'Imaginary Mary': How the Look of the CG Title Character Evolved

The Oscar-winning director of Disney animated short 'Feast' designed Jenna Elfman's new friend.
Courtesy of ABC

In Imaginary Mary, a series that premieres this week on ABC, a CG imaginary friend comes to the screen to challenge star Jenna Elfman’s Alice. And behind the camera, she was a challenge for her designer, Patrick Osborne, who won a best animated short Oscar in 2015 for Disney’s Feast and earned a second nomination, this year, for animated short Pearl.

A co-production with Sony Pictures Television, Happy Madison and ABC Studios, Imaginary Mary follows Alice, an independent career woman whose life is turned upside down when she falls in love with a divorced father with three kids. This triggers even more upheaval when the imaginary friend she created as a child suddenly reappears to help her navigate the transition from single girl to a woman ready for a family.

The idea started to take shape when Osborne and executive producer Doug Robinson talked about collaborating on a family show with an animated element. “He introduced me to Adam F. Goldberg (writer/exec producer)," Osborne said. "He had an office full of toys — a lot of them were ones that my Dad (a Mattel alum) made, Star Wars toys — so I could relate to his geekdom. We had the idea of an imaginary friend and then they brought in showrunner David Guarascio (writer/executive producer), who added a human family, which was the key to grounding the show.”

Initially Mary was more of a monster with a very different look from the character that viewers will meet this week. “Animation is a long process, so we started building and designing the character before we landed on the story,” Osborne said. “By the time we had the story written and we were ready to film, we had to go with the design for the pilot (which was directed by exec producer Shawn Levy). But since we wrote the Mary character as having much more depth and an arc, it became clear that a redesign was needed to make her more appealing and cute — a more lovable character, because she wasn’t just poking at Alice all the time; she was helping sometimes.

"The initial design was sort of a Labyrinth '80s ugly-thing — cute in some ways, but cute for its ugliness," he added. "Now it’s become more lovable and fluffy. The cuteness is more on the surface.” (The pilot was since changed with the new character design.) Osborne relates that he did the initial drawing and then a friend, character designer Nick Orsi, built on that.

The series was shot in Vancouver, working with VFX supervisor Sallyanne Massimini and an animation team at VFX house Zoic’s Vancouver base.

Elfman described her process. “We had an amazing puppet and very talented puppeteer on set, and a comedic actress to read her lines offscreen. We rehearse with the puppet and puppeteer and block it. Then we film one take with the puppet and puppeteer so that the animators have a point of reference, and then she goes away and there’s nothing. I don’t have a green ball.

"Sometimes there would be 11 eye lines that change in a scene that I have to remember, while emotionally connecting with points in space and doing comedy with empty space," she continued. "And when I’m doing a scene with other actors, I’m the only one who sees Mary. So I have to hit those comedic beats with Mary in empty space, while maintaining the scene with the actors and not have the other characters be hip to the fact that I have an imaginary friend, and do physical comedy with her as well. That’s why I liked the role.”

Osborne’s recent Oscar-nominated short, Pearl, was actually conceived as a virtual reality experience for Google Spotlight Stories. Asked if he’d like to create a VR experience based on Imaginary Mary, he said: “It’s been talked about. We want Mary to be known first through (the TV series). Once she is known, we can play with that and try webisodes or other ways to feature her."