“Tooning Out the News,” the animated political satire executive produced by Stephen Colbert, was all set to launch March 16 on CBS All Access when the coronavirus lockdown put the show on hiatus. But after completely reinventing its workflow remotely and becoming totally dependent on Slack and Zoom, they finally aired the first episode on April 7, with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, making a cartoonish guest appearance denying a “Staingate” controversy on a chair at the members-only Grand Havana Room.
Now the show has hit its stride in the new normal, and is providing a little relief from the surreal pandemic and the absurd political theater of this year’s Presidential election cycle. “That first day, I had these huge sweat stains in my armpits,” said showrunner RJ Fried (“Our Cartoon President,” “The Late Show”). “All the energy is now internalized [at home]. You can’t walk it out, you can’t hover over a computer. So it’s a much different stress than usual. But we don’t have to deal with broadcast cameras to make something look good [with animation]. We had to find a way to recreate that virtual studio once again and had a strategic advantage over other TV shows.”
It took five months of R & D to even attempt to pull off “Tooning Out the News,” with a team of animators mocapping the regulars and guests with Adobe Character Animation software in studio and in real-time at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan. Other teams roughed it out and completed the performances, and still others churned out 2D interstitials for cold opens involving real news footage of Trump’s daily briefings. Then, suddenly, they had to start all over again and prove that it could work remotely before they could be back in business.
CBS All Access
Throughout the course of two weeks, everyone found solutions within their departments, with a robust Slack channel where everyone was constantly communicating at all times, sharing their artwork and where they were tracking with their assignments. “We had to make sure that everyone was game and had little adaptations to make this work,” added Fried. “When you are in the Ed Sullivan Theater, you have the crackle of the pace to excite you and you get to walk around the building very fast, and go from department to department. There’s this weird loss of control you have when you’re sitting in front of your computer.”
Everything was decentralized even further. They recreated the in-studio radio plays with the performers in their respective homes with proper mics and audio equipment, while teams of 20 to 30 animators worked round the clock at their remote locations. “We had to apply Slack to replace conversations in the office, apply Box to replace the office server, and apply Zoom and remote access to computers to do the recordings,” said Fried, who also voices the fictional roundtable host James Smartwood. “But the end result is that you can’t tell whether it was made in the studio or remotely.”
For Tim Luecke (“Our Cartoon President”), the executive producer who leads the animation team, the remote reinvention was a bizarre way of doing animation, with artists animating the radio plays by looking at separate faces on Zoom. And yet it works for the show. “If the in-studio experience was like jumping out of a plane and trying to construct a parachute before you hit the ground, then now it’s doing that blindfolded, and the only way you can check in on the status of the parachute is over Slack,” he said.
CBS All Access
Meanwhile, the pandemic changed much of the content of the show and that needed to reflect the proper tone. “Now we were concerned with how everyone is doing,” Fried said. “We want people to see themselves in these characters, as cartoonish and two-dimensional as they look, to feel like they are real and are going through this. We never want a situation where the real world can defeat comedy and our ability to laugh.”