How Hollywood is working from home to meet streaming demand
With productions shuttered, work on visual effects and animation has shifted to the home office.
Hollywood has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Theaters across much of the country have closed, movie shoots have come to a grinding halt, and studio lots are deserted. But while most of the productions are on pause, appetite for new content is greater than ever. Streaming numbers are up, and the industry is on track to launch a number of new subscription services, starting with Jeffrey Katzenberg's Quibi on Monday.
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To feed this streaming addiction, studio employees have been sent home with Mac Pros in tow. Table reads are being conducted on Zoom, and large files are being squeezed through residential broadband bottlenecks. From their dens and living rooms, these employees may not be able to shoot the next "Matrix" movie, but they may well put the finishing touches on a movie scheduled to go live in the coming months — or even start work on a new animated TV show.
"I cannot tell you how busy the industry sounds right now," said Paula Spence, art director for the Cartoon Network's shorts program, about the animation world.
Productions are shuttered, post-production is up and running
COVID-19 is causing significant upheaval for the motion picture industry. Since early March, not a day goes by without news of another cancellation, pause or postponement. Productions across the board have shut down, including for blockbuster movies like "The Batman," "Jurassic World 3," "The Matrix 4," as well as on sequels for James Cameron's "Avatar" series.
HBO has postponed the production of key shows, including "Succession" and "Barry." Showtime is airing partial seasons of some of its shows, including "Billions" and "Black Monday," as it wasn't able to finish the current seasons before the shutdown. Netflix has also shut down the production of a number of its most popular shows, including "Stranger Things," "The Witcher" and "Grace and Frankie." And in light of movie theaters being forced to close their doors, a number of movie premieres have been postponed to fall, or even later.
But while social distancing makes it impossible to shoot movies right now, other wheels keep churning. "We are up and running in our global studios, having made the switch over to remote work," said Industrial Light & Magic Communications Director Greg Grusby. The studio, which provides visual effects and animation work for key Disney franchises like Marvel and "Star Wars," is currently doing prep work for upcoming shoots, he said, adding: "Preproduction art department work and post-VFX work continues on our current slate of projects."
Effects and post-production in particular seem to be well-suited for remote work. Sony Pictures Imageworks, the entertainment giant's visual effects and animation studio, has transitioned to 90% work-from-home. Netflix is also said to be working on transitioning its post-production to remote work, as are others across the industry. "The post production houses have done a great job of setting up their teams to do some of the work remotely," said PwC partner Mark Borao.
One big challenge has been security, something that Hollywood has been wrestling with ever since the Sony hack of 2014. WarnerMedia Chief Information Security Officer Pete Chronis told Protocol that securing new remote work environments took a bit of adjustment. "While we could leverage our existing security controls and monitoring to support thousands of remote workers, we needed to add network bandwidth, VPN capacity and expand virtual solutions to support remote news gathering, live broadcasts from home and production/post-production work."
Home broadband connections have also proven challenging, said Technicolor VP Brady Woods-D'Avolio. "Post typically works off enormous file sizes," she said. "Our challenges have been around trying to keep the production boxes and storage linked together and then create remote access. It is definitely not perfect, but it is working."
A smooth transition
Animation is another sector that quickly transitioned out of the office. One example: The staff for Central Park, a 20th Century Fox Television show that is scheduled to launch on Apple TV+ next month, completely switched to remote work in mid-March.
"That's the thing about animation: You can do a lot of it remotely," said DreamWorks TV showrunner Jack Thomas, who has been working on the studio's "Dragons" franchise for Netflix, and whose team is currently putting the finishing touches on the final season of the show from home. "It's not much of a disruption to my crew," he said.
"I felt like I was able to switch gears fairly quickly," Spence said. As an industry veteran, she's had all the equipment to do her job from home for years, so she was able to get up and running easily. She's not alone with having her own home setup: "There has always been a reasonable amount of remote work," Thomas said.
The transition hasn't been as easy for everyone. The Animation Guild sent out a survey to its members soon after many of them transitioned to remote work. About two-thirds of the respondents were struggling with slow internet speeds, equipment or software challenges. "Many studios had to scramble at the last moment to adjust to a new workflow — there have been challenges along the way," said the Animation Guild's business rep Steve Kaplan. Studios have been trying to address some of those issues, and about a third of the survey respondents reported that they had been able to take their work computers home.
And even for animated shows and films, there is work that can't be taken home as easily. Voice actors for instance still need to go to professional recording studios to speak their lines. However, some studios have begun to experiment with novel solutions to address these issues as well. For example, Sony Pictures Television's anime subsidiary Funimation has been exploring a work-from-home solution to record dubbing tracks.
Spence, who volunteers as recording secretary for the Animation Guild, even expressed fears that things may be running a bit too smoothly. "We are actually quite worried that this is showing that we can work remotely quite easily," she said. Her concern: After the crisis is over, studios may rely less on their Los Angeles-based, unionized workforce, and farm out more work to talent in Canada or overseas, allowing them to cut costs. "Those people are not covered by our union contracts," Spence said.
Animation to the rescue
The long-term impact of the current crisis on Hollywood is still very much unknown, but some of the work now being done remotely could keep the supply of content for streaming services up while other projects are being delayed. This could ultimately be a boon for animation. "We are the one place that still can be making shows," Thomas said.
"Even before the pandemic, animation was exploding," said Titmouse director and Animation Guild President Jeanette Moreno King. Traditional TV networks long treated animation as child's fare, but streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and even Apple TV+ have discovered the genre as a growth engine. Netflix, for instance, opened up its own animation studio in Los Angeles, and has heavyweights like Disney legend Glen Keane, Academy Award-winner Chris Williams and Emmy Award-winner Jorge Gutierrez working on projects.
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"It's incredible how many shows have been greenlit to series," King said. "They are greenlighting shows right now."Depending on the length of the production shutdown, animation could turn out to be the one genre that can not only help the streaming services, but the industry at large survive this crisis. Said King: "It's a moral duty for us to make this work."