Double Helix brings Johnston strip to life

Elly is a homemaker, John is a dentist; their children Elizabeth and Michael are starting out in life and youngest April, 10 this year, has no end of adventures. They're a Canadian family very much in the public eye and this...

Elly is a homemaker, John is a dentist; their children Elizabeth and Michael are starting out in life and youngest April, 10 this year, has no end of adventures. They’re a Canadian family very much in the public eye and this year, with the help of Double Helix Studios, the Pattersons of the For Better or For Worse cartoon strip move from their regular home in numerous daily newspapers’ comic strip pages to the small screen.

Double Helix Studios, a coventure of Halifax’s imX communications along with Funbag Animation Studios and PIP Animation Services, both of Ottawa, specializes in animation service work. The two pieces of Helix are split between Halifax (Helix Animation), where infrastructure for traditional animation is in place and imX is headquartered, and Sydney, n.s. (Helix Digital), where technical expertise is concentrated, according to Jan Miller of imX.

Helix Digital got underway in January while Helix Animation has been a going concern since September ’99.

The new series will not be the Pattersons’ first time on television: in fact, several specials shaped around specific seasonal events like Valentine’s Day and Christmas have seen the light of day, experiences which have accented the need for the right production combination in the mind of creator Lynn Johnston.

Johnston says she waited until she found the right production company for the strip, which celebrates its twentieth year in newspapers this year.

‘I’ve been very choosy, I’ve turned down many opportunities,’ including plans to turn the strip into a live-action series and one to California-ize the family.

Unlike many cartoon strips, the characters in For Better or For Worse have aged: John and Elly started the series as a blissful newlywed couple and over time the family has evolved, growing larger and growing older. Most of the offers did not take account of the family’s history but rather had them starting their lives at the age they are now in the script, which Johnston says would amount to ‘sending the story into a direction I’m not comfortable with.’

The series as Funbag and imX have conceived it, for the moment consisting of 16 episodes, cleverly takes advantage of the strip’s evolution by way of a narrative structure that lends itself to cross-sectional history. Each half-hour show is united around a theme and divided into three segments – one each for the early, middle and recent years – and bound together with animated interstitials and a live-action introduction from Johnston.

Funbag, initially a service company (handling work for such shows as The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy and The Mask) has had ambitions to branch out into production and executive production for a while, according to vp of corporate affairs Curtis Crawford. At the moment the company’s ratio of service to production stands at 75:25, with the eventual goal being 50:50. The company’s first proprietary project was Toad Patrol, which hit Teletoon last fall.

Funbag was connected to Johnston by a mutual contact and had quite a task before it: Crawford says Johnston felt the seasonal-themed specials ‘didn’t capture the life and energy of the strip.’ Instead, she wanted to capture that energy with a shorter version that also showcased the family’s changes over time. Production started in late 1999 and has been underway for the last six months, with a fall Teletoon premiere scheduled.

Crawford says Funbag is ‘look[ing] to do more production, but we recognize that there’s limited shelf space as far as us fulfilling all our needs with our own production. Also service work provides variety and a strong relationship with the players and a quicker cash flow than independent as any independent producer can tell you.’

ImX’s Miller says the decision to open a dedicated service animation shop grew out of Funbag’s ‘need to develop a studio for posing and imX’s desire to develop animation talents in Nova Scotia.’

‘We really shopped around for a layout and ink and digital studio and Funbag had not much experience in feature film. We had lots of animation projects on our plate and Funbag was looking to work with a company that had a different skill set than they had.’

Double Helix’s location in Nova Scotia means it can access a number of tax credits, initiatives which Miller says have helped make Nova Scotia a ‘hotspot’ for animation.

‘What’s wonderful about Nova Scotia is that it has such a strong indigenous industry. So what you have now is some very secure companies.

‘At the same time we realize offshore work can be valuable to provide stability to talent. [Production] is still cyclical here: can we provide work when we’re in development?’