The writer and the director of the Netflix series both discuss the creation of the show, working with puppets and working with CG.
At the recent VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, befores & afters got the chance to sit down with Lost Ollie collaborators Shannon Tindle and Peter Ramsey. Tindle created and wrote the miniseries, based on the 2016 children’s book ‘Ollie’s Odyssey’ by William Joyce. Ramsey directed the four episodes.
The toy characters in the show were digital creations crafted by Industrial Light & Magic, with puppets utilized during filming to help find performances and as stand-ins.
In this interview, we look at the heart of the storytelling efforts by Tindle and Ramsey, and get their views on the filming methods used for the show, including that decision to go CG.
b&a: Can we go right back to the beginning? I’d love to know the origin story, Shannon, of how you got Peter involved in Lost Ollie.
Shannon Tindle: It was pretty simple. After two pitches to Netflix and [production company] 21 Laps, I got the gig to do Lost Ollie. The first thing they said was, ‘We want you to direct all the episodes.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s insane,’ because I hadn’t done live action before and I’m not going to set myself up to fail, which is crazy…
Peter Ramsey: …And at that time, wasn’t it more episodes?
Shannon Tindle: It was eight episodes. And it probably would’ve been on the same schedule.
Peter Ramsey: Whoa.
Shannon Tindle: So I was just like, ‘That’s crazy. I don’t want to die and I want this show to be good.’ So I said, ‘How about you split the episodes?’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, great. Who do you want?’ I said, ‘Peter Ramsey.’
Teddy Biaselli, who is our main exec, the one who brought me in, responded very positively to that. And then we went through the process of development and I shot the test. What happened then is that we were meant to be wrapping post on Ollie at the same time I would be be starting to write Ultraman. Instead, because of the pandemic, they were going to overlap. And because they were going to overlap, in order for me to direct any of the episodes, I was going to have to drop everything and leave Ultraman for five months, which meant that folks were going to probably be without jobs, and I wasn’t going to do that.
At this point, it was a done deal that Peter was going to direct some of the eps. we were breaking down, Peter was going to do one and two, I was going to do three and four. And it was all the way down to that. It was just back and forth between the animation division and the the live action division, duking it out. And finally I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And so I said, ‘Peter, can you do….’–he remembers it differently, so please tell your side–but I said, ‘Can you do all four?’
b&a: What do you remember, Peter?
Peter Ramsey: Well, Shannon had been showing me some of the very first drafts.
Shannon Tindle: You read the earliest drafts, even before we knew it was going to be a thing.
Peter Ramsey: Since we became friends, we’ve traded our writing back and forth. I’m a big fan of Shannon’s writing, huge fan actually. So when he started giving me Ollie stuff, I was like, ‘Oh great! A new Tindle,’ and really got taken by it. And then it started turning into, ‘Yeah, I’m going to direct.’ But the Ultraman development came about and then he told me, ‘Man, I would love it if we could split the episodes. I’ll pitch it in to Netflix..’. And I was like, ‘All right, that’s cool.’ I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see..’.
Shannon Tindle: I honestly don’t think you thought it was going to happen.
Peter Ramsey: It was originally eight episodes and we’d do half each.
Shannon Tindle: Then it became six, then it became four.
Peter Ramsey: It went back and forth. All the time I’m still going, ‘Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see.’ And then get a call from Shannon and he’s like, ‘Well, dude I’m not going to be able to direct any because of Ultraman, but guess what? I told Netflix that you could do all of them.’
Shannon Tindle: I believe in you Peter.
Peter Ramsey: And it was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yes, great. Oh boy, what did I sign onto?’
Shannon Tindle: That’s only recently become a thing with streaming when you do a shorter order, that you’ll have an event series like that where somebody directs all of the episodes. I think if we had split them, it would’ve worked out okay. But I think to have Peter’s single vision across all four episodes really made it cohesive. I think it was a blessing in disguise.
Although, I remember calling you on weekends, just to check to see how you were doing. I remember there was one weekend where I was getting pizza, I was picking up pizza at Miceli’s and we were in lockdown and I said, ‘How you doing?’ You’re like, ‘Dude…’. You slept in on a Saturday. You slept it until noon and you’re like, ‘Dude, I’m so tired.’ And I think that was week one.
Peter Ramsey: Oh yeah, man. 100%.
Shannon Tindle: Week one.
b&a: It was like, ‘Thanks so much for making me do four.’
Peter Ramsey: Yeah, thanks a lot, Shannon…
b&a: But of course it worked so well! I am also interested, as well, in what conversations you two had at the beginning so you could communicate your visions to each other?
Shannon Tindle: For me, it’s a conversation that never ended.
Peter Ramsey: Yeah.
Shannon Tindle: The initial conversations were, ‘Hey man, can you read this and give me your feedback on it? Because I need some feedback.’ And Peter said, ‘We do that.’
One of the reasons I think we get along is we have a similar point of view in stories and writing. You usually have that initial conversation with somebody you don’t know and you sit down and you say, ‘Well, here’s what I’m looking for. Here’s what I want to do.’ It’s what you do when you’re interviewing a production designer or a head of story or a cinematographer. But for us, we’re just pals, so it’s this ongoing conversation at the game with the first time that he read it and continued on.
Peter Ramsey: I think one of the earliest things I remember talking about was mom and her character and just thinking, okay, we’ve got this mom character in the story and she’s going to die, and that’s hanging over how you think about the character. But we were like, ‘God, it can’t be about her dying. It’s got to be about her as a life force in her son’s life.’ And that got us talking about, ‘Wow. You’d want somebody who was really bubbly and full of life and effervescent and-’
Shannon Tindle: -somebody who promoted imagination in a place where reality overtakes it. And where I grew up, my mom and dad were always very supportive of my imagination in a place where if you get a job at the Ford plant, that’s the coolest thing. That’s the best thing because you know that you get a regular paycheck and you get paid pretty well. You get your discount on your Ford F-150 and can afford things for your family. All worthy goals. It ain’t me, but things I totally understand people wanting to do.
So, that kind of supportive personality, well, that informed costume, hair, the whole thing. We wanted her to be this angel floating in that first scene that you see her and man, did we luck out with Gina Rodriguez.
Gina is that. If you see Gina off-camera, where she is incredibly supportive of actors with less experience or young actors, it’s really something to see. Because it ain’t always like that. And that light that she brought and the balance between her and Jake Johnson and Kesler Talbot, it just continued that thought forward.
Peter Ramsey: It was kind of perfect serendipitous casting, and it was those kinds of things we latch onto. I think we were circling around ideas about Ollie and Billy and what their dynamic was. Ollie evolved as we were talking and getting into shooting, too. I guess we were just you on mission right from the beginning. How do we solve that? What’s going to be that? What’s the take on that?
b&a: In addition to crafting the story, you had to work out a way to make this, and ultimately Ollie and his friends became CG characters. What discussions did you have about whether they might be purely CG, or puppets, or both?
Shannon Tindle: Well, I reached out to you, Ian.
b&a: Oh yeah, I remember!
Shannon Tindle: I was like, ‘Do you have any recommendations for things to watch that are a combination of puppet and digital enhancement?’ And actually in the beginning, Netflix was the one that was pushing more for puppets. And I just knew from all of my friends who worked in that world, they’re like, ‘You’re going to get a certain style of performance and if that’s the tone of what you’re doing fits it, it can work great. But if it doesn’t, it’s going to provide an extra challenge. Your days are going to be long, you’re going to have to do multiple takes, when you don’t have time to do multiple takes.’
I remember one of my first conversations with Shawn Levy was that both of us said, ‘We should just go straight CG with this.’ Part of that was because, when I did the first test, they wanted to get at least six shots that were puppets with digital enhancement, ie. just face replacement. And I think we got two.
And they were great shots. But what we discovered was two things. You don’t have time to get as many takes as you need to get those performances, and it’s as expensive to digitally remove the puppeteers than it is to just create that digital performance. So then why are you doing it?
But, because we had the beautiful puppets that Scott Johnson built, and drawing from those and scanning those and seeing the little quirks that pop up when you make handmade things, it’s quite impressive. We still have a couple of shots that are just straight face replacement in it. I can tell them.
b&a: Oh really?
Shannon Tindle: Yeah, because the head shape is different. Even though there was a hard shell under it, I can spot them a mile away. I was just watching it again and I was like, ‘Ugh.’
Peter Ramsey: And they just don’t have as much life.
Shannon Tindle: Yeah, but it’s no discredit to the puppeteers.
Peter Ramsey: No, not at all.
Shannon Tindle: They had an insane job on a crazy schedule, out in the elements, doing things that are very hard, especially for puppets of that scale.
b&a: But did you have a firm view, Peter, when you were asked originally by Shannon to direct, whether you one way was better than the other?
Peter Ramsey: I was open to anything because I didn’t have a lot of experience with puppets. I was like, ‘Oh, how would that work?’ And then you see one demonstration where it literally takes three people to do one puppet. I’d been storyboarding scenes where the characters are making very little, subtle shifts and I’m thinking, ‘How the hell are nine people going to get this performance?’
And just practically, the rehearsal time we would’ve needed for puppeteers to actually be able to interpret those scenes and for us to get the level of performance that we wanted, we would’ve needed two months of rehearsal.
b&a: Even just the ears seems like a whole thing, I suppose.
Shannon Tindle: Hayden [Jones from ILM] gave me so much crap over those ears! I had to shorten them. Some folks at Netflix wanted his ears to stand straight up. I made a joke about it in the script, ‘And how come your ears don’t stand up like Bugs Bunny’s?’ But I was like, ‘No, he’s a lop eared rabbit. A mom who’s going to hand make a toy rabbit isn’t going to put wires in it to stick up. They’re going to be floppy ears. And look, he can wrap himself in the ears when he’s cold or sad or whatever.’
I have to say, we do keep talking about, ‘Release the puppet version.’
Peter Ramsey: Oh, God.
Shannon Tindle: Because, it’s crazy–the ear flops in and a hand comes in and smacks it out of the way. But, again, I think it was incredibly helpful for lighting. I just think for our show, we didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the money. And all I cared about, no matter how we got it, was getting performances from our imaginary characters, our in quotes, “Imaginary characters,” because I don’t see them as imaginary. They’re very real. They had to match Gina and Jake and Kesler’s performances, otherwise they wouldn’t have worked.
Peter Ramsey: And they’re like 70% of the show when you get down to it and it’s intense, heavy emotional stuff.
b&a: So Peter, while you didn’t have puppet experience, they were puppeted on set for reference and performance.
Peter Ramsey: Just for reference passes. At the very beginning we really tried to perform the scene as best we could with the puppets. It would just take too long, honestly. And our puppeteers, they were great, but the level of performance and nuance required was intense. So it just eventually turned into, ‘Let’s just get a lighting reference over there. Then he’s going to walk over there. Then we’re going to run there.’ I would narrate and time out the scene like a director in 1925, with the little bullhorn.
Shannon Tindle: We brought in some incredible puppeteers. Alice Dinnean was one of them who was one of the puppeteers on Dark Crystal, just incredible. Just the stuff that they were able to do, it was just incredible.
b&a: Did you try motion capture as well during the testing phase?
Shannon Tindle: Yeah, but you couldn’t get it into a puppet that small, which if you’re going to be blocking with a real camera, it had to be a puppet that small. You couldn’t scale it up, then you have to scale it down. I went to ILM for a few days in London and we did mocap tests, both with folks in suits and with mocap puppets that were much bigger. And it looked exactly like you think it would look if you did mocap on a person who is in a suit walking around at Disneyland.
b&a: Continuing the technology theme, if you had the time and budget and it hadn’t been COVID times, do you think you would have wanted to do any more kind of virtual production-like filming, say LED walls but also simul-cam set-ups for the CG characters?
Shannon Tindle: Well, before Peter came on, they did actually throw it out there that maybe we could go out to Kentucky, scan everything, and film it on the volume like they’ve been doing for The Mandalorian. The thing is, I said, ‘We can’t ignore the fact that they have 10 to 20 times the budget that we do..’. So we obviously did not do that. I think if we did it over and we had the resources, I would prefer to spend it on previs and postvis.
Peter Ramsey: If anything, it would have just been nice to have more time. There were a lot of scenes that were just like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do this many pages today,’ and we’d have to block them out in just two hours.
Shannon Tindle: Interestingly, one of the most successful sequences came out of one of your toughest days. It was the chase with Buttons.
Peter Ramsey: That’s right. We couldn’t shoot where we originally wanted to shoot, so we had to come up with an alternative. And then we had horrible rain one day and we were like, ‘God, it’s turning the whole junkyard area into mud so we can’t stage some of the action. Let’s just stage it all on the hood of the truck instead.’ We just kept getting backed into these corners. But it actually worked out okay.
Shannon Tindle: I remember the first time we saw the shots, where Zozo and Ollie are running, looking under the truck and we said, ‘Oh my god, that’s real. I believe those toys are really running.’
b&a: That was my reaction to the show a lot of the time, like as if these toys were off doing all this stuff at 2am with no one the wiser.
Shannon Tindle: Well, there was one review and I didn’t dare correct the person because it was such a lovely positive review, but they said, ‘See what happens when you get real light on real puppets.’
b&a: That’s cool. Although, in other contexts, it definitely sucks when publications and people immediately just say ‘practical is better.’
Shannon Tindle: I love practical as much as anybody else. And I hate that it’s shrunk over the years because I think there’s still a huge place for it. But, I also hate that there’s this fetishization of it, that somehow it’s better and it’s like, no, great art is great art. It doesn’t matter what medium you use or what tools you use. If it’s telling the story and you’re not aware of how it’s telling the story, who cares?
b&a: Totally agree.
Peter Ramsey: And it’s just that prejudice that’s there. People think digital means it’s some guy pushing a button and the computer just makes it. These are artists crafting something with real care and taste. They really work their magic.