Overhauling the traditional family film with a whimsically macabre satire in Netflix’s The Willoughbys was both a creative feat and technical achievement for independent studio BRON Animation. From balancing tone and story to resonate with audiences while still staying true to the source material, to transitioning to a remote crew in 2020, VFX Supervisor Russ Smith shares his insight on the studio’s daily operations and delivery of memorable animated entertainment.
Tell us about BRON Animation.
BRON’s roots are in the live action side of production, and the studio expanded services in 2012 with the addition of the animation division. BRON is a tight-knit team, the company having a family feel to it.
One of the owners was so immersed in the operations side of things, besides overseeing the Animation division at the Burnaby, British Columbia studio, that she personally knew almost everyone on the team – including their extended lives.
What’s your role?
I’m the VFX Supervisor, although that is only part of what I do. With a small crew in a more intimate studio environment, the boundaries of all our titles become somewhat blurred.
What led you to a career in animation?
My background is in physics and fine arts. While I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Waterloo, I met with professors at a dinner party who were starting to explore computer art and the intersection of art and science. Today it seems obvious, but at the time, it was unusual to mix the two. At the start of the next term I switched my area of focus to fine arts, but I kept up with computer science and physics as electives. My background in both disciplines has led me to where I am today.
How has working remotely been for you?
With advances in PCoIP remote desktop tools, working from home is pretty much transparent for me. I have high-quality screens at home, so work goes on as if I were at the studio. Video conferencing can be a little rough with people talking over each other or latency with great distances, but for the most part it’s been fine. We have a sister crew in New Zealand, so we do experience drops here and there. Meetings go on as usual, at least in terms of scheduling. With good organization on the production side, working from home can be just as easy as in the studio.
Can you share what has changed since transitioning to operating remotely?
At the beginning of the shutdown, COVID impacted us the same as all studios in the industry; the future seemed uncertain when we initially closed our office doors. We were quickly able to greenlight our next project, Fables, and we picked up where we left off and have been running ever since. We are now a fully remote team, and most people enjoy working from the comfort of their own home instead of a studio environment. The biggest loss has been the personal contact, as weeks at home have stretched into months.
Are you seeing an increase in demand for animation since COVID? Are there more projects in the pipeline than anticipated?
We are a small studio in comparison to the giants, like ILM and Sony. Nonetheless, we were one of the first studios to greenlight a project following the COVID shutdown. Our second project is now underway, with a third close behind. Before COVID struck North America hard, we were transitioning from a traditional feature animation timeline (one movie at a time) to focus on episodic animation with a brand-new pipeline. We’re going faster than we ever have.
How did Bron Animation come to work on The Willoughbys?
The producer had a personal connection to the book and was instrumental in securing the rights to the property. The originality of the story and the strong animation pipeline at BRON made it a very appealing and marketable package, and the property was sold to Netflix.
What were some of the challenges you faced bringing Lois Lowry’s beloved book characters to life for the film?
Film is more of a presentation medium. If your source material is out of date with target audiences and current circumstances, you must adapt the story to be relevant. During development of The Willoughbys, the director presented several iterations of the story that were fleshed out until the team got to the final version. Tone is everything, and I remember suggesting that some of the mean aspects be toned down or removed. I wanted the film to be something suitable to show my own son, who was 12 at the time.
The Willoughbys is such an unconventional story filled with unexpected turns that play with kids’ expectations and what we expect in a kids’ movie. Did this influence the studio’s approach?
In the book Tim marries Ruth, but we don’t include that epilogue in our version. Instead, we end with a what happens to the parents? gag. There isn’t a waxed mustache villain in this story. The parents aren’t exactly great parents, but they do love each other. Unfortunately, they love each other to the detriment of the children. We had to ride a fine line, and the director was always transparent and looking for feedback from the team on the story.
What was your favorite part of working on the project?
The best part of working on a project like The Willoughbys is always the team. Not one person on any show can make a movie by themselves. There were difficulties with aspects relating to schedule, tech, story, art and performance, but everyone really worked hard and supported each other. The results speak for themselves.
How was Maya used during production on The Willoughbys?
Maya was one of the primary tools used from pre-production to final delivery. Following initial concept art, early development of the project in 3D previsualization happened in Maya. During production, all modeling, rigging and animation were done in Maya. Maya was also the primary tool to deliver the final cleaned animation and cameras to the back end of the pipeline.
For more information about BRON and the studio’s slate of animated work, visit: https://bronstudios.com/divisions/animation