Six months into a once-in-a-century pandemic, the global entertainment industry is attempting to claw itself back to a new normal, with predictably mixed results. For every triumphant story of a late-night talk show returning to its New York studio after months of recording from home, there’s a headline about an A-list celebrity testing positive and bringing a nine-figure production to a screeching halt; for every joy-sparking photo set of Bradley Cooper and a Haim sister ringed by crew members in masks, a tentpole heavily touted as the first in-theater experience of the coronavirus era posts a seriously underwhelming box office haul. Things are happening again, but they’re nowhere close to being back to normal.
One corner of the business, however, has continued relatively unscathed—the one without brick-and-mortar sets to cram with droplet-spewing actors, where “remote work” is not a contradiction in terms. No one in Hollywood planned for a pandemic, and so nothing in Hollywood is designed for one. But TV’s animation wing is surprisingly well suited to our current moment and the particular restrictions it puts on how we spend our days. And as a complete upending of the status quo has started to settle into a status quo in itself, the pandemic has further transformed a part of entertainment that was already in flux.
“It’s truly the one thing we can all do while we’re at home,” explains Jen Rudin, a former casting director for Disney, Amazon, and Nickelodeon, who joined the talent agency ICM in July as a representative specializing in animation. “We don’t have to touch each other in order to make animation happen.”
“No one wants to spend the whole year just sitting at home going like, ‘There was a pandemic. We did nothing,’” concurs Lisa Mierke, a manager at the comedy-focused Mosaic Media Group, which works with writers, illustrators, and animators staffed on shows like Big Mouth and Rick and Morty. Enter animation, which Mierke describes as “just really cool people on computers. And you don’t necessarily need to be next to each other. And it’s all made right there in the machines.”
Katie Krentz, who started as the receptionist at Family Guy and now has an overall deal with CBS TV Studios as the president and founder of 219 Productions, cuts to the chase: “I think it’s a really beautiful way for people to come together in the pandemic and just make great content, all while doing it in our pajamas.”
By late March, Deadline was reporting that animation hubs like Bento Box Entertainment, the studio behind Bob’s Burgers and other shows, were actively hiring while traditional production was still totally shut down. As the months have gone on, this asymmetry has resulted in at least partly animated episodes of typically live-action shows like Black-ish and One Day at a Time; animated music videos from major pop stars like Dua Lipa, whose avatar puts on a kaleidoscopic show in the clip for single “Hallucinate”; and according to Chris Prynoski—founder and president of Titmouse, the company behind the character animation for “Hallucinate” and shows like early quarantine curiosity The Midnight Gospel—at least a few general inquiries about full animated seasons of otherwise live-action series, though he can’t get into specifics. All this builds on a slew of recent premieres and series orders that expand animation’s preexisting footprint; just this week, Netflix announced an animated reboot of Norman Lear’s Good Times. Animation is having a moment, one of many ripple effects of the pandemic. Then again, it already was.
The first thing to understand about the Great TV Animation Boom of 2020 is that it didn’t start in 2020. “The animation industry was already in a boom,” Prynoski says. “That’s become more of a boom because the Hollywood live-action scripted world is not operating, certainly not in Hollywood.” And while children’s entertainment has long been a staple of the animation space, the boom of the last half-decade has cut into live action’s stranglehold on programming for adults.
Adult animation on American television has a long and proud history of its own; the longest-running scripted prime-time series currently on air, The Simpsons, is a masterpiece of the form. After Matt Groening’s magnum opus premiered in 1989 and thrived throughout the 1990s, it kicked off a mini-wave of would-be follow-ups. Fox itself started assembling what would eventually become its recently revived Animation Domination bloc on Sunday nights, building on The Simpsons’ success with shows like King of the Hill and Family Guy. Meanwhile, basic cable channels with hours to fill turned to adult animation as a way to stand out, leading to shows like Daria and Beavis and Butt-head on MTV, South Park on Comedy Central, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim offshoot, which launched in 2001. “Ever since The Simpsons was a hit, I think there were always a few places in town that were looking to find their Simpsons,” Krentz observes.
Not surprisingly, the latest spike in demand for adult animation has a similar shape. Just as newer outlets at the turn of the century had to populate time slots and attract an audience—possibly with an eye-catching cartoon to stop viewers in their channel-surfing tracks—so do the streaming services that dominate today’s landscape. Instead of time slots, companies like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and WarnerMedia have paywalls to justify; instead of other TV networks, their competition is everything else on the internet. But the underlying dynamic is the same, and since streamers are more restricted in the kinds of content they produce than linear networks, adult animation became a natural area of expansion. Streaming has struggled to break into areas more traditionally suited to a live broadcast model, like sports and news. To fill that gap and develop a specialty of their own, services have doubled down on niches they can serve, animation included.
And as FX’s John Landgraf likes to remind us each year, conventional networks have followed suit. The phenomenon now known as Peak TV was kicked off by digital natives like Netflix, but it’s been fueled by more established players like WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS attempting to stay relevant, both through original programming for their linear channels and new digital products of their own. Before the pandemic, television as a whole was on an upward trajectory; animation’s can just continue unabated.
Streaming services remain loath to share their ratings, but the sheer quantity—and sometimes longevity—of new animated series aimed at adults suggests the strategy has been a successful one. BoJack Horseman was one of Netflix’s first original offerings and ultimately ran for six seasons; Big Mouth returns next month for its fourth season, with at least two more guaranteed. Both are a far cry from the three-seasons-or-fewer life span that’s increasingly the streaming norm. Elsewhere, BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg partnered with Kate Purdy on the rotoscoped show Undone, distributed by Amazon; Apple TV+ hosts Central Park, an animated musical from Loren Bouchard of Bob’s Burgers; and CBS All Access just premiered Star Trek: Lower Decks, a novel take on the long-running franchise produced by Prynoski’s Titmouse. Nor is the current arms race limited to streaming. Comedy Central recently cancelled a slew of onetime mainstays like Tosh.0 to clear space for a renewed focus on animation, including an upcoming reboot of Ren & Stimpy, while AMC ordered two seasons of the animated drama Pantheon, also produced by Titmouse, just before lockdown.
“Every time I take a pitch out to sell, there’s a new buyer,” Krentz says of the last few years. “‘Oh, we’re pitching Quibi. Oh, we’re pitching Peacock. Oh, now we’re pitching HBO Max.’ And that’s been so wild. It used to just be taking it to three or four buyers. Now you have as many as 12 to 14 places you can be taking [a show] to.” Nor are the reasons for the boom entirely structural; Krentz theorizes that adult animation has been a TV force long enough for kids raised on The Simpsons to grow into the target demo for the likes of Rick and Morty, Archer, and Big Mouth. Millennials are used to seeing animation as a site of artistic ambition, foul-mouthed humor, and everything in between, so they’re naturally receptive to its latest incarnations.
Whatever the reasons for the boom, Rudin puts its effect succinctly: “It’s not just about talking animals anymore.”
Even if animation is both already in demand and relatively pandemic-proof, it’s still a part of the economy and staffed by human beings, which means it’s inevitably been affected by the spread of COVID-19. “There were surprisingly few hiccups,” Prynoski says. “I would love to talk to you about them if there were, because it would make a fun, interesting story.” Shortly afterward, he corrected himself: Without their fancy in-studio Aeron chairs, Titmouse’s animators were lacking for adequate lumbar support. The company figured out a system for employees to pick theirs up from the office for home use.
Jokes aside, while animation may be more adaptable to remote production than most forms of entertainment, those first weeks of March still required some on-the-fly adjustments. “One of the big things that we realized is, most people at home don’t use the highest bandwidth options from their internet provider,” recalls Joel Kuwahara, a cofounder of Bento Box. “Most people just kind of go with the most affordable ones for their day-to-day stuff.”
There’s also the matter of security. Plenty of animation shops are already set up for some version of remote work, especially those that use digital tools rather than drawing by hand; Bento Box has a studio in Atlanta in addition to three in L.A., while Titmouse has outposts in New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. (Bento Box has also been cloud-based since its founding in 2009 in lieu of using in-house servers.) But from an information security perspective, that’s not quite the same thing as spreading a network across hundreds of home computer setups, especially considering the high-profile, leak-conscious clients these companies work for. “We’re working with FX, Disney, and Marvel,” says Jeff Fastner, a director and producer at the Atlanta-based Floyd County Productions, best known for its work on Archer. “That’s been our biggest problem with remote work in general. We couldn’t, prior to this, really guarantee that we knew everything was locked down and shut.” Necessity being the mother of invention, quarantine prompted enough IT maneuvering to make things more secure.
But the biggest hurdle to making animation from home isn’t the animation itself—it’s the voice work that brings it to life. Recording studios are soundproof; as many a self-isolator attempting to Zoom with an A/C running full-blast in the background can attest, most houses and apartments are not. Big rooms can echo, cityscapes can intrude, and other humans—especially small ones—can make noise. “These actors, a lot of them are parents and they have children who are in this space that they are,” Krentz says. “We’ve had kids walk into the Zoom record session: ‘Mom, need something to eat!’ It’s something that we have never encountered, but we’re making it work.” The cast of Bob’s Burgers has had some success with improvised pillow forts, but makeshift solutions can only go so far. Krentz estimates a home recording session can take three to five times as long as a studio one to capture the same audio, while Prynoski predicts an “ADR apocalypse”—“ADR” stands for “automated dialogue replacement,” in which an actor dubs over an already completed scene—when series currently in production get closer to release.
But half a year after the first wave of stay-at-home orders, the new routine has already started to evolve. Some recording studios have started to reopen, albeit with strict cleaning guidelines like the ones in a recent checklist issued by SAG-AFTRA. (“Allow performers to use their own headphones. … Limit sharing of equipment as much as possible.”) With their limited capacity and deliberately sealed-off rooms, studios are already more social-distance-friendly than most production settings, though they won’t be able to operate at full capacity for the foreseeable future. Still, their reopening mostly goes to show that animation, like a bookstore offering curbside pick-up or a restaurant converting to fast-casual takeout, is figuring out a modified version of its pre-coronavirus routine.
What’s changed most about animation since the start of the pandemic isn’t the process itself. It’s who’s interested in getting involved.
As an agent, it’s Rudin’s job to pair potential voice talent from ICM’s client roster with open jobs. With work on set drastically limited, she’s seen a significant uptick in entertainers looking to expand into voiceover work. “This is a really good time to sort of investigate and see what the space is like and try something new,” Rudin says. Remote auditions for animated roles have an especially low barrier to entry, so there’s little to lose and plenty to gain. “You don’t have to have hair and makeup; you don’t have to have a scene partner; you can record into your iPhone. It could not be easier.”
According to Krentz, this represents a major departure, even from animation’s already thriving marketplace. “I won’t get specific with names, but I will say we have Oscar-nominated actors that are coming to the table for the first time,” she says. The rich and famous may not need new work for their finances, but they still prefer to stay busy. “We’ve got these big-name actors that are probably sitting at home in their pandemic pajamas, just waiting to do something,” Krentz speculates. That wasn’t the case before: “Agents and managers in the past have said, ‘Well, our client will take a job with cartoons, but if a real job comes along, they’re going to go take that.’”
As for writers whose nascent live-action projects are suddenly stalled out, animation can also present an opportunity to stay active and exercise some creative muscles. Still, animation is its own field with its own requirements, and transitioning from live action isn’t as simple as slapping “an animated pilot” on the first page of the script. “Some of those scripts suffer in the fact they are not really embracing the medium,” Kuwahara explains of recent submissions. “In animation, you can pretty much do anything you want. You can live in any world you want. And you can tell that some of these scripts are just so, so grounded that it could use a punch up. It could use, like, an animation treatment to it.” The same holds true for voice acting, which some performers take to better than others. “Voicing an animated role is very difficult and it’s not for everybody,” Rudin says. “Some people are great at it, and some people need the camera, the lights, the hair and makeup, and the costar in order to act.” Animation isn’t a one-to-one crossover for professionals whose previous experience lies elsewhere in entertainment.
It’s also not a panacea for an entire, suddenly shut-down industry. That’s especially true for the actual platforms that will air these newly ordered series. While animation production can continue in quarantine with only minor interruptions, it also takes longer from beginning to end—as long as four years for a feature film, or nine months for a season of TV. That means a show ordered to series this spring may not even hit the airwaves until well after there’s a vaccine. Kate Lambert is the senior vice president of Development & Animation at FX Networks, where she oversees Archer, the short-form anthology Cake, and pipeline projects like Little Demon, a Dan Harmon–produced pilot costarring Danny DeVito and Aubrey Plaza. “[Everyone] was like, ‘Oh, let’s fire up animation,’” Lambert says of the industry’s post-lockdown scramble. “And I’m like, ‘If you’ve ever worked at animation, you know it’s not something that you can just fire up overnight!’”
Mierke likens the noticeable uptick in interest she’s seen from outlets to an insurance policy—not a substitute for everything that’s been thrown into disarray, but something to keep on the back burner in case the awfulness of 2020 extends further. In practical terms, the future of TV might not be any more animated than it was before the pandemic hit, but for those in the animation world, there is hope that more doors are opening. Projects get green-lit or spiked in Hollywood for all kinds of arbitrary reasons: Some executive gets a book as a birthday gift and decides to adapt it; another passes on a hit because they don’t like the title. If this particular act of God happens to lead to more good and interesting work breaking through, maybe that can be the thinnest of silver linings.
“This time period is shining a light on a medium that maybe should have had a light shined on it stronger,” Mierke says. “I see that as a benefit for anyone who had been working in animation before. It’s a time to be like, ‘Yes, I am here.’”
If the pandemic has proven an entire way of life can vanish in an instant, it naturally calls into question whether anything is sustainable, including the new normal. What happens when live-action filming can resume unimpeded, or a flood of animation developed during quarantine makes it to air? Will networks and streamers lose interest and move on? Will audiences?
“I don’t want people to get burned out on animation,” Kuwahara says. “I’m really proud of the shows that we’re creating. I think they’re all fun, different, exciting. I hope there aren’t just a bunch of people making a bunch of mediocre animation where you’re going to feel like it’s just saturated with just a bunch of shows. I still hope that the best shows rise to the top and get the proper marketing and attention that they deserve.”
Lambert, for her part, sounds cautiously optimistic. More cynical pitches tend to stand out to those who know what to look for. “There was a lot of, ‘Hey, we can’t get this made, but what if we animate it?’” she says of the early days of quarantine. “And honestly, in my experience, if it’s not built to be animated, you shouldn’t be making it that way.” But Lambert has also seen her share of animated passion projects get overlooked in the days when more practical ventures were still on the table. Encouraged by the psychological drama of Undone and the speculative fiction of Pantheon—both of which expand animation beyond straightforward comedy, just as adult animation expanded the form beyond an underage audience—Lambert’s interested in finding a similarly serious project that makes sense for FX. Overall, she’s optimistic that this strange moment will ultimately help animation find purchase among audiences who otherwise associate it with college stoner days or distracting their preschooler: “I think it is, hopefully, an art form that will get more eyeballs.”
“Animation has sometimes been seen as less than,” Krentz observes, and while that was already changing before the pandemic, she also hopes the pandemic can catalyze that shift. “I am a producer of animation in a time when a lot of my peers want to watch it. And we have a lot of executives that are a little bit older that, I think, are now finally understanding that and seeing like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t going away. It’s not a fad.’ This is just what a certain generation wants to watch.”
In the meantime, it’s possible to find both distraction and meaning in animation made well before the pandemic that’s still come out just in time. Titmouse’s Midnight Gospel is one of the most novel and visually arresting shows of the past few months, juxtaposing interviews by actor and podcaster Duncan Trussell with trippy visuals from Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward. As Trussell’s subjects wax poetic on topics ranging from psychedelic drugs to dying with dignity, a “space caster” named Clancy beams himself into various worlds in chaos. “It’s about the main character talking to people going through an apocalypse in a different world in every episode,” Prynoski points out—a perfect setup for processing what certainly feels like an apocalypse in our own world. While animation has indirectly benefited from the pandemic, like all the best art, it can also help get us through it.
This post originally identified Chris Prynoski as the president of Titmouse, the company behind “Hallucinate.” He is the president and founder of Titmouse, and the company is behind the character animation of “Hallucinate.”