SXSW 2021: “Animating Resilience” Panel

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Animating Resilience SXSW“Animating Resilience” is a discussion panel at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival as a part of the Cultural Resilience in the Arts conference theme. The panel features animation industry leaders from Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, and Netflix as they discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their teams, transitioning the production process to remote work, and how they remained resilient during these unprecedented times.

In 2020, as a result of COVID-19, much of the entertainment industry changed drastically due to forced production delays or cancellations. However, animation remained resilient as creators and animators adapted to new remote work settings and pipelines. How has isolation affected animation teams? What unique challenges did creators overcome to keep their shows on track? This discussion gathers creators from around the world to discuss the resilience of animation. Especially given the political and cultural climate of this year. And how these changes will shape the future of entertainment.

Speakers on the “Animating Resilience” panel include Jinko Gotoh, an Executive Producer at Netflix, Margaret Dean, Head Of Studio at Crunchyroll, Michael Ouweleen, President of Adult Swim, and Sofia Alexander, Creator and Executive Producer of Onyx Equinox of Crunchyroll Originals. 

The panel platform was set up very similar to how you would imagine a Zoom video call between four people. To kick things off, the panelists gave a brief overview of what the animation pipeline is to provide the audience with an inside look into their process—from scripting, outlining, and storyboarding to recording voice talent, illustrating backgrounds, designing characters, and adding in music and sound effects. That is what all is involved in the process to just animate one project.

Michael Ouweleen describes the process as “an insane labor of cooperation.” And he is right; the process of the animation pipeline is intensely laborious. In total, it takes at least 18-months and involves anywhere between 80 to 100 or more people depending on the size of the project, especially if it is a feature film.

Jinko Gotoh explains the animation process as watching paint dry. Meaning that it can be a very long and slow process, but if you do not do it properly, you end up with a nightmare. Whereas Sofia Alexander also describes it like Christmas every day. She means there is something new every day as the process goes from thought to development and is eventually turned into a fully animated piece.

As a long-time fan of animation, I have always been aware that animating a show is time-consuming and takes a lot of collaboration and cooperation. However, hearing the panelist describe the animation pipeline gave me a greater appreciation for how they have been able to continue this process as they and their teams transitioned to working remotely.

At the beginning of the pandemic, much like most people, the panelist assumed that they would only be quarantined and working from home for few weeks. However, as we all know, that has not been the case. Over the last year, companies in various industries have had to transition their employees to remote work fully, and the animation industry is no different.

Thankfully, since a lot of the animation process is done digitally nowadays much of the transition to working remotely was simple and possibly more accessible for animators. However, when it comes to specific production processes, such as writing and editing, there have been some challenges.

For example, Ouweleen described the editing process working remotely as “Trying to make a chocolate cake but with robot arms. You’re not touching the eggs. You are sort of controlling robot arms.” There is an added challenge of not being in the same room giving direction. While editing remotely with others, because of the lag of the internet, it’s not always as accurate as they want it.

Alexander describes the current editing process as a game of telephone at some times. Everyone has a different setup without a universal calibrated. So what one person sees or hears might be different for others if they aren’t intaking it the same way.

As the discussion goes on, the panelist explains how being physically isolated has impacted their teams and their creative process. It also led to the personal human costs of isolation that have had some kind of impact while teams are separated from one another.

Gotoh comments how the loss of the hallway and water cooler conversation is not happening. “All of these creative conversations that were happening organically now have to be scheduled, and they become a more deliberate conversation,” Gotoh says. The loss of these organic in-person conversations has impacted the team creatively.

However, on a positive note, Gotoh comments how the isolation has “democratized the room.” They have learned how to give voice to every person in their meetings. Which is something they realize wasn’t happening when they were working in-person.

Towards the end of the panel, the speakers comment on what they think animation will look like after the pandemic when things return to normal. 

The lack of live-action productions has driven a lot of engagement with animated content. It has also helped more consumers recognize and appreciate animation as a form of entertainment that is not just for children but also adults. However, Ouweleen theorizes that maybe there will be a drop in content consumption for animation when things return back to normal and people are not at home as much. 

Meanwhile, Gotoh commented that they are hopeful that industry is becoming global, allowing more democracy and different voices to be heard. She expounds on this by saying, ” I think we’ve been very isolated when it comes to animation. There is North American animation, and then there’s animation in Europe and animation in Asia. But I feel like it becomes more of a melting pot creative that we haven’t seen”.

There will be more opportunities for other creators outside of Japan that will be able to come in and do anime. This will impact different voices to go into anime on a more global level that will result in more stories being told. 

Animating Resilience was a terrific panel that gives fans of animation an even greater appreciation for the creators in the industry. It was amazing to hear how they face similar challenges of working remotely, much like how other people and I have over last year. This panel also showed the improvements the animation and creative processes have seen as they find more innovative ways to collaborate remotely. I applaud Jinko Gotoh, Margaret Dean, Michael Ouweleen, Sofia Alexander, and any other anime industry members for being able to remain resilient and overcome challenges presented by the pandemic.