Animation Productions Going Strong in 2020

By Amit Jagwani  | 

The Covid-19 pandemic has realigned and recalibrated plans across the entertainment industry — from ever-shifting schedules and productions on broadcast television to a film industry making release decisions almost week-to-week. Industry (and state) restrictions for group work environments have made writing and production difficult, with productions halting, working in quarantine bubbles, and having to learn and adjust to new regulations. One wing of the entertainment industry was, by virtue of its production and collaboration differences, adequately prepared to pivot and keep production rolling without any major setbacks: the animation industry. The nature of the animation workflow more easily allows for remote work, overcoming the setbacks that standard productions have encountered. As a result, the present and future of animated productions remains bright.

The coronavirus pandemic seemed to hit Hollywood slowly, and then all at once, with productions shuttering and suspending almost without notice in March. Shows like Fargo, suspended mid-season, were left to just wait until it was safe to go back. Animation, however, rolled right along. Disney Television Animation stated that it took a few days to “smooth some wrinkles,” but kept its editing on schedule. It wasn’t ideal, but the simple reality was that animators commonly work independently and could easily adapt their lives to working from home. Animator Jorge Gutierrez told Variety, “it’s almost like we’ve been training for this for years, and our time has finally come.” Gutierrez explained further that animators are “so used to working with studios all over the world, and a lot of times we work with artists all over the world. It’s a remote business and there are no sets … So we’re kind of set up for this.”

Pressure breeds creativity, and as a result of the constraints of endless animating and voice recording from home studios led to interesting results. Work-from-home table reads became common practice almost instantly, and Toomboom, a storyboarding software used by 20th Century Fox TV and others, granted free licenses to artists for a time. Voiceover actors had to build makeshift sound booths in their homes, with blankets and tents, before studios delivered microphones and equipment to the homes of their stars. NBC’s crime thriller, The Blacklist, starring James Spader, drew attention when the producers decided to animate its season finale instead of leaving fans hanging until the resumption of production.

Music is an element of animated films that encountered bigger challenges. Production on Sponge On The Run (a SpongeBob SquarePants movie) couldn’t ask classical musicians to record in a studio together, so they found an elegant solution with each performer on its Hanz Zimmer score recording every part separately, to be mixed together later. The same production team also found success with remote focus groups, that they found to be equally as useful as in-person groups and far easier.

One challenge animation teams faced may seem surprising: internet bandwidth. Animation files are extremely large, and for artists to send their work to production teams requires a pretty powerful broadband connection. Most animation studios have fast internet, but Deadline noted that residential broadband, already slowed by excessive demand, is not always up to the task. CBS All Access’ Tooning Out the News added an extra hour to their workdays just to allow for slower file transfer. Additionally, keeping up the pace soon became difficult. Many shows are deeply collaborative environments and work on a tight schedule already. When the pandemic compresses schedules and reduces productivity, schedules like South Park’s famous one-day delivery become hard to manage.

Animation’s sure-and-steady march throughout 2020 has been a bright spot in an industry hit by the uncertainty that the pandemic has delivered. Not only have innovative production methods fit seamlessly into the work of making animation, but some trends indicate that advertising is taking a cue from the entertainment industry. The preponderance of more and more animated ads foreshadow a very busy few years for animators and their productions.

Amit Jagwani
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