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Animation Lead Time

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"Doing an animated film is like building a cruise ship — you start it in one economy and finish it in another."
— Hollywood reporter Jim Hill (paraphrased)

The production period necessary for any given work varies depending on the medium. Obviously live television is instantaneous, while even live-action scripted shows can be filmed and edited within days. This puts certain works like animation at a disadvantage, as animation takes time. Good animation takes a long time. Even the simplest animated TV shows can see a production period of a year for a single episode (obviously, multiple episodes are in production at the same time).


While the structure of an animation pipeline can actually a boon in some casesnote , there is one major creative sacrifice those in animation must always make: the ability to be topical. That isn't to say a piece of animation that spent five years in development can't give an accurate picture of the social or political climate it is eventually released in, but due to the long lead time, it's much harder to be certain that whatever you're commentating on will still be relevant over a year later. The more specific the subject you want to reference, the more likely you'll find your audience baffled about why you're still talking about it when everyone else has moved on months ago.


Can result in We're Still Relevant, Dammit!, if the work is really late in tackling the topic, and Unintentional Period Piece.


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    Anime and Manga 

    Films — Animation 
  • Happens a lot in the Disney Animated Canon. Sometimes three to five years will pass between the initial announcement of a project and the theatrical release of the movie, thus occasionally having the final picture entering into a social or economic market for which it is ill prepared.
    • In the early 1990s it was not rare for Disney to include rough pencil tests and storyboards in the trailers for their movies, simply because there wasn't enough finished footage to make a complete trailer. This practice seems to have stopped, probably because it looks sloppy. The response has been to make initial teaser trailers merely describing the premise of the film using little to no footage from the actual movie; creating a custom short. Both Lilo & Stitch and The Princess and the Frog did this.
    • One of the reasons The Emperor's New Groove suffered a Retool was that the 2000 release date was set, but by 1998 it was clear that the film in its then-current form wouldn't be ready by then.
  • Teasers for The Pagemaster were in theaters four years before the movie came out. This is because the film took three years to create. Shame that it ultimately wound up being a bomb financially, critically and among audiences.
  • This is one of the reasons (the other being heavy Executive Meddling in the version that eventually did get released) why people think The Thief and the Cobbler is a ripoff of Aladdin; it was released after it, but had actually been in development for so long beforehand that it's more credible to say that Aladdin borrowed from it than the other way around.
  • Jetsons: The Movie infamously replaced Janet Waldo (the original voice of Judy Jetson) with '80s pop singer Tiffany as a bit of Stunt Casting intended to draw in a teenage audience. By the time the film actually opened, Tiffany has long since fallen out of style (Janet Waldo didn't take it well, as she had recorded all of her lines prior but wasn't told she was being replaced, though she eventually let it go). In fact, the film took so long to produce that two of its lead actors died a year before it was released: this was the final acting role for both Mel Blanc and George O'Hanlon, the latter of whom passed away in the recording studio.
  • While they'd been notorious for their string of loose copycat productions of Pixar films, only once was DreamWorks Animation able to use this trope to beat another film to the punch: The Wild, an obscure co-production between Disney and an independent Canadian company, had been in the works for six years before DreamWorks made its pre-emptive strike with the suspiciously similar (and more heavily stylized) Madagascar. Like The Thief and the Cobbler example above, the end result was the movie in production first released after the film that borrowed its concept became hugely successful, resulting in the original being accused of being a ripoff.
  • The Emoji Movie was hit hard by this trope, with pretty much all the apps and slang featured in the film being already outdated again when the movie finally came out, despite it having a short production time for a major studio-animated movie of two years. This was lampshaded in the Honest Trailer of the film.
  • One of the reasons The Simpsons Movie took so long to be made is because the exact same crew was working on the television show at the same time. In order to make all their deadlines everyone had to work through their vacation and production breaks from the show. The same problem would plague any sequel as well.
  • In something of a Live Action example, the Transformers Film Series had a different production timeline to the toys, which resulted in a number of discrepancies between the toys and how they were represented in the films. This was different from the norm, as the TV shows were typically developed in response to the toyline or more in conjunction.
    • In the original The Transformers: The Movie, released in 1986, Devastator, formed from a combination of the six Constructicons, was featured as the most powerful of the Decepticons. This was because when production began on the movie, there were no other combiners, but by the time the movie came out, others had already been introduced in the toyline and even featured on The Transformers TV show. This is also the reason why the film doesn't really feature any of the characters who had become important in the second season—most significantly, Omega Supreme.
  • This even happened to the BIONICLE movies despite their amazingly fast (or rather, rushed) production time, as they had gone into production before some of the characters' looks or the outcome of the stories were even finalized. This accounts for why certain characters look more like their toy prototypes than the versions sold in stores. The ending of the first film is a particularly huge mess, as both LEGO and the filmmakers reconfigured its climax after the voices had already been recorded, leading to crucial events going unexplained, explained events not happening the way they're described, and twists and character actions being utterly nonsensical.
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet features a lengthy segment involving Baby Groot, which had been outdated for about seven months by that point (Baby Groot only featured in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which came out about a year and a half prior; by his next appearance in Avengers: Infinity War, he's in whatever his equivalent to adolescence is).
  • This ended up working in favor of Pixar's Coco, which featured a plot where a beloved celebrity is exposed for a terrible action...right as the #MeToo movement exposed famous actors, performers, and other celebrities for sexual misconduct.

  • In 2003, MAD released an issue that featured one comic that took potshots at the sitcom 8 Simple Rules. There is generally a few months for the magazine to go from concept to published issue. As a result, the issue in question ended up coming out a just few weeks after the sitcom's star, John Ritter, died suddenly due to an aortic dissection. It was awkward.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Newspaper comics are often written a long time in advance — usually around eight weeks for dailies and 12 weeks for Sunday strips — which can cause problems for more topical comics like Doonesbury, as lampshaded here.
    • Garry Trudeau works two weeks away from deadline, closer than any other syndicated cartoonist. He also has a hired inker, which cuts back on production time. Generally speaking, this keeps things relevant.
  • Fans of the bygone comic strip The Boondocks may regret that the TV series couldn't joke about current events nearly so much.
    • The lead-time in the comics was lampshaded shortly before the 2000 Presidential Election, where Huey laments that the candidate he was rooting for doesn't stand a chance. Aaron McGruder, meanwhile, keeps leaving comments at the bottom of the panels apologizing because he has to draw out the strips a couple of months in advance, so the polls may have changed in that time. Then at the end, it's revealed that the candidate Huey was rooting for was Ralph Nader, causing Aaron McGruder to admit that the polls for him probably didn't change after all.
  • The day after the final Peanuts strip ran in papers, For Better or for Worse ran a strip wishing Charles Schulz a happy retirement. The problem was Schulz died the day before his final strip ran, so he never got to see it.
  • The infamous "National Stupid Day" strip of Garfield ran on Veterans' Day 2010 and was immediately deemed offensive. Jim Davis apologized for the strip saying that the strip was drawn and written in advance and that his son is a veteran and he meant no disrespect.

    Video Games 
  • In the beginning of developing a Super Smash Bros. game, the team decides on a project plan for the general concept of the game, which includes modes, changes to the battle system, and characters. The typical development cycle is a little above 2 years for each game, so the game in question tends to feature characters or references that have become less relevant once the game is released. Using 2008's Brawl as an example, Zelda still has her alter ego Sheik as an alternate form despite no game other than 1998's Ocarina of Time at that point having her take on that appearancenote  (this may be a Grandfather Clause, though), while the most recent Super Mario references are to 2002's Super Mario Sunshinenote  rather than Super Mario Galaxy, which had come out only two months before Brawl.
    • Series director Masahiro Sakurai does attempt to avert this more often than not, however, asking other developers what projects they're working on, which is how Roy and Greninja got into Melee and for 3DS/Wii U respectively. He also admitted that this is the reason that Rex from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (released December 2017) wasn't included as a fighter for the base version of Ultimate (released December 2018); they had to make do with a Mii Swordfighter costume instead.
  • The October 2018 game Nickelodeon Kart Racers uses the old 2012 designs for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not their Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which premiered in September 2018) designs.
  • When Halo: Combat Evolved released on November 15th, 2001, many interpreted the game's plot, with United States themed soldiers fighting back Scary Dogmatic Aliens who had recently attacked one of humanity's major colonies, as commentary on The War on Terror. Bungie shot down these assumptions by noting that the overwhelming majority of the game's development occurred before 9/11 (it had been in development since 1997).

    Web Video 
  • Zero Punctuation dealt with this when Yahtzee made his "Top 5 Games of 2015" which also had a category for the five blandest games, which was similar to the "Mediocre Awards"Jimquisition had done around the same time.
    Yahtzee: Hmm, what's that? [beat] Jim Sterling just did something like this? Well, it's a good thing everyone knows that I write these a few weeks in advance, isn't it? Otherwise, they might have accused me of ripping him off! And made complete fucking fools of themselves!
  • High Score was a shortlived animated series from Matt Wilson, originally competing with Homestar Runner. The characters were later redesigned for Bonus Stage, which used a simpler style in order to allow a faster release cycle, necessary for Matt to keep pace as the show's creator, writer, animator, voice actor (of pretty much every character barring a few exceptions toward the end of the show's run), sound designer...

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons plays with this. They often try to overdub relevant jokes after the finished animation is back from its overseas production.
    • They make it obvious on some occasions, such as the Super Bowl episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday"; the names of the teams were only said once, with Homer's and Moe's mouths covered, and the overdub doesn't match the scene's audio. In that particular episode, it was deliberate to show what they were doing. They also took some potshots at the then-current Lewinsky scandal, where the status of Bill Clinton's presidency was clearly overdubbed as well as the status of his marriage.
    • They try to overcome it with overdubs and lampshade hanging, but they still fall victim to this trope big time. Combined with the occasional tendency of episodes to air a season or more after they were completed — due to Fox's seasons and Simpsons production seasons not always lining up — this trope has (for instance) caused parody episodes to be released years after the works they were mocking. Case in point, "Simpson Tide", a parody of the 1995 film Crimson Tide, was first shown in 1998note .
    • In one episode, several Itchy and Scratchy cartoons are shown in quick succession, all parodying films at least a year old. Krusty then hangs a huge lampshade on it, asking why they're parodying movies that old, and saying that the animation took too long to make to get it out sooner.
    • One area where the writers are able to be consistently topical is in what Bart writes on the chalkboard for the intro to each episode, which the writers use to occasionally address various mistakes or controversies in the episode that aired the week prior, or jokes that otherwise reference real-world events.
  • South Park is a rare aversion. Their animation process is so fast (the Stylistic Suck design is comically simple to animate with industry standard software), that episodes are often made as little as a week ahead of airdate.
    • The ultimate example of this is the episode "Christmas in Canada", which included references to (and images of) Saddam Hussein's capture three days after it happened.
    • South Park broke its own record with "About Last Night...", spoofing the results of the 2008 election and the ensuing aftermath that had happened the previous night. Of course they wrote it assuming Obama's poll lead would translate into victory in the election (which it did) and an easily reworkable plot in case he didn't (and banked on the assumption that if Obama didn't win, an episode of South Park would go ignored in the ensuing frenzy).
      • Similarly, the episode "Obama Wins!" aired the day after Obama's reelection, but the plot of the episode also dealt with The Walt Disney Company purchasing Lucasfilm, which had happened a week prior.
      • Likewise, the seventh episode of Season 20 was originally written under the assumption that Hilary Clinton would win in 2016. When Trump won instead, Matt and Trey had to completely rewrite (and presumably, reanimate) the whole episode in less than a day, as well as change the title— originally "The Very First Gentleman", it is now known as "Oh, Jeez".
    • Another example is the Quintuplets episode being rewritten after commercials aired to be about the Elián Gonzales situation.
    • When Pope Francis was named Time magazine's Person of the Year, the episode "The Hobbit", which had him accepting the award, aired the very same day of the announcement.
    • One episode spoofed Bob Saget's hosting style on America's Funniest Home Videos. By the time it aired, he was replaced by John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes.
    • After doing a two-parter episode ridiculing Family Guy, the creators were asked if they were prepared for a battle of wits between the two shows. They responded if the FG team did anything in response they would just let it slide, mostly because their production schedule is so much faster they would have too much of an advantage.
  • One episode of Robot Chicken did a Lampshade Hanging on this. During a spoof of the film Into the Blue - which consisted entirely of the characters making general statements about themselves (e.g. "I'm in a bikini!" "I do lots of situps.") and awkwardly-forced title drops - Seth Green (in stop-motion animated form) interrupted the skit to briefly explain how animation takes time and therefore some skits may be irrelevant, since they would have had next to nothing to go on regarding the film when they were actually writing it several months beforehand. He then went on to state (with obvious irony) that he was confident that by now, Into the Blue had become a box office hit and won several Academy Awards, then closed by apologizing for any inconvenience.
  • The British series 2DTV was an animated satire on the week's events, which obviously needed to be animated as quickly and cheaply as possible — and it showed. The basic idea was originally done with puppets as Spitting Image.
    • The same goes for the Finnish animated series The Autocrats, which was a CGI-animated series about the largely fictional lives of the members of the Finnish parliament. Since each episode had to be done in a week for the sake of staying topical, in the end the show was neither particularly entertaining or particularly well animated, the latter being particularly obvious.
  • Family Guy:
    • The episode "Ocean's 3½" managed to do a joke about Christian Bale's Cluster F-Bomb within two weeks after the audio was first released, by quickly animating a reel-to-reel tape player playing clips of said outburst interspliced with Peter Griffin's voice reacting to it. This was cut out in later airings of the episode and the DVD release, and was replaced with Quagmire's cutaway involving wanting to make an underwhelming thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Laura Linney.
    • They did something similar in "American Gigg-olo" with the Donald Trump tapes, dubbing it (and Peter's reaction) over footage of the bus. Like the above example, it too was cut from later airings of the episode and the DVD release, and was replaced by an animal sobriety checkpoint cutaway.
    • Played straight with "Hannah Banana", which aired two years after the event it adapts (the "Best of Both Worlds" concert tour that was notorious for selling out nationwide).
    • The opening to "The Juice is Loose" claims as much, stating that it was a "lost" episode from 2007, ostensibly because by the time it aired in March 2009, its subject matter - O.J. Simpson moving into Quahog and becoming friends with Peter, who then has to convince the rest of the town that he's not as bad as the 1994 murder trials made him out to be - was already dated, with Simpson having been jailed just a few months prior over armed robbery and kidnapping.
  • Admitted on the commentary track for the Futurama episode "300 Big Boys", which was about a big tax refund that, when it happened, was quite a big deal... but then came September 11th. By the time the episode aired in June 2003, viewers either didn't get or didn't care about the reference.
  • At San Diego Comic Con in 2013 while promoting the second season of The Legend of Korra, the production team shared a random, out of context rough storyboard of a head with "tear" written on it. Then in a bizarre fourteen month long Brick Joke, people realized that the storyboard is of the Downer Ending final shot of season 3 of Korra crying at Jinora's airbending master ceremony because she got mercury poisoning. In context it's a very dramatic Wham Shot.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • The whole phenomenon surrounding Derpy Hooves from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is an interesting case. After fans latched onto her appearance in the first episode — which was an error or a joke (or both), depending on who you ask — she appeared throughout the first half of season one with perfectly normal eyes. It wasn't until "Feeling Pinkie Keen" that Derpy reappeared with her now-famous googly eyes, as at that point the animators learned of her popularity and decided to intentionally "derp" her eyes in the remaining in-production Season 1 episodes (and give her random background cameos to liven up a scene). By Season 2, the staff started working her appearances into the actual scripts.
    • The long lead time also had a less positive outcome. Her appearance in "The Last Roundup" led to accusations of insensitivity against the handicapped, and Hasbro made the animators re-edit her scene, causing a backlash. Derpy appeared throughout the rest of Season 2 without incident. But Season 3 — which was in production at the time of the controversy — features no Derpy cameos at all until the finale. She was also absent from the first nine episodes of Season 4.
    • There was also a case of this in the form of the second season finale cashing in on the Royal Wedding phenomenon... almost a year after it happened.
    • The Return of Harmony arc was originally produced as part of Season 1, but got pushed back to the Season 2 premiere.
    • Rainbow Power ponies began appearing in the toyline a full year before their show debut in Part 2 of the Season 4 finale.
  • Hurricane Sandy was a hurricane that devastated the East Coast of the United States in 2012. The Arthur episode that was made in reaction to it, "Shelter From The Storm", featured a hurricane called Hurricane Sadie and came out in 2015, which was 3 years later. In comparison, "April 9th" only came out a year after 9/11.
  • The Proud Family had an episode against music piracy that heavily was based on Napster. By the time the episode came out, Napster had been killed off.
  • Teen Titans Go!:
    • A Running Gag in "BBBDay!" Is that the Titans can’t sing Happy Birthday to You! because it’s still under copyright. By the time the episode aired a ruling lapsed it into the Public Domain making the episode seem redundant. Later episodes have no problems singing the song.
    • "Hey You, Don't Forget About Me In Your Memory" was made with the intention of airing in February 2015 (the anniversary of the movie it spoofs). The episode aired in September of 2015.
    • An earlier episode, "Waffles", used an instrumental of "The Pee Pee Dance" from the episode "Serious Business". This case is actually justified, as Executive Meddling over that episode's content lead to production being delayed.
    • "Teen Titans Roar" was a spoof of the Thundercats Roar controversy that happened in 2018, but, like the show it was based off, aired in April 2020, although Teletoon in Canada aired it earlier.
    • Similar to "Hey You, Don't Forget About Me In Your Memory", "Toddler Titans...Yay!", which spoofs Dora the Explorer, was probably written with the release of Dora and the Lost City of Gold in mind. It wound up being released in November 2020, a year and three months after the movie and at a time when Nickelodeon had taken the show off their channel's schedules.
  • King of the Hill episodes apparently took a while to make, considering that they were airing hand-drawn episodes until its eighth season in 2003, where they switched to digital ink and paint (for reference, most cartoons were digitally animated by 2000). Then there's the episode "Lost in MySpace" which dealt with the Strickland Propane crew discovering MySpace. This episode was written in 2004, but didn't air until the end of 2008, when MySpace was declining in popularity. Fortunately, this is Truth in Television, as small rural communities like Arlen are often behind the times and don't embrace modern trends until after they've been established as commonplace elsewhere.
  • The Gravity Falls episode "Soos and the Real Girl" has a climax involving a bunch of robots at a Chuck E Cheese-esque restaurant being possessed and attacking the heroes, in what many fans understandably took as a Shout-Out to Five Nights at Freddy's. Except work on the episode had begun long before that game was released, and it just happened to hit upon a similar setup to a huge hit game at the time it was released.
  • The first episode of The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper had a gag where Elvis' ghost goes to haunt Lisa Marie, presumably for marrying Michael Jackson. By the time it aired, Lisa Marie and Michael had been divorced for a month.
  • The success of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is commonly (and erroneously) cited as the reason why the show was renewed for a fourth season. Production of Season 4 began before the movie was released; the gap between the movie and Season 4 is only six months, and each 11-minute episode requires at least nine, meaning the show was not Un-Cancelled.
  • Fudêncio e Seus Amigos is another aversion, due to the show's Limited Animation. Episodes were written only one month before release and finished the day before broadcast, so they could discuss then-recent events in episodes, such as the 2009 season having episodes about Michael Jackson's death and the Swine Flu pandemic shortly after they happened. Some seasons, however, finished episodes at least four months before broadcast, and the third season had almost all of its episodes made by February 2007, when the episodes themselves aired in May and December.
  • When it was announced in 2018 that Star Wars: The Clone Wars was being revived for a seventh season, accusations were lodged at Disney that the company was only bringing back the series to distract from the recent underwhelming receptions of The Last Jedi and Solo. However, when the Clone Wars announcement was made in the months following the latter release, the reveal trailer featured fully-animated footage from one of the episodes, indicating that the revival had been planned for some time and was already in development .
  • Lampshaded in Animaniacs (2020). In the "Catch Up Song", Yakko sings about the Presidents of the United States that came after Bill Clinton, mentioning George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton's loss to Donald Trump. Yakko stops the song briefly to point out that at the time the song was written in 2018, Trump was still in office, thus they had no idea if Trump would be President in November 2020, when the series finally aired on Hulu.
  • The Amazing World of Gumball gave an in-universe example in the Christmas episode "The Lie". With Elmore suffering from post-Christmas blues, Gumball makes up another holiday on the spot which is Christmas in all but name and the rest of the town goes along with it. That same night, his family settles down to watch the "Sluzzle Tag" special, a hastily cobbled-together few seconds of two CG-animated skeletons which abruptly cut off mid-sentence.
    Announcer: "Unfortunately, animation is a lengthy process and that's all we've had time to make. Jolly Sluzzle Tag."
  • This was one of the big reasons why American Dad! underwent reverse Issue Drift and moved away from topical political satire and more towards over-the-top and relatively apolitical Farce. The showrunners stated that it could take upwards of two years from an episode being written to being broadcast, which forces episodes to be written in a more timeless manner. They cited a joke made early on in the show's run about White House counsel Harriet Miers that was so outdated by the time it actually aired that the showrunners themselves forgot who she was and had to look it up online.


Video Example(s):


Catch-Up Song

The Warners explain everything that's happened from the moment their show ended until the present year of 2020. Problem is, this episode was written in 2018, so they have to take some liberties to fill in that two-year gap.

How well does it match the trope?

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