Bento Box's Expansion
Since its launch fourteen years ago, Bento Box Entertainment has focused on making top-tier animated shows while advancing technology and workflow. Now, as part of Fox Entertainment,
it's expanding overseas and online.
When Joel Kuwahara cofounded Bento Box Entertainment in 2009, he wanted to revolutionize how animation was made.
"It was really important to me personally, having worked at other major studios, that when we launched Bento Box we could be innovators," says Kuwahara, whose launch team included cofounder-CEO Scott Greenberg and COO-partner Brett Coker. All had worked together at Film Roman, famous for making The Simpsons for twenty-plus years.
Now Bento Box's president of production, Kuwahara — who'd also worked at Warner Bros. Animation and Sony Animation — says one of his main priorities was to "get people off of paper." He found the old pencil and ink system increasingly antiquated and impractical.
"I'm not exaggerating," Kuwahara says. "We're talking about, traditionally, floor-to-ceiling rooms full of paper."
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Software innovation was one early solution. The Montreal- based developers of Toon Boom Animation worked with Kuwahara to create state-of-the-art animation software to integrate into the Bento Box process. It took three years of testing and training to get the product off the ground. Bob's Burgers, now in its thirteenth season on Fox, was one of the first Bento Box series to use the all digital pipeline from day one.
Goodbye, floor-to-ceiling stacks of paper.
"Other studios have now caught up," Kuwahara says. "Not all of them. But back then this was innovative. Nobody was doing that."
Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard was grateful for Kuwahara's focus on innovation. "The scale of a Sunday night show on Fox is something you just can't comprehend when you've been doing animation at a slower pace or at a smaller scale," says Bouchard, who'd produced animated shows like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies (which he cocreated) with crews of ten to twenty people. The Sunday night Fox shows also have more sophisticated animation, tighter production schedules and more frequent and longer episodes, all of which takes more work. "Bob's," he says, required "a hundred- something people right from the start."
Thanks to an introduction from a Fox animation executive, Bouchard found the ideal partner — even if he didn't fully realize it initially. "I was forty years old, but in other ways, I was a kid," he recalls. "And there's this sense it will crush you when the very first crisis happens."
Bento Box helped make sure that didn't occur. Instead, Bouchard recalls, he was mentored and given all the resources necessary to flourish. "We knew how to do our version of Bob's," he says. "We needed help from everyone else to do the Sunday night version of Bob's — and Bento was absolutely critical."
The Bento Box story begins with the aforementioned executive, longtime 20th Century Fox animation executive Marci Proietto, who knew Greenberg, Kuwahara and Coker from their Film Roman days.
"They're all smart, talented guys," says Proietto, now executive vice-president of 20th Television Animation. "So when they came to me and said, 'We want to go out on our own,' I was like, 'Fantastic. What do you need?'"
They needed work — and Proietto had a project that needed an animation house. Bento Box's first show, Neighbors from Hell, may have only lasted one season in 2010 on Fox, but the next project she recommended them for would be a game-changer.
"I knew I wanted this team to work on Bob's Burgers because I knew the quality would be amazing," Proietto says. "I knew they'd get along with Loren and they could build something great."
Building a culture that nurtured creators was paramount to the early Bento Box ethos. "The primary goal was to build a company that was talent-friendly and able to incorporate the writers and the creators in the production process," Coker says.
"A lot of the younger shops around town weren't artist driven," Greenberg says. "They're cool — you go hang out, smoke and drink. But they weren't organized. And here you have Joel, who is super organized, super buttoned-up. But also, we were fresh. In the early years, we just had the vibe, the flow."
They facilitated that flow by integrating creators with the rest of the production process. At Film Roman, writers were segregated from the rest of the production. But Bento Box believes in having the creators onsite to help grow the show, not just in the writing and voice acting, but in all aspects of production.
"Our office was like ten feet from where the artists are," Wendy Molyneux says of her early days on the Bob's Burgers writing staff. "A director working on a sequence could just walk over and show it to you."
At that time the Bento Box offices were in a former senior citizens' home. "There was actually a chapel in the center of the office that we used as our group writing room," says Molyneux, who's now working with Bento Box on The Great North, the animated Fox series she cocreated with her writing partner and younger sister, Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin.
"In the early years we'd have these meetings where we'd get to know and understand the different areas of production," recalls Molyneux-Logelin, who was fresh out of college when she got the Bob's job. "We got such an education."
Bouchard was grateful for Bento's vast network of artists and animation specialists. "But," he says, "what was even better than all that — they also valued the new and the weird and the slightly different."
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine animation special.