For series creator and executive producer Shannon Tindle, the show’s toys, living alongside live-action human characters, must be believable, experiencing hardship and pain as well as joy and fun.
To be so well-loved, to be played with so often that, ever so slowly, you suffer wear and tear to the point of falling apart. It sounds morbid, but it’s every toy’s dream. At least, in the land of Lost Ollie. But it’s also this ongoing physical decline that makes Lost Ollie’s CG toy characters so real, and believable, alongside the hybrid series’ live-action actors.
“These toys have to live in scenes alongside other human characters, and they have to be believably interacting with them,” explains Shannon Tindle, creator, and executive producer of the limited series, Lost Ollie, now available to stream on Netflix. “And, in live-action, you have all this ability to be spontaneous because things happen that you didn't plan. But, in animation, it’s almost impossible to get spontaneity. But if you build things into the characters that might frustrate them or give them more challenges just in how they're built, it makes them more interesting and more real.”
Directed by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s Peter Ramsey and produced by 21 Laps Entertainment and Flight School Studio, Lost Ollie follows the epic quest of a toy rabbit who’s lost his way home. Joined by a carnival clown named Zozo and a disheveled, patchworked teddy bear, the kind-hearted but determined bunny Ollie journeys down rivers, past trolls and through his and other toys’ dark, hidden memories to return to his best friend Billy.
The journey itself – with CGI and special effects provided by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) –seems intense for a small, six-inch-high toy. But it’s made even more heart-stopping with each character dealing with not just one, but sometimes two, physical challenges. As viewers will discover, Zozo wasn’t always a mobile clown. Rosy is living on borrowed limbs and, for Ollie, it’s his floppy ears.
“That was a fight, by the way, to have his ears be hanging down,” notes Tindle. “There’s even a joke about it with Zozo in Episode 1 where he's like, ‘How come your ears don't stand up like Bugs Bunny?’”
Tindle, known for his character design work in Kubo and the Two Strings, along with Wish Dragon’s Kei Acedera, designed all Lost Ollie’s characters, with the two collaborating on Zozo and Rosy while Tindle flew solo on Ollie.
“At one point there was a note from Netflix asking, ‘Why can't his ears stand up?’” remembers Tindle. “First off, composing a shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio would be crazy if his ears stood up. And, since they are floppy, he can do a lot of things with those ears. He can hug himself with them, they can get in his way, they can frustrate him. I like building that nuance into a character. Having Ollie’s ears hanging down was a hill I was ready to die on. And I won that one.”
The very first Ollie images released featured the toy bunny hugging his ears in the rain, a visual Tindle created after testing out poses with an actual Ollie puppet he made to help with storyboarding.
“Animation is just an extension of my writing and I wanted to let the tone of the story dictate the design of these characters,” explains Tindle. “When I first started the writing process, before I even started officially, I designed Ollie, and then I had a friend of mine, Maria Andreotti, who I worked with on Kubo, make me an Ollie off of my designs, so I could have it for inspiration while I was working on the show and putting him in poses.”
From the get-go, Ollie’s ears are practically characters in their own right. Aside from spending most of the show nervously playing with his floppy appendages, having them thrown in his face, tripping over them while running from dogs, or using them to help save a friend, Ollie uses them to show how toys can experience pain just like humans. Fabric tears are painful, as is getting stitched back up, or having them punctured by a tag.
“We were always hyper-aware that, in the big swings that we took in the show, there is a very fine line between when something feels like a joke and when it shouldn't feel like a joke,” says Tindle. “In Toy Story, if somebody's arm pops off, it's no big deal. But, with this show, when they pop a stitch, it hurts. There's pain and they can die. And this is not me disparaging Toy Story, because they're one of my favorite series of films ever. But I also wanted to subvert the idea that these toys can’t feel pain.”
In fact, some of the characters’ most endearing features – a patch on the heart, Rosy’s reptile leg, and Zozo’s eye divot – become sensitive topics relative to a near-death experience, bad life choices, or what connects them to their loved ones.
“We wanted to make sure we preserved that tone, and we were religious and fanatical in our support of that tone because, if a cut was wrong or a performance didn't quite land, it goes from being emotional to being silly really quickly, and we just couldn't afford that on the show,” says Tindle.
He continues, “When you want to show a character being hit, and it hurts and it's not played for a joke, the animation has to be just right, or people will laugh instead of going ‘Oh, God.’ There's a moment in Episode 1 where Peter, after we finished it, goes, “Did we go too far?” And I was like, ‘No, we didn't. And the fact that you still feel that way means we went as hard and as emotional as we should have gone.’”