Hulu “trauma” PEN15 is already stretching the imagination, in part thanks to its creators and adult stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, which perfectly sums up two awkward, angsty college kids in 2000.
That’s part of what makes the show – which is celebrated by critics for its hilarious depiction of the cringey horrors of young adolescence – ready to go for the fluidity, whimsy, and sometimes even quirk that is the animation in. as a medium. And that’s exactly why the show’s Season 2 special, “Jacuzzi,” while spurred in part by pandemic production complications, is an exciting new twist for the Hulu hit.
Written and directed by Konkle, the August 27 episode sees Anna (Konkle) and Maya (Erskine) vacationing with Anna’s father, Curtis (Taylor Nichols) in Florida, an experience that introduces them to new insecurities as a mystical tour with a caricaturist artist exaggerates their features and their doubt. To help liven up their emotionally complicated vacation, PEN15 turned to Starburns Industries, the full-service production company co-founded by Dan Harmon, Dino Stamatopoulos, Joe Russo II, James Fino and Duke Johnson in the summer of 2010 to produce Community‘s special lively holiday. Specializing in stop-motion, traditional 2D, CG animation and live action production, the studio has been responsible for animation successes such as Rick and Morty, Frankenhole by Mary Shelley and the Oscar nominated animated film Anomalisa.
Before the episode begins, Hollywood journalist speak with PEN15 co-creator, star and writer Maya Erskine not only on how the episode unfolded with Starburns help during the pandemic (and during her pregnancy), but also on learning the ropes of producing d animation and influences from the 90s from which the team was inspired.
This was produced during the pandemic, but it’s lively and it’s not something you can do in the same amount of time as the live action. So when was the idea for this episode first put on the table?
We kind of flirted with the idea when we first wrote it, just because when we write we always think about the limits in terms of the shoot, the schedule and all of that stuff. We decided to do some live action, and when the pandemic happened, we were about a week away from filming this whole episode, and our executive producer was like, “Yeah, I’m glad that was. never happened because it would have been 20 hour days. Like I didn’t know how it would actually have happened. I don’t think it would have been. In a way, it was a saving grace , and while we were editing the first part of season 2a during the pandemic, we kind of got [wondered] are we waiting and trying to film it later? When would that be? We were asking all of these questions, so we revisited the topic of animation and continued when we finished editing.
We ended up going there too with Starburns, who had helped make the vaginas in the first part of the season at the end of the wrestling episode. They are amazing.
I feel like PEN15 lends itself tonally to animation, but were there specific elements of this episode that you were like, “You know what, maybe that should be the thing we’re animating.” Or was it more just making the choice at that point based on where you were in terms of production during the pandemic?
It was two or three things. Because we had already flirted with it – because it was special – we thought it could be anything. I think at one point we were like, “Oh, the stop-motion would be amazing,” but it’s really time-consuming and expensive, and all these other things. So the entertainment was great while we were doing it. It kind of surprised me, I would say, while we were doing it, like, “Oh wow, this is really perfect for animation and I’m really glad we went that route.” There is something a little whimsical about this episode. It’s that vacation you take with your parents that really gets you excited and ends up being boring, and how you can’t go in the water and do anything. And then you meet a boy, and all of a sudden, like, everything changes. And because they have that kind of supernatural experience – or not really but they get their caricatures drawn – all of a sudden, their insecurities become their new faces and their new faces. It was as if it just seemed to be screaming animation. If we’re going to do it at all, this is the episode. So yeah, creatively, when it comes to the pandemic, it all fell perfectly on our knees.
You said you worked with Starburns, but were there any series or styles of animation that you liked and wanted to feature with this episode?
In fact, at first we kind of made this file of all the animation that we loved when we were in college at that time. Like, remember Nickelodeon and, you know, Ren & Stimpy, Doug, Real Monsters, Beavis and Butthead – just all those animations we watched when we were kids? There was something going on in our heads that [this episode] doesn’t fit that, but that’s where we started in terms of dream animation. It was really a callback to that time when the show is set and where we grew up. And those animations were a little weird and dark at times, and kind of took on that quirky tone that we felt good to go with. PEN15. Another reason we chose Starburns is that they made Anomalisa – it’s stop-motion animation and it was something that we were really passionate about. We loved how real and so beautiful it was. [Studio Ghibli’s Hayao] Miyazaki served us as references, even if it is not quite that. We kind of wanted to bring the things that we love about all of this entertainment into the budget of the world – what we could afford to do and which suited us. Pen15. Ideally you watch it and you feel like I’m still watching the show, it’s not like this new show all of a sudden. I still see Maya and Anna, but animated. So keep it as grounded as possible and real. We even animated all the other characters to look like the actors portraying those voices.
I’m curious if there was something you really wanted to animate? In live-action there may be visual restrictions on what you can do, but animation can take you a step further – be anywhere, do anything.
I think the most exciting part was the exaggerated insecurity because it felt like the world was our oyster. How far are we going? How long do we go with it? How big can we make my face without it being distracting? So, you know, playing with our insecurities was the most exciting, and it was going to be the most exciting part of the live action as well, but there would have been more restrictions. Also being able to really feel like we are in Florida. I don’t know how successful we could have been. I mean, I’m sure we could have but just with what was in the plan.
I don’t want to call animation bureaucratic, but it’s definitely streamlined and sequestered in terms of process. There are some things you need to do before you can do other things and that can create challenges. How did your screenwriters, hosts and voice actors work and communicate on this?
So it was an interesting part for us to learn. We’re completely green at this, and learning that you have to edit everything and lock everything down before it’s animated in another house, different companies that we didn’t even know – and we’re like, “Oh, we don’t. can’t make last minute changes. I mean, for us, editing is where we come up with as many things as we need to if that doesn’t work out. So it was like, “OK, we commit to. that and that has to be what it is “and then that’s all you can do, except maybe some changes to ADR and vocals, but that’s it. Anna was the director of this episode, and we were both pregnant at the same time, then I was on maternity leave and she was finishing that. Angela Stemple, who was from Starburns, was basically working with the animation house to translate everything we imagined , from storyboards and animatics to animation – it’s so huge and s auvage and such a crazy process.
Also, know the limits of movement. You can’t blink that much or you can’t do these things, or if you have that many lines, it makes drawing a lot more tedious and it’s actually going to take a year longer. Finding out more about these other restrictions – it’s such a wild process but really, really fun to be able to just pass some animatics but then let go once they start animating. The fear for me was like, I really wanted them to animate us as much as possible the way we move. Anna and I have such specific movements – how we hold each other, how we move, how we gasp – that I at least wanted the gasoline to flow through and I thought they were doing such a job. unbelievable.
You also had the extra work of doing voice work for this special. Did you do the voice work first and what was that experience like?
Yeah, we did the vocals first, so as to when the animation house was animating it, they had this full telecast to listen to and before that there was also an animatic, which was shot. storyboard and to like that kind of rudimentary type of animation with vocals. But I would say that was one of the funniest elements because it was really just me and Anna, being in our isolated cabins but being able to play against each other. It was a thrill. We’re just getting silly together. It was a little less pressure because we just got to sit down and have fun with each other.
In light of your experience on this episode, have you considered continuing to animate on the show after this special or is it taking a little too long for your production schedule?
You know, I would never say never. For me, I would probably pursue him. I think I’d also be interested in how animation can blend in with the live action. It’s always something that interests me, the hybrid of things. I remember Who wants the skin of Roger Rabbit? when I was growing up – like these are some of my favorite movies, and I love the mix of the two, so there’s always something like that in my head going forward.
Are there any Easter eggs or visual tributes to that ’90s animation you mentioned that fans could pick up?
I mean, I wouldn’t say there is an homage to ’90s animation. We definitely reference the Ren and Stimpy buttocks dance a lot. It was really hard to fit into our show. I wouldn’t say any spontaneous reference to any animation or flashing back to the ’90s, but there are definitely elements in this episode that you’ll see as’ 90s and that you’ll be like, “Oh yeah!” But it’s just kind of our show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.