***This story originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. ’19 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 293)***
When children’s author Max Brallier published the first book in his bestselling The Last Kids on Earth series in 2015, it was obvious that it would make a perfect movie or TV series. Now, only four years later, young viewers can enjoy a new animated show based on the property on Netflix, thanks to Brallier and exec producer Scott Peterson and the team at Vancouver- and Ottawa-based Atomic Cartoons (a division of Thunderbird Entertainment).
The fast-paced series follows the adventures of a young boy and his three friends who live in a decked-out treehouse and have to fend for themselves after a zombie outbreak hits their hometown. The star-studded cast includes Nick Wolfhard (as the lead Jack Sullivan), Mark Hamill, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Campbell, Keith David and Catherine O’Hara.
Brallier tells us that he was in the middle of writing the fourth book in the series in 2016 when he was approached by the folks at Atomic Cartoons. “They told me they liked the books and the structures and didn’t need to rework it any major way, which I was very happy to hear,” recalls the author. “They were wonderful about the collaboration, and I didn’t want to put my baby in a basket and float it down the river. So, we pitched it around and the project ended up at Netflix.”
Mixing Fun, Horror and Adventure
Peterson, a veteran of popular animated shows such as Phineas & Ferb and Wander Over Yonder, says the interest in the show was immediate. “They didn’t buy it right there in the room, but it was pretty fast,” he recalls. “They wanted to get it into production pretty quickly. The tone of the show is pretty similar to the books. We love the characters and the story arc. We cover the first book in a 60-minute special, and then the second and third books in the series became 10 episodes each. We have more space and time to flesh out the minor characters. We even managed to create a character just so we could have Bruce Campbell voice him, since we are all such huge Evil Dead fans!”
Brallier says this was the first time he had been involved in a TV project, although he had written many licensed books based on existing animated properties such as Adventure Time, Regular Show and Steven Universe. “I always wanted to write an animated show, but it was mind-blowing how quickly this happened. We all clicked because we liked the same mix of horror, action, weird comedy, and our background wasn’t limited to animation.”
The author/showrunner says one of the fun challenges was taking the book which was written in first person and maintaining the hero’s POV and self-deprecating sense of humor in the series. As Brallier notes, “Our lead Jack puts on this cool act, but deep down inside he knows he’s not that confident. It’s fun to contrast what he’s thinking with how everyone else is seeing the same thing. It opens up a whole different storytelling game.”
The show’s design and animation is done in Vancouver using Toon Boom Harmony and After Effects. Certain locations, props and vehicles are done in CG, but they are toon shaded so they don’t pop out. The design team stuck closely to the illustration style introduced by the book’s artist, Douglas Holgate. “There are millions of fans out there who love Doug’s illustration, so we followed his lead,” notes Brallier. “We wanted a fun apocalypse with a colorful palette, a bright and welcoming world reminiscent of The Goonies. It’s about kids with no parents or teachers, so they can do whatever they want to do. I grew up on 2D animation and love movies like Iron Giant and Lilo & Stitch.”
Peterson says it’s a no brainer that kids love shows about monsters and zombies. “This is about kids living out their fantastic adventures,” he notes. “It’s funny and has tons of action. Beyond that, it has a lot of heart. Our hero is trying to create his own family, since he is an orphan. You feel for these kids and want to come back to their world again and again. In addition, having worked on Phineas & Ferb for 10 years, I had a lot of experience in writing for kids, while entertaining the parents at the same time. That’s what we aim to do with this show as well.”
In addition to the series and books, the property will seek to engage kids through a robust line of action figures, role-play, vehicles, plush, electronics and more from master toy partner Jakks Pacific. Plus, the just-announced video game being developed by Outright Games, which is expected to launch in 2021 on consoles and PC. Both deals were arranged by worldwide merchandise, ancillary and second-window TV rights representative Cyber Group Studios.
Brallier recalls that after the first book was out, he did a lot of touring and visited many schools. He was struck by how stressed out many children seem to be these days. “I see so many kids totally stressed out, constantly on social media and worried about things,” he notes. “What I wanted to do with the books and now the show is to offer fun adventures and to let kids (mostly eight to 12, but younger kids, too) know that it’s OK to just escape and have fun. I remember the days when I used to come home from school and watch Star Wars to relax. I hope our show offers the same escapist fun for kids. It’s all about having adventures in your backyard, wishing aliens would kidnap you. We’re so lucky to have had a hit with the book series, so we hope we can cut through all the noise out there. The fifth book in the series comes out in September, too, so we hope kids will give us their eyeballs!”
The Last Kids on Earth is available to stream now on Netflix.