Search form

Whose Golden Age?: Canadian Animation In The 1990s

Chris Robinson investigates the current status of animation in Canada and the tricky balance between art and industry.

"Canadian animation is heading in the direction in which it is perceived that Canadians minds are heading." - Marv Newland For some, the 1990s are the new golden age of Canadian animation. Canadian production is booming. NELVANA and Cinar are among the world leaders in television animation output, and schools like Sheridan College (which recently received $12 million from the Ontario government to open a New Technology Center), Vancouver Film School, and Algonquin College are expanding to accommodate increased demand for enrollment. Teletoon, Canada's first animation specialty channel, went to air in September 1997, and Walt Disney has opened studios in Vancouver and Toronto. However, for others the 1990s are viewed as the decade of the demise of Canadian animation. For them, such factors as huge cuts to Canada's fabled National Film Board of Canada (NFBC), and the terrible state of the Canadian independent animation scene, indicate a diminishedif not impoverishedindependent animation community.

Sheridan College recently received $12 million from the Ontario government to open a New Technology Center. Photo courtesy of Sheridan College.

Sheridan College recently received $12 million from the Ontario government to open a New Technology Center. Photo courtesy of Sheridan College.

The National Film Board Of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada remains the calling card for Canadian animation. "[M]any have benefited," noted Canadian animation legend, Frédéric Back, "from the inventiveness, liberty of creation, and technical progress [that Norman McLaren] inspired and favored." However a combination of budget cuts and lack of creative vision suggest that this "card" is an illusion built on past successes rather than current realities. "The NFB is no longer a serious player in arts and communication," said former NFB producer, Derek Lamb. "[The NFB is the creation] of a post-war, industrial age, managed by aging industrial mindsets, who will not, and cannot be expected to provide visionary, artistic leadership now or for the future." Nevertheless, Marilyn Cherenko (Emily Carr School of Design) notes that "`court art' like the NFB is still extremely valuable though guidelines for submitting projects have become increasingly lumbered with political agendas. [A]t its best the NFB has provided the opportunity for work requiring real investigation and experimentation, such as Two Sisters by Caroline Leaf, How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels by Craig Welch, and Strings by Wendy Tilby, to name obvious examples." Ellen Besen, a former NFB animator and currently an instructor at Sheridan College, feels that the decline of the NFB goes beyond budget cuts and back to the early 1980s, when a bureaucrat named Doug McDonald, who had no animation background, was given control of the studio. During this time, Besen noted, the board desperately wanted a specialty channel and clamped down on the films to ensure that they were market-driven and followed a specific agenda. Furthermore, McDonald immediately altered the physical layout of the animation studio. "The NFB used to have this great open social area. When McDonald came in, it became his office. A windowless storage room became the new `social' rendezvous for animators. The whole atmosphere of the studio changed," said Besen, "Ideas used to be welcome. Dialogue existed between producers, executives, and filmmakers. Today, it is just producer-driven. They simply try to find a niche." The Rights from The Heart series, is perhaps the most explicit example of the embarrassing politically correct nature of the board today. Of course, budget cuts have had a significant impact on the NFB and should not be overlooked. The cuts combined with the erasure of creative vision have turned the NFB from a stimulating, creative environment into what Besen deems "a formless, impossible labyrinth." Despite the harsh criticism of the NFB, it is essential that we not forget that the board was created to serve as a propaganda tool. Canada is fortunate that NFB founder, John Grierson, who animation critic, Marc Glassman deems "a closet effete," went out of his way to get Norman McLaren and allowed him complete artistic freedom in running the animation studio.

Craig Welch's How Wings are Attached to the Backs of Angels. Image courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Craig Welch's How Wings are Attached to the Backs of Angels. Image courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Prostitutes of the Art: Hollywood, Schools and the Canadian Government The animation "boom" extends, not surprisingly, well beyond the industry. Sheridan College, Vancouver Film School and Algonquin College (Ottawa) are being flooded with new applicants. The downside, based on my exposure to Canadian student work during the 1997 International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa (SAFO), is that the work is overall very mediocre. Films from the Royal College of Art (UK), Turku (Finland), and Baden-Wurrttemburg (Germany) in competition at SAFO suggest that these schools tailor their students towards personal expression and technical experimentation. The work coming out of North America, and especially Canada, is dominated by often unfunny, gag-oriented classical narrative structures. "These shorts, one to ten minutes long, are almost always one-offs," noted Marv Newland of International Rocketship. "The students make one picture and then go into a career as an animator of TV commercials, or as storyboard artists for bulk animation producers like NELVANA or DIC. There is no second film, no development or growth, no risk, no pain, no exploration." Indeed, Canadian animation schools seem to be merely a breeding ground for a generation of factory workers, who are trained to be animators in the same way one is trained to be an auto parts expert. "Yes, there's a lot of crap out there and a lot of semi-skilled technicians cranking the stuff out for the cash," noted Don Perro, Head of the Commercial Animation Department at Vancouver's Capilano College. "That's inevitable because the business people have discovered that there's money to be made. But not all schools are `churning out factory workers.' Emily Carr and Concordia University are still promoting the concept of one artist, one film. And the program at Capilano is not meant to mass-produce people to feed the need for crap." "Many young people are attracted to the [animation] industry because they believe it is a way to earn a living as an artist," said animator/teacher, Leslie Bishko. "For me, animation and cinema are in my blood. I'm not certain that the vocational institutes of today are cultivating this attitude towards the medium. Yet, how can they, when the demand is purely vocational? People can learns skills, but to study the medium requires breadth, depth and context."



"You must also remember," added Besen, "that Sheridan College must respond to the needs of its community." Lamb concurred, "Sheridan College is a community college whose mandate is to prepare students for a career in the community, and that's what they have, by and large, been successfully doing." This is of course true, (the same can be said of Ottawa's Algonquin College), but to which community is the Ontario-based college responsible? How much will the $12 million being given to Sheridan for the creation of a new technology center really benefit the Ontario community when it's a given that a majority of these graduates will be lured by the almighty U.S. dollar to supposedly greener pastures? "The millions they are throwing at Sheridan College are made essentially to make tools for the industry," said Frédéric Back. "If, for [some] reason, the animation industry collapses, all these young people who have been taught a certain way to work in animation will be jobless, without another way to find a living. Too many times we see the results of such short-viewed politics which lead to big scale disasters (e.g. Korea's recent collapse)."

"In those schools," Back continued, "they should teach arts and culture in an academic way first, in order to prepare autonomous individuals able to make choices of the kind of art of communication in which they want to evolve. Or able to adapt to the kind of work they may find, and transform a `job' into `creativity!'" Too many continuities are made without art, beauty, poetry, or inspiring qualities of ideas. They are time killers for a growing number of children. Technology, special effects, and violence are used to catch large audiences without considerations for the social consequences. It is really the prostitution of a kind of art which has a wonderful potential."

"Poverty sucks," countered Perro. "If my students are successful and can make a living and raise a family because they are properly trained, then I'm doing my job and I can retire happily, knowing that I helped people realize their dreams." However this is more than a debate over art vs. industry. What is most disturbing is the trend towards public investment for private profit. Canadian taxpayers are funding educational institutions so that they can train students for export. This is what makes the government ransacking of the NFB all the more frustrating. Regardless of whether you think McLaren is a genius or an artsy wanker, it is important to realize that the current success of the Canadian animation industry simply would not have happened if not for the NFB. Yes, the NFB has garnered awards from all over the world for their animation. Yes, the NFB has attracted animators from around the world to Canada (eg. Derek Lamb, Kaj Pindal, Gerald Potterton, Paul Driessen, Ishu Patel, Co Hoedeman, who also, a cynic might add, merely took advantage of a free ride), but they have done so much more. The NFB laid the foundations, along with the National Research Council, for the Canadian computer animation scene, which is now among the most respected in the world. Cinar and NELVANA are two of the most sought after co-production partners internationally. Would this be the case without the NFB, who fostered co-production initiatives long before either company materialized? Would the Ottawa International Animation Festival (which brings millions into the country) be one of the most respected animation events in the world without the NFB? Of course not, but the modern mind thinks short-term and seems to suffer from a common 20th century ailment known as historical amnesia, quickly forgetting the long-term investment made by the NFB. Thanks to the NFB, companies like NELVANA, Cinar, and Funbag, reap the benefits from Canada's current status as one of the most respected producers of animation. Without the NFB, these companies would be no more than a tiny speck in the human eye. But as Derek Lamb noted, this sort of "amnesia" is not surprising, "[S]ome of the biggest detractors of the NFB, some who led the political blood hunt, are themselves, people who got their first start in filmmaking there, people who learned their craft at the board." Is it not time then that these companies give something back to the community which nourished them?


Toronto-based NELVANA is one of the most sought-after co-producing partners in the world, not only for the value of its production but also for the value of the Canadian dollar. The studio is producing six series, including Dumb Bunnies (shown here for the U.S broadcaster CBS. Image courtsey of NELVANA. © 1997 D. Pilkey.

Hockey, Masturbation and Art: Re-Stimulating the Independent Scene The independent animation scene is currently on thinner ice than a Canadian franchise in the National Hockey League. Outside of the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative (Halifax), Quickdraw Animation Society (Calgary), and International Rocketship (Vancouver), there simply isn't much of an environment for stimulating animation. Even then, the perennial problem of distribution continues to haunt the Canadian filmmaking scene. "The outlets and distribution systems are what [animation] needs," said Marv Newland. "Canada has a history of making the most and best independent animated movies, yet we have little or no way for folks to see them. Even the so-called animation channels do not show them." "It's true that Spike and Mike and the International Tournees provided screening venues that were not available before, but the range of work could be wider," noted Marilyn Cherenko. "For example, I was told by a representative at the Spike and Mike Festival, in response to my request to see Quest (Thomas Stellmach and Tyron Montgomery's 1997 Oscar winning short) in the new collection, that this piece was too `arty' to appeal to a general audience. It is indeed odd that, despite animation's bursting at the seams of humanity, festivals still remain the central site for viewing `stimulating' animation." So much for progress. "The old system that worked well for many years is dying," said Ellen Besen, "so we have to look to the dynamic model provided by the USA (eg. Sesame Street, MTV) and UK (Channel 4) and create partnerships between commerce and independence." One of these new models might evolve out of an initiative at Sheridan College to create a post-graduate program aimed at allowing students to make their own film.

The feeling that the industry should provide payback to its nurturers is echoed by many. "The cultural industries should react by sponsoring short animation productions," said Back "Another solution could be the obligation for the industry to invest a certain amount of their benefits into short animation productions and let them be seen!" His comments were echoed by Marc Glassman who feels that "broadcasters like Teletoon, should set up a broadcast fund to produce independent shorts and air them." Pierre Hebert, animator and producer of the NFB's French studio, feels that the industry might have other motivations for supporting independent work: "Maybe some of the producers of industrial animation are at a point where they need to produce at least some auteur films for prestige reasons." The most recent examples being Pascal Blais who produced The Old Lady and The Pigeons and are currently producing the new IMAX film by Alexander Petrov (The Cow). "UPA, the NFB, and Channel 4 (United Kingdom) demonstrate that there is still hope for the rebirth of waves of talents who do not only look at the immediate pay-off," adds Back. In fact those who suggest that "artistic" animation doesn't make money are simply wrong according to Back, "Radio-Canada is still getting money from the sales of animation films made since 1970 at the animation studio initiated and directed by Hubert Tison until 1993. `Artsy,' inspiring, and useful animations are always in demand and paying." However, there are others who feel that things really aren't so bad. "The state of animation in Canada is pretty good, I think," noted Don Perro. "More kids realize that it's not unrealistic to dream of a life as an animator and there are now real paths that will help a dedicated person get there." Clive Smith echoed Perro's comments, "I imagine that the animation industry today is by far healthier for `independent animators' than ever it was 25 years ago. The renewed interest and incredible demand for animation has created opportunities galore. I believe that the 1990s have been the golden age of animation for everyone in the industry, the larger studios, the smaller boutiques and for independent animators." But perhaps the issue of stimulating the independent scene expands well beyond the animation industry and is instead more complex and deeply-rooted in the human psyche. "Defuse the marketplace approach to life," said Marv Newland. "Convince humanity that convenience should not have such high priority in their mode of selecting what they eat, where they bank, what they listen to, look at, and wear. There are no more physical frontiers to explore, have a look inside of your head if you want a real scare, and if that lets you down, then look inside of someone else's head, see something made by one person, not made by a marketing committee. If art could be considered as vital to everyday existence as beer, cel phones, deep fried food and masturbation this question would not have to be asked. The word `artsy' should be replaced with the word `stimulating'. Stimulation is worth something," Newland continued.

What The Hell Is Art Anyway?

While it is deliciously tempting to denounce the current domination of bland animation production in Canada, it is also foolish. There is room for both "art" and industry and both should be embraced, with moderation. As Derek Lamb suggested, "Whatever forms serious art takes, whatever the techniques-art and science must never be separated. Art is the watchdog of science, the conscience of society, and like never before it should be watched and questioned." For over 40 years, Canada has been privy to an environment which has produced innovative and creative animation. Ironically, because of the success of this creativity, animation has become, at the expense of the independent environment, a major industry in Canada. So, after years of the balance swinging in favor of "artistic" animation, it is currently slanting towards the industry. For years there were no opportunities for Canadian animators, now there are an abundance. The boom can't go on forever and it seems the current imbalance will eventually even out and perhaps lead to an even richer and stronger animation community. This is not such a bad thing if one believes the words of the Pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who said, "Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the greatest harmony." Thanks to Derek Lamb, Leslie Bishko, Clive Smith, Pierre Hebert, Marilyn Cherenko, Don Perro, Ellen Besen, Tom McSorley, Frédéric Back, and Marv Newland for participating. Special thanks to Marc Glassman who laid the foundation for this article. Chris Robinson is executive director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the founder and director of SAFO, the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa. In his spare time, Robinson is vice president of ASIFA-Canada, and managing editor of FPS Animation Magazine. Robinson has curated film programs (AnimExpo, Images Festival, and Olympia Film Festival), served on juries (AnimExpo, World Animation Celebration), and written articles on animation for Animation World Magazine,FPS, and Take One.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.