How ‘No Activity’ pivoted from live-action to animation

“No Activity” was forced to get creative when the pandemic hit last spring and it quickly morphed from live-action to animation for Season 4 on Paramount+.

“The show as on ice indefinitely for a couple of weeks and we thought that was it,” said series co-developer/writer/executive producer/star Patrick Brammall, 45, who plays series protagonist, FBI Special Agent Nick Cullen. “Then someone had the idea to switch to animation, which seemed like a crazy idea but was creatively interesting. We thought, ‘If that gets us a Season 4, it’s a plus.’ “

That said, there were big hurdles to overcome in order for “No Action” to pivot to an animated format: from Trent O’Donnell’s direction to reworking the written-for-live-action episodes to the co-stars’ interactions — and even which style of animation, courtesy of Flight School Studio, best-suited the series.

A photo of Patrick Brammell as Cullen from last season of the live-action version of "No Activity."
Patrick Brammell as Cullen in the Season 3 live-action version of “No Activity.”

“We had to rewrite everything — we couldn’t just change the live-action stuff into animation,” Brammall said. “There are pauses between the actors that just don’t hold the same way [in animation]. In this series, there is, quite literally, not a long going on.

“It was a completely different challenge.”

It took about six weeks to rewrite Season 4. “We had to cut a lot of scenes down, mainly just trying to brighten it all up a bit,” Brammall said. Then, using state-of-the-art technology, the cast were able to shoot their scenes with each other, and with O’Donnell directing, in real time.

“We had technology, and I think this was a first for [Flight School Studio]…that was shipped to the actors when it was needed,” he said. “It was a stand with an iPad, lights, cameras, mics, all that stuff. No one did scenes in isolation, they did them together, via Face Time. A program on the iPad captured and mapped their faces with Trent directing them from his office via Zoom.

“It wasn’t just ‘read your lines’; there were moments of people talking over each other, which is what we were trying to bring through, and I think we achieved that,” Brammall said. “The flip side was, because this season is built around a cult, hallucinogenics become a part of the plot, and we could do trippy stuff in animation that we couldn’t do in live-action.”

The animation itself has a 3D-type of look. “Because Trent and I are babes in animation, we knew nothing about it and relied on [production house] Flight School. We said, ‘Whatever excites you guys, you’re the experts,’” Brammall said. “They gave us a series of options and the one we settled on we especially liked for the moody lighting, which is something we always did in terms of production values in the live-action series, like a noir-ish cop show with depth of field and lighting.

“The way the characters look, almost blocky with chiseled features, was something that excited Flight School. It doesn’t look like anything else on TV and that’s what I enjoy about it. Remember, I’m an actor but I also created the series so they did a lot of guinea pig work on my face for the animation.

“Talk about humility. In one of the first renderings my head was like something out of Dr. Seuss. They really had some fun with my face.”

In Season 4, Cullen is working his first big FBI assignment, keeping tabs on a cult in a remote outpost with quirky ATF agent Risoli (Jillian Bell). The cult has lured disgraced teacher Dirk (Forte) and his former student, child bride, Sue (Weaving), into its clutches.

A photo showing animated versions of Will Forte and Samara Weaving as Dirk and Sue in "No Activity."
Dirk and Sue (Will Forte and Samara Weaving) move to a cult commune on Season 4 of “No Activity.”

“Cullen finds himself on a nothing detail…desperate to make a career case into something much bigger than it is,” Brammall said. “[The case] becomes something the FBI never wanted, a Waco-type siege.”

Guest stars this season include Jillian Bell, Rob Delaney, Bob Odenkirk, Elle Fanning, Lamorne Morris, Louie Anderson and Kevin Bacon, with Tim Meadows back as Det. Judd Tolbeck. He’s got a new partner, Ed Reinhardt (Joe Keery, who plays Steve Harrison on “Stranger Things”).

“It’s changed in ways I never saw coming,” Brammall said of the series, which aired for two seasons on Stan in Australia before moving in 2017 move to CBS All Access (now Paramount+). “We did the original series with a small crew and cast, all doing it for free, improvising in a car park under an office building.

“I’m as proud of it now as when we first started.”