How TV Animation Survived Mid-Pandemic: Zoom, Puppeteers and Voice Actors in Closets

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“There was maybe a week of everybody being like, well, this is f—ing crazy,” “Star Trek: Lower Decks” creator Mike McMahan tells TheWrap


Animation has been a rare pillar of stability during the most chaotic time for Hollywood in a century, churning out new episodes while the rest of the industry figures out how to keep COVID-19 out of its sets. But it faced some daunting challenges to resume production in the midst of a pandemic that nobody knows long it will last. “All the solutions we came up with at the very beginning of all of it — this was like in March — we were like, every solution we come up with needs to be a solution that could potentially last for years,” Mike McMahan, creator of CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” told TheWrap. “I didn’t want any three-month or two-week solutions.” In interviews with a half dozen people, top animation creators described how they employed some very unconventional methods to complete episodes — from using puppeteers to recording an orchestral score piecemeal to voice actors bribing neighborhood children to be quiet. (More on that later.) When “The Simpsons” became the first TV production to leave the office back in early March as the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to rear its ugly head at the United States, Al Jean had hoped it would only last three weeks.” Three weeks is now six months,” Jean, the longtime showrunner for the Fox animated comedy, told TheWrap. “The Simpsons” prepares to return for its 32nd season Sunday night, right on schedule with the rest of Fox’s Animation Domination lineup. “We’ve experienced zero delay,” Jean continued. “The premiere date is the same; the air schedule is the same.” For years, animation has been unknowingly preparing for a situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, producing series in a remote-working environment. Most of actual animating is outsourced to overseas facilities — “The Simpsons” is done in South Korea, for example — and even the in-studio work is completed digitally. “We kind of built a digital pipeline,” explained Scott Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of Bento Box Entertainment, the animation studio behind series like “Bob’s Burgers,” “Duncanville,” “Hoops” and “Central Park.” “When this pandemic hit, because most of our staff works digitally on a computer and a drawing tablet, it was easier for [our shows] to send them home.” Greenberg added that his staff was able to quickly set up with remote working tools and after about two or three hectic weeks, the workflow schedule remained largely unchanged. “We didn’t lose a beat. I think the nature of the type of work between designers and animators and alike enabled it to be more fluid for a digital pipeline.” McMahan pointed out that their artists were already stationed in Vancouver, so they were working with them on a telecommuting basis anyway. When the artists had to switch to remote work up in Canada, nothing about the communication process was any different to the “Lower Decks” team in Los Angeles. “We already had a pipeline where we would be communicating with the leads and Vancouver to our leads here. And it was all remote anyway,” McMahan said. “So to us, locally, that didn’t feel very different.” That’s not to say the process was completely seamless. For starters, even though McMahan was used to dealing with the Vancouver team remotely, those up in Canada had to adjust to being apart from each other.
CBS All Access’ ‘Tooning Out the News’ during the DNC in August
“All these different artists who were used to being able to just turn to the person sitting next to them or stand up and walk three feet and say  ‘Hey, how are you drawing this? What part of the hallway is this in? Does this guy have sideburns?’ And all of that organic, sort of the ability to to just be around all the other artists and feed off each other’s energy and literally collaborate was shifted,” he explained. “They’re still able to do it, but you had to schedule time to do it.” Most of the animation execs TheWrap contacted said there were a few weeks of adjustment — the writers’ rooms moving to Zoom was among the most challenging. But staffers also had to endure the mental aspect of being placed in isolation in home offices, without knowing how long it would be before it was safe to go back to “normal.” “The first day of the city lockdown was our first day of writing season two of ‘Star Trek.’ And there was maybe a week of everybody being like, well, this is f—ing crazy,” McMahan recalled. After that, everyone quickly realized how fortunate they were to still be able to do their job, or even have a job at all. “It was a challenge that everybody understood at the very beginning, that it was going to be worth it.” Scott Kreamer, showrunner for Netflix’s “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous,” said at the beginning of the pandemic they put a lot of effort into making sure everyone was doing OK, encouraging staff to take mental health days as needed. “It’s a hard time on everyone. So making sure that people didn’t feel isolated, doing whatever we could to make sure that everyone feels connected, that we’re still the same family,” he said. “We’ve had these virtual meetups, whether it was Quarantine Bingo, or I just go to meet with each of the departments, just to let them know, ‘Hey, your work isn’t just going off into the void.’” Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March, most entertainment companies have signaled that a return to the office is not expected until January at the earliest. Everyone is holding out hope that an effective vaccine will be found by the end of the year. Even then, the general consensus is that it won’t be until the middle of 2021 when a vaccine can be rolled out widely to the U.S. population. Any hopes of a full return to “normal” are not expected until the tail-end of next year. Even when offices do re-open fully, remote working has forced everyone to view the entire production process in a different light. Some things were even easier to accomplish remotely. There are some parts of the process that are actually smoother, “Bob’s Burgers” executive producer Dan Fybel said. “There’s some editing, audio editing, that when you’re doing it over Zoom, you can circle some things on the screen,” he said. “Whereas weirdly, if you’re in the same room, you’d have to be like, ‘Oh, that was, I think that was the fourth or fifth take.’” Kreamer even suggested that animation could make remote-working a permanent fixture. “There would have to be, you know, some modifications. But overall, can the animation industry move forward working from home? I absolutely think so.” Others are less bullish. “It just feels like a temporary solution,” Jean said. “It doesn’t feel like something you would really — and again. We’ve been doing it six months, doing it as long as anybody — like something that I would recommend in the long term.” Though Jean is pleased with how seamless the transition has been and that the quality is unchanged, he’s wary of looking at so many screens all day. “It is harder to connect to people. And I find at the end of the day, I have headaches. Sometimes I feel overstimulated, you know, and I have to just sort of like, take a break,” he said. “I don’t think the human being is exactly hardwired to work this way. So, I’m grateful, very grateful for the opportunity, but I wouldn’t recommend it permanently.” McMahan says the key word is “viable.” “It is viable. It’s just not what you would want to do. People that work in TV to some extent, we’re social people. We’re entertainers. You feed off of each other’s energy. You can tell what’s making people laugh in the room, you can tell what’s making people roll their eyes,” he said. “I don’t think any of us got into this because we like to work from home by ourselves and talk to people over the phone.” When it came to getting the actors to record their lines, the process became downright comical at times. The shows were at the mercy of how well the actors could set up in-home recording studios. It did not always go smoothly. “You have people recording in their closets,” said Kreamer. For star Jenna Ortega, Kreamer described that “it just looked like she was like in a dark room with a blanket over her head.” Kausar Mohammed, another voice actor, had to bribe her neighbors with brownies to keep quiet during her recordings. Voice actors also had to moonlight as their own sound engineers. “In some cases, we have them on the line with an engineer, and others, there’s an engineer on Zoom, but he can only sort of advise them, depending on what setup they have at home,” Kreamer added.
Kreamer handling voice recording with the cast
For CBS All Access’ “Tooning Out the News,” the remote-working shift did more than just alter the voice performances. They had to rethink how they did a series that puts out short, seven-minute episodes four days week. “We were actually doing a live motion-capture of the performers playing the animated characters, in addition to the audio that would be captured at the same time,” co-showrunner RJ Fried said. The show had a lightning-quick turnaround. The idea is to mock the news of that particular day. “Once we switched to remote, we realized that was going to be much more complicated,” Fried said. “So what we had to do was, we switched to just doing a radio play. We can only record the radio play, and then animators would take that radio play, and re-create a lot of the motion capture animation.” It got even more challenging during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in August. “We realized, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna have to record at 11:30 p.m., we got to get this process tighter,” Fried says. They hired puppeteers to animate the characters live, as the voice actors were recording their lines. “The performers are just delivering their lines. Meanwhile, there’s a puppeteer assigned to each performer who is doing the animation live, so that we can actually get it to edit within you know, a few hours after,” Fried said. “It turns out to be almost like a live-to-tape situation, just like any other late-night show.” McMahan described the voice recording process for “Lower Decks” actors “like slow-motion.” What used to take 30 seconds, now takes seven minutes. “It kind of felt like we were panhandling for gold. Like, who cares if we’re cold and wet, standing in a river as long as we get f—ing gold.” The recording gymnastics extended to the score as well. Chris Westlake, the show’s composer, insistently argued against using a synthesizer. “He was like, “No, no let’s keep hiring musicians, they can do it safely at home,” McMahan said. So Westlake had every musician perform solo, then cut it all together later. “It was a lot of extra work for him. But it really came together beautifully.” The pandemic has fueled a boom in animation. Greenberg noted that Bento Box has actually been starting production on new series over the last few months. “During the pandemic, we started a show for Netflix ‘Mulligan.’ We were gearing up ‘Housebroken’ for Fox, and we’ve been gearing up some other shows.” Greenberg argues that, if anything, the shutdowns have given animation more respect and visibility and allowed it break free of the stereotype that it’s only for kids. “I think it gave animation this moment in time,” he said. “I think everybody knows there’s a huge audience for it, as you can see from the growth in commissioning from streamers and broadcasters. I think the moment in time for animation was nice. People can kind of stop and see the value and how it’s not just young kids or just a sitcom cartoon.”

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