Sixty percent of Netflix’s audience — which currently stands at over 139 million members worldwide — watches kids and family content on its platform every month. “That’s a massive number obviously,” Melissa Cobb, Netflix’s VP of kids and family, told a small group of journalists at an event in Los Angeles last month. For Cobb, it’s her job to focus on making films and TV shows for that audience, but naturally even for Netflix, kids and family is crucial to its originals strategy. Animated offerings are a staple for this bracket, understandably so, and Netflix is investing heavily in that regard.
“One of the great things about working here is just the fact that Netflix does focus a lot on inclusion and going out and finding creators that might have a different voice, or a voice that is, if not marginalised, you don’t hear very often,” James Baxter, Netflix’s head of character animation, said. Baxter is well known for his work on several Disney animated films, including Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Rafiki in The Lion King, and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“We actively are out there looking at creators from all over the world to tell stories that reflect, you know, their story,” Baxter added. “And that’s really exciting for us, it’s really exciting for me, I mean, as an animator I get to be whoever I want to be. But it’s really, really nice to be able to work somewhere where you are seeing different kinds of voices in animation and kids’ entertainment and Netflix is very proactive about trying to find those projects.”
A Christmas movie for everyone
One of its flagship offerings is coming from Sergio Pablos, the Spanish animator and screenwriter best known for creating the Despicable Me franchise. Pablos is making his directorial debut on Klaus, Netflix’s first original animated feature film set for a Christmas 2019 release. Netflix’s VP of original film, Scott Stuber, said the animation group will release about two to four movies a year going forward.
With a voice cast of Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited), Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and Joan Cusack (Shameless), Klaus tells an origin story for Santa Claus as it follows a desperate postman in “the middle of nowhere in Scandinavia” who has trouble getting business for the post office because everyone hates everyone in the little town. The film is being made almost entirely in Madrid at Sergio Pablos Animation (SPA) Studios.
What sets Klaus apart is that Pablos & Co. are using digital tools to combine the world of hand-drawn 2D animation and volumetric lighting that audiences associate with computer-animated 3D films. Netflix showed journalists clips of their process and the final result — some of which you can see above — was hugely impressive.
“Like James, I was trained traditionally, and I always had a love for traditional animation coming from my love for drawings,” Pablos said, attending the Los Angeles event over video conference from Madrid. “And we kind of saw that go away when CGI came along.”
Pablos noted that lighting was the biggest issue with hand-drawn animation — “Lighting traditionally has been very basic since the beginning and up until, you know, the late 90s,” he said — which is why they developed “this proprietary lighting technique which allows artists, not computers to introduce a sense of lighting.”
“When you used to watch a hand-drawn animated film, you could always tell exactly which bit of the background was going to move because it looked different than the rest of the frame,” Baxter said. “But in [Klaus], I really feel like the characters and the background look like they’re painted with exactly the same brush. Which is kind of an amazing breakthrough, I think, for us.”
“[Now] it’s funny because people tell us, ‘It looks a lot like CGI’, which is not the intent,” Pablos said with a laugh. “The intent was to make it look like visual development art in motion, which is something that has never been accomplished. But it does have the volumetric look to it, so some people confuse it for CGI which is fine. But that’s just not the goal that we’re going for.”
Latin American stories with a female hero
Elsewhere, Emmy-winning Mexican animator, writer, voice actor and director Jorge R. Gutiérrez — also known for helming the Golden Globe-nominated film The Book of Life — is working hard on the miniseries Maya and the Three, set for a summer 2021 release. In his usual exuberant tone, Gutiérrez describes it as a “four-and-a-half-hour epic” that draws on Mesoamerica mythology, soap operas, and The Wizard of Oz. He realised that “there were no female heroes” in Mesoamerica and Latin American stories, so Gutiérrez came up with a new one.
Maya and the Three is about the titular half-human, half-God ‘woke’ female warrior princess, who enlists the help of a Caribbean wizard, an albino archer, and a giant barbarian from the mountains to put an end to a war that has erupted between the humans and the Gods. Naturally, the protagonist Maya is the reason for that chaos, because her stepdad, the God of War, had promised her mother, the Goddess of Death, that he would sacrifice Maya on her fifteenth birthday.
Gutiérrez played a two-minute clip for journalists as a sneak peek, which showcased a rich, colourful and vibrant world for Maya and the Three, in addition to some promising banter between Maya and the Caribbean wizard as the two sparred.
“Visually, we wanted to take our global audience to a part of Latin America we don’t get to see in media a lot, which is the pre-conquest times.” Gutiérrez said, standing inside Netflix’s temporary animation HQ in Los Angeles. Pre-conquest refers to the time period before Spain invaded the Aztec Empire in the 16th century. “As a lover of fantasy, I love Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, but they are usually always European versions of fantasy, so I really wanted to do something with Mesoamerica.”
The reason Gutiérrez chose to make Maya and the Three as a limited series, broken into 30-minute episodes, is because “with feature animation, you cut at least one movie and leave it on the floor,” he said. “With this, we get to tell the whole thing. All my favourite movies, like Seven Samurai or Braveheart, are super long. And I can finally do that in animation thanks to Netflix.”
The Bandersnatch of animated shows — or not
Netflix is also letting its animators experiment with form, with the Danish-British duo of Rikke Asbjoern and Chris Garbutt — co-creators on Netflix’s kids series Pinky Malinky — working on an unnamed interactive show for kids. Netflix wouldn’t say whether it was a series or a special, simply terming it a ‘project’.
Asbjoern and Garbutt’s new show is about a cat and a dog who wake up one morning to find that all humans are gone from the world. They then set out to find their human. At the start, viewers will be able to choose between the cat or dog and then follow their adventures from the chosen point-of-view.
“Obviously there’s Bandersnatch but I don’t think in animation, there’s anything that’s been as ambitious as this,” Asbjoern said, to which Garbutt added: “We are trying to really do it in a scale where it feels as interactive as possible. It’s not just one-story spine that we can dip in and out of. It’s like something that can explode into many, many different stories.”
“So far in our experience with Netflix, they are very, very eager to crack this format and make it interesting and exciting for the audience too,” Garbutt said. He added that with the Black Mirror interactive film, a lot of paths were “kinda frustrating” — Asbjoern chimed in to say that was true to its world — and that “you can’t really do that for kids”.
“Kids, you need to reward and make them feel vested and want to keep playing, basically,” Garbutt said. “We don’t want to punish them. Our mantra right now is, ‘There’s no bad paths.’ So any path you choose, we want you to have a satisfying experience.”
“There’s no right or wrong, it’s just different,” Asbjoern concluded. The two creators gave journalists a look at their storyboarding process, wherein they had covered three walls of a room with post-it notes in order to breakdown the interactive journey that kids will go on.
Meet your friendly, neighbourhood garbage truck
In other cases, Netflix’s family content is coming from a family of animators. Disney legend and Oscar-winner Glen Keane — known for Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the title characters of Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, and Rapunzel in Tangled — is writing and directing Over the Moon, a musical film based on Chinese mythology that’s being produced by China’s Pearl Studio. It will be his feature directorial debut and release in 2020.
Keane is also working as a character designer and executive producer on his son Max Keane’s kids show, Trash Truck, which is also set for a 2020 release. “He’s kind of the godfather of this project, so to speak,” Max said with a laugh at Netflix’s Los Angeles animation hub last month. There will be a total of 28 episodes, running 11 minutes on average.
The idea for Trash Truck came from Max’s son, who developed a fondness for garbage trucks when he was young. “Thinking of it as a kids’ show, it gave me an opportunity, selfishly, to remember what it’s like to be a kid,” Max said. “Remember the things that were near and dear to my heart growing up.”
That’s why Trash Truck is about a young boy named Hank and his best friend who’s a garbage truck. They go on adventures together, across the park with Donny, a racoon and Walter, a bear, learning how to fly, visiting the dentist or going back in time to ‘Dino Land’, a time presumably when dinosaurs were around. Max showed journalists a clip of some aforementioned scenes and it came across as heartfelt.
“We feel fortunate to be making this at Netflix because I think it’s one of the only places that’s saying, ‘Take that idea that’s in your head and really put that out [there].’”
If you think Netflix is placing a big focus on kids with animated content, well you’re right. It’s general knowledge that kids watch more animated content than other age groups. And Netflix can justify it, said the company’s director of TV product innovation, Cameron Johnson: “In [February] alone, we have had over 50 million profiles stream from the kids experience around the globe.”
Pacific Rim, but in anime
But Netflix isn’t ignoring other audiences when it comes to animated fare. It has several anime projects in the works — five, including spin-offs of Pacific Rim and Altered Carbon, were announced in November last year — and its director of international originals for anime, Taito Okiura, is based out of Tokyo, as a “commitment to the local creative community”.
Okiura noted that there’s a ‘seismic change’ taking place in Japan’s animation business, of which he’s been a part of for 15 years. The industry was dependent on VCD, DVD and Blu-ray sales for “a very long time” but that market is dwindling. In 2018, it shrunk by 24.2 percent, he claimed.
“That’s a huge decline,” Okiura added. “And we video streamers provide an alternative business model. So, artists and top art studios are very positive about working with us directly.”
Meanwhile, on adult-oriented animated anthology series Love, Death & Robots — from creator Tim Miller (Deadpool) and executive producer David Fincher, which released in March — Netflix put its global reach to use.
“We pulled animators from all around the world for this series,” Netflix’s VP of product, Todd Yellin, said on stage at the event in Los Angeles. “We found the best animators from here in the Americas, North and South America, across Asia, across Europe.”
Netflix even presented the show differently to different members across the world, with some getting a special row that lets you pick any one of the 18 episodes — which range from five to 17 minutes in length — right from the home screen.
“[They are also] different styles,” Yellin said. “Some of them are 2D. Some of them are 3D, realistic, high-level CGI. We tried all kinds of things, different tastes, different people. Some people will love them all. Some will love a few of them. Some people, this will not be for them. A little too edgy maybe for some taste, which is fine. That’s what we’re about.”
Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent’s flights and hotel for the event in Los Angeles.