Animated Series Adapt to Keep Production Going Amid Industry-Wide Shutdown

As much of the television industry remains on hold amid the global production shutdown, animated series like The Simpsons are adapting and finding new and creative ways to keep the show going.

All of the animated shows produced by Disney-owned 20th Century Fox TV — including The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob's Burgers and Duncanville, among others — are using a program called Toon Boom in order to work on shared storyboards. (In a sign of the times, the service has waived its license fee for artists for a month.) Other shows, like Netflix's Big Mouth, recently completed virtual table reads.

Over at Family Guy, the show's composer is attempting to do a remote score by having musicians play from home. Bento Box, the now Fox-owned animation house behind the network's Bob's Burgers, are having in-house animators to use a program called Harmony to handle retakes or new animation with a tight turnaround.

Series including The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, Duncanville, Netflix's Hoops and Apple's Central Park are all still in production and pumping out new episodes for their respective homes. So are more than a dozen Warner Bros. Animation series, including Hulu's Animaniacs, Netflix's Green Eggs & Ham and HBO Max's Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. They are among the rare scripted originals to still be producing and delivering new episodes as hundreds of broadcast, cable and streaming shows have been shut down amid the global coronavirus pandemic that is seeing much of the world quarantined at home.

"Production hasn't skipped a day or lost a beat," The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean told The Hollywood Reporter this week. "We intend to do the 22 shows we were contracted to do.... There's been no change in how we do things."

Hulu's Solar Opposites, from the co-creator of Rick and Morty, has centralized production and post work in-house. That is a model that many animation studios have followed that sees writers and animators working more closely together, typically from the same central hub, in a bid to produce a better product. The highly anticipated series outsources its mixing to a facility called Margarita Mix, which has shifted its staff to working from home.

Fox's Bless the Harts, already renewed for next season, is conducting edit sessions with creator Emily Spivey via Skype and using Zoom for recording voiceover sessions. While that audio will not be usable for air, the voice actors are recording their own temp audio for placement in episodes later in the production process. All of 20th TV's animated fare are finding their own ways to record voice actors remotely and testing different microphones to ensure a high level of quality.

The Simpsons, Jean says, is going to air five more shows as planned, starting April 19, before it wraps its current 31st season. The series has seven episodes, including its annual "Treehouse of Horror" edition, that have already been completed and being held over for season 32. The series will then record work on the additional 22 episodes for the 2020-21 television season.

"We just read a third of those 22 episodes in the middle of March. We're a little ahead of where we usually are," says Jean, who credits Simpsons creator James L. Brooks for the foresight to shift to working from home before it became a state-ordered mandate. "It's business as usual."  That The Simpsons already has episodes in the can for next season arrives as most broadcast live-action shows won't be able to complete work on their current seasons, much less deliver any completed episodes early, as there is no current timeline of whether it will be considered safe to return to work.

Animated shows, by design, are on a completely different production schedule than live-action programs. Many episodes take at least a year to come together given the time with which it takes to script, produce the physical animation, add voiceover, color and sound mix and various other technical aspects. Animated broadcast shows including Bob's Burgers, Family Guy andThe Simpsons — each of which delivers more than 20 episodes a season — are often renewed at least a year in advance in order to keep production running smoothly.

Fox's Family Guy, meanwhile, has already recorded voice work on the first 18 episodes of next season. The series currently has eight episodes in different stages of production and four or five left to put the finishing touches on for its current season. Those episodes still need things like sound mixes and music scores — which are also being done remotely.

"On shows that are lucky enough to have the budget to do it this way, like Family Guy, The Simpsons and Bob's Burgers — and others — artists wait to get audio tracks and they adjust based on vocal performances they get. That doesn't mean they can't do it without audio track. We have a huge stockpile of audio tracks for next season for artists to work on," Family Guy co-showrunner Rich Appel tells THR. "Yes, things have to be adjusted when we get the final audio but if push comes to shove, artists and animators can assign lip movements and facial acting to what they hear in their head. But we won't reach that point for a few months because we have stockpile of episodes already recorded."

Production exec Kara Vallow (who also works on fellow Seth MacFarlane animated hit American Dad) led the charge to shift Family Guy production from the show's Miracle Mile centralized office to a work from home setup. The series uses Cintiq drawing tablets and, ahead of the governor's orders to work from home, either told stylists and staffers to take their equipment home or purchased new ones for artists and directors to use remotely. The 20th TV-produced series also rented out Avid machines for editors and had them installed in staffers' homes. MacFarlane, who created the series and voices multiple characters, has long had a voiceover studio at home, which helps with voiceover work. Like other animated and scripted shows, co-showrunners Appel and Alec Sulkin use Zoom to run the writers room.

"It's a new and odd experience," Appel says of remaining in production during near total shutdown for live-action scripted and unscripted series. "The key motivator is if a show shuts down, hundreds of people are likely not to be paid and you do feel a responsibility to artists, directors and writers, among others. Animation as a genre is well-suited to work from home."

He's not wrong. As of March 18, an estimated 120,000 entertainment industry jobs had been lost as film and TV production, among other areas of showbiz, have been shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, writers rooms for scores of series are continuing forward using remote systems like Zoom as outlets across the landscape look to stockpile scripts and have a deep well of material at the ready for whenever it is considered safe for large groups to return to work and cameras roll again.

"Zoom is a word in my first 50 years that I've used maybe twice. But in the last seven days, I've used it 4,000 times. It's been hugely helpful," says Appel, echoing the scores of others who have turned to the platform to prep scripts. "It's comforting to see familiar faces and work on more mundane things."

Other animation executives, who declined to go on record given the rapidly changing landscape, said interest in the genre has expanded in the midst of the industrywide shutdown amid the virus crisis. That brings an added layer of demand to a genre that was already red-hot as streamers looked to heavily invest in content that is among their most-watched acquired programming. To the latter point, shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty are both among the most-watched licensed content at Hulu. In a sign of its demand, WarnerMedia opted to share streaming rights to Adult Swim's Rick and Morty, which will stream on both Disney-owned Hulu and the company's forthcoming HBO Max platform when the latter launches in May. On top of that, Netflix and CBS Television Studios both launched their own in-house animation studios in a bid to own and produce and own more of its own content in the space.

"We're getting more inbound calls from first-time writers and producers who have never worked in animation before," says one top producer in the space. "Regardless of the coronavirus concerns, animation has been snowballing and people see the value. Every time I take out a pitch, there's a new buyer who needs to fill that content."