Executive producer Brendan Hay talks about the Glendale studio’s latest animated television series for streaming giant Netflix, a prequel to their hit feature ‘The Croods.’
As 2015 comes to a close, DreamWorks Animation’s growing relationship with Netflix welcomes the drop this past Thursday, December 24th, of their latest original animated collaboration, a 13-episode block of a brand new series, Dawn of the Croods. Set in a timeline prior to the setting of the studio’s 2013 hit animated feature The Croods, the new 2D series finds humor in the foibles of Grug and his family’s valiant struggles tackling life’s everyday problems for the very first time.
I recently spoke to series executive producer Brendan Hay, who previously worked on comedies like The Simpsons, Robot Chicken and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, about the studio’s latest animated series. He spoke about the show’s comedic premise, the 2D production process and the creative freedom he enjoys working with Netflix.
Dan Sarto: As executive producer, what are your main duties on the show?
Brendan Hay: I come from a writing background and have written for a bunch of late night and animated shows. I’ve been a head writer, but this is my first time fully show writing. With that in mind, my role has evolved over the year and a half of production. Initially I worked with the supervising producer and line producer to build a crew of very talented people. Very much that old-school mentality - if you hire talented people and let them do their thing, it works out great. My life has gotten easier as we've brought more and more talented people onto this crew. I love animation, I love writing for animation, I love voice directing for animation. But I’m not somebody who can actually draw.
It's been great finding designers who are on the same page with us, comedically, and letting them just run. Same with our board artists and directors. Finding those people who make you think, "Yeah, I'm going to want to spend the next three or four years having fun with them in a room." I work very closely with the writers in pitching stories, coming up with what our episodes will be. After we board, we do an internal table read. It's having fun with the board artists and directors, reading the scripts aloud, pitching out ideas, and seeing what works best.
Then, I mainly just review and note stuff for the board artists, about the animatic, stuff like that. I direct our cast now in the voice recordings. We had a voice director earlier on. Then once we got things sailing a little bit smoother, I took over the reins. I work with our post team. I work closely with the writers. Otherwise, I'm the guy who just comes in and checks out people's work and says, "This is awesome," or, "Hey, I had this idea."
DS: How is working in animation different from the non-animation work you've done?
BH: Well, it's different in two ways. One is that working in late night, a lot of the turnaround was the same day. I worked on The Daily Show for a number of years. You'd get in at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning. Have a meeting at 9:00 to decide what's on the show that night. Write it by 1:00, rewrite it by 3:30 to lock script, then rehearse at 5:30, tape at 6:30. It was a crazy day-to-day, day-to-day thing. The first time I got a chance to work in animation, it was like, "So wait, we can start a script today and finish it tomorrow?" That alone just blew my mind. I always joke I went from the extreme of having to do a show a day to now having to do one complete episode over the course of 12 months.
What was nice for late night, which I'd love to bring to animation, is late night did teach you that there's always another episode. You do your best, and then you have to keep moving. I do feel like if you're working in animation, you can sometimes get caught up with a shot, like, "Oh, my God. I just want this to be perfect." Sometimes you’re going to make this the best you can and sometimes, you're just going to have to move on.
DS: The ability to iterate and perfect is sometimes a double-edge sword. Animation lends itself to this hand wringing, over-thinking sometimes, of every little detail on the production. Sometimes that's what brings out fantastic work, but sometimes you just got to move on.
BH: Exactly. Double-edge sword is the perfect term for it. Still, probably, the best thing on animation is, it's the only moving medium where you literally can control every single element. You can change anything about how a shot looks, how a character acts. You have all of that control. That is a beautiful thing, but also something that can drive you mad.
DS: In the world of the Croods, how does your series intersect with the world of the original movie?
BH: When I was told DreamWorks was taking pitches for a Croods TV show, the only rule mentioned was it had to be a prequel, because they're making a feature sequel. When I saw the film [The Croods], I loved the family – they had a modern family dynamic with very relatable relationships between all the characters. At the same time, it had a distinctly caveman point of view. I love the Flintstones, but the Flintstones is very much about bringing our modern world into cave times. The Croods felt to me from the get go like, if you lived in that time period, things we all take for granted would freak you out. I thought, "That's really fun. I totally see the comedy in that."
For TV, I thought, what would the first family sitcom be like? Think of the family sitcom in the sense of having neighbors, living in a relatable town and going through normal activities. What's our Croods version of school? There would be some kind of training for hunting and gathering, obviously with a lot more life and death.
We have to constantly ask ourselves the question of, if something exists in caveman times or not, or if we have to invent it. The movie shows the invention of fire for the Croods. Our show is set before the invention of fire, so we end up constantly questioning things, in every stage of writing, storyboards and design, like, "Can we take for granted that this already exists? Or, is this its own joke or story that if we want, we can show how it first came to be?"
With that in mind, the show uses that dynamic as our comedy engine, taking very simple things, and then thinking, "Well, let's filter this through a caveman point of view and figure out what's the most extreme version we can get to…or the funniest version we can get to."
DS: How did you first approach the look of the show?
BH: We wanted to relate to the movie while also still being our own thing. We’re going to live side by side with the film on Netflix. We want it to be something people know, this is the show, this is the movie. The other thing is, from a practical standpoint, for a TV schedule, it's a lot easier to do everything you want to do in 2D versus in CG.
CG requires so much more work to rig and build assets. Part of our effort is we wanted to build this town, this suburb, around the Croods. We needed an instant Springfield, and that would have been very difficult to build quickly in CG. To give them a fully flushed out world, we chose 2D. For designing the Croods’ world, our production team, who I'm very proud of - they just got nominated for a well-deserved Annie Award - were looking to make sure we were distinct from previous caveman cartoons. We don't want it to just be desert and rocks. We tried to figure out some more unique shapes that could give it a slightly fantastic quality. This is the world before anybody else was there. It's a brand new thing. So we wanted to make sure it was really lush and colorful, that it felt brand new. We tried to come up with a unique caveman world like you haven't seen before.
DS: How many episodes are in the initial Netflix launch batch?
BH: Launch is 13 episodes. For our first 13, we're playing with format a little bit. We're trying to see if we work better doing 11 minute or 22 minute-long stories. The first 13 episodes are about half and half. Half the first 13 episodes are 22 minutes, half are a pair of 11 minute stories.
DS: How long did these first episodes take you guys to produce?
BH: About 18 months to 2 years, counting all development, which was done concurrently with a lot of the production.
DS: I'm assuming you're doing all the pre-production and post, and working with an animation production partner either in Canada or Korea?
BH: Actually, the trickiest part we found was, we knew we wanted to be a family comedy. The comedic action style lends itself to more squash and stretch type animation. We also wanted a little bit of that family comic humor, like a Simpsons or Bob's Burgers. Finding a good production partner was also part of our growing process, trying to find the right fit. We ended up working with EMation, NE4U and Dong Woo Animation in Korea.
All pre-production is done right here at DreamWorks. We have three wonderful directors and three amazing board teams. Then we ship over to Korea.
DS: From a creative standpoint, how was producing for Netflix, where you release a block of episodes all at once, different from producing a linear broadcast TV show?
BH: It's actually been pretty freeing. Again, on the creative front, it has really been nice that we don't have to tailor to…well, when you know you're going to air at a certain time, you have to really make sure it only hits for six year olds, or make sure it only hits for twelve year olds. DreamWorks has been so supportive of the concept of really playing to a family. They create movies that genuinely play to all ages. At other networks in the past, I’ve faced, "No, this is a joke that plays a little too old.” Or, a little too young. Now, we can have a show where those jokes can live side by side.
It's also been freeing in that, especially in animation, sometimes you’re told, "Oh, you know what? The parent characters, just use them for a joke here or there, but don't revolve the story around them." We've had the freedom, for example, to say, "No, we can do a story about Grug, the father, just as much as we'll do stories about Eep, the daughter.” It's nice to have that possibility, especially because we're trying to do so many episodes - it's nice to know we're not limited, that we can only tell 13 stories about Eep. Any member of the family is fair game. It really gives us a lot more to play with. It's more toys in the toy box. Creatively, it's really great.
Production-wise, it's been nice because on the one hand, yes, you have to work on more stuff, but it's also nice that we've had a few moments where it’s been, "Oh, we're pretty much done with post on the first episode, but we learned something in making the third, so we can actually go back and tweak the first." You know that they're not all going to start airing week after week. You can go back and do a little bit of fine tuning and learn things throughout the process.
DS: Creatively, I bet that's a real plus.
BH: Oh, God yes. Really, I have to say, working with Netflix has just been fantastic. They've been very supportive of everything and really, they genuinely give you the freedom to try what you want to try.
DS: Regarding Netflix, along those lines, like I asked Dave Smith and Marge Cohn about The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show, how are you guys measuring success? What are the metrics? What are you shooting for? The show is a big commitment on everyone's part. What are the parameters by which you look and say, "This is good?" There are a lot of fairly complicated issues with regards to online streaming metrics as well as building and retaining audience. Measurement is not just cut and dry like broadcast TV metrics.
BH: We have a few goals. One is, thankfully, just trying to make something that all of us can be proud of and enjoy. Thankfully, again, because Netflix gives us creative freedom, it’s like if we're feeling good about it, if DreamWorks is feeling good about it, that goes a long way. In terms of actual metrics, yeah, Netflix, as everybody now knows, is pretty guarded on some of their numbers. I'm convinced there's just a giant computer at Netflix that's the size of a room, that if it gives you a punch card with a thumbs up, we're doing well. I just hope we get that punch card.
The metrics themselves, I genuinely don't know. The only thing that I've ever heard is that they're interested not so much in ratings as that people keep watching more than one episode, or keep coming back. It's more about retention. Honestly, that’s a little bit of my own theory and hearsay.
DS: Right. Last thing, from a production standpoint, working with an overseas animation production partner, are you working on a shared digital production pipeline? How are you getting assets to them, how are you getting assets back?
BH: We send actual hard copy boards and timing sheets. It’s all traditional. For the actual animation, it's as close to old school as could be. We ship all our designs for every episode. "Here are all your reels, all your new characters." We basically give them all the raw material and instructions. They put it together and ship it back to us. Then it goes into our own pipeline for post.
DS: Do you have people over in Korea supervising the production? Do you have people doing intermediate reviews? How is your communication with regards to managing the process?
BH: Our supervising producer, Chuck Austen and online producer Dave Wilcox have gone over there a few times getting everything ramped up, trying to give our partners the best sense of the show. They were also getting a sense of how the studios worked, so that we could best work together. Now, on a daily basis, the communication is mostly by e-mail. Thankfully, with our production partners, it's just been fantastic. They got up to speed and got the shows produced very quickly. They send us a full pass of take ones on the whole episode, we'll note them up, we'll send back our notes, they'll do take twos, we usually get to take threes and that's about it. It's not that long of a process and we work together pretty well.
One of the shows I worked on a little while back, which was with an overseas partner, required Skype calls, almost at least once, if not two to three times a week, to really communicate everything and try to get on the same page. We got there eventually but it wasn't the easiest process.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.