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Vancouver's Mainframe Entertainment

Since their first 3D CGI television show, the groundbreaking Reboot, Mainframe Entertainment has been producing quality children's television. Don Perro goes for a tour and finds they are working on more than television now.

Mainframers zap the animation industry with their pioneering spirit. © Mainframe Entertainment.

Mainframers zap the animation industry with their pioneering spirit. © Mainframe Entertainment.

If you had to name some animation studios that were truly pioneers of the medium, which ones would you consider? Okay, besides Disney. There would be perhaps, companies such as the Fleischer Studio which brought an adult-oriented, urban atmosphere to its films; Warner Bros. which through the amazing genius of its directors -- Avery, Clampett and Jones (among others) -- perfected animation timing; and of course, United Productions of America, which is still a major influence on animation design, fifty years later.

But there are also contemporary pioneers, companies made up of people who strive to take animation to new heights; who see their role in the animation industry as one of learning and growth. Mainframe Entertainment, although their name may not be well known yet, can certainly be described as a pioneer in the field of computer animation. Unlike the more popular theatrical CG producers, Mainframe's territory has been 3D character animation for television and until recently, they were practically the only studio working in the field. They now have over three hundred employees working in their Canadian studio.

A Short History

Mainframe Entertainment's origins began in the mid-1980's in England when Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair animated the Dire Straits' video, "Money for Nothing." Although the animation was slow and robot-like and the characters were constructed of rudimentary shapes, this was cutting-edge stuff and gave many viewers their first look at 3D computer animation of characters.


Mainframe's key players. © Mainframe Entertainment.

Pearson and Blair, along with animator Phil Mitchell, began to dream of creating the world's first, fully computer animated television series. They looked around for a location where they could build their studio and decided that Vancouver, Canada, already a film and animation hub and close enough to L.A., would be ideal. In 1994, the first season of Reboot appeared on television screens in Canada and the U.S. and immediately captured the interest of a generation of young viewers. The first all-CGI television series preceded the first all-CGI feature-length film (Pixar's Toy Story) by a year.

Reboot was a show, not only animated with computers, but which actually took place inside a computer. This was a solution based on the earlier restrictions of the medium, since complex details, shadows and lighting required rendering time which the schedules just didn't have. But there was plenty of action, strong, appealing characters and good stories. Reboot was a hit and, as the first completely computer generated television series, resulted in the induction of Mainframe Entertainment into the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mainframe then went on to produce Beast Wars (renamed Beasties due to the Canadian aversion to the the word "war" in children's programming). The characters, with names such as Optimal Optimus and Megatron, are organic/mechanical Transformers (based on the Hasbro action toys of the same name) battling for the victory of either good or evil, according to which side they belong. This series has seen much success and continues this season on YTV in Canada and FoxKids in the U.S. as Beast Machines.

In 1998, Mainframe introduced a new series, with more human-like characters called War Planets (again, to protect the innocent, the title in Canada was changed to Shadow Raiders). The story focuses on one man's quest to unite four hostile planets in order to defend themselves from the Beast Planet: a force intent on the annihilation of every lifeform it encounters.

The series, Weird-Ohs, which aired last fall, was an attempt to introduce the squash and stretch of a Tex Avery cartoon into the world of 3D animation. The show introduced a group of suburban skateboarding kids, trying to belong with the cool crowd. "People said (the squash and stretch style) couldn't be done in 3D, so we had to prove them wrong," explains Director of Communications Mairi Welman.

Action Man is Mainframe's latest venture into the sci-fi world of good versus evil. An extreme sports superstar, Alex Mann discovers he has unique powers, but is pursued by a renegade scientist who is out to capture him to use Action Man's powers to take over the world. It is the first Mainframe show to involve motion-capture technology in a big way, and is currently showing on Fox Kids in the U.S. and on YTV in Canada.


Going Long Form

But with seven years of production experience behind them, Mainframe is now ready to "transform" themselves into a feature length production studio. They have three feature films in the works, to be produced for IMAX screens, and this fall, audiences will get to see Casper's Haunted Christmas, the latest in the series of classic Casper movies. Of course, with Mainframe involved, it won't be a mere copy of the ghosts of Casper's past; this version is the first Casper movie to be created exclusively with computer animation.

I spoke with Mairi Welman, Director of Communications, and Owen Hurley, the director of Casper's Haunted Christmas to find out more about this direct-to-video release.

Casper's Haunted Christmas is Mainframe's first "direct-to-video" production and their first collaboration with Harvey Entertainment, the company that brings us the classic characters Richie Rich, Wendy the Witch and Baby Huey. Haunted Christmas is also the first ever all CGI direct-to-video film based on the Casper The Friendly Ghost franchise. There have been several other shows on television and in theatres, the most memorable being Casper, which was produced by Steven Speilberg's Amblin Entertainment in 1995. Mainframe's Casper continues along these lines, with the biggest difference being that there is no live-action; all the characters and locations were created digitally.

Owen Hurley describes the plot: "Casper and his friends get banished to the town of Chris, Massachusetts, 'the most Christmassy town in the world,' where they have until Christmas day to get Casper to scare somebody. If he doesn't do it, the group will be banished to the Dark. They bring in Casper's cousin Spooky, dress him up as Casper and try to get him to get the job done, with hilarious results." The show will be released on video and DVD this fall. The DVD version will have a wide-screen format option and a special, behind the scenes documentary.

Casper's charming presence makes the challenge of creating him worth it. © Harvey Entertainment.

Casper's charming presence makes the challenge of creating him worth it. © Harvey Entertainment.

Casper was a challenge for Mainframe, which had to have a much more complex look than your average TV show. The company went all out to make the show look as good as it could, since this is a new direction for them. The crew consisted of twenty-six animators working under Hurley. Each animator produced about twenty seconds of animation per week and for Hurley, it was "a labour of love" which required him to practically live at the studio during the production.

Although Casper's Haunted Christmas was a "service job," funded by Harvey Entertainment, Mainframe had a lot of creative control over the project. "The whole relationship with Harvey was very good," says Welman.

Hurley agrees, "On the creative side, there have never been any disagreements about anything." However, the biggest challenge in working with Harvey, was building the main characters, because, "Harvey knows their ghosts and they've owned them for a long time," states Hurley. "We had the maquettes, the statues that Industrial Light & Magic had made for the 1995 Casper and we modeled off them. They were rejected immediately as being off character, so we then did a lot of tweaking around with them. But overall, in terms of the storyboards and artwork, Harvey was very accepting and it was a great relationship with a lot of mutual trust."

As for audience appeal, Mairi Welman advises that Casper is a film that, "You could take your grandma to see."

Hurley agrees that the project was aimed at a wide audience: "We tried to put enough stuff in there at various levels so that parents aren't going to get bored with it. It's kind of like Reboot in that it works on a lot of levels. There are references to things that kids may not quite understand, but parents will get a kick out of, including a 'Psycho-shower scene.'"

The crew at Mainframe look like a fun and lively bunch. © Mainframe Entertainment

The crew at Mainframe look like a fun and lively bunch. © Mainframe Entertainment

The Artists

For Owen Hurley, this was an important "next step" in a computer animation career spanning 10 years. He began his career in Holland, working as a compositor and special effects supervisor on commercials and music videos. Owen came to work for Mainframe at the request of one of its founding members, Ian Pearson. Having directed various shows at Mainframe including Reboot, Weird Oh's and War Planets, Owen had the right stuff for this project. He was also tired of working on television commercials, which he left back in London: "You can sleep a lot more easily at night when you make a living by entertaining children rather than selling them toxic garbage," he quips. "It's a completely different form of directing. Directing commercials is compiling pretty pictures for 30 seconds as opposed to telling stories."

Another interesting thing for Hurley, was working with two talented storyboard artists, Eddie Fitzgerald and Rich Arons, whose "boards were almost like flipbooks." Rich Arons was a Warner Bros. director who worked on Freakazoid and Animaniacs. Eddy Fitzgerald is one of the stars of Spumco who worked on the early Ren & Stimpy shows with John Kricfalusi.

Designing the human beings was one of the most fun parts of the production for Hurley. The artists were given pretty much free reign to design them because the studio was breaking new ground: in all the previous Casper projects, the humans were either 2D or live-action. Mainframe avoided the temptation for photo-realistic humans and went for a real but stylized look. "I find it really unpleasant and creepy when (photo-realistic) 3D humans are animated," says Hurley. "At best, they end up looking like dead people. Stunt doubles and crowd scenes are a great use for realistic characters, but I just don't buy into this whole 'cyber-actor' thing. I wanted the show to stay cartoony."

Another shot of Mainframe artists, here, testing their gadgets. © Mainframe Entertainment.

Another shot of Mainframe artists, here, testing their gadgets. © Mainframe Entertainment.

Pushing the envelope is always Mainframe's objective and Casper's Haunted Christmas represents the transition to a new chapter for them: feature films. As mentioned, Gulliver's Travels is scheduled to be released on Imax screens later this year. In the pioneering spirit, which continues at Mainframe, this will be "an all CGI stereoscopic 3D motion picture in the 15/70 format using Mainframe's cutting-edge 3D computer animation technology." Mainframe will also reach back to their roots to reintroduce their 1994 "cyber-stars," Bob, Dot and Enzo of Reboot. These well-known characters will return to the small screen in two, two-hour made-for-TV movies next year. And considering that the studio has no plans to give up their successful leadership role in computer animated series work (they have recently announced a deal with Sony Pictures to produce up to 40 episodes of its new CG animated half-hour TV series Heavy Gear) the future looks great for one of the earliest pioneers of CGI.

Don Perro is a veteran animator and educator. He founded the Animation Department at Capilano College in North Vancouver and co-ordinates their two year, Commercial Animation Program. He is currently spending his summer vacation as an animation director for Studio B Productions in Vancouver, developing a new character-driven series for the Internet.