Here’s how TV can “future-proof” shows in an uncertain post-pandemic future

Want to make a new TV show without the expense and risk of socially-distant filming? Now’s the time to get animated...

Rickandmorty

After months of TV production shutdown thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the cameras are starting to roll once more – but at a cost. Currently, only projects that can stick to vigorous social-distancing protocols have any chance of resuming production, with the process running up budgets, increasing the length of shoots and generally making things a lot more difficult.

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Even assuming crews can jump these hurdles, there are more issues. How do you film crowd scenes, or action sequences? What about shooting romances when everyone has to stay metres apart?

And then there’s the question weighing on many people’s minds – what if this all happens again? A second wave of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown would shut down TV production once more, and this time changes in insurance could make it even more costly.

With all this in mind, broadcasters and programme-makers will be looking for “future-proof” shows that can be made whatever happens – and while this might sound like a tall order, plenty of these shows already exist. In fact, there’s a whole genre of TV show that can be made in any stage of lockdown, can avoid restrictions on their storylines and cast and have a following around the world.

Not that I’ve drawn you in (sorry) I should clarify that I’m talking about animation, the neglected younger brother of live-action. Often consigned to kids’ TV and ignored by the mainstream, animation (whether cartoon or computer-generated) is increasingly now a major player thanks to shows like Rick & Morty, BoJack Horseman, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Archer and many other projects made over the years.

Now, this could be the medium’s time to shine – because in a pandemic the appeal of animation’s production process can only grow. While operating at a slower pace than they normally would, the animation team can work remotely outside of an office space, as can the writers’ room. The cast can record from anywhere in the world, avoiding travel restrictions, be that at home using a podcast mic (as many have been doing over the past few months) or even in a socially distant recording studio, which is still far easier to set up than a full live-action set.

Within the show itself, the format dodges more socially distant issues. Want crowd scenes? There’s no risk of you drawing COVID-19 into one of the frames. All the action, drama, romance and more that you could want is possible, without any need for quarantines, cast bubbles or decontaminated cameras.

Already, some creatives seem to have taken notice. In the last week alone a return for Mike Judge’s classic Beavis & Butthead cartoon has been announced, while The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller have revealed that their cult animated series Clone High – which only ever had a single series – is now making a surprise comeback into the “new normal” future of TV.

And elsewhere, the world of live-action drama has even dipped a toe into the animated waters. Long-running US procedural The Blacklist was forced to shut down production on its final few episodes and resorted to completing a truncated finale with a part-animated episode, recreating James Spader in a stylised, cel-shaded form for 20 minutes.

“It felt very organic to our show because The Blacklist is in many ways sort of a graphic novel,” co-showrunner John Eisendrath said at the time.

“A larger than life anti-hero, a rogues gallery of bad guys, very dark and heightened, a bit of an alternate universe, Spader and the hat, the gun, and the silhouette.”

Of course, no-one’s suggesting animation could ever replace live-action as the primary medium of TV, and in the coming weeks and months plenty more live-action dramas will be getting started again for broadcast later this year or in 2021. If nothing else, it’ll be hard for animation to shake off its “Saturday morning cartoons” image, despite decades of critically-acclaimed cartoons and animated series for both children and adults airing around the world.

Plus, animation itself can be a slow and laborious process, and working restrictions are bound to effect the process just as they have for post-production work on already-filmed live-action dramas.

But needs must, and TV is changing. According to star Jake Wood, the new and socially distant EastEnders is going to require CGI in almost every shot to make the series work under the new conditions. One can only imagine the cost and effort that will add to a soap – and you have to increase that exponentially for a show like The Witcher, which resumes shooting in August.

For nervous broadcasters looking for shows to fill their schedules that won’t cost the Earth or unexpectedly be yanked off air by another lockdown, animation could offer a good opportunity to bank some TV shows that are largely pandemic-proof (touch wood). And in a world of uncertainty, that’s bound to draw some interest.

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