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'Lost Ollie' showrunner wanted to make 'Appalachian Lord of the Rings'

From left to right, Rosy, Ollie and Zozo travel real-world locations. Photo courtesy of Netflix
1 of 5 | From left to right, Rosy, Ollie and Zozo travel real-world locations. Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Showrunner Shannon Tindle described Lost Ollie, on Netflix Wednesday, as a regional version of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic quest story. The specific note came up when he directed composer Scot Stafford on how he wanted the score to sound.

"The brief that I gave him was I want Appalachian Lord of the Rings," Tindle told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "I want this epic scope but I want to do it with instruments that are from the vernacular of mountain music."

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The live-action/animation hybrid show is based on William Joyce's book, Ollie's Odyssey. Ollie (voice of Jonathan Groff) is the favorite toy of Billy (Kesler Talbot).

Ollie was a comfort to Billy when his Momma (Gina Rodriguez) got cancer. Billy lost Ollie when he had to move with his Daddy (Jake Johnson) so Ollie teams up with lost toys Zozo (Tim Blake Nelson) and Rosy (Mary J. Blige) to find Billy on foot and by river across the midwest.

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The consequences of Momma's illness also hit home for Tindle. Growing up in Kentucky, Tindle said he saw many families cope with medical conditions when they didn't have the luxury of health insurance through a job.

"I wanted there to be some elements that reflected situations of folks that I know," Tindle said.

Momma's story gives Lost Ollie a tragic beginning. She made Ollie for Billy by hand so that he would have some joy when she's gone.

Director Peter Ramsey said he and Rodriguez agreed about how to portray Momma. Although there's no denying the sadness of her death, she teaches Billy to celebrate the joy in life.

"That's what she's passing on to Billy, that will to live and be happy in the face of what's happening," Ramsey said. "That's literally what is sewn into Ollie is that desire to keep living and to hold onto a joy of life and love."

Ollie is animated in the live-action scenes with Rodriguez and Talbot. Ollie and his two toy companions are also animated against live-action backgrounds.

Before directing Dreamworks' Rise of the Guardians and Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Ramsey directed second unit for live-action films like Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and the 1998 Godzilla. Ramsey said working in animation taught him to be economical with his live-action footage.

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"You have to know what the dramatic beats are," Ramsey said. "You have to understand what story you're telling in those shots even though you don't have finished animation."

Ramsey would film the live-action backgrounds in Vancouver, BC, which often doubles for America. Puppets stood in for the animated characters.

Tindle designed the animated characters himself, and puppet fabricator Scott Johnson built the three dimensional puppets. Tindle said having physical references reinforced the notion that Ollie was a handmade toy.

"You get all the nuance and the detail of something that's handmade and then we have puppet performers on set," Tindle said.

Tindle has bounced between even more different animation studios. He previously designed characters for Samurai Jack, Fairly Oddparents, The Croods and Kubo and the Two Strings.

Tindle said working with Nickelodeon, Adult Swim, Dreamworks and Laika, among others, allows him to experiment with different tones. Netflix allowed Lost Ollie to have bittersweet and tragic whimsy.

"Just pick the right place for the tone of the project," Tindle said. "I like things with different tone."

The idea that toys come to life has fueled the popular Toy Story franchise, but Tindle pointed out that the concept is not exclusive to the Pixar films. Tindle referenced The Velveteen Rabbit and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

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Tindle said stories about toys having lives independent of their owners speak to a universal desire to connect to things, even inanimate objects.

"We project our own emotions onto them because we know that there is a connection," Tindle said. "We ascribe human personality traits to those things. Who knows if we're right or we're wrong?"

Ramsey experienced the personification of a toy firsthand. His daughter Maya lost a handmade toy from his wife on an airplane when she was 13, so he connected personally with Billy and Ollie.

Maya is now 25 but Ramsey said the memory of the lost toy is still emotional.

"Her grief was real," Ramsey said. "Seeing that when you're a parent, it doesn't leave you."

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