Scandals, Smokescreens and a Golden Age?: Canadian Animation in the 21st Century

by Chris Robinson

Helen: Hey Pop, do you know where you are right now?
Pop: Uh-uh.
Helen: Tell me where you are.
P: Any...anywhere.
H: Anywhere?
P: Uh huh.

-- From Helen Hill's film Mouseholes (1999)

Caroline Leaf's use of light and color in her paintings is fuel for the imagination. © Caroline Leaf.

This union of letters, words, sentences and pages is a sequel to an article I wrote a couple of years ago entitled, "Whose Golden Age? The State of Canadian Animation." I had first encountered this dreadful phrase in an editorial of the animation issue of the Canadian magazine, Take One, and subsequently read about it in a variety of newspapers. I was surprised because from my wide exposure to Canadian animation, I saw state cuts to all branches of cultural funding including festivals, filmmakers and studios like the National Film Board of Canada. At the same time, the quality of Canadian films was in serious decline; hindered by low budgets, naivete, political correctness and an overall lack of fresh, innovative ideas. At the close of the 20th century, Canadian animation, despite what traditionalists like Hiroshima and Annecy would have you believe, seemed far removed from the innovative years of Norman McLaren, Rene Jodoin, Ryan Larkin and Caroline Leaf and unlikely to rise again. So with this in mind, where was this Golden Age anyway? Well apparently it was in the slick corporate kiosks of Nelvana, Cinar, Funbag, Walt Disney Canada, Sheridan College, Vancouver Film School and anywhere else where animation is viewed merely as a means to exploit the nostalgic sentimentalities of a generation fed on Sesame Street, MTV, and other immortal, cute, big-eyed animals who sing the songs of the muses without ever taking a shit.

Two years have passed and a great deal has changed.

Attempting to define Canada, let alone Canadian animation, is like trying to explain hockey to an American: frustrating and complicated with a tendency to simplify ("You try to get the black round thing in the net"). Just what the hell is Canadian anyway? If we are to accept Canadian sociologist Ian Angus' definition of social identity as "the feeling of belonging to a group, and of having this feeling in common with other members of that group," or Max Weber's concept of the nation as a human group that feels itself a unity to an external organization, then Canadian animation certainly doesn't subscribe smoothly to the concept of national identity. Like the country itself, Canada's animation communities are spread out far and wide across the Canadian landscape. Canadian animation is best defined as a patchwork of differing voices struggling to be heard through the shouts from the south.

Citizen Harold (1971) by animator Hugh Fouldes. © National Film Board of Canada.

Yesterday and Today
Prior to the mid-1980s defining Canadian animation was fairly straightforward. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was the calling card of Canadian animation, merging propaganda with artistic innovation to create some of the world's finest animation. In those days, there was little activity beyond the NFB. As early as the 1940s there were commercial houses like Graphic Visuals owned by former NFB animators, Jim McKay and George Dunning. In the 1960s and 1970s a variety of service studios existed in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto to provide work for the graduates of Canada's new animation school, Sheridan College which opened in 1967. In the late 1970s, Toronto's Nelvana Studios and Montreal's Cinar were small, but fledgling companies. In Vancouver, Al Sens was quietly producing anti-industrial films while Marv Newland was just opening up his studio, International Rocketship. Beyond that there were few opportunities for animators. While opportunities for government funding were more plentiful in those days unless you were one of the privileged few able to find work with the NFB, there was little opportunity for animators in Canada.

This has all changed in the last 10-15 years. Animation has emerged from the margins of cultural expression into an accepted form of cultural and economic capital that has found a popular audience. In particular 'classical' American cel animation (Disney, Warner) has established itself as the norm in mainstream culture. As such, Canadian animation has shifted from the production of government funded personal or propaganda films to a market driven industry that exists primarily to feed the global entertainment machine.


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