he reached out deep into his own memories of growing up in a small town in Kentucky. “Folks don’t have a lot, and fantasy and imagination are hard to come by in places like that,” he says. “Our director of photography, C. Kim Miles, brought this big look to the show at a very compressed schedule. We were looking at classic films like Badlands and The Black Stallion for inspiration. We shot the majority of it in Vancouver, with the exception of one week that was done in my hometown. The location scout showed me a sign for the church, which was welded by my uncle. My aunt, uncle and grandmother are all buried in that church cemetery.”
After putting so much of his own personal passion into this project, Tindle hopes audiences find themselves reflected in the world of Lost Ollie and its characters. “I want them to have fun and to be surprised,” he says. “I want audiences to see Ollie, Rosie and Zozo as real characters, not just as toys and puppets. More than anything, I hope the show will lead to families talking about and discussing loss. It’s about the importance of celebrating a loved one’s life and cherishing their memory. Just because they’re not with us anymore doesn’t mean we can’t still love them and remember the good times we had together.”
Lost Ollie premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, August 24.
Check out the trailer below: