A Big Break Success Story: Otter Space by Benj Thall and Andrew Levine
October 7, 2022
In 2020, screenwriting team Andrew Levine and Benj Thall’s Family/Animated feature Otter Space placed in the Top 5 of their category, thus beginning their journey to making Otter Space the podcast a reality. The writing duo credits Big Break as essential to attracting high quality, creative partnerships and star talent that made producing the podcast a success.
Having previously placed in 2019’s Big Break Top 5 with their Family/Animated feature script White Elephant, as well as writing and developing a family adventure film for National Geographic Kids, the good-humored duo has been writing together in the family space for quite some time, fueled by real life inspiration.
“We've been volunteering for 20 some odd years with the Young Storytellers Program,” says Thall (Homeward Bound). “So we've been in schools twice a year with fourth and fifth grade kids. We’ve been writing characters in that space. After we finished the last movie, we wanted to write something fun and Andy's got two girls that are of the age that we wanted to write something for them next. We started kicking about animals and were like, otters are so cute, and they don't have a movie yet… We started looking into the otters and one of the biggest things is that they hold their hands when they sleep so they don't drift away. And we kind of thought what's the ultimate version of that? Two otters in space, you know, having to hold hands so they don't drift away?”
“They’re paw buddies. And that just started spinning the ideas for what this story could be and what we could be telling about two characters who, you know, feel very differently about each other, and feel very differently about what it means to be a perfect otter. Otters are super playful, and we wanted that to be a big focus in the story.”
Levine chimes in here with the current trend in teaching, that is “what they call this social emotional learning—SEL—so a lot of this being about the growth mindset, versus fixed mindset.”
“We wanted to have these two otters, who have two different approaches to play. One was very much into structured play, where there's rules that are defined, where the other one is just like ‘we’ll figure it out as we go!’ and that's the unstructured—and they're both valid. We need both. And then you got your buddy cop movie there. Now they’re forced to be together. That’s where the tension is in the movie. We wanted the theme to be about play and honestly it boils down to play conquers all, not to spoil it too much.”
So, while Otter Space started as a feature script, “We wanted to make something right away, and making an animation is long and expensive. Those are two words we don’t like,” smiles Levine.
“I listen to a lot of podcasts,” chimes in Thall. “We have the means to do it, so why don’t we just to make it? People are kind of discovering it as an alternative; even though you're listening to an iPhone or a computer, it is sort of a screen-free entertainment, so it's not a kid just endlessly watching YouTube. And it’s something the family could listen to together and talk about after. We wanted to get it into kids’ ears faster than we could ever do animation. People are listening to it. Kids are falling in love with the characters. And ultimately, that's why we write stories.”
“It’s radio play,” compares Levine. “[Podcasts are] awesome because it activates the imagination, right? Because you're listening to a story being told to you but you're imagining it in your head. And I think that has a real powerful effect on kids, you know, rather than just having everything just kind of spoon fed to them.”
Instrumental to Thall and Levine’s actual writing process was Final Draft.
“Honestly, Final Draft was so instrumental. It's just an amazing tool for us,” praises Levine. “We’re taught to write in sequence; you write scenes, and you write to sequences, so that kind of worked out into those breaks.” The breaks that naturally morphed into podcast episode breaks.
“But Final Draft really allowed us to visualize those breaks and figure out where we need to pump up something for a great cliffhanger. It allowed us to create the sides for the actors. This was during COVID, so no one was together. We had the actors read from their home studios.
Adds Thall, “We were able to take what was action and put it into narration and we were able to do scene reports and basically look at the characters and all the lines they have and see if we need a little bit more. Because this is a different format, we're only hearing. So we needed to figure out where we've written something that's very visual and how to make that audio. We also use some of the voiceover functions of Final Draft to kind of just see how something sounds if it's just read.”
“So we took our script, broke it down in chunks, and we've kind of each worked on an episode and rewrote the narration for that episode,” he continues. “But we tried to keep the scenes as lively as we could and we found that when you get to the scene part of the podcast, that's what really comes to life. We're very lucky when it came to our casting process, because of the timing of when we were in the Top Five, we were able to reach out to some top actors like Lance Barber (Young Sheldon), Samba Schutte (Our Flag Means Death), and Carlos Alazraqui (Reno 9-1-1!) who came through one of our other actresses. Because the script was vetted, in a sense, by Final Draft, we were able to approach these actors and we got these incredible performances that are really fun.”
The writing process takes on a life of its own once things are in production. Scenes shift, timing changes. Whole characters emerge, as description lines in the script evolved into an actual character to paint the complete picture for the audience, who in this case is largely children.
“We got a great narrator and actress, Jennifer Riker (Black Lightening). She has a very great, like, wonderous voice. So she became like this new character kind of for us,” says Levine.
And what does the future hold for Otter Space?
“For now, it is what it is. We love it. Would we like to make it into an animated feature? Absolutely, yeah. We want it to be as big as possible. But you know, in a sense, as much as we've really fallen in love with podcasts, and audio dramas, this could be seen as a proving ground for feature animation, or really, for any moviemaking in general. If you can show that you have a story that people are interested in hearing, they will be interested in watching, too,” explains Levine.
“We have a strong female character in Cordy,” adds Thall. “She’s the one driving so much of the story. Our actress, Renee Dorian, who co-produced with us, brought so much to the story. It comes through how much you want to see it come to life.”
“She really breathed soul into her character. All our actors did,” Levine pitches in.
“I've worked on a few animated movies, and you will do an audio recording of the whole movie, and then storyboards, and you'll get a chance to see how things play, and that part of that process is something that I'm really attracted to, having been an editor for so long,” says Thall. “Being able to continually pump up a scene or figure out what the meat of a scene is, or what the heart of a scene is. You get to do that in animation. And this is, in a sense, the first step; you get to do it with actors and with voice.
“I'll say music, too,” chimes in Levine. “We were really fortunate. We got some amazing composers, a husband-and-wife team.”
“We know if we both get excited, it’s a thing.” And Otter Space is definitely ‘a thing’ that will entertain the whole family.
You can now stream the 10-episode run of Otter Space on all major podcast platforms and enjoy the journey of two mismatched sea otters in search of new “paw buddies”, who must save Earth from an alien civilization which has outlawed all forms of playing.
Written by: Karin MaxeyAfter seeing her first big screen movie 007: License to Kill at age six, Karin naturally became obsessed with writing action-infused stories. The next time she’d see Benicio del Toro was in person, at the 68th Cannes Film Festival—he was there for the Sicario red carpet, she was there for her first produced short film in the basement of the Palais…same-same. In between, Karin earned a Creative Writing Degree and landed management at Echo Lake Entertainment. Her scripts have been a Big Break Top 3 finalist, HollyShorts Film Fest Official Selection, and a multi-Screencraft competitions semi-finalist. Karin is also a screenplay editor who delights in the process of polishing writers' work for submission. You can find her at www.writergirlkarin.com.
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