VANCOUVER, Canada, 1995

The star of the adult cartoon The Pink Komkommer’ is a woman snoozing in a rocker. A pot of tea steeps on a nearby table, and a cat and a caged bird look on as domesticity gives way to orgiastic dreams. Outsized, pulsating genitals and grotesque beasts undulate across the screen. The snore soundtrack changes to moans and the cracking of whips. Tiny, winged cherubs assault a sleeping man in an armchair, wrapping their limbs around a part of his body not normally used as a handle and bear him off through a window. Between orgasms, the woman snuffles awake to see if her tea is ready. In animation, anything is possible.

When words, still art or live-action film fail to capture an idea, animation fills the breech. “It’s a completely imaginary world where there are no rules and you can defy gravity. The only limitation is the human imagination,” says Svend-Erik Eriksen, executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada in Vancouver. That’s one reason animation is on the leading edge of the infotainment business–traditional areas like kids’ cartoons and ad campaigns are growing, animated features like The Lion King are topping box-office sales, The Simpsons’ have cracked prime-time TV.

But animation’s growth also reflects advances in technology and its perfect fit with New Economy trends. It has an unlimited shelf life — witness the popularity of the ever-young Donald Duck and the fact that people still pay to watch the four-year-old Pink Komkommer, a short produced by International Rocketship Ltd. of Vancouver.

Animation has a long self life, and crosses borders and cultures without translation.

Animation easily crosses national borders and cultures without the translation difficulties of live-action film. And most significantly for future sales, animation is the medium of choice for interactive video and computer games and programs.

For decades Canadians have been among the world’s top animators, a claim that few players in Canada’s economy can make. Take in an animated short at a film festival or cruise through children’s television channels and you’ll find Canadians in the credits. “Canadian-trained animators run many of the studios in the U.S., Asia and Europe,” says Michael Hirsh, chairman of Nelvana Ltd. of Toronto. In recent years, though, as overall film production has increased because of Canada’s low dollar, Canada has also become the place where animated products are made.

“We have developed a critical mass of expertise,” says special situations analyst Roger Dent of CIBC Wood Gundy. Those animation experts are divided into two categories. There are the big companies of central Canada–Nelvana and Cinar Films Inc. of Montreal–that pack financial heft and employ hundreds of people. And there are the small studios and free spirits who flit from project to project and place to place. Lately, the small animators have chosen to alight in Vancouver to exploit its relatively warm climate and time zones compatible with Asia and Los Angeles.

On this damp October morning, Marv Newland, founder, producer and director of Rocketship, is beside himself with glee. Two days earlier the American CBS network aired Tales from the Far Side, a $600,000-Halloween special of cartoonmeister Gary Larson’s ideas. Larson, whose absurd humor has spawned an industry of Far Side’ comics, calendars, T-shirts and cards, chose Rocketship to animate his venture into television programming. On this particular morning, Newland is still fielding calls from fellow animators praising the special and from reporters requesting interviews.

In the fall of 1993, busy with the regular animated commercials Rocketship makes for corporate clients and the artistic shorts made for film festivals and television, a message from Larson’s office landed on Newland’s desk. Larson was working on an animated special of his cartoons. Tired of looking at demo reels from other animation houses, he’d heard about Rocketship from Fox TV. Would Newland send some folks down to Seattle for a meeting?

Well, yes, of course, said Newland, whose own strange sense of humor exceeds Larson’s in craziness (It was Newland, after all, who created the cult classic Bambi Meets Godzilla in 1969, while still in a Los Angeles film school). Newland traveled to Seattle to visit Larson in the lair where he creates the Far Side’s’ nerdy scientists and bizarre animals. “I sat in his home office with him, with a stuffed rhino head on the wall. He told me the special had to be done by the next Halloween, but he had no plans. Could we do it by then?”

At its classical best, animation is a painstaking, lengthy process that requires hand drawing of about 24 pictures, each just slightly different from the other, for each second of film. These so called “cels” — named because of the cellulose acetate used — are then photographed by a special camera and shown in sequence. The resulting illusion of movement requires no less than 14,400 different pictures for each 10-minute period. For a small art house like Newland’s, which employs between six and 30 people on any project, to produce a high-quality half-hour special in one year was a herculean task — especially as Larson had little knowledge of animation.

Tales from the Far Side boosted International Rocketship into the North American media stratosphere.

Newland accepted the job, however, and on its completion and broadcast this fall Tales’ fired Rocketship into a new orbit. Specializing in off-the-wall productions for film festivals and television, the company is touted by its peers as one of the world’s most creative animation art houses. To keep itself aloft financially, it makes award-winning commercials for a well-heeled list of corporate clients such as Goodyear Canada, Nintendo, Labatt’s and Earls Restaurants — work that Newland stresses the company will always rely on for its bread and butter. But now with Tales from the Far Side,’ Rocketship has also proven itself in the mainstream North American media, just at a time when animation is becoming widely accepted and attracting attention in the business community.

Almost despite itself (”I make animated movies to avoid reality,” says Newland, who much prefers creating animation figures to working with figures on a financial spreadsheet), Rocketship finds itself, while still an art house, becoming a respectable business.

There are the commercials, of course, which are produced with the same manic sense of humor as the outrageous artistic shorts. Royalties from old animation projects like The Pink Komkommer,’ which is frequently broadcast by European television channels, continue to arrive at Newland’s office near Granville Island. And new projects have become increasingly lucrative. “We send films to festivals in Europe, and before the festival begins our fax spits out letters from broadcasters asking for contracts,” says Newland. “I think it’s hilarious.”

Newland gestures around his 4,000-square foot office, abuzz with laughter and jokes by animators at work on a Christmas television commercial for B.C.. Lottery. “We’re creating life, like little gods,”’ he says with a twisted grin, marveling that he can have such fun yet at the same time know that he will be able to pay next month’s rent.

Newland says because he’s more interested in making creative animation than turning out bulk productions (”That’s not my diet,” he says with distaste), Rocketship will remain a small, solely-owned company with revenues around $800,000 annually, much of it from ongoing commercials. But its recent successes on its home turf have allowed him to think about making a longer animated feature for the North American market, and plan on developing some of the childlike characters it has created for a gentle but witty short called Hooray for Sandbox Land,’ which the company hopes will create the base of an eventual North American television series.

Like the maturing of Rocketship, the animation community in Vancouver has evolved. “We are the fastest-growing area of animation in Canada,” says Mark Freedman, spokesman for the newly formed Association of British Columbia Animation Producers. No one in the film business has separate statistics for the animation sector, but Freedman estimates that there are at least 25 companies employing more than 300 people in Vancouver. Meanwhile, a range of new animation courses are offered at Vancouver’s art schools and community colleges.

Besides the few veteran houses like Rocketship, established 20 years ago, a core of animation companies have taken root in the artsy areas of central Vancouver, complemented by a group of mobile freelance animators. Many of the companies rely on commercial work to pay the bills, but also produce a vast range of other projects–from shorts made with the classical hand-drawn cel technique to one of the first television series animated entirely by a computer program.

BLT Productions, in a joint venture with Toronto’s Alliance Communications, produces a bright high-tech children’s television series called ReBoot,’ which this fall went to air on YTV and ABC. This summer, film festivals in Vancouver and Ottawa screened the National Film Board’s Trawna Tuh Belvul, a 15-minute film based on a poem by Earle Birney made by independent Vancouver animator and art teacher Martin Rose. Meanwhile, Radical Entertainment Ltd. has carved out a niche for itself making animation for interactive videos on the Sega and Nintendo children’s game systems. Radical Entertainment has grown from a standing start three-and-a-half years ago with six people to 70 employees, and now has the luxury of turning down work, says manager Ian Verchere.

“Vancouver is a strong industry town right now,” says Rose, who teaches at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and works at the National Film Board. Indeed, the city has developed such a large talent pool that early last year the worldwide giant of animation, Disney Studios, said it would locate its new animation studio in Vancouver — a plan that was put on hold during the executive shuffle that has wracked Disney over the last year.

Canadian animation success is largely due to decades of support by the National Film Board – but the future will rely on global marketing smarts

Much of the growth in Canadian animation can be credited to support by the National Film Board, which dates back several decades. While Disney Studios has always been the world’s undisputed leader in long, top-quality animation features — like Snow White — the NFB has dominated production of shorts. Animators from other countries have come to Canada to work with the NFB — Newland moved from Los Angeles to Canada because of the NFB, for example — and many Canadian animators, often trained at Sheridan College in Ontario, cut their teeth at the NFB before moving on to studios elsewhere. “Our tradition in animation goes back to the 1950s,” says the NFB’s Eriksen. “People came out of the Film Board and started their own little companies and it became an evolutionary thing. Now we’ve been doing it for such a long time that we’ve gotten good.”

Animation has also reaped the benefits of a plethora of government programs in support of film development. “It has been successful in developing a domestic industry,” says CIBC Wood Gundy’s Roger Dent.

In future, though, industry growth — which Dent estimates at 15 per cent a year — will come from Canadians’ abilities to market animation products globally. “Culturally, Canadians are very much like Americans, and are able to produce programming that American audiences look at as being domestic,” points out Dent. “At the same time, we’re able to work effectively with European producers and broadcasters. Plus, it’s an industry that appeals to international audiences — as new audiences come to the market, as countries in South East Asia and China open themselves to Western culture through new broadcasters, the animation industry will benefit strongly.”

Adds Michael Hirsh of Toronto’s Nelvana, the largest and one of the oldest Canadian animation companies, “Animation is becoming the new Esperanto. Everybody understands little stick figures. Animation dubs easily, and doesn’t have the same cultural barriers as live action. With few exceptions, something in animation is not obviously Eastern or Western, African or European. It travels.”

In Montreal, Ron Weinberg of Cinar points out that the majority of children’s entertainment products are already animated, creating a new wave of consumers who will grow up even more comfortable with the medium than their baby-boomer parents. Cinar and Nelvana think Canadian animation has such a promising future that they, along with Family Channel Inc., are working on a proposal to go before the CRTC for a new animation channel. Weinberg calls animation “a fabulous tool to interest kids in learning. If you look at different images on a screen, most people notice the animated ones and remember them more. It’s an extremely creative form that is just beginning to take hold in the future of television and on the information highway.

“I didn’t come into the business of animation because I’m an aficionado, or know how to draw. I came into it as a businessman.”

“I didn’t come into the business of animation because I’m an aficionado, or know how to draw,” says Weinberg. “I came into it as a businessman. Being in the worldwide marketplace, I look for a product that can be sold in as many markets as possible. Animation fits that bill. I look for a product that doesn’t age, so I can sell it in five or 10 years. Animation fits that bill. I look for a product that is able to evolve as technologies evolve. There again animation is on the leading edge of entertainment technology because it can be adapted to new media like computer games and CD-ROMs.”

As in any industry, companies in animation develop specialties and corporate cultures. Cinar, for example, stresses quality and education and eschews the violence often associated with such kids’ animated TV programs as Power Rangers;’ Nelvana is the largest producer of animated Saturday morning fare for children in North America. Both Cinar and Nelvana produce live-action programs as well as animation. Radical Entertainment, as might be expected of a company that makes products bought mostly by teenaged boys, is heavily into sports and action-packed video-game products. Meanwhile, Rocketship relies purely on classical animation, which provides the scope to produce everything from naughty adult cartoons to striking commercials to children’s programs. The common thread through these varied approaches is that each company finds itself on the leading edge of the new economy. Who would have thought that the offbeat creators of cartoons would be so prescient? But then, as anyone who has watched cartoons knows, in animation, anything is possible.

Copyright © 1995 Deborah Jones

Originally published by The Financial Post Magazine, January 1, 1995

References and further reading:
National Film Board of Canada
Marv Newland, Vancouver Film School faculty