Canadian Animation After (well, sort of) the Pandemic

When I spoke to various studio reps in 2020 and 2021 for a series of articles on Cartoon Brew about the state of things in Canadian animation, the general thrust was that life was pretty good. There were challenges finding animators, especially qualified ones, and some very mild pains adjusting to remote work (though not much since remote working was going on before 2020) but beyond that, life was pretty good. Streaming was creating more opportunities for original material than ever and unlike their live-action counterparts, the animation world transitioned into the pandemic period quite smoothly.

But, where are things in mid/late 2022 where we find ourselves in a world of chaos? Now there’s a monkey virus, inflation, war, increasing socio-economic division, national staffing shortages, and the pandemic doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. 

It seems like a fine time to distract ourselves and check in on some Canadian animation studios to see how they’re fairing in these strange times. 

Search for qualified talent is as fierce as ever

Even before the pandemic, Canadian animation studios were in steady competition for staff, especially qualified and experienced artists. As we crawl towards the pandemic exit ramp and hear daily about staff shortages throughout the country, is the animation world also facing the same staff shortages? 

“One of the wonderful things that came out of the pandemic was dissolved borders and greater choice,” says Craig Young, Head of Production at Jam Filled. “Companies in the US that would only hire in-house staff (pre-COVID) have now opened the virtual doors to WFH [Working from Home] Canadians in their PJs. Same within our provinces; we’d avoid hires who couldn’t come in-studio, but that’s a thing of the past. It’s made competition for staff beyond fierce and we’re all feeling the pinch. It’s also forced studios to treat their staff exceptionally well.”

“It has been challenging, especially filling certain positions in CG pipelines,” admits Jennifer Twiner McCarron, CEO, Atomic Cartoons (Studios in Ottawa and Vancouver). “We’re trying to invest in the industry to help overcome it. Atomic has been conducting training internally and is in the process of setting up an industry group to develop more storyboard artists. We’ve also established scholarships in local high schools to get students interested in a career in animation. We’re trying to lift the industry overall, not just our company, through our investment in growing future talent.”

“The sheer demand for content through the pandemic thinned the supply chain,” says Jane Crawford, Head of Studio, Nelvana. “It was incredibly hard to find crew, let alone with the right skill set, plus rates went up because talent knew they could demand more because of this. So going out of province for some work was required – a big loss of ONT tax credits on a couple of shows. The other challenge was lack of hardware and graphic cards (which affected all industries).”

WFH vs Hybrid model: the key is flexibility

Hybrid or remote employment was also a trend in animation well before the pandemic, but how are studios adjusting as more people return to work? There were always issues - not often addressed in the media - about just how healthy it is to close the boundaries between work and home. Sure, on the surface the idea of working in your PJs and avoiding frustrating commutes or parking/car expenses seems ideal, but is it a good thing that we allow work to invade our private lives so profoundly? Is it good (and I say this as someone who has worked on the hybrid model for many years) to work in a solitary space away from humans?

“Our teams are spread out across London, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, LA, and multiple locations in India; everything is designed to work in hybrid mode,” says Gavin Graham, General Manager, DNEG Montreal. “If someone wants to come into the office full time they will have their desk, if they want to come in occasionally, they can reserve a space through our booking system. If our employees can perform their duties in the comfort of their own homes, they are welcome to. We understand work from home can be isolating at times but we set up events as often as possible to bring employees together - via Zoom and in-person.”

“Working from home is our new reality,” adds Craig Young. “Except for those who prefer to be in office, we aren’t planning to change anytime soon.  We do encourage new grads or folks who might be struggling to adapt to a new series to come in for one-on-one training, but it’s in no way expected. That said, there are more and more people wanting to come back on their own. We have a great community and miss each other’s company. It’s nice to laugh and chat with a person from time to time, rather than your pillow.” 

“Animation is a collective, a team sport, made up of individuals,” says Guillaume Dubois, Vice-President of Production at Mercury Filmworks. “This summer we launched a hybrid model intended to create the best of both worlds: the flexibility to choose a work-from-home schedule and studio days where we’re all in-studio together. The synergy and vibe we experience on studio days are refreshing, and even those who might have been reluctant to work in-house have come to enjoy being around friends and colleagues again, learning from and communicating with each other in 3D again!”

“For now we plan to be flexible,” adds Jane Crawford. “We surveyed and most crews want to remain 100% WFH for the time being. So we’ve set up ‘hoteling’ stations for those who want to come in 2-3 days a week. It is true though that while most people have been just as productive WFH, the lack of human contact is a detriment mentally – especially for those hired during lockdown who are fresh out of school and have no studio context – plus there are concerns about the lack of face time to mentor and help the crew grow and promote plus you cannot just walk down the hall and ask someone a question. I suspect back to the studio will be more prolific in 2023 as more folks feel safe to do so – BUT I bet a larger percentage of folks will stay WFH vs pre-pandemic.”

The end of a golden age?

Finally, there’s the issue of the work itself. Animation, thanks to the rise of streaming services, has experienced a bit of a golden age in recent years. There have never been more opportunities for original productions than at any previous time in animation history. Two years of people being stuck in their homes didn’t hurt the cause but now that tide may have turned. In 2022, there’s been a decline in streaming viewership. That’s not entirely surprising after two years of pandemic-related restrictions. Many people may want to turn their screens off and change their daily habits. Even Netflix has suffered. The last year has seen Netflix Animation struggling on many levels. (e.g. firings, cancellations, and a shift away from creator-driven projects). Pandemic aside, none of this is entirely surprising. The market has just been drenched with content. Everything that rises eventually falls so are we seeing this ‘golden age’ slowly come to an end or at least a major adjustment?

While Young says Jam Filled is “busier than ever”, and McCarron believes there’s “a shift from quantity to quality”, Jane Crawford believes that “streamers have become more cautious now” since the recent Netflix Animation setbacks. “As the content boom tapers off in the future, the supply chain will improve as a ripple effect,” adds Crawford. “I’m not sure what is more concerning, lack of work or lack of people – that perfect balance is hard to achieve a lot of the time.” 

“It's a major adjustment for sure,” adds Frank Falcone, President and Executive Creative Director of Toronto’s Guru Animation. “It’s also potentially a big opportunity for Canadian creators and producers to fill the demand now that US streamers are once again looking for value and partnerships.

“After collectively sprinting to keep up with the demand during the pandemic, the marketplace is taking a breath,” says Guillaume Dubois. “A lot of valuable data was gathered and learnings from this amazingly experimental period are going to propel things forward once again with what will most likely be a more balanced mix of originals and branded content. In this more targeted phase of content creation, the stakes will be higher and the need for robust studio partners will be greater than ever.” 

Chris Robinson
Chris Robinson is a Canadian writer and author. He is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) and is a well-known figure in the animated film world and was recently given the 2020 award for Outstanding Contribution to Animation Studies by the World Festival of Animation Film - Animafest Zagreb. Most recently he received the Rene Jodoin Prize for his contribution to Canadian animation. Mastering different methods and styles in critical and scholarly approaches, Robinson covers a broad range of Canadian and global subject matters in his books Estonian Animation: Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Canadian Animation: Looking for a Place to Happen, Ballad of a Thin Man: In Search of Ryan Larkin, Animators Unearthed, Japanese Animation: Time out of Mind and Mad Eyed Misfits: Writings on Indie Animation In addition to his writing on animation, Robinson also wrote the Award-winning animated short, Lipsett Diaries (2010) directed by Theodore Ushev. Currently, Robinson is writing a book on the history of collage animation and is working with German artist, Andreas Hykade on My Balls Are Killing Me, a graphic novel about his experience with cancer. He is also collaborating with Theodore Ushev on a live action feature film, Drivin’.
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