The Power Behind Atomic Cartoons

by Bob Miller

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.

"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.

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.

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

Olaf Miller.

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.

"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?


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