"Mecha Builders" "Mecha Builders"

For the latest entry in our series, which looks at the coronavirus crisis from the standpoint of individuals in the industry, we speak to Frank Falcone. He is the president and creative director of Toronto’s Guru Studio, which has produced numerous kids’ animated series, including the Emmy-nominated Justin Time, Netflix’s True and the Rainbow Kingdom, and Nick Jr.’s PAW Patrol. Guru is now starting production on Mecha Builders, an HBO Max series which will feature Sesame Street characters “in a robot-animation style.”

Frank Falcone
Frank Falcone

Sesame Street is a franchise with half a century of history. When Guru Studio struck a partnership with Sesame Workshop to produce Mecha Builders, foremost among Frank Falcone’s priorities was to dive into that heritage, as he tells Cartoon Brew.

“We had all sorts of plans to go to New York, tour the sets and the workshops, and just generally be inspired by the physical props, puppets, sets, and deep archives of the Sesame Workshop,” says Falcone. “But that all ended abruptly at the beginning of March.” As per Ontario’s guidelines, the studio swiftly switched to a fully remote setup, in which it has remained ever since.

Animation studios around the world have managed to continue producing shows throughout the crisis, but Guru finds itself in the awkward position of entering production on Mecha Builders while everyone is at home.

“Starting a new production remotely has a set of challenges no one has faced,” says Falcone. “At the beginning — gestational phase — when ideation and design thinking is so critical, we’ve been developing new ways of communicating really big ideas.”

He gives an example of how remote working has actually made the visual development process easier: “We have become particularly fond of programs that allow you to draw on the same virtual surface or whiteboard. In a room, you find people are less inclined to stand up and draw in front of others, but when everyone is safely at home, they seem braver and more confident with ‘live public drawing’! … This takes the pressure off and allows more ideas to flow freely without judgement.”

Over the coming weeks and months, Guru will crew up an additional 80 people on the show, adding to its staff of 300-plus people already working on other series. Some will join from within the studio, while others will be hired from outside. Falcone anticipates having to further adapt the studio’s workflow to meet these tricky circumstances. Then again, he adds, adaptation is something “we often do on other series that are not affected by pandemics!”