Special Report on Production in British Columbia: B.C. animators build on Billy, Nilus and Kleo

With Billy the Cat, Nilus the Sandman and Kleo the Misfit Unicorn series, Vancouver’s animation industry has reached an unprecedented level of indigenous production volumes.

The success is the result of a five-year toon boom that has spawned several new companies and studios – including Disney’s recent opening in Vancouver – launched animation training schools, placed the spotlight on Vancouver suppliers for u.s. producers, and stimulated even more indigenous production.

Among the projects close to going into production is CyberSix, a half-hour series by Herve Bedard’s Vancouver-based NOA Network of Animation.

The show is about a scientifically generated creature who flees her Nazi experimenter to live a life on the lam in a nearby city. She lives the day disguised as a male literature professor and at night she becomes a sexy vampire-like being. With its level of suspense, seduction, gender-bending and its focus on issues including humanity and virginity, CyberSix is a show, not surprisingly, geared more for young adults than tots.

At press time, noa was negotiating with a Japanese coproducer and was talking with all the usual broadcasters in Canada. Budgets are being developed and Bedard says that if all the hoops are cleared production could begin as early as June.

Bedard – whose 26-episode Billy the Cat series (about a boy transformed into a cat) has been sold in 55 countries and will air in Canada on Canal Famille/Family Channel – also has a young-adult series called Fashion, Fashion.

The series, about a Seventh Avenue designer, is also in the budgeting stage for a pilot to be shot this year, he adds. It’s in development with Citytv.

noa is also doing some service production: two projects for France including Princess of the Nile and The Last Reservation and a video feature, Doctor Doolittle. An animated series based on The Black Stallion is also in development.

The lay of the land

In surveying the Vancouver industry, Bedard says Vancouver has reached a plateau in its evolution as an animation center. While business continues to pour in, the industry is starting to become segmented as companies find and develop their own niches.

At noa, for example, Bedard is focusing on young adult-oriented, independent production. Companies like Gordon Stanfield (Kleo) and Delaney & Friends are sticking with homegrown animated shows for younger children.

Studio b and Bardel Animation are companies that have good service engines for clients. Mainframe is internationally renowned for its computer animation with shows like ReBoot and Beasties. Ocean Sound has tied up the voice and sound business. Natterjack is focusing almost all of its work on Disney cd-rom production.

‘Vancouver has reached the next level of maturity,’ says Bedard. But the next several years will come no more easily than the last few, he adds. With increasing competition in other animation jurisdictions, the larger u.s. animation companies doing more of their own work in-house, in tandem with the continued availability of cheap animation labor in places like Asia, Vancouver’s animation industry could suffer some consolidation and shake up.

Of course, Bedard’s sober view is not unanimous.

John Delaney, the artistic director of indigenous production company Delaney & Friends in Vancouver, says the Vancouver industry has just grown to meet the demands of the industry. A few years ago, he recalls, the industry was in chaos because the firms here were scrambling to do the work with too few people. Since then, with trained animators coming out of Capilano College and the Vancouver Film School, there is the work force available to handle it all.

‘The low Canadian dollar is a great motivator,’ Delaney says, ‘and the quality of our animators is considered to be high.’

Indigenous production: the holy grail

Whether or not animators in Vancouver are doing service work, the ultimate goal is to do their own shows. Like every aspiring writer has a screenplay under their bed, every animator has a pilot itching for ink and paint.

Delaney says animators who want to make their own shows have to make the sacrifice to say no to the lucrative service work.

‘Service contracts can create 12- to 13-hour working days dedicated to someone else’s vision,’ says Delaney, referring to the distraction of service work. ‘You really have to put your money where your mouth is. Hopefully, the success of Sandman will open some doors for producers and bring in some investment.’

While Nilus the Sandman – a live-action/animated series about a dream weaver who helps children solve their problems – demands the attention of Delaney animators, the company is negotiating more work.

Principal Chris Delaney, at press time, was in the u.s. dealing with American distributors to finalize the financing on three original animated features: The Shoemaker & the Elves, The Legend of William Tell (animated with bears and boars) and the adult-oriented Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Bardel Animation is one of the companies that continually develops projects only to have them take second place to the mountains of u.s.-sourced service work it handles. Its recent credits include work on animated features Space Jam (Warner Bros.) and Anastasia (Fox).

But now in development, Bardel has Night Lights, an adult-oriented anthology of five-minute shorts of twisted tales to a cool jazz soundtrack, and Franny, a half-hour series about an eight-year-old.

And through its subsidiary Boing! and in collaboration with distributor Ross Saunders Entertainment in California, the company is also developing three other series. Thorax the Conqueror is a series about a mosquito, a horsefly and a flea, Pig William is about an imaginative piglet, and Dark Dog is about a canine superhero defending Muttropolis.

Bardel partner Delna Bhesania says the company has made a concentrated effort to get a show on the air in the next two years. In November, the company hired Jesse Fawcett to develop new business and Catherine Trembley to handle legal and funding.

‘Before Barry [Ward] and I were doing it in our spare time,’ says Bhesania, referring to development. ‘But it was hard to concentrate enough energy to do it right.’

The highest hurdles to date have been finding a Canadian broadcaster. Only one of the shows in development – Pig William (ytv) – has a Canadian broadcaster and another series called Brer Rabbit has sold internationally but not to a Canadian broadcaster that can provide the last financing.

The onset of teletoon, Baton Broadcasting’s new channel civt and other new broadcast avenues is encouraging, she says. But a lack of financing incentives in b.c. means she goes into meetings with coproducers at a disadvantage to other producers in Canada.

About her experience trying to get a show on the air: ‘I’ve learned that it takes a lot longer and more perseverance than you think when you start out. We have to just keep plugging at it.’

Studio b also has a healthy development slate of its own projects.

Noting that the trend to seek out more European coventure opportunities has spread among top u.s. animation studios, director Blair Peters, cofounder of Studio b, says the change in the market has been a positive thing. It has forced Peters and partner Chris Bartleman to develop their own properties, and jumpstarted production of a Canvas Cat and Bongo Bat Leica reel.

Canvas Cat and Bongo Bat, a series created by animator Paul Teglas, has been around for a few years, but Peters explains that the company was so busy doing service work on series predominantly destined for the u.s., they lost focus on development.

Getting Studio b originals greenlit is the next step, to which end Blair is working with writing talent such as WP Kinsella, and has embarked on a coventure with Hewon Yang of Little Big Wig Pictures, who is handling the distribution/licensing aspect.

Canvas Cat is the most advanced project. ‘We worked on the scripts and bios and pitched it around and the feedback was the characters needed to be developed more,’ says Peters, whose recent writing/directing credits include Felix the Cat episodes for Film Roman. ‘We hooked up with itel and they gave us money for a script rewrite and to do a storyboard. If they presell it we can go into production in a few months.’

The Canvas Cat series heroes are hep-looking starving artists on a desperate global quest for fans and decent java. With London-based itel onside to interject its international market savvy and fast-track a network deal, Peters anticipates a fall ’98 air date for the series, which is made up of 11-minute shorts with simple plots, a fast pace and ‘even faster’ gags.

Coproducer Yang will be trying to finalize Canadian sales to the likes of ytv, Family Channel and Canada’s new animation channel teletoon. The series is expected to go ahead as a Canada/Europe copro, likely partnered with England.

Three other Studio b projects in development are D’Myna Leagues (old-time baseball stories for the eight to 12 crowd), What About Mimi?! (premised on every kid’s desire to stage manage the world, which clearly needs her help), and Space Cadets, coverage of the cold war raging between two shoebox-bound arch enemy astronauts lost in space.

Animation by any other name

Studio b currently generates about 80% of its revenues from service television work. Recent credits include the series Mighty Ducks (Disney), Jungle Cubs (Disney), Tex Avery Theater (dic), Calamity Jane (Warner Bros.) and Savage Dragon (Universal).

Bartleman says the company relies on its long-forged business relationships with the big l.a. studios to keep the work flowing back.

Because the company invoices in u.s. funds, there is no break provided by the dollar exchange.

For u.s. clients, Studio b offers a full-service package by designing and posing the characters, directing the action and posting the final episode.

Natterjack has an exclusive cd-rom 2D animation contract, supposedly with Disney, though details about the relationship are not public. Sean Murch, director of development for Natterjack, says about 90% of the company’s revenues come from the top-secret cd-rom business. All he’ll say is that the products are interactive and designed for kids.

The Disney business plus service work on projects like Pippi Longstocking (Nelvana) and Beavis & Butt-head (mtv) allow the company a fraction of time to devote to its own projects, says Murch.

The Ocean Group, which comprises distribution companies, pre- and post-production companies, and animation production companies, claims about 85% of the voice-over work in the city for animation through Ocean Sound.

Ken Morrison, director of acquisition/production at Ocean Sound, describes the Vancouver animation scene as ‘very good’ but predicts it is about to be inundated with new, aggressive animation companies focusing on cost-effective, high-quality 3D animation. ‘It will be ReBoot, at half the cost,’ he says.

As one of the most integrated animation companies in Vancouver, Ocean also acts as a coproduction partner on two series: Chester Dogbone (u.k./Canada/Australia) and Dragonball-z (u.s./Canada).

The beauty of animation is that the characters can speak any language the distributor needs. Billy the Cat, for example, is translated from English into French, German, Italian and Spanish.

And Vancouver shows have had significant success tapping the foreign markets.

Erna Staples-Horninger, the Vancouver-based agent for European distributor Beta Taurus, says Vancouver has the potential to be very big. ‘All it takes is for one or two more successful shows to attract attention [from foreign buyers],’ she says. While Vancouver as an animation center is not yet well known, Canada has an excellent reputation in Europe for being technologically progressive and edgy in content, Staples-Horninger adds.

From her vantage, ‘Vancouver is thriving and very much in the forefront in Canadian animation. b.c. has the talent. It just doesn’t yet have the entrepreneurial spirit.’ IE