Bardel Entertainment Inc. started in 1987 as cel painting service house. Today, the Canadian company is flying high as such high-profile projects Dragons and Silverwing take to the air.
Some 17 years ago, Canadian animator Barry Ward opened a studio in Vancouver, British Columbia with his partner Delna Bhesania. They called it Bardel Bardel Animation Coloring House and the fledgling company offered ink-and-paint services to independent producers and boutique studios like Marv Newlands International Rocketship and Spike and Mikes Festival of Animation.
In 1989, Montreal graphic designer Cathy Schoch traveled west to take a job cel painting at Bardel, working on TVs Tiny Toon Adventures.
Back then animation was very transient; you had to lead a gypsys life going where the work was, recalls Bardel co-founder Bhesania. After spending one winter back east [in Ottawa], I knew I did not want to go back; it was way too cold. So I convinced Barry to open a company in Vancouver and bring the work to us.
Today, traditional cel painting almost doesnt exist anymore (with digital ink-and-paint being the industry norm), but Bardel Entertainment Inc. is still in Vancouver and thriving, building on its humble beginnings with broad strokes.
Barry Ward (left) and Delna Bhesania founded Bardel Animation Coloring House 17 years ago. It has since grown into a major supplier on the international market. Photo credit: Juliet Greenberg.
The Way We Are
Ward is now president of Bardel Ent.; Bhesania is the companys ceo, while Schoch is Bardels vp of development and production. The studio that started out cel painting is now working on its on its first 3D animated movie based on Mega Bloks mega successful toy line, Dragons.
This project, which Bardel will distribute internationally to TV, is a very important step for the company, says Ward. It will be the studios first major project in 3D and will clearly demonstrate our proficiency in 3D production. Bardel is partnered with TELETOON Canada and Mega Bloks on Dragons. The 72-minute TV movie and video feature will launch fall 2004, first airing on TELETOON. A promo of the Dragons TV movie will be shown at the Bardel stand in the Canadian Pavilion at MIP-TV.
We were one of a number of animation companies that were approached by Andrew Witkin, director of new category development, Mega Bloks Inc., says Bhesania. Its a medieval fantasy and very timely. We thought it would appeal to Harry Potter fans so we started talking and bidding, and we partnered with Mega Bloks.
Weve created a story from scratch, she continues. Its loosely based on the toy line, and we wanted to tell a compelling story, not produce a 72-minute commercial. There are plans for Bardel-created characters Princess Kyra of the Draigar Kingdom, Prince Dev of the Norvagen Kingdom and Thoron the Dragon King to be developed into figures for Mega Bloks future Fire and Ice toy release.
Bardel is also animating Warner Bros. hit series ¡Mucha Lucha!, with all the work done entirely in-house in Vancouver. In addition, the company is producing a 39-episode TV series, Silverwing, based on the best-selling trilogy of childrens novels by Kenneth Oppel. TELETOON Canada and TV2 Denmark recently aired the first 13 episodes of Silverwing. Bardel is in development on the next 26 episodes, which are slated for production later this year. The company is also the licensing agent for Silverwing.
Bardels original primetime holiday special, The Christmas Orange, won four 2002 Leo Awards, plus the 2003 WorldFest Houston Gold Award in the category for TV Special for Family and Children. The half-hour animated special has sold into over eight countries, including ABC Family in the U.S.
The Way We Were
Still, it was service work that gave Bardel its beginning, and the little studio actually grew quite quickly. After a little more than a year, the company was awarded the contract for production services, including animation, on a $1 million TV special for Sea World, remembers Ward. This project took the studio to a new level, with over 70 employees and providing complete production services. Even though this project was never released due to a change of ownership at the theme park, it really is what started Bardel on its way to become a premium service supplier for the international market.
Bardel soon found itself fighting to survive in the competitive and volatile animation industry. As other small studios sprang up all over Canada and the U.S., Bardel had to find a point of difference in order to define itself from the other service companies, which were mainly specializing in TV pre-production and commercial work, Ward says. Bardel made the decision to concentrate on supplying traditional animation for long-format projects, as well as pre-production and paint. At this time, other boutique studios did animation of course, but they were almost entirely focused on commercials.
All TV series animation was produced overseas, so Bardels projects were mainly feature films, TV specials, and some commercials, Ward recalls.
As with any business, success meant finding a niche. Schoch, Bardels vp of development and production, remembers, I went to Barry and Delna and talked to them about setting up a feature department that I would run. We started with Space Jam, then Anastasia. In 1996, DreamWorks Animation was just getting set up and underway on their first feature, Prince of Egypt. Thanks to many peoples efforts and good recommendations, we began a great relationship with that studio. We went on to assist them with all of their subsequent 2D feature films. We also were given the job of handling all of the production on their first DTV release, Joseph, King of Dreams. Unfortunately I had to give up the pencil to continue to manage the department. I havent drawn in eight years, and many days, I do miss it.
Bardels clients have included the aforementioned DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Fox, Nelvana, Disney Interactive and Electronic Arts. Bardel has been contracted on 11 feature films, two home videos, 35 television series and specials, 15 interactive media projects and numerous shorts and commercials.
Adding Some Flash
There are two main differences from the old Bardel to what the company is today, advises Ward. The first is the embracing of technology by the studios artists. Whereas we had desks and discs in the past, we now have 100 computers, many with the same old faces now in front of a terminal screen. This transition has allowed Bardel to keep animating and for the time being be competitive with other animation service providers around the world.
Bardel has added interactive gaming, educational content and animation for the Web to its roster of services. The company produced a series of Flash animated shorts called The Mr D Show, distributed by The Fremantle Corp., which won the Grand Jury Award at the 2002 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. If there was anything that allowed Bardel to prosper and survive over the years, it has been the diversity of content that we work on, Ward says.
The other change is, of course, creating and controlling our own content, Ward says. Whether we self-finance out of Canada as with Silverwing, or whether we engage in co-productions as a minority partner, owning some back end has become a priority with us.
Ward explains that while service work will continue be one of Bardels core businesses, its future success is now resting with development of proprietary content. It has taken close to five years to option, develop, finance, produce and then finally distribute our own properties, he says.
Service work makes a profit to put towards developing your own shows, notes Ward, and producing your own shows gives the studio greater visibility and assures potential clients that Bardel can manage their project both creatively and fiscally.
Ward also points to the synergy in developing production techniques. For example, in the case of ¡Mucha Lucha!, a show that we are animating in digital 2D for Warner Bros., we perfected the technology and production pipeline on our own series of shorts, Ward says, adding, whereas in the case of Dragons, our first 3D movie, we perfected much of the process while working for Disney on their Buzz Lightyear CD-ROMs. Therefore, producing content and providing creative services cross-fertilize the talents and technologies in the studio.
Schoch agrees. Financing is harder to come by and as a result, producers invest a large sum of money to get their projects off of the ground. Who pays for this? The service work! Without a balance of service work in the studio, the overhead bills would not get paid, since they are deferred in order to finance the proprietary programs, she says. Thanks to all of our clients DreamWorks and Warner Bros. to name some of the larger ones we have been able to survive the industry highs and lows, and we are still here today.
Bardel does enjoy some advantages being located in Canada. Being in Canada is still an asset, even better that we are in Vancouver, says Schoch. Canada is still very competitive, even with the strong dollar. We speak English and have the same animation sensibilities as the U.S. We watch the same TV! Internationally, Canadians are sought after as co-production partners thanks to our government subsidies and excellent tax credit programs. International co-productions are a mainstay of the Canadian production system, and this has kept us prominent in the world.
We are able to offer labor-based tax incentives to foreign producers, agrees Ward. Although this doesnt make us competitive dollar for dollar with the Asian rim, it does allow us to rebate up to 35% of the labor portion of projects over $1 million. There are also advantages for Canadian companies trying to finance their own properties. These come in the form of government loans and grants, which can help producers retain ownership of his show.
Vancouver is still considered regional by the federal funding powers that be, which is a bonus, Schoch further explains. The DAVE tax credit has really helped to finance our own productions in addition to keeping the U.S. service work we continue to pay the bills with. We are also in the same time zone and a short plane trip from Los Angeles. Overall, our location is excellent.
In Canada, with all the funding guidelines, you need expert legal and accounting help, adds Bhesania. You also need support staff internally for all the paperwork and banking; they are very important.
Animation is a business first, like any other, Ward says. In order to be successful we need people in our company that have the acumen for business. Darren Battersby carries a lot of that responsibility at Bardel. A CA and experienced film executive, Darren straddles the culture of artists and bankers. This is not an easy stretch, and people like him are hard to find.
The Talent Pool
When working on projects, Bardels staff reflects the scope of work required. We have a small core staff of about 10 employees, says Schoch. Everyone else is hired by the project, on a contract basis. We can grow to as big as 100 during heavy production and collapse down as soon as it is over. For some projects, we have grown as large as 250 personnel.
Almost all our artists work in-house, notes Ward. Most are contracted on a project-to-project basis but we do try to hang on to our producers, directors and key talent. We did use some overseas studios to assist us with DreamWorks Joseph, The King of Dreams, but it was very little footage and mostly assistant animation and effects. It wasnt until last year when we produced Silverwing, our first TV series, that the studio farmed out any volume of work.
Like other animation houses, Bardel is always scouting for bright, new animators. The keyword here is talented, emphasizes Ward. With the decline in production the cream will quickly rise to the top and the more average artist or technician will have a harder time keeping in work. For schools to turn out qualified and employable students they must have stringent portfolio requirements to ensure that only the best get into their school.
Ward says that Bardel supports all the local schools both private and public and allows many of its most experienced directors and animators to lecture and give part-time courses. There is one school called Capilano College that Bardel has a scholarship program with, Ward says. The way this program is structured at the moment is that Bardel will pay out the equivalent of one semester and give the recipient two weeks of studio experience.
Ward has first-hand knowledge of how effective hands-on training can be. I graduated with an art speciality, but all my experience in animation has been on the job since I was about 18 years old, says Ward.
Bardel supports in-house training as well. Other than school or government sponsored mentorship programs, we try to offer current and past employees access to our equipment and software on their own time, to learn a new program, notes Schoch.
The Art of Business
Bardel has seen many changes in the animation industry, and expects to see many more. Any animation studio, or live-action studio for that matter, that has been around as long as we have has seen their life flash before their eyes on more than one occasion, comments Ward. The trick is to be able to roll with the punches and, in our case, to be able to be the quick rabbit and turn on a dime.
This is something that large corporations have trouble doing and one of the strengths of small to medium-sized companies, Ward says. You have to be able to react quickly to the mood swings of the industry in order to face the challenges of today. Being able to produce for all platforms that use animation and to be proficient in all disciplines of the art form has helped to port our expertise to whatever opportunities present themselves.
Janet Hetherington is a graduate of Carleton Universitys School of Journalism. She has covered the Canadian animation industry extensively, and writes short fiction and comic book scripts as well as non-fiction. In 1999, Janet received a Canadian Aurora award for excellence in science fiction and fantasy. She resides in Ottawa, Canada with her partner, artist Ronn Sutton.