Why ‘Pen15’ Turned to Animation for a Pivotal Florida Vacation Episode

·6-min read

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Jacuzzi,” the special animated episode of “Pen15,” streaming now on Hulu.

When Anna Konkle was a teenager she took a cruise over one of her vacation breaks. It was a ship that featured a “teen club” on board, which allowed her to experience some freedom and spend time with strangers who momentarily became her best friends. At the time, she thought she would stay in touch with them forever. “It did not happen, obviously,” she says. “Vacation, especially at that age, you can’t bring that with you; it has to stay there.”

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That experience helped inform “Jacuzzi,” the special animated episode of “Pen15,” which Konkle wrote and directed.

In the episode, Anna (Konkle) and Maya (Maya Erskine) take a road trip to Florida with Anna’s dad, Curtis (Taylor Nichols). Once there, they meet a couple of guys while spending time in the hotel’s jacuzzi. Later they decide to go out to a teen club that evening in the hopes of running into them there. The guys never show up, which leaves Anna and Maya to wonder if it’s because they think they are ugly. This insecurity rears its head after a boardwalk artist draws a caricature of the best friends, exaggerating the length of Anna’s nose and the roundness and hairiness of Maya’s face. When the girls see this, the way they are drawn switches to match the image on the page — the image that is now in their minds when they look in the mirror.

“The first time you discover insecurities stays with you for the rest of your life, so can we use this device and tell almost the entire episode through an exaggerated image? That was what we were excited about,” Konkle tells Variety. “The experience is of going away on vacation and expecting it to be great and it not being great, and waiting for something to happen that will be fun and not really ever getting there, and the cherry on top being this is the moment the stuff about myself I didn’t want to feel. How do you cope with that?”

In the episode, Anna and Maya first cope by burying the offending drawing in their suitcase, barely eating breakfast and hiding behind their hair. But eventually they decide to try to make the most of their vacation and end up at a club, turning to alcohol to self-medicate and impress other kids they view as cooler than they are.

Konkle shares that the original idea for this special episode was to produce it in the Hulu comedy’s usual live-action format. She was planning to don a prosthetic nose, and Erskine would wear prosthetics on her face. They were about a week away from shooting when “Pen15” had to shutdown due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in California. Pivoting to animation was a chance to expand the story’s settings, heighten some elements even further all while maintaining health and safety precautions. But producing “Jacuzzi” this way wasn’t without its challenges.

First was selecting the animation style, which ended up being hand-drawn animation, according to Angela Stempel, animation supervisor and episode executive producer. Erskine and Konkle spent time looking through different references and illustrations and settled on the idea that the original versions of their characters should be as close to what they really look like as possible. Then, when perspective switches so that they are seeing their caricature come to life, the animation would emphasize and exaggerate what they think are their flaws.

“In the script it was very clearly laid out about when they were going to look like [themselves]. There was an interest in making sure that the characters didn’t become so fantastical that it would feel outside of world that we were establishing,” Stempel says. “Perspective is an important part of it. They really wanted it to feel real so it could tie in with the world of the show that they already created.”

Both Konkle and Stempel point to color as an important way to establish Anna and Maya’s new Floridian environment, as well as to reset it as their experiences shift throughout the course of events in the episode. “When they’re drunk and going through the alleyway and characters go in and out, those more magical, visual things are really gratifying to get to play with,” Konkle explains.

The animators began by doing thumbnails, Stempel continues, alongside Konkle’s own storyboard break down of what she wanted frames to look like. The storyboarding and animatic phase took about five weeks, and then the animators needed another six weeks to design all of the backgrounds and four to paint them. Stempel estimates that there are more than 230 backgrounds in the episode. This is something Konkle notes they never could have done on their live-action budget.

The full animation process from rough to compositing the characters on the backgrounds took about 12 weeks, Stempel says. Much of the process for the episode was done remotely, with some of the team working out of Starburns Industries locally and some animators working as far away as Ireland.

“Every time the character moves at all it’s another drawing or another series of drawings to get to pose. And so essentially, in that technique, there’s so much life that goes into it because you’re seeing the imperfections of the drawing and the hands of the artist. And so, I think that adds a lot of life and energy,” Stempel says.

Konkle and Erskine recorded much of their dialogue in their own personal closets, “very pregnant” and while on Zoom with each other. Eventually, Konkle says, she did end up in a recording booth to record additional pieces, but Erskine was still only on Zoom, instead of in the booth with her.

The overall process to create this super-sized special episode gave Konkle a chance to stretch new directing muscles and to learn a new aspect of production. It also introduced issues for its key characters that will likely carry over into future episodes. (“The idea was meant to be you don’t get away from this. It’s a slight happy ending, but it’s not like they feel good about more of their insecurities, so I wanted to stay in this exaggerated frame,” Konkle says of the episode’s ending.) But that doesn’t mean the show will rush to repeat this animation style in the future.

“How to bring in Anna and Maya’s world, which is really physical, was complicated,” Konkle admits. “They’re running, they’re dancing. That’s really expensive!”

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