On writing for animation in streaming platforms focusing on Bojack Horseman as a case study
This case study aims at exploring the aesthetic and narrative techniques employed by a specific style of a contemporary television animation series called Bojack Horseman that uses many interesting crossroads of information to create a postmodern commentary on society as a comedic animated show. This study also aims at exploring the animation market in online streaming platforms such as Netflix.
BoJack Horseman is a horse who starred in a 1990s sitcom called "Horsin' Around." But, now he is an alcoholic who struggles with his decaying popularity, depression, and his constant tendency to sabotage his relationships. The universe that BoJack Horseman takes place in is a simulacrum of pop culture, which is used as a trade in dark, existential themes for the purpose of maintaining a nihilistic tone and an ironic humour. It's a TV show satirising the television industry, yet being made and produced by Netflix, a major media corporation. It presents real world concepts within an absurd universe that hides its dark, emotional heart. The animated series is written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a young comedian who had no experience in Hollywood, but was looking to break into TV. He said in one of his interviews with Ben Morris in Awards Daily “I never worked in animation really until I did BoJack Horseman.” Through his participation in theater productions, he met illustrator Lisa Hanawalt who designed anthropomorphic characters which inspired the idea for "Bojack". Raphael told Business Insider: “I remember looking over all of Hollywood and feeling like I was on top of the world but also that I'd never been more lonely and isolated. That gave me the idea of exploring this character who had every success he could have wanted and still couldn't find a way to be happy. I combined that melancholy with Lisa's cartoony animal characters, and that was really the genesis of the idea.” Raphael’s method in writing Bojack Horseman is mainly shown in small narrative strands which is a method called metanarrative, a term developed by Jean François Lyotard, which means telling a narrative about other narratives in order to show an anticipated completion of a master idea, it is a mixture of narrational experimentation. Raphael’s method is actually a poststructural method of constructing a narrative. In his interview with Ben Morris in Awards Daily, The scriptwriter explained ”I think there are a lot more opportunities for different kinds of storytelling in animation than what has been done in the past. I’m excited to continue exploring this medium, because I think there are limitless opportunities with it.”
Raphael’s exceptional ability to communicate his vision got former Disney CEO Michael Eisner's Tornante Company to pick it up and get it signed on "Arrested Development". He said “I was very intimidated, Eisner was a little nervous about the idea of a show business satire because the general feeling is that's kind of done but I talked about why it's interesting to me and said I'm open to other angles on it and at the end of the conversation he said, "Yeah, you seem like a smart guy, let's do it your way." With Tornante on board, it took about a year for Raphael to develop a presentation to pitch the show to a network. The team brought illustrator Lisa Hanawalt to work with supervising director Mike Hollingsworth and the animators at ShadowMachine. As they were fleshing out the world of "Bojack," casting director Linda Lamontagne recruited an amazing cast. The team hoped to sell the show to Netflix, which had a platform that allowed for binge-watching without commercial interruption, perfect for the complex storyline Bob-Waksberg had in mind. 'BoJack' is a linear story," Hollingsworth told Cartoon Brew. "It doesn’t reset at the beginning of every episode like 'The Simpsons' or 'Family Guy'; his house and all of his relationships are slowly destroyed throughout the season. On Netflix, we got to know that nobody's going to watch episode 7 unless they've already seen episodes 1-6, so we didn't have to constantly reintroduce the characters and the premise”. But, it was rumored that Netflix wasn't buying animations. Bob-Waksberg had to convince Netflix of his vision in an hour-long pitch, going through 12 episodes in great detail. He sold the show to Netflix as its first ever animated project. Bob-Waksberg said in one of his interviews with business insider “They really got what the show was and they trusted us to make it. On every trip they had notes and thoughts and on every radio play and storyboard, they're very much involved and have a lot of input”. Mike Hollingsworth, supervisor director said “BoJack is primarily a script-driven show. We were given license to get in there and create the most cartoony adult show around. It takes us about 10 months to do 12 episodes. Big Star in Korea helps produce the animation, and we have an amazing retake animation and comp department at ShadowMachine. Our comp supervisor Chris Weller makes our simple 2D animation look cinematic. Overall, we have about 50 people working on the show in house.”
Bojack Horseman is a thematically complex animated show that illustrates changing industrial dynamics and taste cultures. Raphael demonstrates a hyperawareness of the value of intertextuality in Bojack to reinforce its ‘smart’ credentials and its participation in ongoing debates about taste cultures. Many of the ‘quality’ shows that aired during TV III’s prime illustrate aesthetic overlaps with ‘smart’ cinema, thus demonstrating a genealogy of ‘smartness’ that traverses production modalities. Co-founder Corey Campodonico of animation company ShadowMachine, which worked on BoJack said “What's happening is a generational shift from the Looney Tunes era to the Simpsons era to something new. 20-plus years and people have grown up with adult animation as a norm. There's a sophisticated audience out there" Bulkley said “The turn towards complex storytelling manifests both in inherited production tactics and changing taste cultures.” Joel Kuwahara discussed the fast-evolving world of adult animation during a panel held at The Animation Conference at Ottawa Intl. Animation Festival. “We are trying to grow our industry, and everyone’s trying to keep up with the pace and the growing demand for high-quality and fresh creative voices” Kuwahara is the co-founder and principal at Bento Box, he worked on shows such as The Simpsons, The Critic and Bob’s Burgers. He told the audience that Bento Box pitches new projects to entities such as Netflix, Amazon and other outlets. He mentioned that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple, Disney+ and other streaming services and the traditional networks and cables, are all buying animation at these times. After the cancellation of Bojack Horseman in its six season, in 2014, Netflix has won over critics with its innovative approaches to adult animation and has released five other original adult animated shows. They built a central animation office in Hollywood from which most of its creators will work, its productions are being animated at studios around the world, among them Cartoon Saloon in Ireland, Bron Animation in Canada, Sergio Pablos Animation in Spain, and Pearl Studio in China. “No two Netflix adult animated shows are the same. We’re excited to expand our slate and push the boundaries of what’s possible in adult animation.” Netflix Head of Adult Animation Mike Moon wrote in a blog post. The streaming platform is looking for more animated content, so they began looking within the Indian animation market as it has created a mark for itself in the industry. Netflix India Content VP Monika Shergill commented, “We have recently launched 17 local Originals. It clearly indicates that animation is on our radar. We have a talented vertical inhouse at Netflix India for family and kids entertainment, and they are making a lot of animation titles and have partnered with a lot of local creators.”
Netflix continues to develop new narrative structures and is becoming more inventive with animation styles, their success in the medium is evident in their newest project 'Arcane', it’s a new breed of mature animation. Courtesy of Riot Games’ animation studio “Fortiche Production”. It’s hand-animated in a mix of 2D and 3D. Arcane symbolizes Netflix’s focus on investing widely in stories with appealing themes that sharpens the efficiency of their investment. Netflix is tapping into a cornucopia of original material, empowering visionary and underserved artists. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, reaffirmed the streamer’s commitment to becoming an animation powerhouse. As the industry moves through the streaming war Battles, we’ll see how the adult animation genre develops and evolves throughout the next decade. We might just be entering another golden age.