Animation studios explode onto the Atlantic scene

After months of bureaucratic procrastination, Halifax-based ImX Communications along with Funbag Animation Studios and PIP Animation Services, both of Ottawa, are finally giving birth to two new animation studios in Nova Scotia - Helix Animation in Halifax and Helix Digital in...

After months of bureaucratic procrastination, Halifax-based ImX Communications along with Funbag Animation Studios and PIP Animation Services, both of Ottawa, are finally giving birth to two new animation studios in Nova Scotia – Helix Animation in Halifax and Helix Digital in Sydney, Cape Breton.

Helix Animation, which was officially up and running on July 26, will perform layout, design and posing services primarily for Canadian and American clients. It promises to create roughly 30 jobs over the next two years, under the management of Steff Adaire of Adner Animations, who comes equipped with seven experienced staff members.

Helix Digital, which won’t be officially in business until October, is the digital ink-and-paint arm of the two-pronged operation and is expected to create 55 jobs in its host town.

Why Sydney?

‘With all its coal mines closing and steel mills shutting down, their unemployment rate is about 23%, admittedly, and in reality, there were interesting financial incentives to set it up there,’ says ImX president Chris Zimmer, who’s been waiting since May to sign off on the project.

While the two new Helix studios will be primarily service facilities, they will also give rise to three new coprods, all currently in development:

For Better or For Worse is a 13-part series based on the comic strip of the same name by Lynn Johnston. Budgeted at roughly $400,000 per half-hour episode, the 2D production is coproduced by ImX and Funbag and will be broadcast on Teletoon next fall.

The Other Side of the Pole, a feature film, is an animated Christmas musical, budgeted at close to $5 million. Also coproduced by ImX and Funbag, it goes into animation in the spring and a distribution deal with Red Sky Entertainment is under way.

And Crafty Cow, based on a character from The Real Howard Spitz, starring Kelsey Grammer, is a 13-part animation series. Budgeted at $400,000 per half-hour episode, the series is a coprod of ImX and John Cary Animations of London, Eng.

‘A lot of computer 3D animation operations have started up [in Nova Scotia] in the last few years, but there’s not a lot of 2D, which is what we’re doing,’ says Zimmer, adding: ‘We’re also setting up with a high level of `digital interconnectivity,’ which means we’re going to be able to send, over lines, all the digital files from here to Ottawa to Sydney to the Far East and back…We’ll basically have online assembly of the animation [as opposed to having to farm out the work].’

Economic Development and Tourism will rebate Helix Animation 10% on the company’s incremental payroll for four years, up to a maximum of $425,000. Ten percent will also be provided to Helix Digital for five years, up to a maximum of $642,867.

In order to receive the rebate, which will be granted at the end of each year, the companies must achieve their job targets.

The province will start to recoup its investment through payroll taxes from the new jobs, as the rebate is being paid out.

* A step up for Newfoundland

Newfoundland film and tv makers have no reason to leave the island anymore for their animation needs, now that Digital D’go Studios has set up shop in the heart of St. John’s.

Providing services in motion graphics, 2D and 3D animation, visual effects, compositing and post-production, D’go is the province’s first high-end computer-generated imaging and animation studio.

‘This is something really new here. I know that there are a couple of ad agencies that have done this stuff before, but they always got it done in Toronto or Montreal because there was never anyone here to offer the service before,’ says D’go cofounder Thomas Thorne.

After working as a special effects artist and computer animator for six years at Buzz Image Group in Montreal, Thorne returned home to establish the $150,000 studio with partner Patrick Dunn, who, for the past five years, was doing much of the same thing for Wave Light Productions (an in-house prodco for M5 Advertising) in St. John’s.

‘Pat was the only person in the province doing this sort of stuff and I couldn’t believe it. We got to talking and the next thing you know we put together a business plan, applied for funding and here we are,’ says Thorne.

Although the new studio opened its doors officially only weeks ago, the duo recently completed all the 2D animated characters and environments on a video game, Backpack Adventures in Asthma, produced by IES Health Technologies for John Hopkins Hospital in the u.s.

They also recently edited and animated a 10-minute film for Lori Clarke, one of four women taking part in Beyond the Thinking Kitchen, an on-the-road multimedia project based in Newfoundland.

Also, in addition to creating the visual effects for three locally produced commercials out of Clegg Kotyck & Ryan, the new studio is in the early stages of development on its own 3D animated children series, The Nanobods.

‘I really think we need our own proprietary stuff. Our goal down the road is to split the company in two. One side would be in-house production and the other would continue to provide service to producers on the island,’ says Thorne, who is optimistic about increasing production in Newfoundland because of the new 40% tax credit.

To compound Thorne’s excitement, it seems the provincial government is also pushing for the growth of the local animation industry.

Last year, the College of North Atlantic in Stephenville launched its 3D animation course, and come this September, it will be starting up a 2D animation program – great news for D’go, as such developments help to beef up potential for hired help.

‘Because we are just about the only two people on the island who are trained in 2D animation, there’s no one really trained to hire,’ says Thorne.

* Blink takes its first stab at an animated series

Blink Digital Productions, a one-year-old animation house in Halifax, specializing in computer graphics, visual effects and hybrid computer/classical animation and spearheaded by former Pixel Motion pixie Kerri Henneberry, is developing its first animated series, Moosop’s Magical Tales.

Created and produced by Henneberry, who was inspired by the stories her elderly neighbor told to her as a young girl, the 26-part 3D series explores the myths of Micmac legends through its heroine, Little One. Through her quest to understand her surrounding world, she meets up with Moosop, an elderly moose who embodies the wisdom of aboriginal cultures. In each episode, Little One finds guidance through the antics of the forest critters who attempt to bring Moosop’s tales to life.

Currently in the second stage of development with the support of tvontario, the series is being both produced and animated in-house by Blink.

Henneberry has already produced the pilot for CBC Maritimes with Gemini Award-winning producer/writer Cheryl Wagner (The Big Comfy Couch, Radical Sheep Productions) and director Robert Cardona (Theodore Tugboat).

‘We’re hoping to be in phase three of development by the fall, ready for the funding deadlines in the winter and in production by the spring,’ says Henneberry, whose production will create jobs for 30 to 40 animators, project managers and multimedia personnel.

The budget for the series is projected at $4 million. Each episode is 15 minutes long, and although it will be animated in 3D, the backgrounds will be hand painted to create a lush environment and toon shaders will be used to give the production a softer, more 2D feel.

tvo has the first window, and because of the educational and cultural value of the show, Henneberry says she is hoping to make the series, targeted at a six- to eight-year-old audience, available to schools for free.

Having shopped the project around at the recent Banff Television Festival, Henneberry is aggressively seeking coproducers for the project, but, so far, Blink is reportedly flying solo.

* Salter, Global unite for Blackfly

Salter Street Films and the Global Television Network are working together for the first time ever. As part of the broadcaster’s Atlantic Drama Initiative, the two companies have joined forces to produce Blackfly, a half-hour adventure comedy starring and written by stand-up comedian Ron James.

Currently in post-production and set to air in late August, the show was shot July 13-17 at the historic fortress Louisbourg and the Habitation at Port Royal, on board the tall ship HMS Rose.

While Salter is serving as executive producer, or ‘mentor producer,’ on the project, mentorees Michael Mahoney and Jono Nemethy are acting as producer and executive producer, respectively.

As part of the initiative’s commitment, Global has provided a $150,000 licence fee, which buys the broadcaster exclusive English-language Canadian rights for five plays over four years. The producer, however, can sell the film anywhere in the world at any time, and in Canada once the term expires.

In 1996, Global Atlantic (a member of Global Television), in cooperation with CBC New Brunswick, created the initiative to stimulate production in the Atlantic region. Over the five following years, each broadcaster committed to completing five half-hour dramas on which aspiring producers with some experience have the opportunity to make the leap to producing a full show on their own.

Blackfly, also one of the few East Coast recipients of this year’s ctf funding, is the fourth project of Global’s initiative. The three others are: The Elf (Newfoundland, 1996), Gemini-Award winning Nan’s Taxi (Nova Scotia, 1997) and December 1917 (Nova Scotia, 1998).