How Remote Workflows Helped Animated Movie Production Thrive During Lockdown
The entertainment industry has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, which abruptly changed the way we both produce and consume content. But while the film and television industries struggled to adapt to a climate in which everyone was now working (and watching) from home, one form of cinematic storytelling emerged as being uniquely equipped to continue moving full speed ahead: animated movie production.
The state of the film industry has been making headlines since the onset of the pandemic. Moviegoing was canceled, forcing studios to reshuffle their release calendars and, in many cases, forego the box office altogether by offloading new titles to streaming platforms. Streaming came to dominate the conversation, leading industry prognosticators to forecast the death of the theatrical moviegoing experience altogether.
In tandem with the evolution of the way we consume, the way that film and TV is produced has also been evolving. When lockdown orders first went into effect in early 2020, most live-action productions were shut down. And while most of Hollywood packed up and isolated at home, the animation industry didn’t suffer the same setback. In an exciting turn of events, animated movie production was able to continue during lockdown.
The Animation Industry Is Set Up to Work From Home
The entertainment industry wasn’t the only professional sector forced to adjust to the conditions of the pandemic. However, animated movie production was singularly able to weather the storm because remote workflows aren’t a workaround animators first tapped into in light of the pandemic. In fact, many animation teams have been working remotely for years now.
Remote workflows in animation can be traced back to nearly half a century ago. “Beginning in the 1960s, animated series have been regularly produced remotely,” writes Aaron Simpson for Cartoon Brew. Storyboards were once shipped overseas between Japanese and American studios—a method that was cost-efficient but, as you can imagine, incredibly slow.
But with the internet now connecting animation teams all around the world with just the click of a button, the transition to working under lockdown for animators was, in many ways, seamless. As Mireille Soria, president of Paramount Animation, told Deadline, “our story, visual, development and editorial departments are used to working remotely already. You know, we didn’t miss a beat as far as having our daily check-ins with story artists, production designers and visual development artists showing art. So that has really gone smoothly.”
A number of high-profile animated projects were fully completed under lockdown. Pixar’s Soul still had seven weeks of production left when lockdown orders were first announced, and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon was primarily produced from the respective households of its creative team.
Due to animation’s foundation in remote work, not only were studios capable of continuing to finish in-progress projects, but those in search of new content actually greenlit more animated films than normal because they were the only type of project that could be produced without the risk of a shutdown.
For example, Disney launched an animated shorts series, At Home With Olaf, that showed the beloved snowman from Frozen sheltering in place. Josh Gad voiced the titular character in the series created by Hyrum Osmond—and they both did it all from home.
In addition to animators continuing to move ahead with their projects, other industry professionals have begun to foray into animation as a solution for continuing to tell stories from home. And it’s not only the film industry that has pivoted to animation. Television, digital video, and interactive media have all used the lockdown as an occasion to convey their message by way of animated stories.
After the dust has settled, many creators believe that this turn to animated storytelling will prove more than a quick fix. The spotlight that the medium has received may only be the beginning of a boom in animated filmmaking.
Read on to discover the five reasons animated filmmaking thrived under lockdown, and why, now that more of the world has grown accustomed to remote workflows, animation will be a tempting medium for more and more storytellers well into the future:
1. Voice Acting Can Be Done Remotely
One of the greatest things about voice acting is that it can be done from the comfort of home. However, this isn’t a recent development brought on by the pandemic. While the lives of voice actors changed in a number of ways in the wake of COVID-19, one thing that didn’t change was the ability to audition, create recordings, and participate in live-directed sessions all from a home studio.
But for professional voice actors who were accustomed to performing in sound booths at recording studios, workarounds were devised. For example, TV producer Janelle Momary and her creative team were able to give her cast of voice actors specific home setup instructions, including “instructions on how to build the proper pillow fort — with images included.” Pillow forts are a sound treatment that helps a space sound better by absorbing your voice and minimizing reflections.
When the lockdown orders first went into effect, audio post-production studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment began to offer “Source-Connect training courses, testing, and onboarding voice actors who could record remotely.” Remote recording technology like Source-Connect served as a great remedy that made up for the inability to record in studio and interact with one another. The Bang Zoom! team held Source-Connect recording sessions with up to six actors in the session at once, while producer Michael Hirsh noted that his voice actors recorded from home, while his audio editors edited the dialogue in post to forge a semblance of in-person interaction.
A big part of the appeal of voice acting from home is the low barrier to entry. Jen Rudin, who works in animation at ICM, explained the appeal of getting into animation voice acting to The Ringer: “You don’t have to have hair and makeup; you don’t have to have a scene partner; you can record into your iPhone. It could not be easier.”
2. Creators From Other Disciplines Are Making the Foray Into Animation
The low barrier to entry has made animation voice acting an attractive alternative for actors whose movies or TV series were shut down, or stage actors whose productions were shuttered. “What’s changed most about animation since the start of the pandemic isn’t the process itself,” writes Alison Herman in The Ringer, “it’s who’s interested in getting involved.”
In addition to theater and film actors making inroads to the realm of animation, over the years there has been a trend of celebrities who aren’t traditionally present in animation beginning to pop up in animated films. Cartoon voice casts can include newcomers from other fields of performance, but they can also include a roster of A-list celebrities.
Acting talent aren’t the only ones who have noticed the appeal of voice acting for animated movies. There is a rising amount of writers and filmmakers turning to animation now, too. “As for writers whose nascent live-action projects are suddenly stalled out,” writes Herman, “animation can also present an opportunity to stay active and exercise some creative muscles.”
Animated films don’t just have to be fictional stories aimed at young audiences. The animated documentary Flee, which was awarded the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, follows a refugee from Afghanistan who tells his story for the first time. The film’s director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, previously built his career making live-action documentaries. The film Josep, which chronicles the life of Spanish illustrator Josep Bartolí, was directed by French newspaper cartoonist Aurélien Froment. Both films tell poignant stories that employ the versatility of the craft of animation to tell their stories in distinct and impactful ways.
3. Remote Workflows Allow Filmmakers to Diversify Their Creative Teams
When animated films are produced by teams that work remotely, its animators can be spread out around the world. Skydance Animation, a studio with teams in both Los Angeles and Madrid, is able to operate round-the-clock given the time difference. The studio’s president, Holly Edwards, told Deadline: “We’re split up, so that here in Los Angeles we have mostly story and visual development artists and editorial, and over in Spain they’re building all our assets with animation and production taking place there,” adding, “we can give notes, get them responded to while we’re not working, and then when we come back, we get results.”
For studios that can connect seamlessly from opposite ends of the ocean, the access to creative talent and artisans is that much more vast. Movie studios that work this way are substantially more scalable, because they can grow and hire new talent without having to rent more space.
Remote workflows can also provide opportunities for animators and other creative talent outside of Hollywood. Matthew A. Cherry, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love and several forthcoming animated projects for film and TV, notes that remote working has allowed him to diversify the creative teams working on his projects so that they aren’t all L.A.-based.
“Some are in South Africa, some are in France,” Cherry tells Entertainment Weekly. “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?’”
4. Animated Movies Satisfy the Never-Ending Need for New Content
Almost every major movie studio has launched their own streaming service in an attempt to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Due to the prevalence of these platforms and their need to pump out an abundance of content that appeals to all sorts of audiences, there is a growing need for a wide range of stories—and animation can make that happen.
In a period when there are widespread worries surrounding travel and the health of crew members on crowded movie shoots, many more animated projects are getting the green light from industry gatekeepers. “A significant break in TV and movie production, coupled with a new world of concerns about live action filming, could fuel a boom in demand for animation and special-effects led films and shows,” writes The Guardian.
A number of animated films have performed exceptionally well on home video. When Trolls World Tour had its theatrical release disrupted by the pandemic, it became available via video-on-demand platforms, and ultimately grossed more than $200 million in rentals. The film’s success was largely attributed to parents who were looking for something to keep their children entertained when schools first sent students home.
Based on the sheer volume of new content streamers are producing, it is also likely that the types of stories we customarily see in animation may not be the only types of stories we see moving forward.
Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation, believes this boom will revolve around “animated titles aimed at older audiences as a result of the coronavirus crisis.” Belson asserts that “the challenges of filming during the pandemic have led to production companies placing a greater emphasis on animated titles.”
5. Technology Has Made It Easier for Animators to Collaborate Remotely
Zoom isn’t the only connective technology that has made it easy to connect with colleagues during lockdown. The work of animators who are working remotely has been streamlined by programs like Teradici, which “essentially creates a virtual workspace where remote workers can stream pixels from a work computer setup, helped support animators’ work from home,” as well as Toon Boom’s Harmony WebCC, “a web server suite that allows off-site artists to tap directly into a studio’s pipeline.”
While these tools have made it easier for animation teams to collaborate remotely, other technologies have given way to virtual production that employs a blend of live-action and animation. One studio that now regularly operates on this plane, for example, is Disney, which has used virtual sets projected onto LED walls in a Los Angeles soundstage in order for filmmaker Jon Favreau to “transport his actors from the deserts of Tatooine to a restaurant on the forest planet Sorgan in minutes.”
Movies and TV are just one industry that has been revolutionized by the advent of virtual reality technology.
Additional Considerations For Remote Workflows in Animation
We’d be remiss to highlight all the benefits of remote animation production without pointing out that there are also some shortcomings.
Here are a few factors about working remotely that animators and filmmaking teams should keep in mind:
Animators and artists still need to reference real life
As Christian Manz, visual effects supervisor on the Fantastic Beasts films, notes: “There will definitely be an increase in digital work but none of it can be done at the push of a button. To digitally build a location you still need to capture [the real thing] in some way. If you are making a crowd of digital characters you will still need references such as to costumes and the film’s [real] characters, all of that.”
To produce animated images that feel authentic and textured, many animators use real life as a reference. For example, the animators working on Pixar’s forthcoming film Luca traveled to the Italian Riviera, where the film is set, to photograph landscapes and use the real setting as a basis for their visual style.
An amateur home studio setup isn’t always a permanent fix
Pillow forts sometimes can’t serve as much more than a short-term solution. While putting together a home studio is a great idea, you can’t always expect every member of a large cast of actors to have a professional recording setup.
“Recording studios are soundproof; as many a self-isolator attempting to Zoom with an A/C running full-blast in the background can attest, most houses and apartments are not,” writes The Ringer. “Big rooms can echo, cityscapes can intrude, and other humans—especially small ones—can make noise.”
Home WiFi connections are rarely up to speed with office internet
When you’re working with the massive files that most movie animators use, anything less than ultra-high-speed internet can cause a lag in your workflow.
Variety reports that one of the biggest hurdles the animation industry must still overcome is “making sure that its artists have enough internet bandwidth and computing power — it can take far longer to send and download large files from home.”
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