Animator Helps ABC’s Live-Action ‘Imaginary Mary’ Bring Unique Character to Life

Imaginary Mary ABC
Courtesy of ABC

In the new ABC sitcom “Imaginary Mary,” which debuts March 29, Jenna Elfman stars as Alice, a fiercely independent career woman whose life is turned upside-down when she meets the love of her life, Ben (Stephen Schneider), a divorced dad with three kids.

But the live-action/CGI hybrid show, created by “The Goldbergs” team of Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio, and Doug Robinson, also features a major character who doesn’t even exist — the titular Imaginary Mary.

Small, opinionated, furry, and voiced by Rachel Dratch, the animated creature represents the slightly unhinged friend Alice made up as a child. When it suddenly reappears, chaos ensues (along with laughs) as it tries to help her navigate the transition from very single to emotionally mature woman who’s ready to raise a family.

While animation, and animated characters, in live-action television are nothing new — think “Son of Zorn” and, for trivia buffs,  “Hard Time on Planet Earth” — “Mary” marks the first CG main character in a TV comedy, says Patrick Osborne, who designed the animation and serves as executive producer on the production from Sony Pictures Television, Happy Madison, and ABC Studios.

“I always try to push the envelope with animation in some way,” says Osborne, who directed the 2014 animated short “Feast,” which won an Oscar, and last year’s “Pearl,” which was nominated in the category. “The idea was to take the two worlds and mix them. But it’s only recently that it’s been possible to do this in a comedy show at the speed that Adam and the others are used to working at.”

Osborne notes that animation can be painfully slow. “The post process can take up to a year per episode,” he says. Producing TV comedy doesn’t have the luxury of working at that pace, particularly on “Imaginary Mary.” “We had to turn around an episode in just six weeks of post to keep up with the schedule,” Osborne notes.

To speed things along, he brought in animation house Zoic Studios, located in Vancouver, where the show happens to be shot. “It was a happy coincidence that it was all happening in the same place,” says Osborne. “I could be on set and then run over to Zoic and see what we were getting.” It also helped that Zoic vfx supervisor Sallyanne Massimini could go to the set and coordinate the work.

Zoic used a team of some 25 animators and artists. “It was a revolving setup,” Osborne explains. “They do a lot of TV shows, so we could easily add people in a rush for a particular sequence. For me, the priority was all about the performance and making sure that the quality of animation was high.”

A major challenge was ensuring that animation pipeline flowed smoothly. “We couldn’t afford to have animators waiting around on their computers for stuff to do,” says Osborne. “We had to keep up with the schedule, so I didn’t waste time trying to make sure that, for instance, all of Mary’s fur or hair movement looks totally realistic. That would have taken weeks and weeks of extra work. We would do that for specific shots as needed, if it helped tell the story and if it would be noticed.”

Indeed, besides time and money concerns, knowing when — and how — to push ahead was a key asset. “Indecision is a big enemy of animation,” says Osborne. “It can really slow down the process. So even in the early planning stages we found ways to be more decisive. For instance, when planning animation for a show like this, you usually storyboard it all; but we found out that storyboarding limited what the directors could do, so instead, we used a puppet as Mary on the set to block scenes and do pre-light.”

Other efficiencies can be found in the very nature of CG. “Every animation we do is re-usable in a future show,” Osborne notes. “We can take Mary’s walk, her facial expressions, her gestures, and place them in other episodes. That really helps speed things up.”

Ultimately, the team created more than 100 minutes of animation for the first nine episodes. “Basically,” Osborne notes, “that’s a whole feature film’s worth.”