Two determined pets need viewers’ help to reunite with their owner in We Lost Our Human, a new interactive animated special coming to Netflix on Tuesday, March 21. Conceived by Pinky Malinky creators Rikke Asbjoern and Chris Garbutt, this multi-variable adventure begins when Pud the Cat and Ham the Dog awaken to find that every human on Earth has disappeared. Audiences will help guide the intrepid fuzzballs as they set out into the world for the first time, and end up on a wild trip through the universe.
Produced by Netflix Animation and Jam Filled Entertainment and featuring the voices of Ben Schwartz, Ayo Edebiri, Adrienne C. Moore and Lauren Tom, We Lost Our Human is a narratively and technically ambitious project for the streamer, with more than 87 billion possible decision tracks to reach the special’s different conclusions. Asbjoern and Garbutt recently answered a few questions about their “heartfelt, bonkers, yet ridiculously epic tale.”
Animation Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about the beginnings of the project?
Rikke Asbjoern & Chris Garbutt: We created WLOH just after we’d finished making Pinky Malinky, around the summer of 2018. We were throwing together a bunch of new ideas, and had heard that Netflix were looking for an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure-style project, so we came up with this idea to specifically fit that format.
The initial pitch consisted of a handful of pages (a cover page, a written synopsis, and some mood board images). Netflix immediately responded to the story and characters, and after a bit of further fleshing out of the pitch deck, they brought us in-house to their new animation studio in Hollywood to develop it further.
What was the initial inspiration for the special?
We always knew that we wanted this to be a very character-driven story, so we took a lot of the character-based inspiration for the personalities of Pud and Ham from our own cats, and their relationship (or at least how we see their relationship in our heads).
From an interactive perspective, we were very much inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books we both read as kids, as well as the healthy diet of D&D and video games we’d both grew up on!
How long did it take to produce the animation and which tools did you use in the process?
We started with Netflix in October 2018 and finished the project May 2022, so the entire process, from the beginning of development to handing the final special to Netflix, took around 44 months in total!
The first bunch of months, up until around Spring/Summer 2019, were spent in development, and then we hit production some time in the summer of 2019. It’s a huge and very complex project, so that’s why it took quite a bit of time. Also, we were hit with the pandemic at the very busiest point in our production, so that kind of slowed things down a little, too!
It was animated by Jam Filled in Ottawa and was mostly done in Harmony, with a lot of extra compositing and noodling in Fusion. There are also a handful of 3D/CG elements, too. We had an in-house technical director, Jess Idlehart, on our side of things, who took the lead in helping to set up the approach to the compositing, which really aided in pushing and elevating the look of the special.
Was the story always meant to be an interactive project or did that evolve as you went further into development?
It was always meant to be interactive. When we heard that Netflix were looking for an interactive project we wanted to come up with something that could only really exist as a story within that format, with it’s intertwining, parallel storylines. So, the whole idea was aimed at interactive from the very start.
A reason for this was that we wanted to make sure that the interactive element didn’t feel like a gimmick, and was an integral part of the whole experience. The story is kind of about choices, with these two little indoor fluffballs being forced to go out into the big wide universe to try and find their human, as well as find themselves, through the consequence of their choices!
What did you love about this experience?
Everything! It was thoroughly rewarding throughout! Don’t get us wrong, it was incredibly challenging, and a very hard project to pull off, but that challenge — and the fact that we were treading unchartered territory with this format and the scale of what we were doing — made it all super exciting!
The writing stage was definitely a highlight. This began with us writing a linear ‘golden path’ outline of the whole story. The basic ‘beginning, middle and end’, but without any of the diverging paths. Once that had been approved, we created a writers room consisting of the two of us, two other writers and a script coordinator. We had giant cork boards all over the walls and, using Post-it notes, we laid out the whole story from the linear ‘golden path’ outline, across acts one, two and three.
From there, we started to build in ‘choice-points’ (the interactive choose-your-own-adventure choices) and experimented with where the story would branch off, and where those alternative paths would take us, ultimately crafting the giant interactive behemoth that it became! This was an incredibly creative and rewarding part of the process.
Once we started heading towards production, it was also very exciting to work with our line producer, Mani Beil, to figure out and develop a brand new pipeline for how we would technically pull off this unique format across pre-production, animation production and post. Thankfully, we had the full trust and support of Netflix who allowed us to make this in the way we thought would work best.
Another real highlight was the fantastic cast and crew who all worked incredibly hard to make WLOH what it is. Animation is first and foremost a collaborative effort, so we wanted to build a team that would bring the very best of themselves to the project, and they did just that.
Can you describe the visual style of We Lost Our Human?
Because of the budget, we knew from day one that this would need to be a 2D animated project, especially as the asset count was always going to be huge because of the nature of the adventure our characters were going on. An entirely 3D production would just not have been financially viable!
I (Chris) headed up the design team as art director, with Elaine Wu and Su Moon working alongside me as design supervisors. Having worked with Jam Filled before on Pinky Malinky, using the software Harmony, we were aware of the technical parameters of that software. Then it was all about how do we push the look within the resources we had!
More than anything, we really wanted WLOH to look cinematic, epic, with a very rich and sophisticated approach to color and light, and be reaching for a more feature-like mood and tone. So, we really pushed the scale of things, with these tiny, little, helpless household pets on this huge adventure across massive landscapes. We also wanted to marry the big cinematic approach with a very graphic look, but one that also had a good amount of volume and depth alongside that aesthetic.
For specific design inspiration with the characters, we looked at a lot of the ‘cartoony’ end of Japanese manga and anime, as well as Japanese packaging, logo and mascot design, so it has a real Japanese flavor to the look.
Who are your biggest animation influences?
Rikke: Miyazaki and a life-long obsession with Donald Duck!
Chris: Whenever I’m doing anything in animation, illustration or comics, there’s often a little voice at the back of my brain saying, “What would Steve Small do?” He’s a director at Studio AKA in the U.K. He’s an incredible unsung talent and a wonderful human!
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
First off, the pandemic hit us right at the very busiest point of preproduction, just as our design crew were about to start. So, that definitely brought with it unique challenges that everyone would be all too familiar with. But, Netflix were amazing at getting everyone set up and providing support, both technically and emotionally!
In terms of challenges related to the format, one major hurdle was adjusting to how long some aspects of production took compared to the time it would take on a regular, linear production. For example, when it came to storyboarding and animatic editing, there were often multiple sequences that could possibly connect to multiple other sequences, because of the branching, many-pathed nature of the format. So, we had to spend A lot of time checking how shots hook-up across and into the many possible other shots that they could connect to. That extra checking, and subsequent revisions, definitely took a lot longer than we expected.
What are your thoughts on interactivity in animation?
Having never done this kind of project before, we really didn’t know what to expect. At first, we were a little concerned that the demands of audience interaction within the narrative might be at loggerheads with our vision for a very character-driven story. But thankfully, that was something we really didn’t need to worry about. It’s a fantastic format and a truly creative, exciting and limitless way to both produce and experience films and storytelling.
This format feels like it can really bring people together to enjoy interacting with content as more of a shared experience. Whether it’s at home or at the cinema, it’s the perfect opportunity to fight and scream at each other over which choice a character should make! It feels like there’s so much more to explore with this format, both in it’s production and how it’s consumed, which within an industry that can be set in it’s ways sometimes, is a very exciting prospect indeed!
What was the biggest lesson you learned from this experience that you would like to tell (warn!) other animation professionals about interactivity!?
First off, every step of the production is going to take a lot longer than you think. Plan for this up front in the schedule and budget. Also, the building of an interactive story is incredibly complicated, so you need to be very organized with every aspect of production. And lastly, if you’ve never produced interactive content before, consult with and listen to people who have.
One example of why this is important is the major difference that interactive has compared to linear storytelling when it comes to audience expectation. Because we’re encouraging the audience to ‘sit up’ and actually interact with the content, rather than just passively watching the story unfold, there is a different kind of expectation as to how that interaction should be ‘rewarded’. We had three narrative design consultants working with us at different times along the production to help bring their knowledge from video games and other interactive content, so we could understand how best to approach that part of the process.