Lockdown and social distancing measures due to COVID-19 continue to effect all aspects of the kids film and TV sector, including how studios approach casting for both live-action and animated productions.
For the foreseeable future, companies have had to adapt because in-person auditions for live-action roles are on hold (as are most traditional live-action productions), and the majority of voiceover actors have limited access to sound studios or proper home systems to record tracks for animation jobs.
For prodcos fortunate enough to keep their pipelines going—including Canadian live-action studio Lopii Productions and UK animation prodco Blue Zoo—online video platforms like Zoom and Skype are increasingly becoming the tools of choice for casting kids shows.
Lopii Productions (My Home My Life) had to get creative to find the cast for its lockdown series, My Stay-At-Home Diary (pictured). Aimed at four- to eight-year-olds, the 10 x four-minute series takes viewers into the lives of 10 different kids from around the world to experience how they’re staying busy and having fun despite being quarantined. The show is being filmed by the kids and their parents.
My Stay-At-Home Diary is created by the prodco’s founders Rennata and Georgina Lopez, alongside LA-based freelance producer-director and former Apple children’s production exec Kristen McGregor (McGregor and Rennata are pictured top left and right, respectively). Rennata Lopez says the project is coming together quickly since a casting call went out on Lopii’s Facebook page in March. So far, more than 60 kids have applied from Iran, Ghana, Israel, the US and Canada.
The digital-first series has already drawn interest from broadcasters and SVODs, and the prodco is in discussion with TVO, CBC and Shaw Rocket Fund for financing. Using her American relationships, McGregor has set up meetings with YouTube Originals and Nickelodeon for its SVOD platform Noggin.
Once kids send in their video auditions, Lopii responds with an online questionnaire to get more details about their families, their feelings about being quarantined, how their parents’ jobs have been affected by COVID-19, plus technical information like what kind of phone or tablet they use, and whether or not they have access to Zoom or a laptop.
Lopii’s top picks are then scheduled to meet the show’s producing and directing team (Lopez and McGregor) via what the company calls Zoom scouts. The show’s pilot episode, which features 11-year-old Aaron Chen and his Burlington, Canada-based family, has already been filmed and the iPhone footage is being edited by freelance hires in Toronto. Lopii plans to simultaneously finish casting, film, edit and deliver the additional nine episodes between May and June.
The process marks the first time Lopii has cast a show fully virtually. The studio previously used Skype to partially cast its first kids series, My Home My Life, which bowed on Canadian pubcaster TVO last month. That series is similar to My Stay-At-Home Diary in that it showcases a kids-eye view of family life, but differs because it was shot by Lopii’s film crew at home locations in one region (Ontario, Canada).
She says using Zoom and online questionnaires for the full casting process on My Stay-At-Home Diary will actually benefit the show and the company in a few different ways.
“We are casting real kids who have to shoot their own footage and don’t have lines to memorize,” says Lopez. “Seeing them in their natural environment on a Zoom call actually works great for us. We can also get more information from an online questionnaire than we would normally get from an in-person audition.”
She adds that the experience could also help Lopii if it’s forced to virtually cast a second season of My Home My Life. “If we get a green light soon, we would need to begin casting in May and June to begin production in September, so we would mimic the same casting style until we are eventually allowed to leave our houses.”
Aside from learning how to use Zoom, another casting challenge for Lopez and her team on My Stay-At-Home Diary has been the show’s reliance on kids’ and parents’ access to technology.
“We want to tell stories that are diverse and fit every economic background, but the reality is we might not be able to tell some stories because families don’t have the technology,” says Lopez.
For this reason, Lopii has two rolling budgets for the show. According to Georgina Lopez, Lopii’s line producer and production manager, one is the absolute minimum the series can be made for—US$106,000 for 10 episodes—providing families have the required technology. “The second is a little more ideal at US$200,000 and factors in if we help some of the families by sending them camera packages.”
Lopii is fronting the development costs for the first two episodes (US$7,000 to US$8,500 each).
What about toon casting?
As London-based Blue Zoo heads into the early stages of pre-production on the fifth season of Numberblocks for CBeebies, the studio is assessing how it will cast and work with voiceover tracks for the show’s new characters if the lockdown continues, says head of production Denise Green.
“We normally receive audio files for casting auditions and if a voiceover actor sends something we like, we might follow up on Skype or Zoom to ask them to work with our voice and/or animation director,” says Green. With sound studios temporarily closed, the majority of voiceover artists don’t have access to high quality home-recording equipment.
To help animation studios keep their productions going, Green says that London-based voiceover agency Yakety Yak has been identifying which of its clients have good home recording studios. It provides links to home-recorded audio clips along with technical information about the equipment and the audio files.
“The fact that Yakety Yak has been proactive in this way has really helped us,” she says. “They are looking out for their talent and that is a fantastic thing to do at this time.”