With no live-action shooting possible because of the global lockdown, animation and post-production, however, are continuing productively via social distancing. That’s a great advantage for Warner Bros.’ live-action/animated “Tom and Jerry” feature (March 5, 2021). While shooting is complete on the hybrid directed by Tim Story (“Shaft”), which stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a New York hotel executive embroiled in a cat-and-mouse with the iconic Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, the editing and CG animation by Framestore are proceeding remotely as a result of the digital workflow.
Fortunately, producer Chris deFaria (former head of DreamWorks Animation and, before that, president of animation and innovative tech at Warner Bros.) took proactive steps to mobilize remotely at the beginning of March. “We broke ourselves out into departments: editorial, visual effects, animation, and overall post-production management,” he said. “And with each of them, I asked to run three scenarios: status quo but with travel restrictions; a decentralized workflow with a central hub in London for editorial; or decentralize everything.”
Within 12 hours, the first scenario was moot. But while they were analyzing scenario number two, deFaria decided that everybody should go home to their families. Story lives in London with his family and decided to stay. Editor Peter Elliot (“Shaft,” “Iron Man 3”) and deFaria both returned to LA. Very quickly, the third option became unavoidable. “With Warner Bros.’ help, we implemented a secure remote access, decentralized, distributed media workflow,” added deFaria. “And it’s working. We are relying on some amazing software partners to get this done.
“We took some immediate steps, planning to hub this thing out of the editorial servers with a redundant hub out of the visual effects vendor, Framestore, whose bandwidth and throughput are extraordinary. The assistant editor’s [Tom Davis] wasn’t, so we very quickly augmented his internet capability at his home with the additional drop of a telephone line. We also installed a remote access server in the director’s home that we could control with a login. So that way, he was not responsible for downloading and organizing media.”
They then committed to the cineSync software conferencing system they’ve utilized in the past. The first stage was to make sure they could manage a cineSync workflow with redundant drives distributed to editorial, and then relying on commercial media sharing systems, Pix and BOX, they set the stage for a more remote access to a central server. “But we wanted to make sure that if we couldn’t get that to work, we were able to do it using distributed drives,” deFaria said. “We turned this system around in about four days. Now we’re up and running and we’re finishing the movie. It’s a digital chain, albeit on vulnerable analog pieces, but that’s just the way it is.”
In an effort to mirror some of the animation systems that deFaria relied on at DreamWorks, Framestore was established as the hub. It housed all of animation/visual effects/editorial/show management, and on a single floor of the London building. “It was meant, ironically, to encourage the wonderful, creative synergy that comes from daily face-to-face contact, the ability for people to look over each other’s shoulder effortlessly, which is really beneficial,” he said. “But we’re trying to simulate it now. That’s the sort of funny journey we’re on. We’re making choices here about how to organize meetings, who’s to be involved, what function the conference call or video conference now serves, and how we share media in some way or form to recapture the creative spirit that defined the show for the last six months.”
For Michael Eames, Framestore’s animation director, they were prepared for the possibility of a “work-from-home” scenario and responded quickly to put necessary solutions in place. “Some folks were able to work immediately via company-encrypted laptops using VPN for a number of administration tasks,” he said. “However, setting up the artists to work remotely from their machines at Framestore and within a completely secure network was always going to be a bit more challenging and time-consuming. Once the decision was made, specialist hardware and software, including Teradici and HPRGS (virtual desktop systems), was shipped to each employees’ home over a one-week period, and, by the second week, almost all of the teams were up and running.”
Eames oversees three teams of animators, two in London and one in Montreal. When fully ramped up, they’ll have around 120 animators, with the goal of being true to the 3D medium while maintaining the look and spirit of the 2D cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s. “The character builds began in March 2019, and prep for the shoot started around the same time,” he added. “We had a team of story artists working to develop ideas prior to shooting in July, and we’ve continued with that team working to overlay drawings of the characters and their antics to assist the editorial process. At the point COVID-19 hit, we had nearly completed our shot turnover to Framestore’s animation department, so animation was just starting to come through.
“Supervising the animation for myself and the team can all be effectively done over Framestore’s secure network using their own proprietary software to run fully interactive, real-time review sessions. In fact, it’s perfectly normal for us to conduct reviews in this way, although the production support we tend to rely on to follow up on notes and push through large quantities of work obviously can’t be as efficient.”
DeFaria admitted that animation productivity has fallen off measurably by 20 to 25 percent. “We’re very deliberately measuring our progress, reevaluating the hours and weeks that it takes to complete a task, whether it’s a character foot of animation or a preliminary storyboard pass,” he added. “We believe we can absorb that [fall off]. Our job right now is to keep it at that level, but our partners at Framestore play a big role in this.”
The final finishing, though, is going to come down to two things that are difficult in this environment: consensus and precision. Consensus in that the studio and the filmmakers have to arrive at a decision that the movie is indeed done. And the finishing on a scoring stage, a sound-mixing stage, or a color-timing bay, must be calibrated for precision. That’s more problematic to do remotely with social distancing.
“Inevitably, we’re going to come up with some new systems, as we have in the animation and editing, to work remotely,” deFaria said. “Maybe it’s some new distribution of calibrated monitors for color timing, maybe it’s some isolation for scoring. But we are going to rely on innovation to stick through this.”