In living color

Moving from animation to live action is no small feat, but that’s just what several prodcos with solid toon track records are doing this year.
August 3, 2011

Toronto, Canada-based Nelvana Studios has taken on a live-action kids project for the first time in 15 years, along with parentco Corus Entertainment, and will debut Life with Boys in September on Corus kidnet YTV. Executive producer Tracey Dodokin says the timing was just right when she met creator Michael Poryes two years ago—he was fresh off his writing and producing gig on Disney smash Hannah Montana and just happened to be shopping a new tween concept around.

“It wasn’t that we said, let’s do live action now,” says Dodokin. She explains that the right project dovetailed perfectly with the taste in the marketplace for tween sitcoms and the opportunity to work with a renowned creative team. And so Dodokin, who had live-action experience but had spent the past several years producing animated series at Nelvana, came full circle and found herself once again managing shooting schedules and craft services.

Starting from scratch
Dodokin contends the storytelling is similar to animation and explains that creating layers in characters to keep the narrative compelling and kid-relatable are universal. However, the main difference in approaching the two styles starts right at the development and planning stage. Animation, Dodokin says, is driven by style and deadline, whereas live action is really script driven.

“You can plan an animation schedule reasonably accurately without knowing what the stories are about, as long as you know the number and length of episodes, the style of animation and who is attached to it,” says Dodokin. But with live action, reading the scripts is her first priority. “You need to know what it is you’re making before you know how much it’s going to cost and how long you’re going to need to shoot it.”

As for costs, filming entirely in a studio kept the budget for Life with Boys similar to a CGI-animated series. The difference is in the allocation of funds. Materials and labor expenditures on live-action series are pretty much equal, while the bulk of money spent on animated fare pays for labor, especially in Canada where studios can benefit from tax credit financing based on labor. However, Dodokin says live-action shows can command higher licensing fees to offset costs. “Someone has done the math and that’s probably why some companies are expanding into live action,” says Dodokin.

Ready, set, action!
Tom McGillis at Toronto, Canada’s FreshTV also recently made the leap from animation to live-action series, first with My Babysitter is a Vampire—which debuted as an MOW on Canada’s Teletoon in October 2010, and led to a series that airs on Teletoon as well as Disney Channel US—followed by new comedy Really Me. He admits that the fast pace of a live-action shoot was a bit of a shock to the system. “It was like crossing six lanes of traffic with blinders on,” McGillis quips.

He explains that in animation, the writing, voice recording, storyboarding, pre-production, animatics and animation take roughly eight months before moving to post-production. With live action, that timeline gets cut down to weeks and can involve working on the fly. Putting finishing touches on scripts, for example, while filming is underway.

However, there’s a lot more wiggle room in post-production. Really Me, which bowed on Canada’s Family Channel this past April and has been renewed for a second season, is recorded with three cameras as well as a handheld that essentially makes it a four-camera show. The scripts also include confessional one-camera interviews, like those typically seen on the reality shows the series mimicks. And that extra footage, says McGillis, provides the occupants of the editing suite with a lot of options when making the final cut of an ep.

“One of the biggest differences with animation is that your shooting ratio is 1:1,” says McGillis. With only 20 or 30 seconds of surplus footage, an animation editor doesn’t have many choices when it comes to cutting a scene.

Making animation live
During the height of the Hannah Montana years, Barcelona, Spain’s Imira also started sourcing live-action projects. “It’s not that animation is disappearing, but for 10- to 14-year-old girls, there is a demand for live action,” says CEO Sergi Reitg.

After further considering what was initially thought to be an off-hand observation from a broadcaster, Imira has put a live-action version of its girl-skewing animated series Lola & Virginia into production for delivery this September that brings the two rival high school characters to life—something that took three attempts to get just right. The first pilot produced in Latin America didn’t live up to European production standards. The second mixed live action and animation, effectively lowering the age target below what buyers were expecting. The third time proved to be the proverbial charm, however. Imira partnered with Italy’s RAI and prodco Brave, found a stellar cast, landed some top-rated Italian actors and focused on producing the show with an international scope.

The studio is now partnering with Brave Film in Rome for its first full-fledged original live-action series eBand, a 26 x 26-minute music-centric series that follows five high school friends who have a secret life as a virtual rock group. (At press time, the series was in production in Italy and selected eps were being dubbed into English for MIPCOM.)

For London-based Novel Entertainment’s Lucinda Whiteley, bringing animated character Horrid Henry to life for a live-action feature film relied on astute casting and nerves of steel.

“With live action, you’ve got 120 people and the camera rolling. Every single second is money,” says Whiteley. She explains that animated series are built from the bottom up by recording voices, storyboarding and finally animating. Whereas taking on a live-action shoot had a completely different set of variables that included working with actors and managing a tight schedule that lived on the edge of longer shooting hours with a slower turnaround.

Extending a brand that already exists in animation into live action meant bringing the squash-and-stretch world of the series to life.  So the special effects required to make Henry’s temper transform him into a dinosaur, for example, had to be built into the budget.

As for the creative challenges in transitioning an already popular animated character into the live-action realm, Whiteley says there was some debate as to what the real-life Horrid Henry would look like. “To me, the point is that they embody the spirit of the character,” she says.

Whiteley says Novel also made a point of keeping the flesh-and-blood adult players caricature-like, and including as many references as possible to the animated content, right down to Harry’s wardrobe and room décor.

Finding the right fit
Paris, France-based Moonscoop is also heading into production with its first full-fledged live-action tween/teen comedy series, My Phone Genie, with sister company Lux Animation, UK-based Talent Television and Telegael in Ireland. Moonscoop president of worldwide distribution Lionel Marty says the company began planning the project as the demand for live action started to spike a few years ago, but admits the limited number of co-production opportunities in France delayed the greenlight. (CiTV, in association with ZDF/ZDF Enterprises, has commissioned the 26 x half-hour series.)

Marty says the tween comedy about a girl who just happens to have a havoc-wreaking genie living in her phone (lamps are like sooo last century) is similar enough in pacing to a toon that animation writers are handling the scripts. However, his first production meetings revolved around casting and set design and proved to be a completely different experience from building an animated series from scratch.

The company is also producing the fifth season of animated series Code Lyoko with co-pro partners France Télévisions and Canal J, in a brand-new live-action/CGI-animated mix. Marty says the show continued to gain fans online even after the last season aired in 2007. Thousands of messages asking for more Code Lyoko convinced the studio to not only bring the series back to life, but to also infuse it with live actors, which Marty says brings new plot possibilities and a greater range of emotions. He says the ultimate goal is to offer the new hybrid as a format, by shooting the live-action sequences with local actors.

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