In the year of the coronavirus pandemic, many TV producers have had to get creative, to figure out how to keep their shows on the air, even as production across the world was shut down.
During the last seven months of lockdown, the visionaries behind two-live action sitcoms—ABC/ABC Signature’s Black-ish and Pop/Sony Pictures TV’s One Day at a Time—wound up taking the same tack to do just that, presenting animated episodes of their shows for the first time. The animated Black-ish episode airs this Sunday, Oct. 4, as part of an hourlong special.
For the producers, the idea in going animated was to tide over fans during the production shutdown, keeping each series in the cultural conversation, as they worked to pull together another full, live-action season. “Hustlers gotta hustle,” says One Day at a Time co-creator/exec producer/co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, “and we’ve been hustling with this show from the get-go.”
“One of the things that [Black-ish creator] Kenya [Barris] has really stressed is the value of network television—television that is scheduled, instead of binged and streamed. It comes into your house, and there’s a timeliness to it,” Black-ish exec producer/showrunner Courtney Lilly adds. “On Black-ish, the fact that we’re working on a continuum allows us to take advantage of where stories are coming from, closer to the moment that they’re in.”
In a pivotal election year, it was all the more important to find a way onto the air, even if that meant making the leap into a new medium. Like Black-ish’s “Election Special Pt. 2,” One Day at a Time’s “The Politics Episode” hoped to foster a political dialogue, and bring people together in the process. Debuting on June 16th, on Pop TV, the piece watched as conservative and liberal sides of a Cuban-American family came together to work through their differences. “True to the Norman Lear style, we want families to be having conversations in their homes after they watch an episode,” Calderon Kellett says. “I think that all we really wanted to do is encourage people to talk.”
For Calderon Kellett, who was midway through production on Season 4, when production shut down in LA, another motivation that informed the jump into animation was to keep the cast and crew of her show working, in uncertain times for the entertainment industry at large. “When we got word [of the pandemic], obviously because of Rita [Moreno] and Norman [Lear], we were thinking about ways to keep them safe,” she says. “We were in a headspace of, we may have to adjust things, if this thing gets worse.”
The thinking, in the case of Black-ish, was similar. For the ABC show’s team, the decision to turn to animation came in July—informed, in part, by seeing what Calderon Kellett had been able to make possible with her series. In July, as in March, “nobody knew what it was going to look like, getting on set,” Lilly says. “Getting people’s feet wet into working again, I think, in a way that felt safe and fun, was a real positive start to things.”
Remarkably, while the average episode of TV animation takes around 29 weeks to come together, both “The Politics Episode” and “Election Special Pt. 2” were completed in just eight weeks, as a result of the efforts of the same Canadian animation studios.
After ODAAT was shut down, executive producer Brent Miller was the first to find his way to this company. “I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, and Gloria, Mike [Royce] and I had talked about, ‘Should we just give up on this?’” Miller shares. Shortly thereafter, he learned that the studio and network behind the series would put their support behind the animated special. “So, I literally combed Los Angeles with all of Norman’s connections in the animation world, hitting them up to say, who do you guys know? What companies have you worked with that you think may be a slam dunk for this?” the EP says. “Then, as these things happen, you put it into the universe, and lo and behold, someone says, ‘Oh, I know a guy. You should explore this.’”
That guy was Jonas Diamond, co-owner and executive producer of Smiley Guy Studios, and what sold Miller on the studio was two-fold. First, he learned that the company already had a staff of 85 working remotely, during the pandemic. Secondly, there was the fact that Smiley Guy had already shepherded a live-action show into the world of animation—that being CTV’s Corner Gas.
“I think like any small fish in a big sea, they are eager to make their mark, and I like to go for the underdog,” Miller says, of the decision to partner with Smiley Guy. “It was very clear that they were working 24 hours a day to ensure they could pull this off.”
From Diamond’s perspective, the challenge involved with both Black-ish and One Day at a Time was “not for the faint of heart,” but it was certainly one well worth taking up. In both cases, he was able to gain the trust of producers early on, as he presented conceptual designs for the shows’ characters. “We usually get a couple of artists to contribute, but in these instances, we had a plethora of artists do so, because we don’t have the margin of error. So, I think on One Day at a Time, there were five artists who submitted character concepts, and on Black-ish, there were nine,” he explains. “I think once they see that and like it, that instills a lot of confidence that we’re going to meet their creative vision.”
While One Day at a Time’s episode was originally written to be shot at live-action, and Black-ish’s episode was commissioned specifically for animation, the process of producing them was ultimately fairly similar. As Calderon Kellett notes, “The Politics Episode” was full of fantasy sequences—involving exploding heads, and laser beams—which made the story a natural fit for the medium. “So in both instances, it was very easy to pick up the ball and run,” Diamond says, “which we needed to do right away.”
The biggest challenge in crafting the episodes was getting their storyboards right, early on. “The storyboard and the animatic is the most critical aspect of any animated show,” Diamond explains, “because it’s really the blueprint from which all aspects and all shots then are created.”
While Smiley Guy interfaced daily with each series’ showrunners, producers, co-director and production staff, to ensure its alignment with each creative vision, the Toronto studio’s own co-director, Mathias Horhager, would engage in laborious visual analysis of each show, to make sure he understood how each looked, and was executed, in live-action.
“Of course, concurrently, there’s a million different processes happening, in terms of articulating the character design, and the background design, and the prop designs, and then rigging them for animation, and then obviously starting the animation process,” Diamond says. “[But] it’s interesting how the pre-production aspect of the show almost takes as much time as the animation process, if not more.”
Those aspects of production that were different, between One Day at a Time and Black-ish, had to do with the point in course of the pandemic at which the work began. One notable point of contrast had to do with the methods employed, in capturing the actors’ voices. “One Day at a Time happened at the height of the pandemic, so that one did have a more home recording environment,” Diamond says, “where kits were created and brought to each respective actor’s house, the sound engineer being stationed outside and recording the performance, while being directed over Zoom by the show creators and producers and director.” With Black-ish, voiceover work began, at a point when live-action production had already resumed. “So they did go into studio,” Diamond explains, “and record the voices there.”
In Diamond’s mind, animating an entire episode of television in eight weeks is an almost impossible feat. What made it a realistic goal, in these two cases, was the fact that Smiley Guy had teamed up with another Canadian animation house, Big Jump Entertainment, to bring the episodes to fruition. “It’s a very unique moment. Traditionally, we bid against each other on different jobs. [But] here, we are working together, marrying our strengths and pooling our resources,” the animation EP says. “It’s been a very successful marriage, and I can see more [opportunities to partner up] coming down the pipeline in the future.”
In retrospect, Lilly, Calderon Kellet and Miller found the excitement of bringing live-action series to life in a new medium to be worth all the effort involved. “I think we’re one of the lucky, single-camera sitcoms that actually can make the transition pretty well. [Because] we’ve got really well defined characters, [where] just hearing their voices is part of what brings the comedy of what they’re doing,” Lilly says. “We were able to have fun, and still talk about something like how money in politics becomes a corrupting influence, regardless of what party you’re affiliated with.”
Each showrunner would consider making more animated episodes in the future, although neither is likely to any time soon. “For us this year, it’s a one-off thing, and that’s a little bit above my pay grade. But having worked in animation, it’s a lot of fun to get back into it,” says Lilly. “I’m so proud of everybody for all the work they did because it was a Herculean effort to pull this off.”
“I thought it was really, really fun…For this show in particular, the live experience, there is nothing like it. So, I’m always going to prefer the live show to anything else,” Calderon Kellett adds. “But certainly with the times being what they are, I love making this show, and if animated is the only way to continue, then we’ll do it animated. We just would like to keep making it.”
Following its hour-long special event—only one half of which is animated—Black-ish will be back for its seventh season on October 21. “I think one of the reasons we’re excited about being on in the fall is that there is so much for us to deal with,” Lilly says. “We’ve said it a million times: We’re not ripping things out of the headlines. But really, we are tearing pages of people’s lives.”
Unlike Lilly’s series, One Day at a Time is currently in limbo. While those episodes of Season 4 that have already aired will have a new home on CBS, starting Oct. 5 —with the possible exception of “The Politics Episode”—ODAAT has yet to secure a pickup for another season. “We are currently homeless,” says Calderon Kellett. “So, if CBS is a good fit and people show up, we are hoping beyond hope that we can have a home there and make Season 5.”
Only time will tell if CBS puts the episode on the air, and if animating the live-action series becomes a larger trend. But for now, there are two pieces of news to that effect. In June, it was announced that the penultimate episode of HBO’s half-hour anthology, Room 104, would bring the show into animation for the first time. Titled “Fur,” writer/director Mel Eslyn’s episode airs on Friday. Meanwhile, Miller is already hard at work on a full-fledged animated series, based on a classic sitcom—an adaptation of Norman Lear’s Good Times, for Netflix.
Despite what one might think, this reimagining has nothing to do with Miller’s experience animating One Day at a Time. “It was coincidence, actually. We had been trying to find something to do with Unanimous, which is Steph Curry’s company,” Miller says, “and in various conversations, one of them resulted in Erick [Peyton, Unanimous’s Chief Creative Officer] coming over and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think of doing an animated Good Times?’”
In conversation with Lear, Miller found out that the TV icon had long wanted to work with five-time Emmy winner Seth MacFarlane. “So I said, ‘What do you think if we loop in Seth and just have this power team?’” he recalls. “And fortunately, everyone was in agreement that it sounded like a fun idea.”
Miller teases that the show will have “some great characters,” but at this point, he can share little else about it. “I can tell you that it’s largely based on [creator] Carl Jones and his life growing up in Chicago. So, it’s not necessarily the Evans family that we all remember,” the EP says. “It’s inspired by them, but it’s also inspired by Carl’s own personal experiences and the life he’s led.”