“Some directors are drawn to Man v. Man stories, while others are drawn to Man v. Society stories and others still to Man v. Self stories, but I’ve always been partial to Slow Loris v. Toad stories. The moment I read Rally Road Racers, I knew I had to make it. Also, I wrote it, and as I’m one of my favorite writers, I jumped at the opportunity to work with myself again,” says writer-director Ross Venokur of the CG animated feature Rally Road Racers.
Rally Road Racers tells of a loris named Zhi who enters a no-holds-barred car race across China’s historic Silk Road to save the last Loris Village (including his Granny’s home) from demolition and development by a psychotic toad named Archibald Vainglorious.
“I originally wrote the script years ago, while I was prepping my previous animated film, Charming. Back then, my little race movie was called The Fast And The Furriest, and the thing I remember most about writing that first draft was that it was fun!”, says Venokur.
Director’s Statement by Ross Venokur
Most writers will tell you (I assume), writing’s not always fun. But this script was different. Maybe it was because I was actually starting to live out my childhood fantasy of making a super fun road race film. Or maybe it was because I decided to write the entire script on a makeshift desk I set up outside in an orange orchard. Whatever the reason, that first draft just flowed.
Like Charming, the script was originally commissioned by, and developed with, John H. Williams, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on so many projects over the past two decades.
Growing up, I loved films like The Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, so I think on some level I always hoped to add something to this classic “the rules are there are no rules” road-race-comedy genre. Of course, I had no idea that I’d actually get to make this movie, or that the movie I would end up making was going to be a cartoon with all animal characters, or that those characters would ultimately attract such amazing acting talent as JK Simmons, John Cleese, Lisa Lu, Sharon Horgan, Catherine Tate, Chloe Bennet and Jimmy O Yang.
And though the protagonist of Charming (Prince Charming) enjoyed a happy ending in Charming, I cannot say the same thing for myself. The ending of the actual making of Charming was rough on me, so much so that I ended up swearing off directing animated films forever. I was suddenly too keenly aware of how much sweat and love goes into making an animated feature and how many opportunities there are to lose control of the process. So, when John called me and asked me to take a meeting with an interested producer/financier named Deepak Nayar, I was reluctant. But as Deepak had gone to the trouble of making Bend It Like Beckham and Buena Vista Social Club and many other films which had brought me a lot of joy over many years, I figured showing up for a conversation was the least I could do. Man, I’m glad I went to that meeting!
Deepak’s got this great speech he gives you the first time you come to his office. I don’t want to steal his thunder by getting into it here, but it’s really effective. Right after I left that meeting, I called my wife, Lenore, and she could hear it in my voice before I even got around to saying it, “You want to direct it, don’t you?” Uh-huh!
With Deepak on board, things started to fly. And by “things” I mean “the script,” and by “fly” I mean “out the window.” This dude had me rewrite that script at least a dozen times, probably more — but never to satisfy his own ego or as a flex. Deepak loves story, and he really believed in what we were doing and in me, so he wasn’t going to let me off easy. Turns out, Deepak doesn’t let Rally Road Racers – anyone off easy — just ask the animation studio, where Deepak is now affectionately known as The Kraken (okay, that may just be in my head, but I like to believe it).
The point is, Deepak and I reworked that thing, and then we reworked it again, and again, and again. It was truly a labor of love and a fantastic collaboration.
Meanwhile, I was flying back and forth to Montreal every six weeks to work with the pre-production team. I was living in Ojai, California at the time, and these were pre-pandemic days, so things like “flying places for work” were still normal. I was actually up in Montreal when I first heard about the coronavirus from one of the board artists. She had just read an article about “some virus” that was being pinned to Wuhan, China. It was a strange coincidence, as Zhi, my protagonist, was also from Wuhan. As I had never been to China, I had randomly picked Wuhan as Zhi’s home after an exhaustive two-minute Google search.
My reaction to the news from the storyboard artist? “I’m sure it will pass.” Turns out, that was not only my last trip to Montreal, it was the beginning of years of delays for the film. In the end, we would complete our 18-month production in just over 4 years (and Zhi’s hometown would be renamed “The Slow Loris Village”).
Keeping production running simultaneously in California, Montreal, London, and Mumbai through the pandemic was wrought with challenges. I’m not talking about the Zoom meetings and all of that, that was fine — we were always an indie production, so we were used to remote working. It was all of the new unknowns. Many of our artists didn’t have the right equipment at home, or the right wifi connections; crew members were stuck in the wrong countries; people were getting the virus and disappearing from production meetings for weeks at a time. And all of this was on top of the fact that we were already trying to make an extremely ambitious film on an extremely tight budget.
For the year leading up to the pandemic, I was constantly spouting one of my favorite indie filmmaking isms — “there are no obstacles, only opportunities.” In that sense, the pandemic presented us with the greatest opportunity yet. Since, at its heart, Rally Road Racers is really a modern take on Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare, the crew and I were suddenly given the opportunity to become the living embodiment of the famous moral: slow and steady wins the race. I guess it was a case of Life imitating Art, which was itself already imitating other Art.
Spoiler: in the end, we did win! Somehow, despite the entire world changing around us, our film came together, and it exceeded even my pre-pandemic expectations.
The film is brimming with joy — and silliness, optimism, and love. The crew poured its collective heart and soul into it, and you feel it in every frame. I absolutely adore the characters, the cars, the world, and the overall palette — all the visuals that our incredibly talented Production Designer, Alexei Nechytaylo, brought to the table and nurtured and protected over those four long years.
When I started writing this film, nearly a decade ago now, I think I thought I was Zhi, the plucky underdog protagonist. And maybe I was. But standing on this side of it, I’m feeling more like Gnash, the bumper-sticker-philosophy-slinging goat who tried to step away too early even though he still Rally Road Racers – has a lot of game left in him. Perhaps I’m both. I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that that younger version of myself absolutely loves this movie! #TeamMuddyMeadows4Ever!
ROSS VENOKUR has written original television pilots and screenplays for Disney, Fox, Walden Media, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, Sony, Universal, The Jim Henson Co., Playtone, Jersey Films, 1492, ABC, FOX UPN, Mark Burnett Productions, Carsey-Werner, The WB, ConcaCo, Cartoon Network, Reliance, Nickelodeon, and many others.
The author of several middle-grade novels and picture books (Bantam Books & Simon & Schuster), Ross’ previous CG features include Charming (Demi Lovato, Sia, Avril Lavigne, GEM, Ashley Tisdale, John Cleese), which was released globally on Netflix in January 2021.
Ross is a founding partner of EDH Animation (2019), which is an unusual animation company that can incubate, develop, write, and produce its own compelling, hear-filled, and beautifully-crafted content for the family audience.
EDH is currently in production on its fifth original animated YouTube series for Kids2, featuring its Baby Einstein brand’s legacy characters. This latest series, Ocean Explorers, debuts in January 2023 concurrently with an exclusive toy line at Walmart.
EDH is also currently in production on the 14-episode season one of the animated series Walk off the Earth in Space. Featuring the international super group Walk Off The Earth, Wote in Space was created by Ross and his wife/partner, Lenore Quinonez-Venokur.
EDH also recently set up the original pre-k animated series Dede’s Diner, co-created by Ross, at Netflix.
In March 2021, Ross was half of the team responsible for the John Cleese sells the Brooklyn Bridge NFT, which was publicized all over the world. This early experience in the emerging world of NFTs put Ross at the forefront of the web3 craze, and planted the seeds for what would become TheHolidayVerse, which minted its flagship NFT collection on Dec 24, 2021, as a means to turn Ross’ original picture book, Ornamental, into the first animated Christmas special to be “financed one frame at a time”. Augmented Reality episodes of Ornamental will premiere exclusively on The Regal Cinema app in January 2023, Culminating in the premiere of the animated Christmas Special in Q4 2023.