Live-action film production as we know it, from Jurassic World: Dominion to The Batman, remains shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, with myriad headaches involved in figuring out how exactly to return, from the possible elimination of group extras to paring down crew sizes.
But throughout this entire COVID-19 Hollywood halt, feature animation production has remained full-steam ahead, with a consistent workflow sans stoppages.
For studios and streamers looking to reap profits off the shelter-at-home crowd, finished live-action movies are gold, and so are animated movies. Any fresh marquee title is ripe to tame any wiry, shut-in child who has watched Frozen 2 on Disney+ too many times. Of course, immediate proof of this are Universal’s $100 million Premium VOD U.S. riches from DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour, which premiered in homes over Easter weekend. Observing those fireworks from the sidelines, Warner Bros decided to move its theatrical release of Scoob to homes on May 15 in the U.S. and Canada for PVOD and digital purchase (which makes sense, given that Scooby-Doo is a TV property).
And how is feature animation able to do this?
Even though studios like Pixar in Emeryville, CA, and DWA in Glendale, CA, house their animation ops under one roof, the fact is that most animated movies are made remotely, with various crews working around the globe. When COVID-19 hit, many animation staffers took their computers, editing and sound systems home to work.
Illumination’s artists and executives are continuing to work remotely from their Santa Monica HQ and studio Illumination Mac Guff in Paris on all aspects of development, production, and marketing. Already because of the daily collaboration between their Paris- and Santa Monica-based producers, artists, designers, editors and many others, Illumination has been well prepared because they’ve always worked remotely. The studio continues to work on Minions: The Rise of Gru (set for release July 2, 2021) and Sing 2 (December 22, 2021) along with other projects in active development and production, including two original titles and a new version of Super Mario Bros. with Nintendo. A source close to Illumination described the past two months as an extremely productive, innovative and creative time at the company.
Paramount Animation alone has four movies up and running in various stages of production —SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, Rumble, Tiger’s Apprentice and Jersey Crabs — with crews working 100% remote. Currently, Paramount has 100 artists and crews working remotely in Los Angeles and about 350 artists working from their homes in Dallas, Paris and Montreal.
“We partner with artists and companies all over the world, and the advantage that gives us is that we can really cast and crew up the movies with talent all over the world, and it allows us to do more than one movie at a time,” Paramount Animation president Mireille Soria says about the studio’s animation crews that continue to work during the shutdown. “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.”
In fact, most major studios haven’t paused animation productions during COVID-19, with pics like Spin Master’s Paw Patrol: The Movie (due out August 20, 2021), Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and Pixar’s Soul, DWA’s Croods 2, The Boss Baby 2, The Bad Guys and Spirit Riding Free continuing to be in full operation with artists and filmmakers working remotely.
Building A Better Mousetrap
At Warner Bros, talk about great timing: Chris DeFaria, producer of the studio’s December 23 release Tom & Jerry, had just completed the live-action shoot for the animation hybrid movie just before the coronavirus forced the industrywide shutdown. Tom & Jerry stars Chloe Grace Moretz, Ken Jeong, Michael Pena and Colin Jost and follows the legendary cat and mouse’s rivalry in Manhattan.
“If our live-action shoot wasn’t completed, we’d have found ourselves in a situation similar to most other live-action films right now, who haven’t completed photography,” says DeFaria, who is overseeing a 500-person crew on the Tim Story-directed movie.
“But just because we finished live-action photography, that didn’t mean we didn’t have a whole set of other challenges that were unique to this typical situation,” adds the former DWA president, who rode herd on Universal’s most profitable film from last year, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. The production of Tom & Jerry originally planned to have its editorial, post-production animation and reproduction workflow under one roof in London. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, “We had to find a way to continue to produce material, but in a fashion where no two people were ever in any one place at any one time,” DeFaria says.
Immediately as the crisis approached, DeFaria and his team assessed scenarios as to how they could pivot production. Initially, they drew up solutions that considered the travel restrictions being imposed back in March. There was also a second option involving centralized and decentralized production groups. By the time production and their Framestore and Warners partners ran the logistics and associated costs, the industrywide shutdown was already underway, making Tom & Jerry‘s only option to break into a remote workflow with artists split between London and Montreal, Story and editors were scattered throughout England, with an editor in Los Angeles.
Says DeFaria, who has served as EP on such Oscar-winning blockbusters as Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road: “It’s a pretty extraordinary workflow. We’re moving forward, but it’s hard to measure progress. At the same distance, we’re trying to build a new decentralized pipeline and trying to rely on fantastic third-party software tools. You’re also trying to build metrics, some tools for measuring progress and success that doesn’t exist, so you’re like, ‘Are we getting the work done?’ Now I’m confident we are because we do obviously have the cut to work from, but it’s just another unique challenge.”
During COVID-19, Tom & Jerry is running a pipeline with parallel situations: conceiving animated scenes, doing creative exploration on certain shots, and finalizing material.
Skydance Doubles Down With Spanish Studio
With an eye on delivering an animated film annually starting in 2022, Skydance Animation hasn’t slowed down either during COVID-19. To forge a nonstop operation, David Ellison’s studio acquired Spanish animation studio Ilion in early April, increasing its feature toon corps to a 500-person staff, with 265 in Spain alone.
Skydance remains in active production on the Peggy Holmes-directed Luck, which follows the unluckiest girl alive who stumbles upon the never-before-seen world of good and bad luck. She then must join together with magical creatures to uncover a force more powerful than even luck itself. There’s also the Vicky Jenson-directed musical fantasy Spellbound, about a young girl who sets out to break the spell that has split her kingdom in two, and Pookoo, written and directed by Nathan Greno. While some studios will cite the commercial risks associated with original feature animation versus branded IP, if you want to build a franchise, you have to start somewhere, and that’s essentially Skydance’s approach toward original stories that would appeal to potential four-quad, multi-generational audiences.
“While we’re sleeping, they’re working,” Skydance Animation president Holly Edwards says about the addition of Ilion into the studio’s fold. “So we’re a 24/7 operation because we can give notes, get them responded to while we’re not working, and then when we come back, we get results.”
Holmes, based in Los Angeles, arrived to Luck in February and has been involved in revamping the story with the storyboard team, with sequences currently headed to the layout department.
“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,” Edwards says. Ultimately, Skydance Animation will stand the movie up on reels in Los Angeles, where color correction takes place. The plan is to have a rough cut of Luck for a test screening later this summer when theaters re-open.
Post-Production & Test Screening Challenges
Voice-over recordings also aren’t a problem for and animated film. Most voice-over artists have their own recording studio setups at home, and in cases where they don’t, an iPhone will aptly do. Recently, Josh Gad was asked to reprise his role as Olaf in a string of Disney online shorts Olaf at Home, with the comedic actor, yes, working from home.
Locking a final color-corrected print is a challenge, but again, nothing has stopped, evident in how Warner Bros’ Scoob and Paramount’s SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run are able to propel those movies across the finish line. Even through studio lots are mostly inaccessible, some post-production heads have received clearance to work from there in an effort to lock prints, though by no means in a group situation.
And what about audience testing? Sony Animation’s Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe movie Connected has found a way to do virtual audience family-and-friends test screenings. Other studios are adopting the practice for a handful of films and using similar watermarked technology used for awards-season screeners.
“Animation crews work pretty easily remotely together,” says Scoob‘s director Tony Cervone. “We’re used to working at home and we’re used to working remotely, and overcoming these types of challenges.”