The animated advantage: How Canadian cartoonists are staying home and staying busy

As most film and television production grind to a halt, broadcasters are turning to animation studios for fresh content.

Canadian studios keep the pipeline pumped with Paw Patrol and an animating sitcom

Animation thrives despite the COVID-19 pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 2:32
As production for most television and movies have come to a halt, animation studios are still creating and putting out content during the pandemic.

In the days before the pandemic set in, Toronto's Guru Studio was a bustling hub of activity with five different productions on the go. In early March, as the situation began to change, the company with 430 employees started to explore moving the workforce home. 

The first show to transition was their biggest, the preschool smash hit Paw Patrol, seen in over 160 countries. 

With the entire animating team now working remotely, Guru creative director Frank Falcone says Paw Patrol is "on track and on budget."

By using virtual desktops, artists are able to connect to the studio while staying safe at home. But the biggest challenge has been keeping the sense of collaboration, that's critical to the art of cartooning, alive. 

As an animator himself, Falcone understands the type of positive encouragement artists receive in a studio environment. "I really love the idea that you could sit somewhere and look across at someone's drawing and see something great," he says. "That's your first audience." 

With the studio shuttered, those kinds of happy accidents can't happen. To keep the spirit of collaboration alive, the studio uses software where artists can share and comment on artwork in real time. 

Collaboration and creativity 

Animation director Andrew Strimaitis has set up a green screen in his home so he can superimpose himself in the artwork and act out characters for his team.

WATCH | Animation director Andrew Strimaitis demonstrates his home studio set up:

Animating and working from home

3 years ago
Duration 0:51
Guru Studio Animation Director Andrew Strimaitis explains how he collaborates and instructs his team from home

Guru's art director Michelle Junkin Booth doesn't miss her daily commute from Brantford, Ont., to Toronto. She says her team has actually increased their productivity. It's been successful she says, "because everyone's able to grab the artwork ... and draw over it simultaneously."

Before the pandemic, Falcone says there was already interest in the studio's material, but the shutdown in other sectors of the industry has accelerated that. 

As a company that can develop and produce new content, Falcone says Guru is now fielding calls on new service productions.

The 8th season of the Canadian-animated preschool show Paw Patrol is on schedule with employees now creating content from home. (Spin Master Entertainment)

Just as with Guru, the office of Smiley Guy Studios is a ghost town. Staff are busy at their respective homes, rushing to make the live-action TV show One Day at a Time into an animated special. When the show, seen on the Pop TV network, was forced to stop taping in front of a live audience, producers reached out to the Canadian studio responsible for the animated version of Corner Gas.

"We were asked if we would be willing to jump into the fray and turn around an episode in record time," CEO Jonas Diamond says. Working together with Ottawa studio Big Jump Entertainment, they're delivering in six weeks what would normally take 30, with all staff working remotely. 

Given the current conditions, Diamond expects more animated adaptations on the horizon. "As the stark reality starts to set in, the challenges of going back to a giant set with lots of people touching, this will be something that many other live action shows explore," he says. 

In fact, NBC recently announced plans to add animation to help complete the season finale The Blacklist starring James Spader. 

WATCH | Eli Glasner speaks with voice actor Tara Strong about recording in isolation:

Voice actors adapt to the pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 1:15
L.A. based Canadian voice actor Tara Strong talks about working remotely in the age of COVID.

For established voice actors such as Canadian Tara Strong, working from home is nothing new. Strong is known to cartoon fans as the voice of many characters such as The Teen Titans' Raven, and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls.

Typically, Strong uses her home studio in Los Angeles for auditions and recording promos. Now, she's recording four-hour sessions for Dreamworks and Warner Brothers. 

Those auditions could become competitive. "There's always been a fair amount of celebrity A-list talent wanting to do voiceovers," she says. 

"It's just that right now in the entertainment business, it's the only thing still up and running so there's a mad dash to participate."

A Canadian cartoon advantage

In Vancouver, as reported in the trade journal Playback, Wow Unlimited Media announced plans to double the size of their animation division to capitalize on increased demand. 

Smiley Guy Studios CEO Jonas Diamond believes there's opportunity for Canadian animation studios to benefit. He says part of what makes Canadian animated studios special is their ability to do everything from concept to completion.

Typically, bigger American animated shows are written in North America but the artwork is done overseas.

In Canada, especially in children's animation, the tradition is do to everything in house. Diamond says having everything under one roof gives Canadian animators an advantage.

"So I do feel like this is an opportunity, especially given the fast turnaround that's going to be required, where there can be more done within Canada. So I'm cautiously optimistic that this will not be a one off, but there will be many more to come."


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.  

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