It all started when Michael Killen, the co-founder of Pittsburgh-based VFX production house Animal, came up with a new idea for a talking dog.
Killen, whose credits include animating the infamous Taco Bell chihuahua (you remember – “Yo Quiero Taco Bell”), was looking to depict a dog in an entirely different way than usual. He enlisted commercial director Samm Hodges to write the scripts. That led to “Downward Dog,” a web series about Martin, a talking dog suffering from ennui and a bit of depression as he ruminates about his relationship with his owner, Nan.
“[Killen] had always wanted to do a dog thing that took dogs more seriously,” Hodges told IndieWire last week at the 2016 Palm Springs ShortFest. “He invented the talking technique that makes the dog talking look more realistic. I volunteered to try and write something that would go against every trope [such as the happy-go-lucky or noble dog]. We were doing something we thought was fun. There was not a plan here.”
Hodges said the intention was perhaps aligning with a brand like Volvo on the shorts, “but then we realized we could do something more here.”
That’s when Mosaic Media, under Pittsburgh native Jimmy Miller and TV production president Sam Hansen, caught wind of “Downward Dog,” and began advising them on ways to pitch the concept to Hollywood.
Killen and Hodges wound up writing a script, complete with human characters (only Martin the dog spoke in the web shorts), and then Miller and Hansen told them to do more.
“They made us work very hard,” Hodges said. “We took a full year and wrote a full pilot, wrote Episode 2 and an entire show bible before we took it out.”
The gambit paid off. The show was pitched to 12 outlets in one week, leading to six offers and a bidding war. “ABC was very passionate but they immediately had the same reaction that Jimmy and I had, which was, ‘This shouldn’t change,'” Hansen said.
With Legendary Television and ABC Studios on board as the studios, the pilot process included having to find a new dog to play Martin (the original, as seen in the shorts, was already 12 years old, and participating in a primetime series would have been too much for her).
Several dogs were rescued from shelters as the producers eventually chose Ned to play “Martin.” The role of Nan, who didn’t speak in the web shorts, was recast with “Fargo” Season 1 star Allison Tolman.
In keeping the spirit of the original shorts alive, ABC even agreed to keep “Downward Dog” shooting in Pittsburgh. An L.A.-based writing team is currently crafting the scripts, and “Downward Dog” will premiere in midseason.
Hodges credits the original shorts for making this all happen. “It speaks of the importance of having something to show,” he said. “If we had just written a script we never would have sold it.”
Here they are, the original “Downward Dog” shorts that led to “Downward Dog” the series.