Streaming wars an exciting time for Ottawa's animation industry

With streaming services all eager for shows and new soundstages about to be built in Nepean, the city's animation studios say they can feel the excitement of their exploding industry.
Animators at Mercury Filmworks, led by founder and CEO Clint Eland, have created several shows for Disney. Its 'Hilda' series for Netflix was nominated for four Emmys and won for its main title and graphic design. (Kate Porter/CBC)

With streaming services all eager for shows and new soundstages planned for Nepean, animation studios in Ottawa say they can feel the excitement of their growing industry.

Mercury Filmworks' CEO Clint Eland says streaming services have been a "major game changer".

"There's an insatiable appetite for content. I think the traditional networks are trying to keep up and their competition against one another is what's led to the rise of production volumes worldwide," he said.

From their offices tucked away in a south-end business park, the company's staff of 280 animates The Lion Guard and Tangled series for Disney.

Their Netflix series Hilda won an Emmy this year and other confidential projects are in the pipeline.

The content wars are exploding... everyone's trying to outdo each other and we're the beneficiaries of it.- Chris Wightman, Atomic Cartoons

Eland says there's an overall rise in quality, a trait he sees as his company's "calling card" and the reason Mercury Filmworks is sought after by companies like Disney.

"There is definitely something going on [in the animation industry]," he said.

"There's been something going on here for quite some time. It's just been in the background behind high tech and federal affairs."

3 decades after The Raccoons

Ottawa has a history as a hub of animation — the Ottawa International Animation Festival began in 1976, and local animators produced The Raccoons for CBC TV in the 1980s.

After The Raccoons came a time when traditional animation moved overseas and animators had difficulty getting work, explained Neil Hunter, coordinator of Algonquin College's animation program.

Kevin Gillis, creator of the television cartoon "The Raccoons", which was animated in Ottawa, poses for a picture in 2015 with a stuffed animal from characters from the show. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Then computer software revolutionized the craft. 

"We started to see studios like Mercury and Jam Filled and PIP and everyone else start … to really be able to bring work back into Canada," he said.

Eland says Ottawa animators have a special quality.

"There's almost a regional pride here. There's a pool of artists, they take it very seriously. They work hard and they're really, really good at what they do," said Eland.

Neil Hunter, a long time animator and a coordinator of Algonquin College's animation program, says after a period in the 1990s when the work had gone overseas, there is now more work than jobs. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Now the local scene has stabilized and there are more jobs than people. 

As for Algonquin's training ground, its animation program is about to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary and has a longer waiting list for September than usual.

New studio adding animators

Vancouver's Thunderbird Entertainment Group set up Atomic Cartoons in Hintonburg last November with Chris Wightman as the sole employee.

It now has 40 people, and is adding floor space to accommodate possibly another hundred in the coming year, Wightman said.

The studio is busy on a Netflix show called Last Kids on Earth about schoolchildren fighting zombies.

"Everything has exceeded expectations in Ottawa. It's just been fantastic. The talent has been spectacular. The quality of the work from the crews here has been great," Wightman said.

Clients from Los Angeles will be in Hintonburg this summer to tour Atomic's studio. 

"The content wars are exploding with all the streaming services coming on," said Wightman.

"Everyone's trying to outdo each other and we're the beneficiaries of it."

Film soundstages coming

And while computer software and content wars may have lifted the entire industry, Ottawa studios are also anticipating a boost on the local creative scene.

The Ottawa Film Office says it aims to break ground this fall on four soundstages in the Greenbelt near West Hunt Club and Woodroffe roads.

Mercury Filmworks eventually plans to move there and be part of the hub that will include television dramas and other productions.

The Ottawa Film Office and TriBro Studios hope to build four sound stages as well as office space for film production, animation, and training, on a nine-hectare parcel of land that used to be a federal animal research centre from the 1960s through to the 1990s. (Ottawa Film Office and TriBro Studios)


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