The pandemic animation boom: How cartoons became king in the time of COVID
Jurassic World: Dominion, the first major Hollywood studio film to resume shoots amid the current pandemic environment, shut down production for a second time in early October. "A small amount of positive tests," the studio said, were recorded among the crew, though work would ultimately resume two weeks later in the U.K. Around the same time, in that same country, Locksmith Animation, the production company working on the upcoming Ron's Gone Wrong, had a much different experience. The team had a virtual costume party to throw.
Since March, when the first shelter-in-place ordinances came down, the weekly production meetings for co-directors Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez's new movie for Locksmith and 20th Century Studios have become dress-up time among the department heads. Some wear costumes as they discuss the latest updates to the animated film on these Zoom get-togethers, others sport heavy makeup and accessories — and all do it from the comfort of their individual homes. The more reserved creatives change their backgrounds to coincide with the theme of the week. One time it was pegged to a favorite decade, while another was LGBTQ Pride.
"The very first [Zoom meeting], someone said we all looked like news readers," Sarah Smith, co-CEO of Locksmith Animation with Julie Lockhart, tells EW — also over Zoom. "On Friday, everybody came in [dressed] as weathermen. Then it became a regular Friday thing. It is a team bonding thing."
Live-action productions, which include movies like the upcoming Spider-Man 3 and TV shows like The Witcher, are still forced to face the "new normal" of working on location with added safety precautions and maneuvering around any delays in the event someone receives a positive COVID-19 test. Animation, while not without its own challenges, seems uniquely suited to weather this particular storm, as 13 creatives from across the industry share their experiences working through the pandemic from remote locations.
Janelle Momary, a supervising producer on Bob's Burgers, says her show was up and running again five days after the first lockdown ordinances went into effect in California. The crew, showrun by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith, delivered an episode on the air for that following Sunday. The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean says his team didn't miss a beat in the transition. He noticed other productions preemptively adopting work-from-home practices by March 4 and decided to follow suit. "Fox had been working with Zoom and so we got set up and then everybody was doing it a week later," he says.
The bigger studio feature films are a slightly different story, but animated productions largely haven't slowed down much — and Hollywood is taking notice. WME's literary packaging group, which handles movies and shows adapted from books, sold through a total of 12 animated projects and two animated series since March of this year. For perspective, the group sold just one animated project in the entirety of 2019. "It's kind of crazy," Jean remarks. "Everybody's trying to figure out how to do animation now. So, those of us who've been doing it are like, 'Hey! Let us do it.' If you were really designing something to be done remotely, animation is the perfect thing."
The new normal
Jean doesn't notice too much of a change in his day-to-day now compared to pre-pandemic. The Simpsons writers' room still starts at 10 a.m. PT, it just looks more like a virtual Hollywood Squares as each member files into their meetings over Zoom. "I find it's a little more intense," he says, in the sense that "when someone says something, [they] cut off somebody else a little bit more than in person." But "you can do it," he adds, especially since there are certain elements of the workload he's already used to doing remotely.
"We've been editing through email digitally for years," he notes — meaning, he'll receive a file and send back his written notes. It's similar with Bouchard and Momary, who note they were regularly facilitating work-from-home requests from their Bob's Burgers staff in pre-pandemic times. "Because we're a digital pipeline, they've been able to do their actual tasks [at home]," Momary explains. "We were able to set up some artists remotely prior to the pandemic: watching the screenings together, attending note sessions together. Now we've conformed to do it all virtually."
Animator Glen Keane, who directed his first feature film this year with Netflix's Over the Moon, says he already used virtual communications between the various production offices in California, Vancouver, China, and New York through video conferencing. So, when Netflix's offices closed in March, at a time when they were about 80 percent done with the film, he still didn't miss a deadline. "The wonderful thing was that we had prepared for this, we just didn't know it," he says. "I just got used to that's how we connect to people. We never could have done this had we not already had that flow."
Certain things do get lost in trading an in-person environment for a virtual setup, which everyone is still discovering as they go. For Bouchard, it's harder to figure out which jokes are landing and which ones aren't.
"Of course, you have a table read by Zoom," he says, "but the huge thing that you can't do, at least not with the current technology, is to hear where people are laughing. For us, there's this sense everything is compromised, all the processes you're trying to do remotely, you're always absorbing some deficiency. In that case, you can have a table read, but if you can't hear where the laughs are, it doesn't help you that much."
Screenings for the Bob's team are now "solo affairs," he adds. Typically, "one of the most important meetings we have as writers" is the 30-minute gathering that comes after everyone finishes watching an episode together as a group. Now, he says, "You get a link and you watch it on your laptop and you try to use your best judgment about what's working and what's not." What works in their favor is the rapport one naturally develops with their teammates after working on the same show for the past decade. "We can anticipate each other's thoughts and there is a shorthand," he says. "To see the episodes on air that we know we did during COVID is kind of stunning and to feel like they are as good as any episode we've ever done."
Bouchard isn't just working on Bob's Burgers, however. In addition to other shows Central Park (on Apple TV+) and The Great North (for Fox), he's also simultaneously developing the Bob's Burgers movie for 20th Century Studios. That, he mentions, is "a unique beast unto itself." On balancing the show's development with the movie, he describes it as "one waters the other."
"The movie definitely opened our eyes to a different way of making animation," Momary adds. "Something that we're used to, moving through [the show] so quickly, we're not able to dissect frame by frame, pixel by pixel in what is the best for the image. Even with our production and rewrites for TV, it is a very tight schedule. On the film, we're able to go back and to polish and refine every word and every frame because we have the time and we have the resources."
It was a much different story for Chris Juen, who's more on the feature film side as global head of production at Reel FX, which works on Warner Bros. Scoob! and Paramount's Rumble. He came on as a consultant with the purpose of getting three or four projects off the ground. His official start date was March 1, two weeks before our new reality set in. "From a management standpoint, it was like nothing we had ever seen before," he says. "It wasn't people saying, 'Hey, can I not come in?' We were literally trying to track where people were."
At first, "everyone was trying to get the short term," Juen notes. Reel FX was under deadline to deliver final animations on Scoob! to Warner Bros, and he wondered "are enough people coming in to get the work done? 'Cause everyone was like, 'Do have a problem? Do we not have a problem?'" The film would skip theaters for an on-demand release on May 15, followed by a June 26 streaming debut on HBO Max. Heading into production on 2021's Rumble, the WWE Studios production about monster wrestling, Juen remembers being in a senior staff meeting and he urged "to treat this like it's going to be longterm."
Teradici, a program that essentially creates a virtual workspace where remote workers can stream pixels from a work computer setup, helped support animators' work from home. "It's as close to being in the office as we can get," Juen notes. "It went from 'it would be nice to do something from home' to 'how do you get this to go?' " Now, the question becomes "how do we make everybody's lives even better?" which is an on-going challenge.
Pete Docter, Pixar's chief creative officer and a co-director on this December's Soul with Kemp Powers, says the day-to-day quarantine production routine can get "exhausting." The Soul crew had seven weeks left of production when the first lockdowns came, though "most people picked up their machines, drove home, and they were up and running in a day," says producer Dana Murray. The remaining work involved "backend" finessing: the technical side, like lighting and rendering.
Dailies, in which Docter, Powers, and Murray review specific sequences of animation, became something done over Zoom. In this new format, "Things seemed to shift down to maybe second gear," Docter explains. "Somebody will be talking and then… [he pretends to freeze] there's a lot of that. All that said, we're lucky to be working."
Keane found the iPad "remarkably accurate" for finalizing the color and lighting for Over the Moon. It was part of a "kit" production designer Celine Desrumaux put together for the team to work from home. This kind of work, Murray says, is easier to do remotely versus the earlier stages of developing story and building out animations. "I know how difficult that is on productions to be there," she says. "So, I think we got really lucky in the timing."
Raya and the Last Dragon, from Walt Disney Animation, was not as fortunate. As one of the first Disney animated titles to be developed largely during lockdown, the film was about 50 percent done with animation by August by the time EW spoke with director Don Hall, the filmmaker estimates. "That first, probably, couple weeks were the most tumultuous where everybody was getting set up," he recalls. "That was just everybody getting their internet updated and getting the rigs so that they can work at home. So, it was probably a two-week — I would imagine something like that — period. But then, it's just the good nature, the crew started to set in and everybody just got used to the rhythm of working."
Voiceover and pillow forts
Ron's Gone Wrong feels much more resonant now, given its story: an 11-year-old boy is the last to get the latest technological craze, a walking, talking robot. But when he realizes his is busted, he tries teaching it how to be human. It's "about the pitfalls of relationships conducted entirely through screens and messages online because you just don't have all those other human cues," Smith says. "It means everyone has to work hard to communicate with each other."
During a virtual recording session, Vine chuckles to himself at his home desk station while listening to a take from one of his actors. (The cast is still unannounced.) The curtains are drawn to prevent glare on the screen, and he's plugged into a headphone and microphone setup to relay any directions. "It's really nice, it's really funny," he tells the actor over video conference. "Lovely attitude, lovely feeling to it. Could you just give it a little more amplification?" He means to "amplify the gesture," which is the character exclaiming, "What the hell?!" "A bit bigger and sharper," he says.
And that's generally the new process for remote voiceover work. It's becoming more common now to see actors with their own at-home setups, like Josh Gad recording new Olaf performances for the series of online Disney shorts. But studios and networks are spreading that technological love to keep their productions going. "Engineers drive to people's homes and hand over the equipment," Smith notes for Ron's Gone Wrong.
Momary took a slightly different approach. Actors need specific setups, ones with good acoustics, proper microphones, and (here's the tricky part) as little noise as possible. To that end, the kits for the Bob's Burgers cast came complete "with instructions on how to build the proper pillow fort — with images included," she says, to dampen external noise. "Also, if the pillow fort is not acceptable with your sofas, then this is how to set up your closet. So, proper images on how to hang clothes in your closet and set up your mic and your computers so we can track you and try to get the best quality of sound possible."
For scratch recordings — which are temporary voiceover recordings done by the production crew for the purposes of timing and reference — Luke Jameson, a second assistant editor on Ron's Gone Wrong, has his own mic stationed inside his closet in between two racks of hanging shirts. He sits on a stool in front of the closet as he shouts various exclamations into his clothes, like "Get him!" Alicia Davies, production coordinator on the film, commonly finds herself underneath a blanket. "Where I live sounds kind of like a greenhouse," she says. "Really bad acoustics for recording. So, the only way you can achieve recording without echo is we improvise."
Studios remain open, though in a limited capacity. Jean says he regularly makes lone trips to the Fox lot, which maintains new safety precautions for those entering the premises. For those involved with stop-motion animation, this kind of space is more crucial.
There are multiple stop-motion projects currently in development, including Guillermo del Toro's take on Pinocchio for Netflix, as well as LAIKA's secretive next movie. LAIKA producer and head of production Arianne Sutner did not comment on what movie they are currently working on, but The Oregonian newspaper found court documents from 2018 that suggest the company is developing a script about time-traveling Beatles fans. "We took stock and we shut down the studio for a couple of weeks," Sutner says. "We pride ourselves on doing everything in-house, from designing to building to shooting. So, all of a sudden, our whole ethos, everything that we had planned, we had a look at it in an entirely different way."
LAIKA's studio in Portland, Ore. — 5,264 square feet of office space on the second level and 30,746 square feet for the scenic, set shop, landscaping, and model shops on the lower level — now plays host to 104 employees (about 50 percent of its workforce), all operating on staggered schedules, wearing masks, and maintaining appropriate distancing. Arrows on the premises guide workers in the right direction in order to maintain the space. "It's everything from making sure that a certain amount of air from the outside is circulated into the building to [insisting] on mask-wearing all the time when you're in the building or outside of the perimeters," Sutner says. "If you are sharing an item" — say, a puppet — "that has to go from one hand to the other, often it'll both lay there for three days and go through a UV cleaning."
Known for mixing stop-motion puppeteering and CG animation on films like Golden Globe winner Missing Link and Oscar nominee Kubo and the Two Strings, LAIKA further adapted to the situation to ensure certain "dev work," as Sutner puts it, could be done from home. It's prompting bursts of creativity. "They're making stuff that will be in the movie out of things that they have found from within their own homes, like toilet paper rolls, like string," she says. "Just home materials that we're capturing and in fact use."
Alex Bulkley, a producer at ShadowMachine (also based in Portland) who works on Pinocchio, agrees the new process brings them back to the D.I.Y. roots of stop-motion. That kind of inventiveness is like "creating a workbench out of a surfboard," he remarks. "My favorite story is people doing soldering, for example, in an open barbecue [setup]. That then becomes an opportunity to build certain pieces of these physical assets at home, keep that pipeline moving. A lot of our crew would share the stories and pictures of home setups and are really proud of that kind of creativity. For many, it was an opportunity to get back into their garage."
Matthew A. Cherry knows full well the "feast or famine" nature of Hollywood. His animated short Hair Love got started through financial support from a Kickstarter campaign in 2017. Two years later, it finally screened in theaters in front of showings of The Angry Birds Movie 2. Now he's an Oscar winner, thanks to that short, and more doors are opening. He's spinning off Hair Love into an HBO Max animated streaming series called Young Love, he developed and directed an animated election special for ABC's black-ish (during lockdown), and now he's been tapped to direct an animated film Tut, an afro-futuristic story of Tutankhamun for Sony Animation — another project greenlit in the pandemic-prompted new wave of animation.
"I always joke, 'Talk about just timing!'" he says. "On top of that, you have all these newer streaming services that opened up recently. HBO Max, Peacock. These are completely different outlets that have a pretty voracious appetite for content, too. And so, it's just much more opportunity opened up."
Cherry also points out how normally, for a show like Young Love, he'd have to "always work with people in L.A., in the studio on the Sony lot, wherever the office space ended up being." "You're limited to who you can work with," he says. Now, with everyone working remotely, "we're able to work with artists who aren't local." He's able to further diversify the creatives behind the camera in addition to the acting talent. "Some are in South Africa, some are in France," Cherry says. "It's all on Zoom anyway. The biggest hurdle is just the time zone. Also on the writer front, trying to start a writers' room, there may be a writer that's New York-based, somebody in Atlanta or something, and you can have those conversations in a way that you couldn't have had before because it's all Zoom and we're all in our living room anyway, so what does it matter?"
Powers, who straddles both animation and live-action between co-directing Soul for Pixar and writing for Star Trek: Discovery, questions what the coming months will look like. "Compared to live-action, animation is a breeze in terms of shooting during this [time]," he notes. "Anything in live-action will shut you down. So, I don't think it's a surprise that suddenly all the networks are trying to very quickly get animated projects going."
At the same time, he thinks it could be "a rude awakening" for studios. "They think animation is just easy and it's not," he continues. "It's actually some of the hardest work to do in Hollywood and I don't think it's necessarily respected as much as it should be. Of course, people respect Pixar and they respect Disney Animation, but I don't think people quite understand how much energy goes into doing this."
Since EW spoke with Powers, Pixar and Disney decided to move Soul out of its planned November theatrical release and send it exclusively to the Disney+ streaming platform for Dec. 25. Jean hopes that kind of move doesn't become "a permanent situation." "We've talked about a second Simpsons movie, but the theatrical releases, there's such a huge backup now," he says. Many Hollywood studio productions have been bumped out of 2020 altogether for new dates in 2021. "If we started a movie, I don't know when we could possibly [release it]."
Bouchard spoke with his producers about streaming as it pertains to the Bob's Burgers movie. "We decided we really want the movie to come out in theaters because Bob's is already on TV," he says. "Of course, we want everyone to be able to safely see it in movie theaters. We don't want anyone to put themselves at risk. But assuming there's a point at which everyone can go back to theaters safely, we're excited about Bob's: The Movie being seen in the theater, in the dark with other people, because that's something we've never been able to do before."
The good news for the industry is that, theater or no theater, "animation's like a cockroach," Jean remarks. "It's almost impossible to kill, God bless it."
Correction: Raya and the Last Dragon wasn't approximately 50 percent completed by March 2020, as EW previously stated. It was 50 percent completed by August 2020 at the time of the filmmaker interview.
—Additional reporting by Rachel Yang