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The Power Behind Atomic Cartoons

Bob Miller talks with Rob Davies, one of the founders of Vancouver's Atomic Cartoons, which from pre-production to Flash, is making a name for itself. The secret? Read on...

What if you were a professional animator and a studio laid you off at a time when other studios were downsizing and job opportunities were scarce? What would you do?

(1. Quit the business altogether and seek another career.(2. Try to find work in a dwindling market.(3. Start your own studio.

In the case of Rob Davies, what began as "2" ended up as "3." For years he had worked for other studios; supervising storyboards and layout at Vancouver's Studio B Productions, designing characters for DIC, Warner Bros. and Disney TV, and doing storyboards and directing for Warner Bros. Then when Warners slashed its TV production staff in 1998, Davies was forced to return to Canada, where he teamed with other talented artists to form their own studio, Atomic Cartoons.

© Atomic Cartoons, Inc.

© Atomic Cartoons, Inc.

"I'm not an expert on survival tactics, but something that I've learned from the Canadian environment is survival," Davies says. "In Canada we've always had adversity and we've always had to scrape to get work, to survive up here. We haven't had the advantage of having large studios to become secure in. We've always had smaller shops scraping by over the years. That lends itself to the situation that we all found ourselves in.

"Now I feel like I'm back to where I started, because there wasn't a big boom when I started in animation. That helps all of us at Atomic, 'cause we know what it's like to have to beg and borrow to survive.

"With the downsizing that's going on, a lot of people have ended out on the street. Artists are now going to have to somehow band together and do it for themselves, because there's no corporate umbrella to protect them. They have to get together and pull off what we're trying to do, and start their own shops."

Rob Davies.

Rob Davies.

Davies recalls, "I could have come home and worked freelance but thought, 'There's no real power in doing that.' The power is getting together with like-minded individuals. One freelancer can pull off a board here and there, but what if four freelancers got together? What if 20 freelancers got together? Pretty soon you have a studio. Now, with the Internet, it allows people who band together and have the same sensibilities to produce their own content.

"It's easier said than done. But if you're willing to put in the time and the energy that it requires, you can do it. That's exciting. It's a positive that's being squeezed out of a negative situation.

Olaf Miller.

Olaf Miller.

"I say that to anybody," Davies says. "Get out there and give it a try. If you got nothin' to lose, go for it."

Davies' Background

Born in Vancouver in 1968, Davies grew up in Canada, drawing ever since he could hold a pencil. "Drawing seemed to be the only thing I could do with any success," he says. "The bottom line is, I can't do anything else."

According to Davies, the animation industry in Vancouver was very small, with just a few houses doing commercials and cel painting. He "warmed up" his pencil by doing posters and T-shirt designs, then landed his first animation job at Gordon Stanfield Animation. There, he did production layouts for Beetlejuice: The Animated Series. When layout supervisor Blair Peters joined Chris Bartleman to start Studio B, Davies joined them along with Trevor Bentley and Olaf Miller (who would become Davies' partners in forming Atomic Cartoons).

Davies worked at Studio B for six years, developing his skills as a storyboard artist and director. He briefly worked in West Berlin (behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War years) at Hahn Film on the feature Asterix Comes to America. Davies returned to Canada to art-direct the series Action Man, then render character designs and storyboards for DIC's Street Sharks and Disney's The Mighty Ducks series.

Trevor Bentley.

Trevor Bentley.

"I had a lot of good years at Studio B," Davies recalls. "They were good guys. I learned a lot and hopefully contributed to their studio. But I reached the point where I needed a change. And I wanted to get out of the Vancouver scene. It's a good scene, but it's small. And I just wanted to go down to L.A. to the animation hub and see what it was all about."

Fortunately for Davies, Warners offered him the opportunity to work on Pinky & the Brain as a storyboard artist.

"Every kid who likes animation grows up with Warner Bros.' shield stamped on their head," he says, "so I had to test those waters. I had a chance to work there and I couldn't turn it down."

Eventually Davies was promoted to directing the show and its follow-up series, Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain. His work would later be recognized with an Emmy nomination in 1999, and an Emmy win in 2000. But the series was not renewed, and in 1998, Warner Bros. began downsizing its crews throughout its TV animation division.

"The decimation of talent at Warner Bros. was a clear-cut," Davies says. "Somebody came through with a chainsaw and cut all the trees down. I was one of the trees.

"I had ten days to get out of the States literally because of my work visa. They said, 'Here is your pink slip; you're out of here.' I didn't have a lot of time to think about things.

"So I was forced to come home and overnight make a career decision on what to do. I directed at Warner Bros. I go back to Vancouver. Now what do I do?

"I thought I could freelance and do boards and go back to Studio B. I don't know if I would've gotten a chance to direct. I like to think that I would have. I didn't know what to do at that point in my life.

Milo's Bug Quest. © Sunwoo Entertainment Group.

Milo's Bug Quest. © Sunwoo Entertainment Group.

"As luck would have it, I got a call from Jae Moh, the executive producer at Sunwoo. He called me at home -- he had gotten my name from a mutual friend, John Kafka -- and said, 'I need a studio in Canada to do 26 episodes of a show for us, Milo's Bug Quest. Could you recommend any studios?'

"I said, 'Sure, I worked for Studio B for years. Why don't you guys try them?'

Mauro Casalese.

Mauro Casalese.

Choosing Another Route"My feeling was if Studio B takes the show, maybe I'll have a chance to go home and direct on the show at Studio B. Studio B, at the time, had three of their own shows in production, and they just didn't have the capacity at that time to take on another 26-episode series. Sunwoo was left without anybody, so I just phoned Jae up and said, 'We'll put a crew together for you and do the 26 episodes of Milo.'"

Davies teamed with his old friends Olaf Miller and Trevor Bentley, who were art directors at Studio B, specializing in background and set design. A fourth partner, Mauro Casalese, was an animator and character designer, whose credits include The Ren & Stimpy Show and Woody Woodpecker. Together they formed Atomic Cartoons in early 1999.

"Everything fell into place, despite the awkward situation I was in," Davies says. "I think just the four of us alone when we started the Milo show were a strong team. Now we're surrounded by a lot of talent. At the present time I'd say we've got 25 other people working with us. So we surround ourselves with a lot of good, ambitious talent to support us. That's what our company is based on.

Samantha Daley.

Samantha Daley.

"Sunwoo was a very good company to work with. We helped each other in that situation. They helped our studio grow and we helped them get a show done," Davies says.

Once Milo's Bug Quest was finished, Atomic pursued other projects. Phil Roman offered them pre-production work on a 44-minute Christmas special based on the song Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, produced by Fred Rappaport. They also rendered storyboards for Courage, the Cowardly Dog for Stretch Films and Molly O for Sunbow Productions. Atomic also worked with Danny Antonushi on a.k.a. CARTOON's Ed, Edd, n' Eddy.

Film Roman provided Atomic the opportunity to do five months of production layout on The Oblongs. During that time, the studio expanded its staff and had to move to a larger space.

In late 1999 the staff was joined by producer Samantha Daley, who had previously produced Ed, Edd n' Eddy.

"We were able to get an experienced producer who's also a very good people person," Davies says. "The four partners can now concentrate on the creative side of things a little bit more, while she deals with clients and staff. It worked out really well for us."

Welcome to Flash

In October 1999, the studio opened its own website, www.atomiccartoons.com, to offer its services both in conventional animation and Flash.

Says Davies, "We contacted Honkworm in Seattle and they came up here for a visit. They liked some of the ideas that we had. One idea was Dog in a Box with Two Wheels. It was just a sketch of the dog. They wrote a script around it. They came back to us and we're co-developing and co-producing the series.

miller08.gifmiller09.gifDog in a Box with Two Wheels. © Honkworm/Atomic Cartoons. Dog in a Box with Two Wheels. © Honkworm/Atomic Cartoons.

If you are having trouble watching Dog in a Box with Two Wheels, download the latest version of Macromedia Flash Player now.

"They contribute with the script and the final edit, and they also share in the directing of the show. We do everything from script to boarding and design, right to [almost] final edit. They do the final tweaks to it, and put the voice tracks and music to it. So it's a real 50-50 effort.

"It's worked out really well," Davies says. "We've got a ten-show deal for the Internet. I believe we're the first studio in western Canada to get our own Internet series, so, that's pretty happy for us."

On other Internet projects, Atomic has done animation for Sticky Flicks, The Romp, and Mondo Media.

"Now that we've gotten into Flash," Davies says, "we can actually take a script and make a full cartoon for a client right from scratch. So Flash has allowed us to take our skills and push it one step further, where the cartoon isn't being sent overseas to be animated. We can actually keep some of the animation in North America.

"That's another exciting thing about Flash: Everything doesn't get sent away. We've got a lot of animators that have come from Disney and DreamWorks and commercial backgrounds in our studio that are now getting the opportunity to animate again. A lot of stuff that we do in production and layout allows us to do key posing, [but] now we get to animate again," Davies says.

Staying Competitive"There's a lot of originality and a real hunger in our studio to get out there and compete, and bring the work to a higher level because the industry is competitive. We're up to the challenge. So a client that comes to us gets a real strong 'artistic hunger.' We're really aggressive that way. We want to do the best job possible.

"We'll work night and day, 24 hours a day. We've got the night shift going. We work on the weekends. Whatever it takes. I hope that comes across. We're pushing real hard to be competitive, and to produce a higher quality of cartoon."

Atomic is a "full pre-production" house, offering its clients "full service right from the script," Davies says. This includes traditional and Flash animation, as well as designs, storyboards, layouts, mouth positions, exposure sheet timing and design/background color.

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Although Atomic is a small operation, Davies sees that as an advantage. "We're not executive top-heavy in our company," he says. "We're right in the trenches with everybody. Our overhead is standard. I don't think there's a lot of mismanagement and waste. If there's any money being wasted, we see it right away. That allows us to be cost-efficient, as well.

"But that shouldn't be the prime motivator for anybody coming to us," Davies says. "When a client comes to us, they should expect that they're going to get the experience that we have in producing cartoons.

"The four partners each have over a decade of experience.

"We have a lot of artistic pride in our studio. That's what separates us from a lot of places. We're not driven solely by money. We're driven first by the content, being that we're an artist-run studio. So the content is the number one motivator. And then the paychecks," Davies adds.

Keeping the Spark

As for individual artists seeking opportunity in today's climate of studio downsizing, what advice does Rob Davies have to offer?

"When you get out of school, or first get into animation, everybody's got that creative spark. The world is your oyster. You're going to take on the world. Nothing can stop you. You've got that drive and ambition. You're willing to do whatever it takes," Davies says.

"Then you've been in the industry for awhile, and you've gotten complacent. You're comfortable. You're in your cubicle and you've been there for ten years, and this is your position and not a care in the world -- until it gets taken away from you. Suddenly you're right back to where you started. And, the spark's gone.

"People are going to have to start rekindling that spark -- that same thing that got them to succeed and got them into the industry in the first place. People are going to have to reach down and get that spark back, and go, 'OK. I'd forgotten, but I'm an artist and I'm a creator. I have a talent and a desire, and I'm going to have to start using that desire right now, because nobody's there supporting me with a regular paycheck any more.'

"Maybe the Internet's not the answer, but this creative spark is a symbol of what people can accomplish on their own, something that artists may have forgotten (being part of a big company or having the union support for many years). They'd forgotten what it's like to make their own cartoons, to get together with their friends in a basement somewhere, and make their own comic book or their own cartoon.

Producer Samantha Daley  work, work, work.

Producer Samantha Daley work, work, work.

"We're forced to get the creative spark back. The marketplace isn't the same as it was before. We can't just sit back and have people knock on our doors and say, 'Here's a cartload of work for you.' That's not happening any more.

"We've got to generate our own make-work program. To keep people energized. To keep them excited about what they do for a living, instead of sitting at home with no job complaining about it. We've got to keep that drive going and it's not easy for anybody to do that."

At Atomic Cartoons, Davies says, "We're trying to get some good service jobs. We're trying to do the best job possible with them. Then when we can squeeze out an hour here or a couple hours there, we're trying to do our own cartoons, as well, to keep that spark going.

"That's our prime motivation right now, is to: (1.) keep the paychecks coming in, but (2.) do something for ourselves, and not just for somebody else. Because that's not working any more."

Bob Miller is an animation professional who has written extensively about the industry for Starlog, Comics Scene, Animation Magazine, Animato!, Animation Planet, Comics Buyer's Guide and APATOONS. He served on the first season of Courage, the Cowardly Dog as storyboard supervisor and is currently working at Film Roman storyboarding episodes of The Simpsons.

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