Joel Kuwahara, co-founder and principal at Bento Box, and Ollie Green, VP of production at Adult Swim, discussed the fast-evolving, challenging and interesting world of adult animation during an insightful panel held at The Animation Conference section of the popular Ottawa Intl. Animation Festival this week.
Kuwahara, who has worked critically acclaimed shows such as The Simpsons, The Critic and Bob’s Burgers, told the audience that although Bento Box was bought by Fox Animation in August, the studio still pitches new projects to other entities such as Netflix, Amazon and other outlets. “We are always looking for new partners here in Canada and internationally. We are trying to grow our industry, and everyone’s trying to keep up with the pace and the growing demand of high-quality and fresh creative voices,” he noted.
Green, whose producing credits include popular shows such as as Rick and Morty, Robot Chicken, SuperJail!, The Shivering Truth and the recent Tigtone, added, “We are constantly seeking things that we haven’t seen before. Shows with a strong point of view that are not chasing a trend or imitating what is popular. Some of our most unique and successful projects have been driven by a great creative artist or talent that has had a really strong career in comics or pop culture. Being funny always helps!”
Both producers noted that animated content can be a potent force in pushing the envelope politically and socially. “We can explore different areas beyond the family sitcom, thanks to the growth in streaming appetite,” said Kuwahara. “We can use animation to tell different types of stories. At Bento Box, we have a number of projects in the pipeline that are completely different from what we have been doing in the past. Everyone wants to work with creators that see the world differently.”
Keep ’em Wanting More
When asked about pitching animated shows, Kuwahara said it’s always the best strategy to leave the execs in the room wanting more. “The best pitches leave them wanting to see more,” he noted. “After your finish you pitch, you want them to call you back for a second meeting or a follow-up. Also, I feel the days of showing a pitch bible are over. You want to put together as much of a visual presentation as possible. We work on the performance, how to make it more fun and making it the best visual representation of the show.”
Green brought up Adult Swim’s shorts anthology program called Smalls, which serves as a way for the studio to find fresh talent through social media and digital networks. “We have been releasing these little packages through this program, and we have this opportunity to use that as our talent incubator, which will lead to longer projects. Everyone is looking for good adult animated content, so we don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” she said.
Kuwahara said he is always finding great animation talent on Instagram and enjoys getting lost in the social media rabbit-hole in search of good work. “I do it because I love it, and it reminds of the 1980s, when I used to go to used record stores and look for artists, and one album would lead me to another and another. I love finding these talented animators and sharing them with everyone.”
Commenting on the tough comedy climate and what animation can get away with in the adult field, both Kuwahara and Green pointed out that their writers have found clever ways to tackle hot, timely topics. “We want to tell stories that shake things up, and sometimes you can go bigger and harder because animation inherently softens jokes. Also, we have many executives that act as our checks and balances along the way,” said Kuwhara. “But we always try to push the envelope and get fresh points of view out there.”
Green admitted that Adult Swim was traditionally been known for telling the male side of things, but in recent years, the studio has tried to open its doors to more female voices as well. “Historically, we were just working with the people we had in our building, and as we expanded, we weren’t getting pitches from women,” said Green. “We acknowledged that and know that we should be doing better in that area. But our development people are now bringing in more diverse stories. I think our industry as a whole is improving in that regard.”
Kuwahara said he’s thrilled that most of the producers at Bento Box are women. “It was nice to see that on a management level, most of our shows were being produced by women. The directing ratio is still 65 to 70 percent male, but we are seeing a lot of new female and diverse talent rising. It has been encouraging to see more fresh, diverse talent coming out of the schools.”
In closing, both animation professionals advised the creative talent and producers in the audience to keep drawing and creating. “You have to go back and create more shows when you get a rejection,” said Kuwahara. “You have to go to the shows, the festivals, and meet people, because this industry is about being proactive, knowing your goals and evolving. Just keep working. I have worked on every type of animated show in my career, some have been very difficult, and some have not been that great. But if doesn’t matter if you’ve worked on the worst show, because you can even learn from that! You learn what not to do again.”
The Ottawa Intl. Animation Festival continues through Sunday. Friday’s lineup includes a presentation of Nickelodeon’s new series The Casagrandes (featuring the show’s producer Karen Malach, art director Miguel Gonzalez and supervising producer Alan Foreman) and a screening of Steven Universe The Movie, followed by a Q&A with creator Rebecca Sugar, as well as screenings of numerous acclaimed indie shorts from around the world and features such as Gints Zilbalodis’ Away and Jeremy Clapin’s I Lost My Body.
For more info, visit www.animationfestival.ca.