Canadians Succeed in Animation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadians Succeed in Animation

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 24, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

In his blue smoking jacket, white sneakers and sandy-grey muttonchop whiskers, Clive Smith bears an eerie resemblance to one of his company's own creations.

Canadians Succeed in Animation

In his blue smoking jacket, white sneakers and sandy-grey muttonchop whiskers, Clive Smith bears an eerie resemblance to one of his company's own creations. Settled in an oversized green armchair to discuss the international popularity of Canadian-made cartoons, he has the air of a portly Beetlejuice, the manic-demonic star of one of the many animated series that Nelvana Ltd. has brought to life in Toronto since Smith founded the studio with Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert in 1971. Then, he reminisces, "there was no animation industry" in Canada. Now, as the company hits 25, kids are watching Canadian-made cartoons in living-rooms from Boston to Beijing. Much of Smith's impressively vast office is taken up with the trophies of Nelvana's success: stuffed Babar elephants, Rupert the bear artwork, souvenirs of series that now air with other Nelvana productions in more than 140 countries. "Our market," Smith gloats, "is the world."

Nelvana is not alone. Montreal's CINAR Films Inc., with The Little Lulu Show and 29 other series in its library, sells its productions in more than 100 countries. ReBoot, the first animated series for television created entirely with computer graphics, has been sold in 47 countries by its Vancouver originators. Dozens of other studios are also contributing to the $150-million-a-year roster of animated production in Canada, turning out a steady stream of series, television specials and quirkier fare for international markets.

More than that, Canada is home to the high wizards of the next wave of animation magic, the computer artists who fabricate fantasy from nothing more substantial than the electronic plasma that flickers through a microchip. Using innovative software from creators such as Toronto's Alias|Wavefront, computer animators like Steve (Spaz) Williams have dazzled and delighted audiences in movies including last year's hyper-realistic Jumanji and 1994's The Mask, which earned Williams an Oscar nomination. Whether their tool is a pencil or a mouse, Canadian animators are riding an explosion in demand for their talent. That is thanks in large measure to a reputation first established by animation pioneers working for the National Film Board. Now, studios in Hollywood, London and Paris stand in line for the most talented graduates from the best-known of several Canadian animation training centres, Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., just west of Toronto. "Sheridan," says Hirsh, now Nelvana's chairman, "is the Harvard of animation schools - on a worldwide basis."

Competition among the country's 75 indigenous studios for Sheridan and other animation graduates rose sharply with the arrival in Canada this spring of the industry's 800-lb. gorilla. The Walt Disney Co., got in with both feet, opening studios in April in both Vancouver and Toronto that by year's end will employ 225 animators making direct-to-home video sequels to Disney feature hits. Other Canadians dot the halls in Burbank, Calif., creating central characters on features such as Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, which opens this week in Canada.

Canadians lead as well in writing the complex incantations of program language that allow computer modelers to mimic and modify real-world images with heart-stopping fidelity. Most of the sophisticated software used to give shape, texture and motion to figures such as the liquid-metal robot of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and to place Tom Hanks on the same platform as John F. Kennedy in Forrest Gump, comes from companies based in Toronto and Montreal. Bill Reeves, the genial mathematician who oversaw production of Disney's Toy Story - the first fully digital animated feature - at Pixar Animation Studios, north of San Francisco, grew up on a farm outside Toronto. The breathtakingly convincing dragon (with the voice of Sean Connery) that may be the best thing about this summer's Dragonheart is the work of a team of animators at California's Industrial Light & Magic that was led by North York, Ont., native James Strauss.

Practitioners at the leading edge of the new digital alchemy display a distinctly un-Canadian hubris. "We are changing the way Hollywood makes pictures," declares Bob Munroe, president of Toronto's C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, a computer special-effects company that grew out of a team assembled in 1993 to work on William Shatner's television series TekWar. At Toronto-based Alias|Wavefront, whose software was used to create animated special effects in eight of last year's 10 top-grossing Hollywood movies, ambitions are grander still. "Over the next five years," says president Robert Burgess, "the race is on to create synthetic human beings that are indistinguishable from real ones." Alias already has engineers working to bring a digital Adam to life in its 1950s-futurist-style quarters in a former chocolate factory.

Across town, Nelvana's home is in another former factory - in this case an ex-munitions plant. There is nothing warlike about what it produces now. Nelvana (the company takes its name from a 1940s-era Canadian comics superhero) has built its $50-million-a-year business largely on what Hirsh describes as a "kinder, gentler cartoon." In fact, with series such as the mid-1980s Care Bears, Nelvana took gentle to marshmallowy extremes. Action series including WildC.A.T.s. and the mock-creepy Tales from the Cryptkeeper have helped restore the balance, as has the studio's instructional The Magic School Bus - the first animated series to air regularly on PBS in the United States.

But with some exceptions, and despite whatever else they usually lack in the way of identifiably Canadian references, industry leaders acknowledge that Canadian-made cartoons are less overtly confrontational than American ones. In its downtown Montreal studios overlooking the St. Lawrence River, CINAR also concentrates on nonviolent shows, says co-founder and chairman Micheline Charest. Among them: Madeline, the animated version of the classic children's stories about a Parisian schoolgirl, and The Busy World of Richard Scarry, which airs on Nickelodeon in the United States and the Family Channel in Canada. Another leading studio, Ottawa's Lacewood Productions Inc., has followed a similar path with such productions as two animated TV specials based on Lynn Johnston's hugely popular syndicated comic-strip, For Better or for Worse.

There have been exceptions to the prevailing niceness. In Vancouver, a handful of small studios have made names for themselves by working the fringes of animated respectability, and sometimes by pushing its gross-o-meter to the limit. Cartoonist Gary Larson sought out the city's International Rocketship Productions to make animated specials based on his Far Side strips largely on the reputation of founder Marv Newland. He created the cult classic Bambi Meets Godzilla - the definitive 90-second statement about naïveté and fate. Another small West Coast outfit called a.k.a. Cartoons inc. signed a co-production agreement in April with German partners for a series based on a self-mutilating butcher character named Lupo. The last series from a.k.a. Cartoons, 1995's The Brothers Grunt, was so repulsive that MTV, the U.S. music network where the scatological Beavis and Butt-Head found a happy home, discontinued it.

But what the country's leading commercial studios have learned is that niceness sells - and sells and sells. In a worldwide marketplace of multiplying television channels, says CINAR's Charest, animation - which is easily dubbed - "is not limited by cultural boundaries." That has been critical to CINAR, Nelvana and Vancouver's BLT Productions Inc., producers of ReBoot, in the search for financing for their projects. Notes CINAR president Ronald Weinberg: "We have never done a production that was intended for one market only." Adds BLT president - and ReBoot producer - Christopher Brough: "Canadian animation may be accepted around the world because it's far less intrusive. I don't think you're going to get a lot of people buying GI Joe."

What Canada's leading cartoon factories have also discovered is a secret that Disney learned long ago: animated productions tend not to show their age as quickly as live-action shows, extending the syndication value of archived material almost indefinitely. As Charest puts it, animation "has a long shelf life."

That is evident at Disney's sprawling production campus in Burbank. Images from the entertainment giant's 73-year history proliferate, from the Mickey Mouse topiary along Dopey Drive to the seven gargantuan concrete dwarves that support the facade of the Disney executive offices. A huge blue cone - modelled on Mickey's hat in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from the 1940 classic Fantasia - identifies the entrance to Disney's feature animation studio. The elephantine scale ends at the building's door. Inside, most of the 800 people turning out Disney's trademark animated theatrical features settle for cramped spaces like the one occupied by Mike Surrey. A senior animator on both 1994's The Lion King and this year's Hunchback, Surrey, who joined Disney six years ago after stints with studios in Long Island, N.Y., and London, is typical of Canadian artists who have discovered the sellers' market for their skills. "Most Canadians," he says, "have worked in about three countries."

Like Surrey - who drew The Lion King's meercat character, Timon, and oversaw animation of a central character named Clopin for Hunchback - many are alumni of the highly respected Sheridan program. Demand for graduates is so strong among U.S. and international studios, in fact, that many students receive offers of jobs with starting salaries of $40,000 to $50,000, plus signing bonuses, as much as a year before they receive their diploma. Top animators with experience - especially in the exploding field of computer animation - can command up to 10 times as much. Says Strauss, another Sheridan alumnus: "It's crazy out there."

Still, many Canadians laboring in Walt's magic shop insist that they would happily turn their back on Southern California's beaches, palm trees and social decay. "If you gave them the chance to go back and do what they do here," says Surrey, "half would go back in a heartbeat. I'd get my parka and my snowboots and, boom, I'd be gone."

That option may become reality for a growing number of expatriate Canadian animators with Disney's decision to establish new production studios in Toronto and Vancouver. In part, the Burbank company's move reflects its growing dependence on Canada as a source of production talent. "A substantial number of creative people don't want to leave Canada," senior Disney television animation executive Tom Ruzicka said when the company announced its Canadian plans late last year. "So," he added, "we're coming to them." Among the 9,000 people who have since applied for the 225 new jobs in the studios, confirms Lenora Hume, the University of Waterloo graduate who is Disney's vice-president of international animation production, are "lots of Canadians who want to go back."

The lucky few who do land jobs in Disney's new Toronto and Vancouver branch plants will have to settle for less glamorous work than the epic features that occupy Surrey. At least initially, the firm's Canadian studios will produce mainly sequels to big-screen blockbusters, comparatively low-budget productions aimed at the burgeoning direct-to-home video market. Disney's first Toronto-based Canadian project director, Andrew Knight, was back in Burbank last week to get senior management's blessing on creative plans for his unit's first assignment, Christmas Belle, a seasonal sequel to 1991's Beauty and the Beast.

It is a long way from sunny Southern California to fog-shrouded Halifax. But another kind of animation history was made earlier this year on the Nova Scotia capital's industrial waterfront. A cavernous grey building had been transformed into a soundstage for filming what its producers at local Salter Street Films Ltd. say is the most ambitious hybrid of live-action and computer-generated animation ever attempted for television. LEXX: The Dark Zone Stories is a satiric cross between Star Trek and Aliens in which three mismatched adventurers travel through space in a Manhattan-sized, genetically modified moth shaped suspiciously like a set of male genitals. The first of four two-hour episodes will air on Canada's City TV, Showtime in the United States and Britain's B Sky B network next year.

What sets the $12-million Canadian-German co-production apart, however, is not its offbeat premise but its intense use of computer graphics. As much as 75 per cent of the content of every shot for the show is being created inside C.O.R.E. Digital's banks of graphics workstations at locations in Halifax, Toronto and Berlin. That compares with about 20 per cent of Apollo 13's action, and less than 10 per cent of the visuals in the effects-heavy series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The production would not have been possible without the stunning new capabilities of computer-driven animation. Wielding powerful graphics software, the designers can now digitally model and animate virtually any image they can dream up, and then merge the results on-screen with conventional photography. The results can be dramatic - Dragonheart's talking dragon - or seamlessly invisible, as in Gary Sinise's "missing" lower legs in Forrest Gump. What most of the dazzling new effects share is roots in commercial software written by Canadian companies like Alias, Montreal's Softimage Inc. and Discreet Logic Inc., or Vancouver's Vertigo Technology Inc. Boasts Alias's Burgess: "There are no significant players in computer graphics that are not Canadian-based."

Their achievements have made several Canadian software innovators hot takeover targets. In early 1994, Seattle software giant Microsoft Corp. paid $176 million to acquire Softimage. A year later, Silicon Graphics Inc., which builds workstations for computer animation, spent $440 million to buy Alias.

As dramatically as the new Canadian software technology is changing what audiences see, it is also tilting the economics of movie and TV production in favor of smaller producers. "Something of this magnitude," says C.O.R.E.'s Munroe of LEXX, "you couldn't have done in Halifax two years ago. You couldn't have done it anywhere in the world five years ago." Now, with the price of a low-end computer-graphics workstation and associated software about that of a new Mercedes-Benz sedan, Munroe notes, "you don't have to be in Hollywood and you don't have to have hundreds of millions. The technology will be very liberating."

Or not. "It is quite terrifying," superstar Tom Cruise told a symposium on actors' rights two years ago. What alarmed Cruise is the same goal that has inspired Burgess: the replication of human actors in the same computers that now spit out convincing reptiles and sunsets. The feat is not yet possible. Only recently have programmers succeeded in creating lifelike hair. Fully realistic human skin, and even naturalistic fabric, remain elusive. But Alias has committed more than 100 software engineers to an ambitious attempt, called Project Maya, to breathe life into the first cyberhuman. Further into the future, Burgess promises that computer animators will be able to "cast" long-dead stars in new work. "Somewhere," says Alias's president, "there is a movie that some director is thinking about that Humphrey Bogart should play in. And he will be able to." But not everyone is enthused about the so-called synthespians. "Bogart's brain is dead," observes Pixar's Reeves. "And Bogart's brain is what was acting."

The visual metaphor that may best capture the state of Canada's animation industry can be found in Vancouver. There, three floors above a shuttered former National Film Board office - closed last year in the wake of federal cutbacks - is where 60 animators spin weekly episodes of ReBoot out of banks of high-powered computers. Set in a community called Mainframe within an imaginary computer, ReBoot's sizzling graphic effects and wry references to the rest of pop culture made it an instant hit when it first aired on ABC in 1994. Although ABC decided to drop the show (effective late this year), after Disney acquired the U.S. network in late 1995, international sales ensure its continuing production. And with more than 200 hours of animation already in the can, ReBoot producer Brough claims to have created "more computer-generated images than all of the computer companies in the world."

Whether or not that boast is true, Brough's BLT Productions and its Toronto distribution partner, Alliance Communications Corp., have unquestionably taken animation to a new level of artistic - and commercial - complexity. With audiences apparently eager for more computer-generated adventure, the two partners last month announced the release of a second series, Beast Wars, based on characters that transform from animal shape into powerful robots. Merchandise based on characters from both series is also in the works - aided by the fact that BLT's computer-generated characters can be replicated in plastic by computer-controlled manufacturing equipment with astonishing ease.

Back in Toronto, Nelvana's founders insist that computer animation poses no threat to the more traditional forms that have carried Canadian studios to their present prominence over the past 25 years. "They don't cancel each other out," notes Hirsh. Indeed, Nelvana is well into the creation of a new animated feature - its sixth - using conventional techniques. Pippi Longstocking, a co-production with Swedish and German partners based on Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's spunky character of the same name, is slated for release next year. Pippi, explains Nelvana's Smith, "is a tremendous character for today. She's a strong female character - which we are short of in this business."

It is about the only shortage that Canadian animators are likely to admit to. But it points up an enduring - and somehow comforting - truth amid the dazzling new developments in animation technique. Novel computer-generated "whizbangs" may grab momentary attention, admits Brough, "but the timeless glue is the strength of a story." Happily for Canadian cartoon creators of every stripe, the stories they are telling continue to capture hearts and imaginations around the world.

Maclean's June 24, 1996