Company CBS Studios / Late Night Cartoons
Location New York, US
When CBS Studios set up animation studio Late Night Cartoons to produce 10 weekly episodes of the Trump administration satire Our Cartoon President, the team knew they had to work at speed. ftrack was there to help them keep pace with the demands of production.
It should be of no surprise that Our Cartoon President – a satirical, voyeuristic glimpse into the presidency of Donald Trump and his two-dimensional administration – is executive produced by The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht.
Originating from a recurring skit on The Late Show, during which Colbert would interview a live cartoon version of the then-candidate Trump, the segment’s popularity saw the concept evolve into a regular CBS Studios/Showtime series brimming with the chat show host’s cutting-edge comedy.
Equal parts workplace comedy, character study and political send-up, Our Cartoon President is a fast-moving, quick-witted lampoon – and one that required a similarly speedy approach to production if the narrative was to keep pace with today’s constantly changing news cycle. It may be an animated series, but late night talk show DNA was entwined in Our Cartoon President’s creative process.
“It’s broadcast animation production at top speed,” begins Brian Maffitt, Technical Director at Our Cartoon President studio Late Night Cartoons. “Quick turnaround is a necessity, since we create the body of an episode in only a few weeks and the topical intro to the episode in only two or three days, and multiple episodes are in production at any given time.
“It’s crucial for all of our team members to have a visual representation of the complex relationships between various assignments and their states of progress, and that’s where ftrack comes in,” he continues. “It shows us at a glance what we need to know to move things forward and allows artists to focus on what matters most: the actual construction of the episodes.
“A tool like ftrack is pivotal on a show of the nature and turnaround of Our Cartoon President.”
Our cartoon studio
Late Night Cartoons was purpose-built by CBS Studios to deliver Our Cartoon President’s weekly animations – and the studio’s setup was an unprecedented feat. Within eight months the Our Cartoon President team had set up a full-service, self-contained animation studio in New York – complete with a recording and mixing studio – and delivered the first 10 episodes of the show.
“At the start of each new episode, hundreds of assignments would be handed out to artists,” explains Maffitt. “These responsibilities ranged from the asset creation of characters to backgrounds, rigging, animating, and assembling everything for the final show.”
To unite quick turnaround with high-quality content, the Late Night Cartoons team needed to establish an agile, nimble pipeline tailored to accelerated episodic production.
This pipeline included a raft of Adobe Creative Suite applications – such as Flash, Photoshop, Character Animator, After Effects and Premiere Pro – as well as ftrack; the tool responsible for uniting the show’s numerous creatives behind common objectives.
“Before using ftrack, the Our Cartoon President pipeline was maintained using spreadsheets and Google Docs,” says Maffitt of a process that grew quickly cumbersome.
“Each character requires the management of hundreds or even thousands of gestures and facial expressions. Manually tracking what they were, how they were used in the animation, who worked on them, where the asset files existed on our server – all while distributing and tracking tasks between three directors, eight leads, producers, 30-plus artists, and other assorted crew members – became a challenge to maintain.”
The team started looking for a production tracking solution that could simplify the demanding creative process behind Our Cartoon President. After vetting demos for a variety of production management tools, the studio selected ftrack.
“We chose ftrack because it could keep pace with our uniquely fast production environment,” says Druanna Pegg, Digital Asset & Media Manager. “The task tracking, reviewing process and many visual options to oversee projects from start to finish were the main selling points.
“However, ftrack also presented the option to expand on its solid foundation using the flexible API. We could finesse the software to fit around the crucial needs of our pipeline and build a solution that exactly fits our needs. There’s a lot of growth potential in that.”
While many of the creative team had worked on successful animated shows in the past, only one producer had experience with ftrack. Nevertheless, the team quickly got to grips with the software amid the rapid production schedule.
“We were learning and teaching ourselves every piece of the production as we went – but ftrack made it all much simpler,” says Pegg. “There are so many ftrack features that helped to smooth our workflow transitions and allowed us to focus more energy on the creative side of the show.”
Total production oversight
The ability to link with tasks with the Gantt tool was one such driver – and a feature that dramatically improved efficiency of production throughout Our Cartoon President’s delivery schedule.
“Linking tasks was incredibly important,” says Pegg. ‘It meant we could implement efficient task automation, like status changes and priority notifications, and move assignments from one department to the next without bottlenecks. The design team have finished drafts for review? One click from the director and they were with the next department. Simple!”
“The notes left on each task and version make that process even more seamless,” adds Maffitt. “They leave a communication ‘footprint’ – that is, the history of a task assignment, the changes made and any details that might need attention from the next department. We can also use the filters on tasks to fine-tune what is communicated and with whom.”
The Late Night Cartoons team also made use of dashboards to keep an eye on specific details of tasks and monitor the progress between departments. The ftrack review and approval process also enabled the team to discuss progress on the multiple episodes and promotional projects that were in development at the same time.
“All of these features meant that every level of our team was aware of the details and the overall status of production at any given time,” says Maffitt. “It adds up to much less time wasted on unnecessary back and forth.”
The second term
The first season of Our Cartoon President has proven hugely successful, attracting many fans and praise for its stance on politics – including some from Captain America himself, Chris Evans.
Maffitt says that ftrack was key in getting the studio to this point, and predicts that production efficiency will only increase as the team gears up for a second season with the software.
“For any other studio considering ftrack, we’d say give it a chance,” says Pegg. “In Late Night Cartoon’s experience, ftrack can automate workflows and improve production efficiency better than any other option currently available to the industry.”