YouTube Star PJ Liguori on Creating Oscar's Hotel for Fantastical Creatures as a Mad, Magical Place for Monsters
Every once in awhile a show will separate itself from others. Whether it's the energy, the production, or the crazy antics, Oscar's Hotel for Fantastical Creatures is one of those shows. The six-episode web series originally came from film student and YouTuber PJ Liguori (KickThePj) and his team. Oscar's Hotel started as a short film—one of 14 YouTube films funded by New Form Digital's Incubator films back in October 2014—and since then, the it has been transformed into a Vimeo series, completely reshot and revamped and reupped with insanity. We picked the brain of digital creator Liguori about some of the fantastical things that you can see when Oscar's Hotel hits Vimeo on September 15.
Tell us about the show's premise.
Oscar's Hotel for Fantastical Creatures is about a hotel where all these magical, monstrous beings live, and Oliver (Chris Kendall), who is the nephew of Oscar (Andrew Ableson), has been given the responsibility to watch the hotel for a week while Oscar goes away. As the only human in this entire hotel, Oliver faces a lot of different trials to keep the hotel under control.
Since this isn't the first incarnation of Oscar's Hotel, what are the biggest differences between the original short film and this series?
The biggest difference is definitely the scale. The ambition and creativity that went into the series is a lot bigger because we had the access to make everything bigger and the access to make the world of Oscar’s Hotel feel more alive. We had a lot of creative freedom to just think bigger and think crazier and make everything a little bit more absurd.
If you had to describe the series in three words, what would you say?
Mad, Monsters and Magical. The three Ms of Oscar’s Hotel because it’s really mad, it’s got such a magical feeling, and it’s full of monsters.
Speaking of the monsters, or creatures, how was it working with the Jim Henson Company? What were some of the creatures they helped with specifically?
The Jim Henson Company collaborated with us to make the OctoChef, the Party Nightmare, the Hermit Crab, the White Spirit, the Repossession Fish which are Albert and Norbert (voiced by Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart), and also the tribe of lost and forgotten food creatures. So it was a huge ensemble of creatures that they worked on with us, and working with them was an incredible experience. We meshed really well, my creative team and their creative team. It was just a bunch of creative people in a room together making cool things, and that’s essentially what it came down to. That’s what I loved about it. Everyone loved what they were doing, and that was one of the most important things to me: to make sure everyone was having a lot of fun and putting a lot of love into it.
What is the craziest creature that we’ll see in the series?
Well, that’s a difficult one as there are so many creatures with amazing qualities that make them particularly amazing. I’ll say, of the Henson creatures, my favorite is probably OctoChef, who was played by Mamrie Hart. The way it’s been created, it's made the character feel so alive. Mamrie is sitting inside this costume, puppeteering the front two tentacles, and then we have a bunch of puppeteers sitting underneath her puppeteering all the other tentacles. It’s just this giant purple octopus with all these flailing tentacles holding drinks and cutlery and utensils, and it just looks mad. When you’re in the kitchen you just know this is OctoChef’s place. She’s a really special creature that is quite unique for the show.
Where did the idea of OctoChef come from?
OctoChef was a new addition to the world. She was a character that came about when we knew that we wanted the hotel to have a kitchen and a resident chef. We thought it was fitting for an octopus with eight tentacles because it can have all these tentacles working at the same time with kitchen objects around her. So then we were like, "Okay, it should be an octopus, it should be giant, it should be maybe a bit boozy and ridiculous and loud and big"—and we realized that we had written Mamrie Hart as an octopus, essentially.
Some other creatures that pop up—the Party Nightmare and the Repossession Fish—were both separate things that appeared on your YouTube channel in the past. How was it revitalizing those ideas for the series?
It was an incredible feeling seeing old ideas being reimagined and reinvented in a new way, where veteran fans of my work will see them and know what they’re meant to be and know what they’re referencing. But they’re reinvented in a way that’s more consistent with the style of the show. For example, when I first created the Repossession Fish, they were 2D animated fish in an old short film I did in 2011 and that was it. That was where it lived, on my YouTube channel.
When the series came up, I wanted to bring the characters back because there was something so fun about their back-and-forth banter and it was a shame I never got to do anything more with them. Seeing them being created in full 3D was mind-blowing. They were these 8-foot fish men and they towered over you, and it was exactly what I wanted. They were intimidating and looked so realistic yet cartoon-y at the same time. And then, of course, it came to casting them. I knew that we should have two amazing actors with really iconic voices, so I thought Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina would be amazing for it, but I never expected to actually cast them. We reached out, and they were really into the script,and they agreed to be part of the project.
Oliver is thrown around quite a lot in the show. What’s the worst thing you put Oliver through, or even Chris Kendall?
Every day we put Chris through something different. Like, one day, he was frozen solid. We were covering him in these icicles, and he was walking around set in his boxers because that was his costume for that particular episode. There were some days where we were smushing cake all over his face for another scene. We put Chris through a lot, and Oliver as well; [he] goes through a lot in this series just to maintain the hotel. He kind of goes to hell and back.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from this filmmaking process?
I think it’s just how productions of this scale work with all the different departments. I’m very used to working with my small creative team, which is myself, Sophie [Newton], Louis [Grant] and Jamie [Swarbrick]. We would make these films ourselves and sort of dip in-and-out of each department ourselves. There are different departments for, say, making the call sheets, instead of it being me making the call sheets, stressed out, the night before. It was interesting to see how all those responsibilities are spread out when you have a larger production and a larger crew.
Why do you think people should watch Oscar's Hotel?
When we set out to make Oscar's Hotel we wanted to make something that was being made in-the-minute because it’s what we love. We love doing camera effects, crazy costumes and puppetry, over CGI. There’s not much of that in the world of entertainment right now. So, if you love watching shows with in-camera puppetry and costumes and stuff, it’s something very special and magical that I think will illicit feelings [you had] watching kids shows when you were younger. That’s what we set out to do, something that would illicit those feelings. I’ve been calling it a new nostalgia.
Oscar's Hotel for Fantastical Creatures, premieres September 15 on Vimeo at 10 am ET.