The touching, visually stunning hybrid live-action/CG animated adaptation of Oscar winner William Joyce’s children’s book, about a lost toy braving danger as he searches the countryside for the boy who lost him, premieres today on Netflix.
At 13 years old, Peter Ramsey’s daughter lost her most cherished possession: a doll handmade by her mother. The Oscar, BAFTA, and Annie Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse director describes the experience as one of “real grief.”
“Since she was in her crib, this little doll was like an extension of her,” says Ramsey. “And it had been lost before. I don't know how many times that thing had been left in the park or supermarket. And we always went back to find it and it always turned up. But, at one point, she left it on a plane, and we didn't find it.”
It was a devastating blow, but it was a loss that Ramsey drew from while directing Shannon Tindle’s Lost Ollie, a Netflix adaptation of Ollie's Odyssey, the 2016 children's book by Oscar-winning director and prolific filmmaker, author, and illustrator William (Bill) Joyce. The four-part live-action/ CG animation hybrid series, which follows the epic adventures of a lost toy named Ollie who braves the many dangers of childhood as he searches the countryside to reunite with the boy who lost him, premieres on the streamer today, August 24.
The series is produced by 21 Laps Entertainment and Flight School Studio with CGI and special effects provided by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
“When I read this story, it was like, ‘Yeah, I know what that feels like,’” says Ramsey. “I know how real that is, to lose something you love so much, and a lot of what it means about growing up and about how much you can invest in something that has its own personal meaning to you.”
While Ramsey is the first to admit that “I’m not mister funny animal toy guy… ask anybody who knows me,” he says that Tindle’s vision to take a story about a lost toy and make it about something so much more was what sealed the deal for him.
“Shannon’s got this gift for taking a premise that seems fantastical or light or playful, and infusing it with something real and heartfelt,” says Ramsey. “What Shannon did with the story and the human grounding, the spine that he gave it, it was so strong and compelling that I could see how to do it. I could see his vision was strong enough and relatable enough that it was easy for me to sign on.”
“Bill has experienced a lot of loss, having lost his wife and daughter, and his channeling that through these stories is something I wanted to honor because I've lost a lot of folks that I love,” adds executive producer Tindle. “My favorite stories are ones that teach. And I want to surprise folks. I want them to expect one thing and give them something else. And that something else is something that might promote conversation. I don't want it to be something you forget as soon as you finish it.”
Tindle, Ramsey, and Joyce had all worked together previously on DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians (2012), on which Tindle spent considerable time in the story room with Joyce. Though Tindle says he had always loved Joyce’s books, he was not aware of Ollie's Odyssey until Netflix director Teddy Biaselli called Tindle with a pitch.
“I was approached in 2018 by Teddy, who is a good friend of mine and works in the live-action side at Netflix,” explains Tindle. “He had seen a leaked Haunted Mansion teaser that I’d developed and was like, ‘Dude, we got to work on something together.’ So, he sent me the initial materials for Lost Ollie. I was headed to Germany for the Stuttgart film festival and while I was on the plane, I read the materials and also read the book.”
He continues, “There were things that I responded to about both, but the biggest thing for me was that this was an opportunity for me to set this in my Kentucky hometown and tell an emotional story about loss. And if Netflix was willing to do that, with family entertainment, talk about things that I think we avoid far too often as people and parents, then this would be something I'd be very interested in. I got back from Germany, met with Teddy and Carolina Garcia at Netflix, and with Josh Berry and Emily Morris at 21 Laps Entertainment and said, ‘Here's what I want to do with it and if you think I'm crazy, that’s fine,’ but they were like, ‘We love it.’”
The first episode sets Lost Ollie up to be a Homeward-Bound-with-toys kind of story but, as Tindle says, “Keep watching. The tone completely changes at the end of Episode 2.” As the story goes on, Lost Ollie wades into deeper waters about the many different kinds of loss, including friends, family, true loves, or beloved toys.
“Stories help me cope,” says Tindle. “And if I can make something that helps others cope with whatever they've gone through, or maybe they just want to watch something that's a great adventure as well, I want to hit all those points for them and make the story matter. Especially if you're expecting an audience to sit there through essentially two films with four 45-minute episodes, you really got to grab them by the heart.”
Even before shooting began, Lost Ollie was already proving therapeutic to Ramsey, who lost his father shortly before heading to Vancouver to start filming.
“I don't know if I had been able to process it enough at that time where it was a direct influence on my directing in any way,” says Ramsey. “But that idea of loss was in the background all along. And there were so many people on set that instantly connected to the idea, and viscerally, on a subconscious level, clicked into what the story was about and devoted themselves to it. They were all in. There was an unusual level of emotional commitment by people to the show because it was about something they could directly relate to. Everybody's lost something.”
Aiming to enhance the emotions of scenes to a scale as epic as Ollie’s quest to get back to his best friend Billy, Ramsey filled Lost Ollie with close-up camera shots of Ollie (Jonathan Groff) and his fellow toy adventurers Zozo (Tim Blake Nelson) and Rosy (Mary J. Blige), as well as with Billy (Kesler Talbot) and his parents (Gina Rodriguez and Jake Johnson).
“It's more of just feeling a sense of intimacy when we're in the emotion of the scene,” explains Tindle. “I never thought of these characters as toys. That's why I want them to speak and interact and process adventure and fun and grief as anyone would process it, and some of that is being right in there with them and treating fictional characters that don't actually exist with respect.”
While Ramsey says that part of this is imagining yourself with a six-inch tall film crew, a tiny camera, tiny lights, and a tiny Steven Spielberg saying “action” and “cut,” these close-up shots require much more finesse and tact than simply giving viewers a toy’s eye view of the world.
“When you're with the toy characters, when you're in their perspective, it really has to feel like you're at their level, experiencing the world at that scale, but all of that has to feel true and it can't ever feel like you're in crazy cartoon land,” notes Ramsey. “When you're with the animation characters, it has to feel like I'm in the same world as Billy inhabits. But now I'm shifting my focus. And I'm seeing the world through Ollie’s eyes. And it's the same world, but it's just a different perspective. It’s us trying to walk a line between the realities of the world and the vehicle that we're using to tell this particular story.”
Similar to how getting up close and personal with actors engages viewers with every subtle eye flicker or mouth twitch communicating what the character feels – or tries not to feel - close-up shots with Ollie and his friends reveal detailed wear and tear that also speak to their own pasts and character development.
“I wanted Ollie to be handmade like he is in the book, but I wanted them all to be a little bit banged up, like they've experienced life,” shares Tindle. “Building story in those characters and character design is another way to get story and narrative out. We wanted, as much as we could, to make these characters warm and appealing and also make you think you knew what story you were going to get. And then to surprise you when you hear the backstory of where they came from, what they've coped with, and what they've gone through.”
Both Tindle and Ramsey credit the success of these intimate, emotional scenes to their, as Ramsey says, “genius” DP C. Kim Miles and the talented folks at ILM.
“We had such great partners at ILM, who were able to deliver these incredibly emotional moments where, I hope, when the audience is watching, they feel ‘That's not a toy. That is a real character sitting there feeling this excitement, or pain, or heartbreak,’” says Tindle.
Ramsey adds, “They just got the assignment and knew exactly what it needed to feel like. ILM brought so much heart and soul to it. It's unbelievable. It was a total joy working with them.”
It’s been a long journey bringing Lost Ollie to the streaming screen, with Tindle, Ramsey and the rest of the crew trying hard to give life to a story that comforts as well as enlightens its viewers through the loyal, unconditional love of a stuffed rabbit. Now, on release day, Tindle is anxious to see how the story hits audiences.
“I hope that it promotes conversation,” says Tindle. “Having gone through the pandemic, even when you're at home with people that you spend your lives with and that you love, there can be a tendency to silo and not share your problems or talk about things you're going through. Kids are okay with being scared, but you got to talk with them about it and this show gives you an opportunity to have a conversation. My biggest hope is that the show makes it easier for parents and kids or siblings or whomever to have a conversation and say ‘Are you okay? Are you hurting? Can we lean on one another to get through this?”