Animation Production Charges Ahead as Pandemic Halts the Rest of Entertainment Industry

Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous Animation
Courtesy of Dreamworks

Up until March, writer-director Jorge Gutiérrez was “someone who basically used to live at the office.” Since shifting to a work-from-home setup amid the pandemic, he has been able to have lunch with his wife and 10-year-old son every day, all the while continuing to work on his animated Netflix project “Maya and the Three,” a Mesoamerican epic that he likes to call “‘Lord of the Rings’ with brown people.”

“It’s weird — it’s almost like we’ve been training for this for years, and our time has finally come,” says Gutierrez. “We’re 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 — everybody’s drawing, and it all comes together on the computer. So we’re kind of set up for this.”

The animation industry is a rare sunny spot in an otherwise dreary-looking entertainment landscape, one now littered with abandoned live-action television and film sets as the town figures out how to restart production without putting workers at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

IATSE Local 839, also known as the Animation Guild, represents more than 5,800 animation artists, writers, character designers, art directors, storyboard artists, visual effects supervisors and other technicians. Guild business representative Steve Kaplan says that animation has not suffered the same levels of employment losses that have hit live-action production over the past few months.

“It’s very possible that we’re one of a handful of IATSE locals that have members working, and we’re probably the only one whose entire membership has not, by my view, been affected by the pandemic,” says Kaplan. “This is because the industry itself realized that it’s not necessary to be in the studio — it’s not necessary to be next to each other — and animation production can continue under these adverse conditions for people working from home.”

The Animation Guild’s membership grew by a little less than 100 members in the first quarter of the year, and new members are being added every week. Studios continue to post job listings, and the guild has signed new productions to agreements. Local 839’s office manager is “furiously setting up members,” says Kaplan — notably, those who are new to the guild as well as those who have found work and are reactivating their membership.

Those in the industry are counting their blessings. Ashley Long, a supervising director on the Bento Box Entertainment-produced “Paradise PD,” has been able to review visual assets and storyboard sequences remotely. But her neighbor, a sound engineer on a live-action set, is “just stuck at home, and he’s got no word on when things will go back to normal,” she says. “So I feel for a lot of people in town who aren’t as fortunate as animation folks are.”

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At 20th Century Fox TV, “The Simpsons” was the first production to start operating remotely, with writers working from home the week before California issued its shelter-in-place mandate. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

That’s not to say that animation artists and technicians haven’t faced challenges, or that the transition to working from home in March was easy.

“It was a little hectic — not going to lie,” says Marci Proietto, 20th Century Fox TV’s executive vice president of animation, who oversees 10 shows, including “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Bob’s Burgers,” Apple TV Plus’ “Central Park” and Hulu’s “Solar Opposites.” “The funny thing is that, as usual, ‘The Simpsons’ was ahead of the curve on everything. Somehow they knew that we were going to get that shelter-in-place [order], so they were the first to have their writers work remotely” — a week before the statewide mandate in California.

Of the hundreds of people who work on 20th’s animated slate, it took about a week or two to get the writers, artists, post-production technicians and others set up at home.

“We haven’t missed an air date,” says Proietto, who adds that all of the studio’s shows are on track to deliver their fall seasons. “Things are challenging, but we’re figuring it out.”

The biggest hurdles to the animation industry’s workflow thus far are twofold: 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 — and maintaining the quality of voiceover recording sessions.

Voiceover actors have had to MacGyver recording setups under blankets and clothes and tents, roaming from bedrooms to closets in search of a decent makeshift vocal booth. Studios and production companies have dropped off microphone equipment at actors’ homes in an effort to reproduce something close to professional-quality sound, but some have indicated that the recordings will have to serve as placeholders until they can get actors back into the studio.

“It’s been crazy,” says Proietto of the workarounds. “But we have to do it, because we don’t want to shut down. We want to keep going, and we’re just trying to look for ways to be inventive.”

The growth of new animation styles and adult animation projects over the past five years has meant “big strides” for the industry, says Fletcher Moules, the supervising director on Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix’s “Agent King.” Along those lines, several animation artists who spoke to Variety highlighted the relatively robust video-game job market, which relies on animation, and an uptick in interest in animated commercials during the shutdown.

But the current environment hasn’t yet translated into a concrete increase in demand for animated scripted series or movies, which require years to bring to life.

“Our shows usually have a two-year lead time from when we pitch them to when they’re going to be on air,” says DreamWorks Animation TV chief creative officer Peter Gal. “So it’s not like somebody can order a show today, and it’s going to fill a gap in their program any time before 2022 or 2023.” But Gal says the studio has been pitching remotely quite often and has had “a number of sales to a few different platforms.”

Yet, even as those in animation settle into the new normal, they miss the camaraderie of working in the same physical space.

“There is a spirit to the studio, and I miss that part of it,” says Powerhouse Animation CEO Brad Graeber. “There’s a bit of a separation where you can’t just walk the hallways to talk to somebody and see what’s going on with the project by osmosis and feed off the energy of that.”

Scott Kreamer, the co-showrunner of DreamWorks Animation’s “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous,” says his team has been doing what it can to keep everyone connected. That has included a surprise videoconference baby shower for an animation director and the occasional Friday-night quarantine bingo — with cocktails.

“My favorite part about being in animation is being a part of a team, and it’s harder now that we’re all kind of separate,” Kreamer says. “But we’re doing what we can to sort of still keep our team and our family together.”

The question of how and when to reopen operations is one that animation studios and live-action productions are facing equally. There’s a mix of eagerness and apprehension in the air.

Canada-based Squeeze Studio Animation, which is producing Marvel’s “What If” animated series for Disney Plus, is gearing up for its first motion-capture shoot in early June.

“There’s a lot to take into consideration, but everybody is really anxious to start shooting again,” says Squeeze Studio CEO Denis Doré. Squeeze and other studios in Quebec City and Montreal have discussed with the Canadian government conditions for reopening, which include additional protective gear for performers and no more than 10 people on set at a motion capture facility at any given time.

As Texas begins to reopen its businesses, Austin-based Powerhouse plans to continue having its employees work from home for at least the next four to six weeks.

“Though I would not say it isn’t without costs and challenges, we are currently making deadlines and adapting to new workflow methods,” says Graeber. “Long story short, we are playing it safe and will continue to do so.”

One benefit of the animation industry’s collective shift to a work-from-home environment is the potential to make the art form more accessible to those outside metropolitan hubs.

“Now we get to work with artists from all over the world even more, because whatever those pipeline problems were, they’ve all been figured out,” says writer-director Gutierrez. “That’s the part that has me excited. It’s going to open the talent pool to the whole world. Before, it was ‘We don’t want to take a chance on someone working in another country.’ Now you don’t have a choice. All those systems kind of have been figured out.”