“Lost Ollie” has been found, and it’s on Netflix right now.
The four-episode series, loosely based on a book by William Joyce (“Ollie’s Odyssey”), was in development for more than a decade. What started out as a project from Joyce’s own production entity was eventually rescued by Netflix and 21 Laps, one of the production companies behind “Stranger Things.” That’s when Shannon Tindle, an incredibly talented designer and animator who had created Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” came up with her version of the story, which follows a lost toy (voiced by Jonathan Groff), who comes together to a couple of mismatched toys. toys (played by Tim Blake Nelson and Mary J. Blige) and sets off in search of his owner, deep in the American South.
And to chart Ollie’s odyssey, Tindle found the perfect partners: chiefly director Peter Ramsey, who is one of the most influential storyboard artists in modern cinema and the filmmaker behind DreamWorks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians.” (another Joyce adaptation) and co-director on Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and innovative visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, who were responsible for bringing Ollie and his friends to life.
What Lost Ollie Looks Like, and More Importantly feel – unlike anything aimed at a younger audience. Yes, there are talking toys, which may remind you of Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies. But there is both Terrence Malick and “Toy Story” in “Lost Ollie.” In the way the live-action/animated series is photographed, which oscillates between naturalism and poeticism, and in the veracity of its emotional range, there is nothing like it. (It also covers heavier topics like the racial divide of the South and the failings of the American health care system. You know, kid stuff!) It’s incredibly powerful stuff.
TheWrap spoke with Ramsey about what it was like to bring “Lost Ollie” home, working with ILM, and getting those big reveals. Ramsey also talks about what will hopefully be his next project: a high-concept supernatural detective film set in the 1950s from Paramount.
Can you talk about working with William Joyce? You’ve worked with him before. I read the synopsis for the book that “Lost Ollie” is based on and it was very, very different.
Yes, it is very different. This turns around, it’s funny. The two times I worked on Bill’s stories… There was a reason we couldn’t work together directly and that was on “Rise of the Guardians.” He had a tragedy with his family, the death of his daughter forced him to withdraw from the project for a while, but we talked and had a lot of great creative conversations and he’s a wonderful guy, obviously super talented in terms of illustration, his imagination, just this crazy prolific storyteller. Here on “Lost Ollie”, when I was associated with the project, Shannon had already submitted her version of the book which had deviated from the original story, but Netflix really loved it and when I started reading what Shannon was doing, I loved it too.
Basically, he was inspired by Bill’s original story, but he brought a lot of himself. He set it in his hometown. I think the idea of a little boy with basically an imaginary friend, some kind of spirit animal, a spirit friend, really spoke to him. And there were a lot of things in that story of loss and search that connected with it and you could read it and as soon as I started reading the pages it was clear, Shannon just has this talent that I really love so I was in from the moment it started. to show me things.
Did you know immediately how you were going to film and stage this story?
Right away, as we were talking about the project, very early on, before I had any idea that I was going to be recruited to do any of that, we talked about the tone. Because Shannon and I, over the course of our friendship, shared each other’s writing. He reads my stuff, I read his, and I’ve always been a huge fan of his, so the tone of what he wanted to do was clear from the start and we started talking about inspiration for the look and feel. the idea that this was a fantasy that took place in a place where fantasies don’t usually happen.
That was something I could really relate to growing up in South Central, it wasn’t the most conducive place for flights of fancy to happen right before your eyes, and Shannon felt the same way about her hometown. But the idea that we want to capture both, we want to capture something that has the texture and feel of a real place and a real common place and just oppose that with these little people in a huge world on an adventure to find something that they have lost. It’s the same story running in parallel.
These episodes also deal with some pretty serious issues. Was that always part of the plan?
It really was kind of stealth and I have to commend Netflix for allowing us the freedom in so many ways to tell the story that we really wanted and adhere to the vision that Shannon had, which was, we don’t want to sand all the rough edges. It will not be controversial. It’s not going to push any particular issue directly, but we want this to feel like a real world and real life.
And it was interesting even the way we wrapped up the casting, we had to do a lot of the casting outside of Vancouver, where we were shooting, and we had to juggle people’s schedules. And it all came together in a kind of mosaic, but it ended up lining up once we had Gina. [Rodriguez] and we had Kesler [Talbot]that he’s our fantastic young star actor, that pairing him up actually echoed something that Shannon had considered a long time ago when she was writing that Billy and his mother would be from different ethnic backgrounds and that that issue would arise in the South.
It just came up in a kind of, I don’t know, weird Kismet way of saying, “Hey, okay, go ahead. Talk about those things, get into those things” and it’s great because they’re all organic. They don’t feel obligated to participate in the story, I don’t think so.
Can you talk about working with ILM and what that process was like for you?
It was a dream, man. Not only because it was an ILM and they are the best of the best, but the people there, we were able to work with the ILM London team led by Hayden Jones, Stefan Drury and Christine Lemon. And we also work with people outside of the Vancouver office and it was just a love fest. Shannon and I both come out of animation and it’s a slightly different culture than live action VFX in that yes, you’re dealing with a vendor that provides you with a service, but in animation it tends to be more of a collaborative thing. . I think from the beginning, we tried to emphasize that culture and Hayden and the team, they loved it, they blossomed under it and it was a real artistic exchange that we were able to have.
I think that’s why, in large part, we got from them the quality of work that we did because because of what we did these four episodes in the time that we had and the budget that we had, it’s unheard of that we could hit the bar that we did. And ILM, I think they rose to the challenge and loved the material from the individual artists, everyone, there was so much love and good will from ILM for this that I think you can see in the work and care.
There are some pretty big reveals in the last two episodes. Can you talk about making sure those moments come?
In creating them, we had a lot of time to… well, quite a bit of time. You have three years to make a feature film basically, and we came close… We may have had some animation worthy of a feature film. We had about that and a year and a half to do it. But with that said, you’re iterating. You’re thinking about these scenes, we shot all the live-action footage in Vancouver and that was a breakneck pace as well. We just had to make sure that we had our kind of signal moments, the things that we were heading towards, which were those revelations that we had to land on.
We couldn’t give away and I hope I’m not spoiling it here in this interview, but there was a lot of legwork to do and be very careful about what we were implying or what we were revealing so as not to steal from the power of that moment. But when we got to making them, it was like finally having your dessert after a dinner of broccoli and cabbage soup or whatever. It was like, Oh Lord. I think everyone felt that those moments were very powerful. We really wanted to nail those things.
Can we talk about “Blood Count” for a minute? I think ’50s film noir with supernatural elements’ is my Winter Soldier trigger phrase.
I’m in rewrites on the script. I’m very happy with where the script is now. I’ve been back and forth with Paramount a couple of times and have done the usual balancing act of tackling their notes while staying true to what I want to be and so far so good. I’m going to deliver a new draft soon and I hope you like it, but so far all the systems are still working and I just hope you feel strong enough about it that we can start moving.
It sounds like “Devil in a Blue Dress” with a real devil.
I mean, in a way you could say that and for me, the challenge is to surprise people and see how far it goes beyond that. And in a way it’s because it’s about, I think the time frame is probably a few years later than “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but it’s still the same real estate. God, if Denzel Washington was 20 again, man, he’d be ideal for the lead role, but we can’t have everything, and the fun of this is going to be, for me, really digging into that period as deep as I can because it’s a big moment. There’s so much, it’s romantic, it’s enough today that it’ll feel familiar, but it’s different enough that there’s really cool and fun stuff. Lots of fun to have with that.
“Lost Ollie” is now streaming on Netflix.