Should we worry about the future of Lucasfilm’s animation department?

"Tatooine Rhapsody." Star Wars: Visions. Courtesy of
"Tatooine Rhapsody." Star Wars: Visions. Courtesy of /
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Animation ruled during COVID

It was March of 2020. As Covid-19 cases began to spread and the world faced lockdowns keeping us all in our homes, Hollywood faced a huge crisis. How were they supposed to produce content when they couldn’t have their studios open to film? Luckily for them, one medium had already gotten used to working remotely, and that was animation.

Most animated studios before Covid-19 had offices and worked in person together. But it wasn’t unheard of for animators, writers, effects renderers, and more to work from home. Many studios worked with animators overseas. One example is Rough Draft Studios from South Korea. While Rough Draft does have a headquarter in California, many of its main animators are still in South Korea. They’ve worked on shows for Cartoon Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, and other networks. Rough Draft is only one of many animation studios that work overseas with American companies.

Compared to their live-action counterparts in Hollywood, animation had a much easier switch to working remotely. Jorge Gutiérrez (Maya and the Three) told Variety:

"“It’s weird — it’s almost like we’ve been training for this for years, and our time has finally come. We’re so used to working with studios all over the world, and a lot of times we work with artists all over the world. It’s a remote business and there are no sets — everybody’s drawing, and it all comes together on the computer. So we’re kind of set up for this.”"

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Mike McMahan (Star Trek: Lower Decks) said about the transition:

"“The pandemic was about as much of a disruption as a really bad rainstorm that knocks out power for an hour.”"

Kemp Powers, the co-director of Pixar’s Soul, shared a similar sentiment in a piece for EW stating:

"“Compared to live-action, animation is a breeze in terms of shooting during this [time of Covid-19]. Anything in live-action will shut you down. So, I don’t think it’s a surprise that suddenly all the networks are trying to very quickly get animated projects going.”"

And oh did the networks clamber for animated content as they scrambled to put together their Fall lineups. Animation saw a 22% rise in the pandemic which was “more than any other category, according to Reelgood, a website that analyzes streaming viewer behavior patterns.” People across the industry flocked to animation as it was just about the only job in town for them after 120,000 people lost their jobs according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union. Actor Eric Bauza, who is the current voice actor of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Looney Tunes Cartoons, said his live-action actor friends started calling him wanting to know how to get into voice-over. When Fox announced their 2020 Fall lineup, their animation lineup was completely intact while having to fill gaps for other shows.

It seemed like Hollywood was finally taking notice of the medium as it was the best prepared to face an uncertain future. EW reported an uptick in orders for animated series stating:

"“WME’s literary packaging group, which handles movies and shows adapted from books, sold through a total of 12 animated projects and two animated series since March of this year [2020]. For perspective, the group sold just one animated project in the entirety of 2019.”"

This doesn’t mean that it was an easy transition. Actors turned their closets into recording studios, learning how to check their audio levels. Companies would send out their sound engineers to people’s houses to help with setup. Writers found it hard to see what jokes landed well or failed.

Kemp Powers told EW that this was “’…a rude awakening” for studios.

"“They think animation is just easy and it’s not. It’s actually some of the hardest work to do in Hollywood and I don’t think it’s necessarily respected as much as it should be. Of course, people respect Pixar and they respect Disney Animation, but I don’t think people quite understand how much energy goes into doing this.”"

Still, animation was king during the Covid-19 lockdown. They carried major networks and streaming services on their backs releasing content made from their homes. Movies like Encanto took the world by storm. The Mitchells vs the Machines was one of Netflix’s highest-streamed animated movies ever. Shows like The Owl House and Amphibia were constantly trending on social media. Covid was the perfect time for audiences to give the medium a try and it paid off big time for the companies.

For nearly two years, the animation industry was riding high and seemingly starting to gain more respect. But as lockdowns let up and the industry returned to filming live-action content, animation faced a series of very rude awakenings starting in the Spring of 2022.