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Why You’re Going to See More Animation (Thanks, Pandemic)

Why You’re Going to See More Animation (Thanks, Pandemic)
May 18
14:08 2020

By Darryn King

Actor Eric Bauza has transformed a walk-in closet in his Los Angeles home into a makeshift recording studio. On a recent morning, he opened up the audio software on his laptop, joined his producers, director, voice director and production managers on a Zoom videoconference, and launched into the spluttering tones of Daffy Duck: “There’s a frog in my throat!”

Mr. Bauza provides the voices for the famous duck and Bugs Bunny in “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” a revamp of the classic Warner Bros. series premiering on HBO Max on May 27. In recent weeks, several episodes of “Looney Tunes Cartoons” have been recorded with voice actors performing at home, collaborating via videoconference with animation professionals also working from home. In a time when stay-at-home orders have forced the overwhelming majority of live-action television and film production to stop, those working in animation have endured relatively little disruption.

“My live-action friends are asking me, ‘How do I get into voice work?’” says Mr. Bauza.

Eric Bauza usually voices Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck from a Burbank, Calif., studio; lately, he has recorded in his walk-in closet.PHOTO: WARNER BROS. ANIMATION

Until March, the in-house operation behind “Looney Tunes Cartoons” was typical, with a team of around 45—writers, story editors, character designers, art directors, storyboard artists, background artists, painters and more—working together under one roof at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. Weekly recording sessions with voice actors also took place at the studios.

Now, apart from a sound mixer who continues to make short visits to the studio, everyone is working from home. Viewers watching new “Looney Tunes” episodes, however, won’t be able to tell they were made under lockdown—a contrast to the scrappier “at-home” editions of live-action programs such as “Saturday Night Live” and “American Idol.”

“It’s an agile business,” says Pete Browngardt, executive producer and showrunner of the series, speaking from his garage-turned-office. “All you need is art supplies, a computer and your imagination.”

Mike McMahan, showrunner of “Solar Opposites,” which premiered on Hulu this month, and the coming “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” estimates that around 600 animation professionals are working on his shows remotely. “The pandemic was about as much of a disruption as a really bad rainstorm that knocks out power for an hour,” he says.

Animation has seen a 22% surge in viewership during lockdown, more than any other category, according to Reelgood, a website that analyzes streaming viewer behavior patterns. This is likely because of the huge demand for content for children stuck at home, but it is also possible that the art form, liberated from real-world constraints, is suitably escapist entertainment right now.

The resilience of the medium stands in contrast to the rest of the television and film industry. In March, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union estimated that about 120,000 film-industry workers had lost their jobs because of the shutdown. In April, the Writers Guild of America advised its members to consider pursuing work on animated projects.

Animation is providing some much-needed certainty to the fall TV season. Unlike their live-action counterparts, animated series are typically ordered and in the can well in advance of their airdates because of lengthy production times. After industrywide shutdowns in March, a shortage of live-action offerings is likely. For animated programs, it should be business as usual. “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Bob’s Burgers,” for example, are intact in the Fox network’s recently announced fall lineup. (Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp share common ownership.)

By some measures, animation output has increased. In early April, Walt Disney Animation Studios premiered “At Home with Olaf,” a “Frozen” spinoff series of online shorts conceived and produced during the lockdown.

Animation is also coming to the rescue of live-action shows. The creators of NBC’s “The Blacklist” live-action crime thriller series completed an unfinished episode, which served as the season seven finale, by supplementing previously shot footage with comic book-style animated sequences. The Pop TV multi-cam sitcom “One Day at a Time,” meanwhile, will deliver an animated special in June with the help of Smiley Guy Studios in Toronto and Big Jump Studios in Ottawa.

Showrunner Mike McMahan estimates that around 600 animation professionals are working remotely on his two shows, ‘Star Trek: Below Decks,’ pictured here, and ‘Solar Opposites.’PHOTO: CBS

“I’m just so grateful that animation exists,” says the show’s co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett. “While all of us in the live-action space are still struggling to come up with solutions, they can keep moving and making.”

The pivot to animation may bring a new type of storytelling to shows, she says. “I’d definitely watch an animated ‘Better Call Saul’ or an animated ‘Ozark.’”

The animation industry might be insulated from the pandemic, but remote work isn’t without its irritations. “If you’re trying to make something with a unified vision, it helps to be able to pop into somebody else’s office,” says Mr. McMahan. Mr. Bauza juggles professional responsibilities with being a single parent to a 4-year-old son.

One main challenge has been obtaining broadcast-quality audio from voice actors. The folded-up clothes in Mr. Bauza’s closet provide some sound absorption, but the setup isn’t noise-proof. “If there’s anything such as lawn mowers or an airplane flying over my house, I have to pause for that background noise to pass,” he says.

“Doc McStuffins” creator Chris Nee, who is working on several animated shows for Netflix, says that the parents of her child voice actors are serving as audio engineers on the sessions. “They’re often in the closet with them, scrunched down or lying on the floor for two hours, keeping their eye on the levels while their kid is recording.”

Ms. Nee was among those displaced from Netflix’s animation hub in Los Angeles. Like other studios, Netflix has sent personal recording-studio kits to voice actors, each with an iPad, a USB microphone, pop screen, microphone stand and script stand. The streaming service says that all its animation in development, including “Maya and the Three,” “Cuphead Show,” “Centaur World” and the feature film “Over the Moon,” is proceeding as planned.

Mr. Bauza’s son, for one, is looking forward to new “Looney Tunes” episodes. He loves Bugs Bunny—a character that, happily, is a role model for social distancing. “Rabbits live in a hole in the ground,” Mr. Bauza says in Bugs’s voice. “You can’t get more self-isolated than that, doc.”

SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL
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