Building a better mousetrap

After drawing on Canadian talent for years, Disney is opening two new animation studios north of the border. Is Canada going to become the next Burbank of animation? Or just the next Korea?

Maclean’s, June 19, 1996 

Open houses are hard on any student. Proud parents, annoying siblings, suddenly pleasant teachers and the just-plain-curious walk through your school and look at your work hanging on the classroom wall. But for the animation students at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., a good open house can launch a career. Along with the always-embarrassing families at Sheridan’s annual open house (held this year in early May) is another group whose presence here is part of a more serious mission — recruiters from the big animation houses have come to scout new talent. The numbers alone indicate how much weight a Sheridan animation diploma carries in the business. At this year’s open house, there are 50 graduating students and 92 recruiters.

‍     After three years of rigorous training in all elements of classical animation—character design, motion, backgrounds, layout, voices, sound effects, music and life drawing—Sheridan’s graduates show their work on a large screen in a lecture theater, a kind of moving undergraduate thesis. “You’re only required to do a minute,” graduating student Carolyn Plummer says. “But we’re all real eager beavers; we all did epics.” Plummer, 32, a former graphic designer who returned to Sheridan for the animation program, collaborated with two other classmates on a six-minute opus about a commercial air traveler constantly frustrated in his efforts to get to the plane’s lavatory. “It wasn’t completely finished when they screened it,” Plummer says. “[It was] more of a work in progress.” Another student, John Hoffman, 22, took his inspiration from the cliff-hanger serials of the 1930s, imperiling his protagonist—a 90-year-old detective named Jerry Hatrick—in a series of close calls over the course of two high-speed, harrowing minutes.

‍     “During the screenings, some of the finished, polished films didn’t get the best reaction,” says Don Graves, Sheridan’s executive director of arts. “But there were some incomplete pictures—just pencil tests still, in some cases—that had the audience laughing out loud.”

‍     The last six weeks of school have been a frenzy for students trying to finish their films; four hours of sleep a night seems like a luxury. “A couple of all-nighters in there too,” adds Shannon Penner, 23, another graduating student. His two-minute, 20-second film—a love story—elicited tears from the hard-nosed professionals at the graduate screening. “It’s pretty tough,” Penner says of Sheridan’s training. “The only thing that really compares would be the program at Cal Arts [California Institute of the Arts].”

‍     The difference: tuition at Sheridan is about $1,300 each year; Cal Arts—which Walt Disney helped found, and which his company continues to support—charges about US$10,500 per year. “[Sheridan] may be the last free lunch,” Graves says.

‍     Sheridan receives 2,500 to 3,500 applications for the 110 openings in its first-year classical animation program. “The demand is just enormous,” Graves says. “It would be easy to just say, ‘Gee, lets have 500 or 1,000 students.’ But one of the reasons the [animation] companies come back on such a regular basis is because of the quality of the training. And that has a great deal to do with the careful selection process.” Demand for talent is so great that many studios view admission to Sheridan’s classical animation program as a qualification in itself. Training often begins with a preliminary year of art fundamentals—drawing, painting, sculpture and exercises. For the next two years, students learn the basics: sound synch, design, story writing, backgrounds, character design, life drawing and the finer points of the animator’s art—the ability to “act with a pencil.” By the third year of the course proper, all those skills are supposed to come together, shining brilliantly in the final graduating picture. “You’re not just animating,” Plummer says of the final year. “You’re doing everything. You’re really a whole, entire little filmmaker unto yourself. That’s what makes this course different. You really understand the process when you get out of here.”

‍     For the Sheridan students who can handle the all-nighters, the toughest choice will probably be deciding between three or four offers—all of them with starting salaries between $40,000 and $50,000. Within two to five years of being hired, they probably will be making twice that much. Up until now, most of them headed for Hollywood, where the bulk of the animation business is based. But this year, that’s all changing: Walt Disney is coming to Canada. A new unit of the company, Walt Disney Animation Canada Inc., has opened two temporary facilities—one in Toronto, the other in Vancouver. Last month it began production on its first project, a direct-to-video feature-length sequel to Beauty and the Beast.

‍     Disney’s move is a bold step. And people in the industry agree that while it may be the first Hollywood animation studio to set up shop in Canada, it won’t be the last. Warner Bros., SKG DreamWorks and other studios are also rumored to be looking north. For Sheridan graduates, it means they have the option of staying home; for our existing animation houses, it means they’re suddenly playing in the big leagues.

‍     Making cartoons in Canada makes sense—so much sense, it’s surprising no studio has done it before. For years, this country has been the source for hundreds of the most talented animators working in Hollywood. Walt Disney himself would have been Canadian, had his grandfather Kepple not forsaken Southern Ontario for Kansas in 1878. “There just seems to be something about Canadians and animation,” says Greg Lucier, director of operations and studio manager for Walt Disney Animation Canada, who spent his spring sifting through the 9,000 resumes, videotapes and portfolios piled in his temporary Toronto office.

‍     Disney already runs facilities in Tokyo and Sydney. It has been planning its Canadian initiative for three years, but internal changes at the company caused delays. “I’m surprised it has taken this long,” says another Canadian expatriate, Lenora Hume, vice-president of international production for Walt Disney Television Animation. “We got the approvals from Investment Canada three years ago.” The next step is finding a permanent home: the studio has to be about 50,000 square feet (“Without our having to run up and down seven stories,” says Hume) and it has to have sufficient power to run lights, cameras and computers. Just about everything else, such as location and amenities—is determined by the preferences of prospective employees. “These people are drawing all day, every day,” she says. Animation’s current boom is traceable to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s years at Disney’s animation division. Katzenberg, formerly chair of Walt Disney Studios and now one-third of SKG DreamWorks, along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, was heavily involved with Beauty and the Beast (1991, gross: US$141 million), Aladdin (1993, US$217 million) and The Lion King (1994, US$312.8 million). More modest Disney efforts, such as last summer’s A Goofy Movie, were surprisingly profitable too. Then, home video offered a revelation that the company had previously missed. The Return of Jafar was originally conceived as a made-for-TV movie spun off from Aladdin. Early in Jafar’s development, however, the company decided to release it as a direct-to-video movie instead. It sold 10 million units. “That surprised the heck out of everybody,” Hume says. “We had to rethink our business.”

‍     The Canadian operation will be devoted exclusively to direct-to-video feature-length projects. First up is a holiday sequel in the Beauty and the Beast saga, the working title of which is Beauty and the Beast: Christmas Belle. For that project, Lucier will have to hire some 200 animators, as well as layout artists, background painters and support staff.

‍     Getting recruited by a big animation studio isn’t like being picked in the first round of a football draft—you’re not expected to make an immediate impact. It’s more like pro basketball, where you spend a couple of years on the bench. Sheridan grads usually angle for work as “tweeners”—the hardworking grunts who create the illusion of fluid movement between “key poses” drafted by lead animators.

‍     Disney recruiters started holding interviews in January for the Toronto positions. “They sit you down, they go through your portfolio,” Penner says. “By that point, they’ve seen everybody’s movies, made notes during the screenings and have some idea of your skills.”

‍     “It’s pretty fast,” Plummer says. “They’ve got a limited amount of time to get to everybody, so it’s a brief session. They’ll critique your portfolio. Then, if they think you’re a candidate—if they’re thinking seriously of hiring you—they’ll often give you an in-betweening test.” Students are given some key poses and a model sheet of the character, then given from two hours to a couple of weeks to animate a sequence.

‍     The critical and commercial success of Pixar Animation Studio’s Toy Story has focused more attention on computer animation. Penner and Plummer, who graduated in classical animation, jump to the defense of their art. Penner: “A computer is really just a very big, expensive pencil.” Plummer: “A computer can save you a lot of work—testing a sequence, for example, or doing the intermediary drawings in a sequence. But the artistic skills you learn in classical animation are still at the core of the work. They don’t change.”

‍     However, computer animation may do much of what’s currently done by entry-level, sweatshop animators. Sheridan now offers a one-year graduate program in computer animation. Even Disney, which has always approached classical animation the way the Florentines once approached linear perspective, may be making the technological leap. “I went to Disney’s first ‘cattle call,’ “ says one Sheridan computer animation student. “They were looking for digital.”

‍     What does Disney coming to Canada mean for the established houses here? “I can’t see this as anything other than a win-win situation for the industry in this country,” Graves says.

‍     Not all Disney competitors agree. “We’re all facing problems right now hiring enough people,” says Michael Hefferon, vice-president of production and development at Toronto’s Phoenix Animation Studios Inc. “Even before Disney came in, there was zero unemployment in our business. We’re taking people out of first year at Sheridan.” Since pay rates are steady throughout the industry, an artist’s choice of employer is often determined by the work. “If I want talent to come and work at this studio, I need to make sure our projects interest them,” Hefferon says. “Money is always an issue, but for a lot of artists it’s the project-they’re going to invest a year or more of their lives.” Artists working at Phoenix Animation can switch between projects and disciplines—something less common at Disney, where animators can spend several years on a single character.

‍     “In the long term, Disney’s Canadian operations are going to be good for the community,” says Michael Hirsh, chair of Toronto’s Nelvana Ltd. “At first, there will be an immediate squeeze on talent including Disney, by the way. It has had trouble recruiting, compared with what it thought it could do:”

‍     Disney has two advantages over its Canadian competitors. The first is security. “Disney offers longevity,” Alan Kennedy says. His company, Canuck Creations Inc. of Toronto, has about 40 people working on a Warner Bros. feature called Space Jam, starring basketball titan Michael Jordan alongside Warner’s cartoon stars—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck et al. “Already, a few of the people working with me are going over [to Disney],” says Kennedy. “They have families and they want the security for three to five years.” The second plus for Disney is training. “Disney can provide a training ground that I can’t,” Kennedy says. Despite his enthusiasm for the Sheridan program, Kennedy believes it’s no substitute for ground-floor commercial work. “[Animation students] learn the essentials in school, but they don’t realize the reality. I just had a couple of students in here and did a test. They were rated as fairly high in school, but there was no way. Even they said, ‘Wow, we can’t work on this.” Other studios just can’t afford to wait. “I can only take the very top students out of Sheridan now—people who can animate immediately,” says Lee Williams, vice-president of production for Ottawa-based Lacewood Studios Ltd., which has done work for Disney’s cable channels, CBC, CTV and the USA network. “The problem with animation in Canada right now is a lack of funding.”

‍     For some producers, Canada is the second link of a tripartite production chain: studios in Hollywood usually conceive the projects and write them. Figuring out what they’re supposed to look like—storyboarding, art direction, character design and key animation—is done in Canada. Then, the studio ships the project to South Korea, Taiwan or the Philippines for in-betweening, ink-and-painting and cleanup. The Far East gets the grunt work for three reasons: its animation factories are quick, meticulous and cheap because of economies of scale. One of the most popular Korean studios, Akom Studios, has a main building with seven vast floors, with hundreds of in-betweeners and assistants working constantly.

‍     Will Canada become the next Burbank, Calif., of animation, or the next Seoul? In Vancouver, particularly, much of the business is work-for-hire—a step up from the drudgery of the Korean factories, but not much of a step. Disney claims it wants to do its training here, with an eye to one day originating new theatrical releases out of the Canadian studios. The current crop of Sheridan grads isn’t exactly waiting around. Hoffman has already found a job with Fox Animation in Phoenix, Ariz., which offered him a position several months before graduation. Plummer wants to work for a multimedia educational house in San Francisco. Penner had pushed harder than anyone for an offer from Walt Disney Canada (although he ultimately took a job with Fox). “The Disney people said [my film] showed character and ‘acting’—and that’s what I was going for. That’s what they’re looking for, since you’re going to be doing feature-film stuff instead of shorter, more comedic things.” His gamble paid off. In May, Disney offered Penner a job. “I went for something more dramatic, with less comedy, but,” he says, with a canny eye for the universal Disney touch, “ending on an ‘up’ note.”

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