Netflix’s animated World War II drama “The Liberator” follows the story of Army officer Felix Sparks and his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division, nicknamed the “Thunderbirds,” which spent an unprecedented 500 days in combat. But the path to getting “The Liberator” made was almost as adventurous.
Along the way, “The Liberator” went from being an 8-hour live-action series for the History channel to becoming a 4-episode unique animated experiment for Netflix. With the amount of bumps in the road “The Liberator” faced, most projects would have languished in development hell. But the people behind the project, including writer Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard”), A+E Studios head Barry Jossen and executive producers Bob Shaye, Sarah Victor and Michael Lynne (who died during production) managed to get the show made.
Driving everyone’s desire to keep “The Liberator” alive is what drew Stuart to the project when he was first approached to write it by Victor and Lynne. “It’s about the diversity of Felix Sparks’ unit,” the writer says. “I was very sensitive to a lot of a lot of ways we have been telling diversity stories. There was something about the way ‘The Liberator’ handled it. It really spoke to me about the potential of a story that could be combined, a lot of great heroic action in groups of people that aren’t normally thought of with World War II.”
The Thunderbirds entered combat late in the war, when the Army had relaxed some of its discriminatory recruitment policies in order to get more bodies on the battlefield. Sparks’ unit reflected that, an integrated group of white cowboys, Mexican Americans and Native American soldiers (from over 52 tribes) drawn from across the west.
Stuart sketched out a series bible and the project was sold to History channel via A+E Studios — and even announced at the network’s 2013 upfront presentation. When Jossen took over A+E Studios in 2014, “The Liberator” was on a fast track. But as the studio began scouting locations and looking for authentic tanks, equipment and wardrobe in Europe, they realized it wasn’t going to come cheap.
The studio realized “The Liberator,” as imagined by Stuart’s scripts, would cost $15 million an hour, via 14 months of production. “While there was this passion to make the project, no one was willing to commit to $100 to $150 million to make it for History,” Jossen says. “And over time, the project became dormant.”
Then History president Dirk Hoogstra, who had crafted the network’s scripted strategy, left. “He made an attempt to take it with him, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Stuart says. “A year or so later I’m calling Barry and saying I think I have some interest someplace else and he said, ‘no, I’m hanging on to this story, sorry.’ I knew that there was love for the project at A+E and that’s always a good thing.”
It turns out Jossen and his team at A+E Studios had been brainstorming ways to salvage “The Liberator,” and someone suggested animation. The studio commissioned several animation houses to produce a one-minute demo.
“They were given basically two basic directions: We want it to feel real and it needs to play as a drama,” Jossen says. And you understand why it couldn’t be like ‘Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy.’ We didn’t want to make fun, or trivialize or minimize or diminish anything about this very significant true story.”
Stuart was nervous at first: “I remember taking a deep breath and thinking, how is animation going to be able to capture the emotions of the story?”
History, however, wasn’t interested in going with animation, which that channel has never done. But in a bit of serendipity, John Derderian, a Netflix creative executive who oversees their anime catalogue, caught wind of the new animation path for “The Liberator,” and asked to see the scripts.
With Netflix on board, A+E Studios landed on Trioscope, an animation shingle that has created a unique, enhanced hybrid animation technology that merges live action performance with computer graphics to come up with imagery that’s more life-like than the rotoscoping seen in films like Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” A+E, Netflix and Stuart all liked what they saw.
“We’re huge fans of anime and animation from all over the world, particularly in Asia where animation is seen as more of a medium and it can therefore be used in all kinds of different genres,” says executive producer and Trioscope Studios co-founder L.C. Crowley. “In America, for a long time it’s always been seen as a comedic medium or comedic genre for adults, kids and family. It came down to, if we’re trying to connect with people on a deep human level in animation, then we’ve got to not exclude the human.
“So we started figuring out a way to develop the technology around real organic human performance, not motion capture — no ping pong balls hanging from the ceiling, none of that stuff,” Crowley says. “‘The Liberator’ is the first big opportunity we’ve had to put those ideas into motion. The story hits on every single one of our hopes and dreams for pushing animation into the dramatic form.”
Trioscope’s Grzegorz Jonkajtys directed all four episodes, with actors including Bradley James (as Sparks) shooting scenes in Poland. By filming on a stage in CG, a battle scene that might normally take two weeks to shoot instead can be done in a day or two — and that made a huge impact on costs.
“A traditional animation project has the huge time consuming element of having to animate and simulate the characters, all of the fabric and hair, the facial expressions and stuff,” Crowley says. “None of that is required here because we’re working with real actors and we’re keeping all of that native performance and in they’re in costume. So that cuts down on the amount of time of the overall project.”
Says Jossen: “The four hours cost less than the one hour in live action by a longshot. At one point I was talking with someone in the animation world and they marveled at the cost because on a per minute basis, it’s less than the contemporary averages of primetime animation.”
Stuart came around too, and liked what he saw. Now, he and the Trioscope team are talking about working on other projects together. “The low hanging fruit would be something in sci-fi,” he says. “Its ability to capture just about any real scene, it could be a very good format for present day storytelling. It’s also something that does not require major studio space. You can move very quickly we could do many many setups during a day that you would not be able to do in live action.”
Adds Crowley: “We’ve formed a lifelong brotherhood with Jeb Stuart and he’s become a huge advocate for what we’re doing, by way of his experience on ‘Liberator.’ I think we definitely made a convert of him.”
Now, after almost a decade in the works, “The Liberator” premieres on Netflix this Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11. “When you’ve got a favorite project, it is really great to see it come to life,” Stuart says. “I have no doubt that this is the way the story should have been told.”