Eric Burnett headed up the Duncan studio that helped create Bron Studios’ “The Willoughbys,” which was recently released on Netflix. (Submitted)

Vancouver Island animator helps lead Netflix’s ‘The Willoughbys’

Family comedy with A-list voices has Cowichan Valley ties

If you’ve been stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping yourself occupied with streaming movies and TV shows, and especially if you have kids, you might already be aware of The Willoughbys.

A Netflix original movie that was released on April 22, the computer-animated family-friendly show tells the story of four neglected siblings and their adventures with their new nanny. The film features an all-star voice cast of Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Alessia Cara, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Seán Cullen and Ricky Gervais. It also has a close connection to the Cowichan Valley.

Maple Bay’s Eric Burnett served as a lead animator on the movie, running a studio in downtown Duncan that handled much of the animation of the film.

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A satellite of Bron Animation’s main facility in Burnaby, the Duncan studio has since closed its doors, but was open for about five years, doing work on a pair of movies with a crew of about seven.

The first film the Duncan studio helped produce was Henchmen, which received a limited theatrical release in late 2018. The Willoughbys is on a different level, though.

“This one was a big deal for us,” Burnett said. “I’m pretty stoked.”

Burnett served as the character lead on the Willoughby family’s mother and father, voiced by Krakowski and Short, and Commander Melanoff, a visual standout in the film who is voiced by Crews. The job of the lead animator is to develop the animation library for those characters and their styles throughout the movie.

“Everyone [who animates the movie] is going to touch every character,” Burnett explained. “So it’s up to the lead to maintain consistency.”

Burnett was also a big part of giving The Willoughbys its signature style.

“We tried to make it feel like stop-motion,” he said. “It’s kind of staccato in motion. It was pretty awesome to see it come to life.”

The stop-motion look is something Burnett has spent years pushing for, and he was pleased with the results.

“It turned out well,” he said. “People like it.”

Originally from Ottawa, Burnett worked as a graphic designer before he studied animation at Algonquin College in his hometown. He worked in television animation for five years before landing his first feature film job, working on 2011’s The Smurfs in Vancouver.

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Burnett has moved around a lot in the ensuing years, to places like Texas, Brazil and New York. When he got the call that Bron was starting a satellite studio in Duncan, he moved to Maple Bay with his then-girlfriend, now wife Holly Christie, and they fell in love with the community, which is now their permanent home. He’s not the only Willoughbys crew member to have set down roots in the Cowichan Valley, as co-producer Luke Carroll lives in Cobble Hill.

Burnett admits that there is a silver lining of sorts to having a “captive audience” during COVID-19 isolation. Animation also has an advantage over live-action production in that it can still be done by employees in quarantine.

“The best thing about this business is that even in an economic downturn, people are still hungry for entertainment,” he said.

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