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Canadian Scene: Animation Independents' Day

Janet Hetherington checks in with independent animators across Canada to find out whats hot and whats not on the Canadian animation scene.

Independence is fiercely guarded and celebrated north of the border in Canada’s animation community.

July 1 is Canada Day, and much like Americans on the Fourth of July, Canadians enjoy a day off, picnicking, playing a casual game of softball or road hockey and enjoying fireworks exploding brilliantly in the night sky. Its a day of pride a day when Canada celebrates its independent spirit.

Canadas animators are declaring their independence too. Of the companies contacted by Animation World Network from have-pencil-will-animate sole proprietors like Bradleez Cartoons of Calgary to large firms like C.O.R.E. Digital of Toronto with some 400 employees all said they were independent.

Indeed, some are fiercely independent. We focus primarily on creating original animated productions and co-productions, notes Colin Curwen, president/exec producer, New Machine Studios of Calgary, Alberta.

I have not fallen into the trap of being a lackey for major studios. I have kept my integrity and style intact, says fellow Albertan Brad Trofin, freelance animator, Bradleez Cartoons of Calgary.

Danny Antonucci, el hombre of Vancouvers A.K.A. Cartoon Inc. (in production on the sixth season of its Ed, Edd n Eddy show for Cartoon Network), quips, Corporate animation sucks.

Balancing Act

Corporate animation may suck, but it often pays the bills. While Antonucci states, A.K.A. does not do service work. Never will. We do not fix, repair, redo, in-between, animate anyone elses crap, he does admit that service work is still the bread and butter for many Canadian animation companies.

Tim Tyler, producer/director, Cheshire Smile Animation Inc. of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan agrees. Service work is definitely the bread and butter, and perhaps the cheese whiz too, he says. Without the clients that Cheshire Smile Animation has worked with over the years, the work we are doing today would simply not have been possible. Cheshire Smile Animation manages about 23 classical and digital artists and provides commercial flash, classical, and 3D animation services to independent producers, advertising agencies and clients worldwide.

“Corporate animation sucks,” announces Canadian Danny Antonucci, creator of Ed, Edd and Eddy. © 1998 Cartoon Network, Inc. A Time Warner Co. All rights reserved.

Services has been the bulk of our projects delivered to date for our studio, comments Rob Balfour, president of Trapeze Animation Studio located in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We do have an ownership position in Doodlez (Flash animated show produced in conjunction with Cellar Door Productions), but this started as a services relationship. Services work has given us tremendous experience in delivering a show and demonstrated our capabilities to broadcasters. On Doodlez, for example, our internal team wrote virtually all the episodes, and created all the secondary characters.

Like many other independent studios, Trapeze is complementing the services work by developing some our own shows as well, Balfour continues. Our ultimate goal is to have a healthy balance of the two.

Blair Peters, partner with Studio B Productions of Vancouver, comments, Studio B will continue to be a hybrid of service work and proprietary productions. Some years have seen proprietary productions get us through, other years it has been service work. Studio Bs proprietary productions include Yvon of the Yukon, Being Ian, Class of the Titans, What About Mimi? and Yakkity Yak. Right now is the busiest time ever as we have five service jobs and two of our own series going through at the same time, Peters says. We have been very successful in securing funding for our proprietary shows, which includes CTF, broadcaster license fees, Telefilm, tax credits, Shaw Rocket Fund, CWIP and BC Film.

I do both independent animation as well as contract with studios to provide work, says Mike S. Fowler, owner and supervising artist, Fowler Cartooning Ink of Miramichi, New Brunswick. Fowler is completing an independent animated film called The Picture, due for release in September 2005. It is a non-narrative Flash animated short film about a parents loss of those he loves after divorce, he explains. Fowler also provides animation on a project bases to advertising firms, small businesses and educational institutes. Projects range from opening title sequences (logo animation) to government educational videos. The demand has remained steady over the past year for fast and inexpensive animation that Flash can provide, Fowler says.

Canadian animator Mike Fowler reports, “Demand for Flash product has increased significantly while the price paid for it has dropped.”

Hot Flash

For Canadian animators, Flash does not appear to be a mere flash in the pan. Demand for Flash product has increased significantly while the price paid for it has dropped, says Fowler.

Computer Flash and 3D animation is in demand and the demand is growing, says Tyler of Cheshire Smile Animation. Flash animation is great because it works well in long-distance production partnerships where the Internet can be used to keep clients, partners, and other stakeholders like distributors or broadcasters in the loop with a project. Cheshire Smile Animation is providing animation services to Waterfront Kids for Fairy Tale Christmas, a 48-minute classical and Flash animated film. We recently completed a series of six 30-second series of classical/Flash animated commercials for the Valley National Bank of New Jersey, Tyler adds.

E-cards and website intros are very popular, notes Bradleez Cartoons Trofin. Also, there are many opportunities to work on interactive CD-ROMs for educational purposes. The type of animation in demand at the moment is 3D and 2D Flash animation. Tons of studios are doing 2D shows using Flash.

Barry Ward, president of Bardel Entertainment Inc., Vancouver, says his company has also embraced Flash. Currently we are working on a digital (Flash) 2D animated television series for a major American studio, and our 3D (Maya) crews are on a feature film from Europe Bardels second direct-to-home movie, titled Dragons Metal Ages, Ward reports.

The last couple of years were lean in Canada but things are looking up. I think this years graduates benefited from a need for trained animators on Flash/Toonboom 2D digital type software, observes Neil Hunter, co-coordinator and professor of the Animation Program, Algonquin College, Ottawa. Fortunately thats part of their training and they met the needs of the studios who were hiring.

Our particular strength, and what we are best known for, is high quality 2D computer animation. Our main production environment is Flash and we have created a number of proprietary tools that help us do things better, faster and cheaper, says Trapeze Animation Studios Balfour.

Bardel’s Barry Ward views animation for the web as a difficult business model with only a few producers doing it well. But he does see a possible convergence of videogames and web animation. Photo credit: Juliet Greenberg.

Still, this Trapeze artist is developing new acts. Having the ability to deliver a breadth of styles is important, Balfour insists. We care about not being pigeon-holed as only being capable of a single animation style. We have added 3D capabilities (Maya) and other tools that will allow us to deliver a wide range of styles depending on the needs of the project.

CGI: 3D Investigation

Computer generated (3D) animation is proving to be another hot ticket for Canadian animators. I would say that CGI is very much in demand and that this demand is increasing for several reasons, primarily cost but also awareness, comments Curwen of New Machine Studios. The equipment and software for producing animation is much more powerful, yet cheaper than ever. There are more animation professionals available to do the work and the competition has driven down the price, and the success of animated features and television shows is exploding, so people are much more family with the art form and are easily engaged by it.

New Machine Studios offers only CGI (3D) animation. The company produces content primarily for television in Canada, which is then sold in the United States and overseas.

C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures Inc., a full-service animation and vfx studio in Toronto founded by Bob Munroe, John Mariella, Kyle Menzies and William Shatner, has jumped on the CGI bandwagon as well. Weve been fortunate enough to grow exponentially over the past few years and have opened a new division and studio specializing in CG animated features, says Samara Melanson, exec producer/sales for C.O.R.E. Were involved in a CG animated feature for Disney entitled The Wild, directed by Steve Spaz Williams, Melanson reveals.

Kelly Neall, managing director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival finds that 3D is dominating right now. Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Kelly

To meet the demand for Canadian CGI artists, Hunter of Algonquin College says that its animation program has added a third year and a 3D digital stream that runs parallel to the traditional course of studies for the second and third years. Our traditional and 3D students share a common first year where they learn the basics such as the animation principles, perspective, structured drawing for animation and life drawing, Hunter explains. The 2D traditional students go on in their second year to more complex character animation, layout, storyboard, life drawing, drama and computer courses (for digital painting, Toonbooms Harmony, etc.). The second-year 3D digital students are learning how to animate in Maya as well as courses that cover modeling, rigging, FX, lighting and rendering. These students still get life drawing and storyboarding. The third year sees the students from both streams come together when they work on their independent or group films.

3D obviously is dominating right now, says Kelly Neall, managing director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. OIAF is North Americas largest animation festival, attracting over 1200 industry delegates. Now an annual event, the OIAF runs this year in Ottawa, Canada from September 21-25, 2005. It is encouraging this year that we are getting some really innovative 3D work from students where in the past although 80% of the work we received was 3D most of it looked like an exercise designed to get someone hired, Neall comments. The Festival still gets lots of creative work coming in using a wide range of techniques. In the end it is the idea that is important.

As an active animation college instructor and university professor, my answer can clearly be yes to preparing Canadian students to meet animation creative and output needs, says Mike Fowler of Fowler Cartooning Ink. Figure drawing is a crucial component to animation education: the stronger the emphasis to drawing from life is, the stronger the students confidence and adaptability of his skills will be. This should include all 3D and gaming programs as well.

Animation Got Game

Animated videogames are providing another intensive growth area. Montreal has become a big center for game companies these days, says Prof. Hunter of Algonquin College. Its certainly an area that a lot of students are interested in, and an area of animation that seems to be continually growing.

Im looking into opportunities with Montreals growing videogame industry, says independent Montreal artist Greg Woronchak of Sore Thumb Illustration/Storyboards. When I first drifted into storyboards about five years ago (after having paid my dues in-studio as a storyboard corrector, often redrawing large chunks of other folks boards), there was plenty of work. Nowadays, its very tough finding television animation productions starting up in Montreal. What Ive been forced to do is seek out other avenues that may require creative skills and experience.

Greg Woronchak of Sore Thumb Illustration/Storyboards has found it tough to get television animation work in Montreal. He’s branching out into that city’s growing videogame industry,”

Its not just Montreal that is discovering that the animated videogames market is catching fire. Generally, I think that videogame production is the fastest growing market, and as the capabilities of new game hardware increase, producers are going to need higher quality and more realistic animations and simulations, says New Machine Studios Curwen. Here in Alberta, recent changes to the Film Development program should result in an increase in visual effects work for local studios as well.

While we will probably increase our marketing toward game producers and look for potential co-production opportunities with game producers (a series and game that would be released together), we still feel that our best strategy going forward is to focus on producing original animated content that broadcasters will want to buy, and to continue to add to our library of content, Curwen says.

Balfour in Charlottetown reports that his company, Trapeze, has three business units: an Interactive Marketing Agency that does work for leading entertainment brands (Disney, Universal Studios, New Line, MTV and others) and also leading consumer brands (P & G, Crayola); an animation studio; and a new videogame development studio. While initially these may seem disparate businesses, they share important common attributes in that they are highly creative businesses that are changing rapidly due to technological innovation, Balfour says.

Videogame animation is hot right now and I am sure some animation studios are benefiting from this, but it is not something that Studio B has gotten into yet, says Peters of Vancouvers Studio B. That said, we see doing videogames with existing properties like Being Ian and Class of the Titans as a way of extending the brand outside of television.

The videogame animation trend is most definitely the hottest of all the animation fields right now, agrees Trofin of Calgarys Bradleez Cartoons. Newer videogame systems are coming out with better animation from artists. I believe the videogame market will one day surpass the movie industry.

Studio B’s Blair Peters is not jumping into videogame animation, but he does foresee videogames growing out of his company’s properties, Being Ian and Class of the Titans.

InterNOT?

While animating for videogames is ramping up, is animating for the Internet going offline? We have noticed a decline in Internet Flash animation for the sole purpose of entertainment (such as animated shorts), say Jason Ryan and Hugh Jackson, partners and directors of animation for Man Gone Monkey Studios in Toronto, a boutique shop that works primarily in 2D computer animation, collage and cutout styles with 3D backgrounds. We have found that Flash animation is mainly in demand in the overall design of many websites, not content.

Fowler Cartooning Inks Fowler says, Internet animation, in my perception, has become more of an online portfolio for the masses. Flash is a tool much like a pencil. With the added dynamics of the once 2D only artists now applying their skills to this media, the results have produced many spectacular clips, games and yes, showcase portfolios.

We have done some animation for the web in the past, and it is a cool medium that is ideally suited for animation. It can also be a great indie distribution tool if you produce a cool short and can get it picked up or featured on a site like iFilm or virally distributed via e-mail, says New Machine Studios Curwen. However, the market for creating web content has become severely commoditized, and I think it would be hard to be profitable trying to produce animation strictly for the web.

Animation for the web is still a difficult business model with only a few producers doing well, agrees Bardels Ward. However, the Bardel exec sees a possible convergence of videogames and web animation. There may be great opportunity now to bring both web animation and gaming into the reach of independents, through multiplayer on line gaming, he says. This product is expensive to produce as well but costs could be coming down soon.

From a commercial perspective, demand for animation for the Internet specifically has dropped, says Tyler of Cheshire Smile Animation. However there will always be demand for animation that has the ability to work well as easily on the Internet as it can operate in other media. Broadcast animation properties often have lives beyond their broadcast schedules in the interactive medium. Additionally, the Internet will always continue to be a great place for students and independent animators to showcase their stories and animated works to at times what can be massive world wide audiences.

Tim Tyler of Cheshire Smile Animation thinks the Internet is a great place for students and indies to showcase their work. Above, the company’s lead animator and animation designer Paul Hamoline works on an upcoming project.

We have one show in development that came from the Internet (My Pet Robot) and I think properties like Pesky Animations Adrenalinis have benefited from Internet exposure, says Studio Bs Peters. We are also working on Edgar and Ellen with Starfarm, out of Chicago, and I see that property gaining some success from Internet exposure. So, yes, I think that the Internet will continue to be a piece of the puzzle but just a piece. Not all properties that are successful on the Internet will make good T.V. series.

In Canada like everywhere else, the question on everyones mind is how to make profits from a medium that is still conceived of as a free, all-access tool, says OIAFs Neall. Animation for the Internet is being made, but appropriate means of distribution are still being worked out, In the case of television, some Canadian studios have successfully integrated their shows with their websites. Decode was certainly a leader doing website tie-ins. Smiley Guy, a studio from Toronto did the opposite and took their web show Odd Job Jack onto the Comedy Network.

Emerging Trends

There are many new emerging techniques in Canadian animation that challenge animators today, comment Ryan and Jackson of Man Gone Monkey Studios. Digital tools such as motion control and motion capture are beginning to change cinema and the way in which all animation directors visualize ideas and how they approach their work. Man Gone Monkey Studios has always used the computer as a tool to create our animation and has always strived to create the best quality animation with these tools as they continue to evolve.

We believe whats really emerging is animation for mobile platforms, says Studio Bs Peters. Viewers want content for their phones 30-second shorts; ringtones featuring songs, jokes or dialogue from their favorite characters; and content with which they can interact. Studio B is developing a series of immersive, interactive properties for multi-media platforms in order to capitalize on this booming audience as well as to reinvent and repurpose content that is already a hit with our viewers.

Hugh Jackson (left) and Jason Ryan of Man Gone Monkey Studios have noticed a decline in Internet Flash animation for the sole purpose of entertainment. Courtesy of Hugh Jackson.

Show Me the Money

Being independent is ideal and a laudable ideal at that but how can animators fund their lofty visions? We are lucky in Canada that we still have some government funding left intact to help get films made, but it always seems to be hanging by a thread, observes OIAFs Neall. The National Film Board (NFB) is also very supportive of indie animators. For the past couple of years our funders have been primarily focusing their resources on projects that emulate Hollywood films and have been cutting animation out of the picture. Given that Canadas is known throughout the world for our animation and almost every year we are at the Oscars with our animated shorts, I hope this policy will change soon.

Funding is a difficult issue but it is available if you are persistent, says Fowler Cartooning Inks Fowler. The NFB has funding available as does various television studios for preliminary and completed animated shorts. Studios and broadcasters are always looking for new talent and ideas. TELETOON encourages independent story pitches that are backed by studios or a producer. However, without the means or accessibility of a studio it is rare for indies to go beyond this stage with them. Funding is always an issue, but various arts programs, provincially and nationally are available.

The National Film Board of Canada always supported the independent animator... although key to this question should be creative content and your goal, says A.K.A.s Antonucci. If you have a good, smart and fresh idea/concept and want millions of people around the world to see the passion and love you have for the animation... dont waste your time shopping your project in Canada, period.

Freelancer Brad Trofin feels his indie status helps keep his integrity and style intact.

Certainly, there are wonderful projects that benefit from funding while maintaining their vision. Of course, tapping into public and private sector funding is always a challenge, and with luck, talent, timing and persistence great projects have a way of finding these funds, notes Melanson of C.O.R.E.

Regarding animation production, the broadcasters here have been very supportive and the provincial government has a great film development program that is quite different from Ontario, Quebec or BC, which are based strictly on labor expenses, says Curwen of New Machine Studios. The Alberta Foundation for the Arts has recently announced that they plan to increase their support of Alberta-based productions from 20% to 50% of eligible expenses, which makes Alberta a very competitive destination for producers, and I think its going to have a very positive effect on our business, particularly in visual effects and pre-visualization for film and video productions.

Albertas geography has made it an ideal destination for location shooting, but most productions head east or west for post-production and visual effects to use the tax credits, Curwin continued. Now that the benefits of completing that work in Alberta have improved so dramatically, we expect that many producers will stick around and give Calgary-based animation studios a chance to bid on some work.

License fees for T.V. series have dropped considerably over the last five to ten years, observes Bardels Ward. This has resulted in much lower production budgets to compensate, which makes it more difficult to make a profit or compete with the Asian rim studios. Equally concerning is the fact that the Canadian dollar has gained significantly over the U.S. dollar which as an exporter of services compounds the problem. This trend has made our company rely much more on new technology to assist us in becoming more efficient and remain cost effective.

No Place Like Home

Still, Canadian animators are proud that they can stay, work and create in Canada pretty much anywhere they like in the country. There is no doubt that the Canadian animation industry is thriving in Ontario, and B.C., however if your company can create memorable animation and ideas which are stunning and inventive, your studio will be placed on the map regardless where you are based, say Man Gone Monkey Studios Ryan and Jackson (Toronto). Animation is an art form, which spans the globe, and if you have what it takes to create it, animation projects will find you.

I think that we are well positioned to grow our business here in Calgary. Indeed, weve increased revenues every year since we started. Calgary has a great talent pool and it is the only big city in Canada that is still affordable to live, says Curwen of New Machine Studios. Its a young and vibrant, entrepreneurial city where people want to live and make their fortune.

Fowler of Fowler Cartooning Ink says, I am teaching and working in New Brunswick where animation has become stronger over the past few years. Small companies are emerging with the ability to complement market needs. Nova Scotia also has a thriving animation industry fed primarily by animation colleges in NB.

Our studio is thriving and is located in Charlottetown, P.E.I., says Trapezes Balfour. We do all our animation work out of this location. We are located in the new Atlantic Technology Centre, a new facility right downtown. P.E.I. offers a ton of lifestyle benefits, and low cost of living. That said, we sometimes have a bit of sales job convincing big city candidates that it is worth the move.

We find being in a major market allows us and our clients to enjoy the wealth of creativity that is found in culture-rich diverse cities such as Toronto, says Melanson of C.O.R.E.

I think with FTP sites and other modes of file transfers you can work virtually anywhere in Canada. Of course, it is always better in the bigger cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) as that is where most of the business side gets done, notes Peters of Studio B. For example, we benefited from the VidFest Conference being held in Vancouver because it attracted key executives from Los Angeles who found it easy to hop on a plane and come to Vancouver as opposed to traveling to Saskatoon.

That said, Studio B would consider outsourcing overflow work to studios in more remote locations if the quality was there this means we can take advantage of regional tax credits as well, but we like to keep everything in house or work with companies like Top Draw Animation in the Philippines.

I think its good to be in or near a major center, says A.K.A.s Antonucci. You have a better selection of bars to frequent that way.

Mike Fowler is completing an independent Flash animated short film, The Picture, due in September 2005. © Mike S. Fowler 2005.

Canadian Survival Guide

Canadas independent animators, like winters in Ottawa, are regularly exposed to extreme freezes and thaws. The animation industry in Canada has always bread hearty, dynamic and unique talent, enthuses Fowler of Fowler Cartooning Ink. The changing markets or trends will not diffuse the ideals of the independent animator, only force them to be as creative in finding financial backing. The Canadian animation industry roller coasted through the 70s, 80s, 90s and now today yet it is still here.

Weve gone through more trends and flavors of the month attached to the name of animation, and nothing has ever affected what we do, boasts A.K.A.s Antonucci.

I think youll find that many of the studios in Canada are coming out of a slump. The Ottawa market has grown tremendously with newcomer Mercury Filmworks now with nearly 200 employees. PIP, Amberwood, Boomstone and Funbag all have work in progress or starting soon, says Hunter of Algonquin College.

More and more of us are getting our own shows off the ground, says Bardels Ward. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time to see any significant rewards from these efforts, especially with the dismal license fees for T.V. that are being paid internationally. Licensing and merchandise seem to be the only hope of big rewards, but even the toy companies are not in great shape these days either.

When asked why we are in this industry, Ward says, it becomes pretty clear that it has to be because you love it.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist, who has covered the Canadian animation scene extensively and is a frequent contributor to Animation World Network. She shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat named Heidi.

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