When “Tooning Out the News” was prepping to make its originally scheduled March 16 debut on CBS All Access, the creative team was already striving to make a show that was nearly impossible. But then coronavirus hit, pushing pause on production and shifting post processes into artisans’ homes, and things got even more complicated.
“Tooning Out the News” is an animated short series that runs four times a week on the streamer. Each under 10 minute segment that airs daily features an anchor named James Smartwood parodying the top news stories of the day and interviewing real-world guests. Those segments are turned around quickly to be as timely as possible, and then at the end of the week they are compiled into one full weekly episode.
Originally, after converting David Letterman’s old personal screening room in the Ed Sullivan Theatre into a “NASA-like control room” where the actors could be captured into animation in real time, the production team had spent an intense five months preparing to the point where they were delivering daily. Post-coronavirus pandemic, they were forced to pivot.
“Just the act of doing animation on a daily basis is one of the oldest and hardest challenges in the animator’s playbook,” says executive producer Tim Luecke, who heads up the animation team. “So even in-studio is a struggle. When we got the news on the Friday before we were set to premiere that we had to all stay at home for at least two weeks, that became the final obstacle in an already crazy obstacle course that we had run.”
In theory, Luecke, executive producer Stephen Colbert and the rest of the team behind the animated satirical political comedy had been “unintentionally” working towards the goal of a series this ambitious since they discovered Adobe Character Animator in beta five years ago. That technology allows hand-drawn characters to be motion-tracked in real time, and it’s one on which they cut their teeth on “The Late Show” for CBS and “Our Cartoon President” for Showtime. In creating “Tooning Out the News,” the goal was to respond to current news clips with larger-than-life animation as non-animated figures and pundits guested.
To get to air by the new April 7 debut date, the team leaned into the “efficiencies and crazy pipelines” they had already built. They continued working closely with the Adobe Character Animator team, shipped out audio equipment to the cast at home and created 24-hour schedules with rotating shifts while relying on a combination of Slack, Zoom and remote computer access. The interviews with actors and guests now take place over Zoom in the early afternoon, are recorded, and then sent to editing to be completed by about 10 p.m.
“We’ve had to find a way to break up that edit and, basically, throw as many animators as we can on it at once,” Luecke says. “Animation is traditionally a very linear process where there are specific handoffs that have to take place; we’re now faced with the challenge of doing everything as simultaneously as possible. So we basically take the edit that comes out of Zoom, and we split it up. We recreate the motion capture in post as quickly as humanly possible so that we can hit the same turnaround time that we had been doing in the studio where we were getting motion capture directly out of the record.”
According to Luecke, that timeline is still an impressive two-to-three hours, but upload speed and having to share large files creates a whole new headache that they didn’t have to account for in-studio. And that’s just for the panel portion, aka the body of the show. Luecke reveals there’s an entirely separate pipeline that also runs every day for the cold open, in which they take real news footage from the past 24 hours and inject an animated element into it. Thus far, this has included a horse speaking out over Bernie Sanders from a framed picture on the wall, and Donald Trump’s memo giving him sass.
To make that magic happen, they receive a pitch at 7 p.m. and the team begins sending in ideas and sketches via Slack, and then they have a rough cut of what it will look like by 11 p.m. If things go according to plan, the story board process happens until 3 a.m., and then the artists come in the next morning to build the final animation. In total it’s a 24-hour turnaround, with a lot of crossover between the body and cold open teams.
“I cannot tell you how many schedules we’ve been through trying to figure this out in the past month. And the team has just been incredibly patient and adaptable so that we could figure out the best way to make sure that we had as many hands as possible at every moment of the day,” Luecke says, noting there’s no technology that would allow simultaneous animation.
He notes it takes roughly 15 animators to pull together the body, with 25 to 30 animators total working on each episode. It’s a slimmer team than would be on a half-hour animated series; Luecke says there are at least 50 to 60 working on “Our Cartoon President,” for example. However, as the creatives have already learned, having a smaller team actually allows for a more simultaneous process.
“At a certain point, there are only so many hands that can be touching a project before it becomes cumbersome to have more hands on it,” he notes. “Having a team of artists who are all very good at adapting to the needs of the day, and who can all wear a number of different hats has been probably the biggest help to us. When we were hiring for this show we were looking for people who, on a given day might be doing storyboards, and on the next day might be doing drawn animation. We basically built our team with as many of those jacks-of-all-trades as we could find.”
For now, the result is a “broadcast” that rivals the look of any of the at-home newscasts happening across the country — in many cases the sleek animation looks even better than some home offices. Leucke muses that guest availability is probably a bit easier at the moment because everyone’s at home, and having people Zoom into real cable news shows has allowed them to slide into that ecosystem quite quickly.
“One of the most exciting things about the show is that this is the first time animated characters are really interacting with the real world in real time,” he says, referring to the show’s first week, in which they essentially pranked Rudy Giuliani over the phone about a chair at the Grand Havana Room, a members-only club in New York City.
Those types of ambitious undertakings will only grow as the series finds its footing, especially when the show does eventually transition back into the studio. The ultimate goal is to create a live version at some point, something they did on “Late Show” with a cartoon Hillary Clinton back in 2016.
“We were voicing that and puppet-ing it and motion-capturing it all live-to-air. So it’s being done,” Leucke concludes. “It’s just scary to think of doing that on an even larger scale.”
New episodes of “Tooning Out the News” stream Tuesdays through Fridays on CBS All Access.