The company co-founder reflects on the salad days of his pioneering animation studio, launched with Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert in 1971, as it grew from a one-camera setup in the bathroom of a downtown Toronto loft into one of the leading international producers and distributors of kids and family animation.
With its 1980s strategic shift into storytelling geared towards kids and families, famed Canadian animation production company Nelvana began its storied rise into one of the largest and most renowned international producers and distributors of animated entertainment. Perhaps most well-known for producing such shows as Little Bear, Franklin, Babar, The Magic School Bus, Cyberchase, The Adventures of Tin Tin and many others, it’s hard to believe this studio - which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and is now a subsidiary of Corus Entertainment - began in a walk-up loft in downtown Toronto, where three storytellers began making short films in a bathroom.
“There were two bathrooms and one we used as a bathroom, funnily enough, while the other one became a camera room and its empty, dry toilet became a lightbox,” remembers Clive Smith, who founded Nelvana in 1971 with Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert. “I built a camera stand over the top of the toilet and I had a wind-up, eight-millimeter Bolex. That's how I started shooting animation.”
He continues, “I would also shoot during the night because that’s when the electricity was more stable. During the day, you couldn’t trust the lights because they would be up and down every time a trolley went by. And then during the day, I’d actually do the animation or go to the lab with the film. It was all very primitive. And it was all quite wonderful.”
It was in this bathroom that Smith, Hirsh, and Loubert created Nelvana’s first animations, short comedies produced for the 1974-75 CBC series, Small Star Cinema, such as Mr. Pencil Draws the Line and Mr. Rubbish and the Conductor's Guided Tour of the City, The Zounds of Music, Waltz in Mounted Time and The Battle of the Alphabet. All these films, unfortunately, though documented, have actually been lost to time – no known footage exists.
“The great thing is, we were discovering and creating our own world,” says Smith. “We would just come up with these crazy ideas and shoot them. It was really spontaneous. We were making it up as we went along and I think this was the nature of Nelvana, at least for the first 20 years. Before computers, before high-tech stuff, we were figuring out how to do it with the tools that we had. And what we had was pencils, paper, film, and an empty bathroom.”
While Nelvana - whose recent credits include Agent Binky: Pets of the Universe, Bakugan: Battle Planet and Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go - started from rather humble beginnings, it was a magical time for Smith, who had spent many years trying to find his place in animation after becoming infatuated with the medium in college.
“I was at art school in London, and there was a guy who was about three years ahead of me, who did an animated film for his final exam,” recalls Smith, who was attending school for a degree in Painting. “This is the 60s, so there were no animation universities or courses. Nobody knew how to do animation. But this guy was doing it. And I was absolutely intrigued. Also, at that time, we had a film club, and, for lunchtime, we would show these various movies, and I found a wonderful, animated movie called The Little Island. And, again, I was really fascinated with it.”
After college, during what Smith calls the “beginning of the trendy post-pop” days in London, the illustrator stumbled across a company in Richmond called Group Two Animation.
“I had no idea what the animation process was, or how to do it,” admits Smith. “But they hired me, and I learned on the job.”
It was at Group Two that Smith got the chance to work on well-known animated classics such as The Lone Ranger (1966-1969) television series, The Beatles (1965-1967) television series, and even the famous Yellow Submarine (1968) movie. When Group Two eventually folded, a colleague told Smith about a studio in Toronto called The Guest Group, which was looking for animators for their series Rocket Robin Hood (1966–1969).
“In the late 60s, The Guest Group was a big film company -- they had an animation department, a live-action department, and special effects department,” says Smith. “So, I sort of took a leap and decided that I would come to Toronto. And I worked for The Guest Group, until they folded.”
Smith was once again on the hunt for an outlet to ply his growing animation skillset and support his career ambitions. And it was in Toronto, in 1970, that Smith first met Hirsh and Loubert. “Nelvana came out of our love and passion for filmmaking,” explains Smith. “Particularly for me, it came out of a love for animation.”
Eventually, Smith, Hirsh, and Loubert moved Nelvana out of the tiny walk-up and into a larger location, where they began building up the crew by hiring students from Toronto’s Sheridan College. That new staff helped the studio produce its first 30-minute-length film, A Cosmic Christmas (1977), a story about three aliens who come to Earth to discover the true meaning of the holidays.
The film was made on what Smith affectionately refers to as Nelvana’s “Rubber Band Stand.”
“We could not afford to buy an Oxberry Animation Stand, which was the standard in the industry,” he says. “So, we found a guy to build us one using rubber bands, and we shot A Cosmic Christmas mostly on that. It wasn't terribly accurate because the rubber bands would stretch from time to time when you didn't want them to. But it worked. It was a big leap of faith for us to do A Cosmic Christmas.”
Nelvana continued to make other “out-there” short films such as The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), Romie-0 and Julie-8 (1979), Please Don't Eat the Planet (also known as Intergalactic Thanksgiving) (1979), Easter Fever (1980) and Take Me Up to the Ball Game (1980). It wasn’t long before Nelvana’s festive, alien-centric adventures caught the attention of the one and only George Lucas.
“That film led to George asking us to do The Star Wars Holiday Special, also known as A Wookiee's Christmas, in the mid-70s,” remembers Smith. “Interestingly enough, that special was where we first introduced Boba Fett. That was Boba Fett’s first screen appearance. We actually got to develop it as an animated character before he became a live costume character.”
Nelvana continued to work with Lucasfilm on other Star Wars projects, including Star Wars: Droids (1985–1986) and Ewoks (1985–1987). It was around this time that Nelvana became increasingly aware that the target market for animation was children and families. But, for Smith, Nelvana’s eventual transition into more commercially supported kids animated television left him somewhat dissapointed.
In 1979, we at Nelvana started work on our first feature film, Rock & Rule,” recalls Smith, whose film followed a malevolent rock star who kidnaps a singer to force her to participate in the summoning of a demon, and her band must help her stop him. “This was before we went public with the company and were financed. So, it was another matter of getting together a consortium of investors who believed in what we were doing. We put four years into it. We had over 500 people working on it. MGM had put money into it. The film was dark, but we thought it was a work of art.”
He continues, “As it turned out, Rock & Rule did not do very well when it was released. It was a flop, as a matter of fact. In 1983, it opened in three theaters in Boston and later had screenings in LA and New York. I went to one of them, Patrick and Michael went to another one and some of the investors went to another. There was five people in the theater that I went to and it was the same with the others. It was a real wakeup call and it devastated us.”
After such a crushing blow, Smith said the team had a meeting and realized they had two options. Either pack it in, close the studio and say goodbye to all their crew and staff, or lean into the corporate sector and do something that's, as Smith put it, “very commercial.”
“And that's what we did,” says Smith. “We did The Care Bears Movie.”
With The Care Bears Movie, Nelvana produced one of the highest-grossing animated films made outside the Disney market at the time of its release. And while seeing kids lined up around the block to see their movie should definitely be categorized as a success, Smith says it wasn’t exactly a point of pride.
“As soon as you're a public company, you're no longer in the business of making movies,” explains Smith. “You're in the business of making money. It’s a very different world. I was very much keen on developing our own projects and investigating new ways of doing things and new technology. And it still is. It's my life. So, I wasn’t particularly proud that Care Bears was such a hit. I was more disappointed that Rock & Rule wasn’t.”
But Smith stands by Nelvana’s decision to go commercial and even go fully public in 1996, saying it was the right move to help the company survive and go on to create other projects Smith does take pride in, from Rupert Bear (1991–1997) and Beetlejuice (1989–1991) to John Callahan's Quads (2001-2002), a TV series about the misadventures of a recently paralyzed man and his equally handicapped friends.
“John Callahan was a cartoonist and paraplegic who was involved in this terrible car accident,” says Smith. “But he’s had an amazing life and creates these hysterical cartoons. He is one of the funniest minds I've ever known. We teamed up with him to do this series about a bunch of misfits living in this halfway house next to a mansion. It’s full of lots of great stories.”
Smith says he relishes in the days when Nelvana was, as he calls it “an incubator” for new and different storytelling ideas that “came out of our own heads and our own souls.” Smith believes that, if Nelvana’s team had the same opportunities independent studios have today with streaming services and resources for promotion, Nelvana could have turned out to be a very different company.
“I'm excited about what's happening with animation today,” says Smith. “The nice thing about streaming and the fact that we've got these devices in front of us is that there's just so much there. It’s like a feast. You could get eyeball indigestion. If there had been streaming services and a way for individuals to create their own films without having a studio behind them, our life at Nelvana would be totally different.”
He adds, “Still, it was a fantastic period in my life. I learned so much and around such wonderful people.”
Smith left Nelvana in 2001 to pursue more personal projects that cater to his fancy to push the bounds of storytelling. He has since been developing and writing feature films under his company banner, Musta Costa Fortune Inc., including the development of an original animated musical with Pete Townshend, based on Townshend's original screenplay The Boy Who Heard Music. But Smith’s current pride and joy is his original live-action and animation combination feature, The Rather Unusual Adventures of Ice Cream Girl & Mr. Licorice, currently in development.
“I started developing it about 10 or 12 years ago and am still working on raising the funds to do it,” says Smith. “I’m working on it as an illustrated comic right now, so we’re off to the races.”
Smith’s target date for the comic is spring 2023 and says it’s been nice getting back to his roots as an illustrator and cartoonist.
“Animation has come so far with CG where you can produce anything from a fluffy bear to a totally realistic human being,” he says. “But there are a lot of people who are just craving 2D animation. Especially among adults. There’s a sophistication to it. And, I think, it’s funnier. And you can see the illustrators in the work. That’s why I love getting to create this story as a comic first and then a film.”
While Smith, over the last couple decades, has been enjoying his freedom to play and experiment with different forms of animation during a time where independent storytelling couldn’t be more accessible, he still credits Nelvana with giving him some of the best animated years of his life.
“I do love talking about those years,” he says. “It was my entire world for a long time, and I feel very honored to have met the people that I met and worked with the people that I worked with. It’s been tremendous.”