Co-creators Rikke Asbjoern and Chris Garbutt discuss their new non-linear animated film about an indoor cat and dog who wake to find all humans have disappeared, then venture into the outside world for the first time to either save - or destroy - the universe; show debuts on the streamer today.
Today is a historic day for Netflix, as the platform has released its largest interactive special to date: We Lost Our Human.
“I am quite excited to see what the percentage is going to be between cat person or dog person,” says Rikke Asbjoern, co-creator with Chris Garbutt, with whom she also created the animated series, Pinky Malinky. “This is that age old question that might finally be answered.”
We Lost Our Human, produced by Netflix Animation and Inside Job’s Taco Guci with animation from Sonic Prime’s Jam Filled Entertainment, is a one-hour and forty-three-minute animated interactive film about an indoor cat Pud (Ben Schwartz) and dog Ham (Ayo Edebiri) who wake up to find that all humans have disappeared from Earth, including their own. Desperate to find their owner, these two homebound pets venture for the first time into the outside world and discover strange mysteries, meet bizarre creatures, and maybe – with the audience’s help – save the universe along the way… or, potentially, destroy it depending on what choices the viewer makes.
“We’ve never done a non-linear story like this before and that was part of the big attraction, to break new ground and explore a format that hasn't been fully opened up to the world,” says Garbutt. “The technology to make these interactive works on streaming services has only been around for a couple of years. So, it's a great chance to carve out a new path.”
Asbjoern adds, “It was a steep learning curve, but it was also really exciting to be thrown into the unknown. I think it’s something we both enjoy, taking on something relatively new. And there hasn't been a lot of this stuff. And there hasn't been anything on this scale.”
Previous interactive specials have been minimalistic in the way they approach options given to the viewers as well as the corresponding results. Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous: Hidden Adventure, for example, had numerous choices that viewers could make as the core character Darius but, in the end, there were only two outcomes and limited variables. We Lost Our Human, however, has billions of different variations.
“Someone who worked on the technical side of stuff at Netflix put together a bunch of statistics for us, and one of those statistics was, if you wanted to watch this in every single possible way that you could experience it, and get to all the different variations, there are over 87 billion different ways of doing that,” shares Garbutt. “If anyone manages to watch it, all of those 87 billion different times, and can prove it, we'll give them a t-shirt.”
Asbjoern chimes in, “Also, the first person to send me a detailed map of the whole project, I’ll draw them an original artwork. All they have to do is complete an impossible task.”
Asbjoern says the only project of a similar size to We Lost Our Human is the 2018 interactive live-action film, Bandersnatch, which is part of the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror.
In Bandersnatch, viewers make decisions for the main character, a young programmer who is adapting a fantasy gamebook into a video game in 1984. Difficulty in writing the interactive script led to Netflix's creation of a bespoke program called Branch Manager, and the unique nature of the content required adaptations in the platform's use of cache memory. Bandersnatch was originally set to be part of Black Mirror's fifth season, but its lengthy production led to its release as a standalone film.
And We Lost Our Human is an even larger feature.
“Bandersnatch is the only thing size-wise that comes close to what we were creating, so we couldn't really use a blueprint from any other animation projects that had come before because they were so much smaller,” notes Asbjoern. “There was a lot of guesswork upfront because it had to be. A lot of cold sweat went into making this.”
But they weren’t totally in the dark. In addition to having Netflix’s support and members of their team who had worked on interactives before, one of the Bandersnatch producers also weighed in on Garbutt and Asbjoern’s story and pipeline, giving them pointers on how to approach this massive worldbuilding they were undertaking.
“The first thing that Rikke and I did when we joined Netflix on this project was to do a linear outline, like a golden path outline, where we wrote the beginning, middle, and end in that linear story vein,” explains Garbutt. “Once that was approved, the two of us and a couple of writers and the script coordinator were all in a room together and put the linear version of the outline up on boards on the wall and then we just started to build in choice points and see where those choice points could branch off and follow storylines in that respect.”
He continues, “And we had an order to it so we couldn't just branch off in a million different directions and not figure out how things might link back together. It was a balance between allowing ourselves to be very free in the room in terms of allowing the story to flow off in these interesting directions, but also being able to rein it in.”
Both creators believe the simple foundation of their story – two animals in search of their lost owner – factored into the success of the film’s production.
“Interactive specials always have the potential to become incredibly confusing,” says Asbjoern. “You can lose your way very quickly. So, whenever you can land on something that's super simple to go alongside it, it's always very helpful. And I suppose, underneath that idea, we just always had the hope that if we disappeared, our pets would journey to the center of the universe to find us again. That's probably what every other pet owner thinks as well. But the truth is, they would probably forget about us.”
“Especially cats,” adds Garbutt. “They don’t give a shit.”
The special, filled with Doraemon manga-inspired animation and epic music scores, also relied on the communication skills of its production team.
“The checking process for everything was endless,” says Asbjoern. “The whole thing was like building Legos; everything was connected, and some segments had multiple connections to other segments, and we had to make sure everything worked together. We refused to say the words, ‘This is locked’ because we always had to keep the door open. If we made a mistake somewhere further down the line, there was a possibility we had to go all the way back and change something. It’s definitely not the ideal way to produce animation.”
And if any aspect of the production lagged, it had the potential to halt multiple animatics. So, an interactive schedule had to be built within the interactive special pipeline.
“Animation is always a team effort, but even more so with something as insane as this,” shares Garbutt. “Thankfully, we are pretty organized and like to be involved in every aspect of production. And you really need to have that organization skill, because as soon as you let anything slip, it can get incredibly chaotic very quickly. So, we had to factor that into the schedule, giving ourselves an allowance at the end of everything to make little adjustments if needed. If you can get everyone in production on board with that, it’s not as impossible as it sounds.”
But despite the exhaustive challenges, both Garbutt and Asbjoern note the freedom that came with the non-linear writing process would entice them to revisit the world of interactive specials in a heartbeat.
“It’s really a dream come true,” says Asbjoern. “If we wanted to make a character bad in one realm of the story and good in another, we could go there. It’s something I think most people joke about when they do animation because they know that they're never really allowed to go fully down that road. But we could. We even joked that no one on the production really knew what this whole thing was about until it was finished. Even Ben, who's Pud, said once in the last recording we had with him, ‘I have no idea what this thing is.’”
Garbutt adds, “There are so many different permutations of these stories that can happen, not just because of one choice, but the combination of choices. We’d even love to do a sequel to We Lost Our Human. So, if anyone wants to do one, let us know.”