For all its production capacity, artistic heritage, and track record in service work for Hollywood and elsewhere, Canada doesn’t produce a lot of home-grown animated features. Local films that tell local stories are even rarer.
In this landscape, 10th Ave Productions stands out as an anomaly. Since producing Canada’s first cg feature, The Legend of Sarila (2013), the Quebec province-based company has produced three more animated features, each of which incorporates settings from the province. The newest one, the newly-released Felix and the Treasure of Morgäa, unfolds around the Magdalen Islands, a scenic archipelago in east Quebec.
Morgäa follows the adventures of Felix, a 12-year-old boy who heads out to sea in search of his long-missing father. The film is the feature directorial debut of Nicola Lemay, an artist with 25 years’ industry experience and several shorts to his name: he directed Noël Noël and Private Eyes and co-directed No Fish Where to Go, all for the National Film Board of Canada.
After Lemay pitched Morgäa to 10th Ave, the company’s founder Nancy Florence Savard created an in-house animation division, 10th Ave Animation, to produce it. The studio was set up, like its parent company, in the city of Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures (a suburb of Quebec City). 10th Avenue poached several artists from nearby animation hub Montreal.
Far from being aimed at a parochial audience, 10th Ave’s films have proved that there is global demand for emphatically Quebecois family animation. They have been released in dozens of overseas markets. Morgäa is no exception, having already been sold to the U.S., the U.K., France, and Spain. The film opened in Canada this weekend.
Below, Lemay and Savard tell us how Morgäa came about, and what it takes to make a Quebecois animated feature…
Cartoon Brew: You apparently conceived this project as a graphic novel. How did it become a film? How much did the story change as a result?
Nicola Lemay: Yes, I did initially conceive the project as a graphic novel since financing a feature is such a herculean task. Les Éditions de La Pastèque, a Montreal publisher, showed interest in my three-page book sample.
But the call for an animated feature film was just too strong. At heart, I’m a filmmaker more than a comic book artist. So I decided to take a chance and send my illustrations and synopsis to Nancy Florence Savard. She really liked my project and agreed to push it as a feature. Her strong skills and unique determination as a producer paid off.
The story (and the visuals) changed a great deal from its original form. My initial story was too short and simplistic for a full feature, given it was aimed at young children. We approached Marc Robitaille, a terrific scriptwriting veteran in Quebec, and asked him to take my synopsis and transform it into a feature script.
Marc had the idea of adding the character of Morgäa as a cult leader in a secret and hidden city on a remote island where Jack, the boy’s father, is imprisoned. He also added the old love story between Morgäa and Tom, an elderly sailor. The story went to a much higher and deeper level with these additions. That was our goal from the start: to make a film that had many layers and levels for different audiences — a true family movie.
How long did it take to get the financing in place?
Nancy Florence Savard: It took us about a year and a half to get the financing in place. We have 17 partners including Canadian public agencies like SODEC, Telefilm Canada, tax credit programs, the Quebec City program, some private investments, two broadcasters (CBC/SRC), and three distributors (Maison 4:3, 10th Ave Studio, and Attraction Distribution).
The story is set in Quebec, which is fairly unusual for an animated feature. Was this an advantage or disadvantage (or neither) when looking for financiers/distributors?
Savard: One hundred percent of the investments are from Quebec and the rest of Canada. At 10th Ave, all our stories are from Quebec, but we are paying attention to create universal stories. And the Îles-de-la-Madeleine [a.k.a. the Magdalen Islands] are so charming. At 10th Ave, we love to push local talent, local stories to the international market. We find that “exotic.”
This is the first film made at 10th Ave’s animation unit. Why did the company decide to launch an in-house studio?
Savard: Our partner of the past 13 years changed his business model and closed his animation department. At the time, we were finishing our third animated movie, Mission Kathmandu: The Adventures of Nelly & Simon [a.k.a. A Yeti Adventure]. We were very sad.
Some members of the crew came to me and suggested I open my own animation unit. I was not sure. Directing and producing are so different from managing an animation division. Then Yann Tremblay, the animation director of our two last movies, told me he could move back to Quebec City to start Felix and the Treasure of Morgäa.
Seeing how much creators wanted to work on our animated feature film, we decided, Jean-François Tremblay and I, to open 10th Ave Animation. There aren’t many companies in the province of Quebec doing national animated movies. So, for some artists, it means a lot to create cultural content that can find a place in the international space. We love to develop talented artists and create our own IP.
How big was the team? Was recruitment difficult, considering the studio is not based in a major animation hub like Montreal?
Two hundred people worked on Felix and the Treasure of Morgäa. It’s challenging to be based outside the Canadian movie metropolises, but the Capitale-Nationale region has so much to offer. Quebec City is gorgeous and secure with its European style. House prices are cheaper than in Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, and there’s less traffic. It’s a perfect spot for families or sport lovers.