When Vancouver’s Thunderbird Entertainment announced recently that it was expanding their kid’s division, Atomic Cartoons, to Ottawa, it was seen as a ‘boom’ by a rather naïve and hyperbole loving Ottawa media.
For those already entrenched in Ottawa’s animation community (including myself where, for full disclosure, I’ve spent the last 28 years with the Ottawa International Animation Festival), Atomic’s move was perhaps less a boom than the moment when the animation world’s secret gem was finally discovered.
Before we dive into the current scene, it would perhaps be useful to look at some of the contributions that Canada’s capital (yes, that would be Ottawa) has made to the world of animation:
The National Film Board of Canada was founded and located in Ottawa from 1939-1956.
A whole slew of early Norman McLaren and NFB films, including the classic Neighbours, were shot in Ottawa.
The Ottawa International Animation Festival (founded in 1976 and now one of the world’s largest and most acclaimed animation festivals)
Computer animation (okay…I might be exaggerating a bit, but two Ottawa scientists, Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein developed an early animation program that automatically generated in-between drawings and that was put to use by the NFB, most notably on their Oscar-nominated film, Hunger (1973). The two men later received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.
The Raccoons, the first original animation series entirely conceived and produced in Canada.
Algonquin College Animation program. Started in the late 1980s, the college has developed into one of the most acclaimed animation industry schools. Some of their alumni include: Jessica Borutski (Warner Bros/Nickelodeon), Ian Blum, Eric Burnett, Nick Bradshaw (Marvel), and Trent Correy (Frozen 2).
An assortment of exceptional industry folks who were either birthed or nurtured in Ottawa including Evelyn Lambart (Norman McLaren’s frequent and often unappreciated collaborator and an acclaimed animator herself), Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Lilo and Stitch), Dave Cooper (co-creator, Pig Boat Banana Cricket), Nick Cross (art director, Over the Garden Wall), Chris Dainty (an Algonquin graduate who is currently finishing a short film, Shannon Amen, for the NFB), and…well…come on…I can’t just ignore him… John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy).
For any city, that’s a pretty nice list of achievements. It’s even more impressive for a smallish city (population might just reach one million) that has been eternally mislabelled as a dull, government town and frequently overlooked by the big bright lights of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver (all of which have steady and influential animation communities of their own).
If anything, it feels like the Ottawa animation community is a bit more stable today. Prior to the mid-2000s, there was no shortage of commercial animation service work being done in town. From Hinton Animation studio (1980s) to Lacewood Animation (later Amberwood), Funbag, Dynomight, Spümcø, and Boomstone (all long gone today), these companies seemed to come and go.
Rarely was there steady employment for artists. That started to change when Vancouver-based Mercury Filmworks (2004) moved to town followed by Jam Filled Entertainment (co-founded in 2007 by two Algonquin College graduates, Jamie Leclaire and Phil Lafrance), Kratt Brothers (2007), and Big Jump Entertainment (co-founded in 2008 by former Funbag Animation co-owner, Rick Morrison).
Just the fact that these studios (including Pip Animation, which started in 2000) are not only still in business, but that they’ve continued to grow and expand (aside from the Kratts who only produce their Wild Kratts series) is quite an accomplishment for what had been a rather erratic local industry.
So…with all that context out of the way, it’s safe to say there is something happening in the Ottawa animation scene these days. On a brutally cold day earlier this year, I decided to drive around town to chat with a few of the major players in the Ottawa animation scene and to find out why Ottawa is suddenly this apparent hotspot.
Content! Content! Content!
The common theme during the day was content. With the the dramatic shift from traditional broadcast outlets to streaming services, there’s an unprecedented demand for original content. “It’s the golden age of content,” says Chris Wightman, studio manager of Atomic Cartoons Ottawa. “And it’s a bit like an Uber effect…suddenly the taxis are doing things differently. The traditional broadcasters have always been great to the animation industry, buying lots of Canadian programming, but now you’ve got the streaming side of the industry that has showed up and they are hungrier than anything we’ve ever seen. They’ve got so much work they’re looking to produce, but there’s only so much capacity to do that.”
Tori Coulthart, head of production at Jam Filled, agreed: “It just seems that there’s a global entertainment boom because of the demand of digital streaming services. It’s not necessarily an Ottawa boom. The shift to streaming and producers going straight to studios has helped Canadian producers make a name for themselves internationally.”
“It’s busy,” says Cory Morrison, executive vice-president of development at Big Jump Entertainment (who have recently expanded from 4000 sq. feet to 10,000). “There’s a lot of content being produced here. The biggest issue we have is the talent base here in Ottawa.”
“The demand has defeated the supply,” adds Big Jump’s president, Rick Morrison.
Big Jump has tackled part of the challenge by partnering with Herzing College in Ottawa to create a one-year animation program. “There’s just not enough produced here out of Algonquin alone,” says Cory Morrison. “You have several studios competing for 20-30 graduates. The more courses or programs that are here in Ottawa, the better and we can start to build on that base.”
Is there enough talent?
It’s one thing to have this insatiable appetite for content, but studios need to have the talent to put it all together — and not just any old talent. “When Algonquin College started in 1989,” says Neil Hunter, coordinator and professor at Algonquin College, “they provided in-betweeners for studios. You could take anyone off the street. That has all changed. Entry-level positions are fully-fledged animators.”
“There’s a lot of junior animators who are a year or two out of school” says Atomic’s Chris Wightman, “but having mentorship around them and finding the senior people is the challenge. A lot of the senior people are happy in the studios they’re at right now and that’s understandable.”
To their credit, Algonquin has so far resisted increasing their student intake (which currently stands at 95). “There is pressure from the college to increase the intake, but not from the studios,” admits Hunter. “If we had more students, we’d need more teachers and space. And studios want quality and know that they might not get that if we increase enrollment. There’s a lot of one-on-one with the students now. It would be hard to do that if we expanded enrollment. We feel we’re at our limit and we’re okay with that for now.”
“We can only grow so much,” Jam Filled’s Coulthart concedes. “It takes artists a certain amount of years to graduate and find their footing and grow.”
With limited talent available, that leaves Ottawa studios with the fun task of selling this “dull government town” to young graduates dreaming of the big cities. “Right out of school it’s tough to convince the younger crowd to come to Ottawa,” admits Cory Morrison.
“We have a lot people at Atomic in Vancouver who came from Algonquin or Sheridan and they’re dying to get back,” says Wightman. “Hopefully we can bring more senior people back. We have tons of work. The capacity isn’t available there…so is there capacity in Ottawa? We hope so. We’re also hoping that people are interested in coming to Ottawa from others parts of the country.”
Morrison sees another benefit to working in Ottawa: “You go where the work is at the end of the day. So why not go to a place where you can afford a house and avoid paying the ridiculous rents in Toronto and Vancouver?”
So, is it a boom?
“Not to rain on anyone’s parade,” says Mercury Filmworks founder and CEO, Clint Eland, “but I’m not sure that Ottawa’s animation scene has seen significant growth. Just a lot of PR activity on the back of the film stage announcement followed closely by Atomic importing a handful of people from the west coast. While we are happy to welcome Atomic, I think they would agree the majority of their animation studio here is a re-allocation of artists from the pool that existed prior. Although I remain hopeful they have a whole 787 Dreamliner full of animators on the way! Having said that, animation production activity in the region remains strong but is not out of proportion to the general increases found in other regions.”
“It’s a boom in astronomical terms,” laughs Algonquin College’s Hunter. “An astronomical animation boom. It really has, to my mind, been a slow and steady growth, with a few ups and downs over fortyish years. However, to someone on the outside looking in who wasn’t really paying much attention to Ottawa it may seem like there is a boom. Suddenly all this talent and all these studios doing world class work out of the blue. Maybe it’s just the perception of a boom since it has been such a low-key industry and not associated with the government reputation of Ottawa.”
“Ottawa has been an incredible talent hub for animation for a really long time,” says Jam Filled’s Coulthart. “There’s a lot of great artists here, probably higher per capita than Toronto. Ottawa has always attracted a lot of art. I grew up here and was always a part of it, so it’s not a shock to me. The contrast is that much more rewarding to me because you’re in this bureaucratic town. You expect it from the big cities so it’s not as exciting. You’re in a little gem in Ottawa. It’s very magical.
For now, the feeling is upbeat and those who are a part of the city’s animation growth believe that anything is possible. “The Vancouver film industry used to be a little thing and then it exploded,” says Chris Wightman, “That’s something that can happen in Ottawa. You can just feel the excitement about Ottawa. People have taken notice.”