Animated new wave
Canada's second-largest city, an industry hub since the forties, has seen a resurgence in recent years as a crop of small studios bring a wave of new activity to the city
Animator Ted Ty worked for 22 years at DreamWorks and Walt Disney Animation, with in-house software that he says was to most other studio programs as the Starship Enterprise is to the Wright brothers' first plane. Coming from projects such as Kung Fu Panda and Penguins of Madagascar, Ty was curious to know what kind of creative challenge a small studio based in Montreal could offer to induce him to leave the starship and become animation director for a relatively low-budget animated feature film.
What he got, and a big reason he took the job, was "tons of trust and control over animation style and casting decisions" – something not easily found at a blockbuster-oriented company 10 times the size of l'Atelier Animation. But Ty also saw his move back to his hometown as a way to get in on the most happening new scene in feature-length animation.
"It's a really exciting time in Montreal," he said in an interview. "Projects are popping up and the talent pool is bound to grow."
Studios are popping up, too. A year ago, the British animation and visual-effects company Cinesite launched a major new facility in Montreal, with the declared goal of making nine animated features over the next five years. Cinesite, which also bought Vancouver animator Nitrogen Studios in March, initially predicted it would have a Montreal staff of 500 by 2020, but now expects to reach that number by the end of this year.
In September, ON Entertainment – Paris-based producer of The Little Prince and the forthcoming untitled Playmobil movie – announced that it too was opening a Montreal studio for animated feature films. The company plans to make one feature-length animation every two years, and to have 300 animators working in Montreal by 2019.
"You're going to see a tremendous explosion of activity in Montreal over the next five or 10 years," said Warren Franklin, consultant executive producer for Comic Animations, one of Cinesite's production partners.
"It's kind of reversing the talent drain of the 1990s," Franklin said, referring to a time when Canadian animators such as Ty left the country for jobs in the United States.
Montreal has been a centre for animation since the early 1940s, when Norman McLaren set up Studio A at the National Film Board. The digital revolution and a favourable tax regime have brought a wave of new activity to the city, which now has about 40 companies employing about 3,000 specialists in animation, visual effects and digital-production services. Montreal now ranks fourth in the world as a centre for those activities.
Most of the city's animation and effects studios work as subcontractors, producing one or a few components of a larger production. The recent shift towards a single studio realizing an entire animated film is new for Montreal, and is driven by further technological and social changes that have cleared the way for projects much smaller than Finding Dory.
Cinesite has allied with animated-film company 3QU to make four features in Montreal, starting with Charming, a comedy featuring the voices of Demi Lovato, Avril Lavigne and John Cleese. Cinesite is also planning four titles with Comic Animations, beginning with Klaus (written and co-directed by Sergio Pablos, who developed the story for Despicable Me) as well as a feature project with actor Jeremy Renner's production company, The Combine.
Cinesite received a $2.4-million loan from the government of Quebec to create its Montreal studio, and a further $19.6-million loan guarantee to assist financing of the first three films. Another big incentive for all players in the scene is the tax regime, which allows for deductions of up to 42 per cent of costs.
"The tax situation is phenomenal," said Dave Rosenbaum, a veteran Hollywood production manager ( Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda) who moved to Montreal last year as Cinesite's chief creative officer for animation. Years of preferential industry taxation have created a virtuous circle, he said, in which increased production draws more talent, which in turn attracts further production and increases local training opportunities for animators.
The Little Prince, the first product of Montreal's animated-feature boom, played at the Cannes Film Festival and in cinemas in 50 countries before its Canadian and U.S. release last year. The $80-million production was nominally based in France, but director Mark Osborne told The Globe that "every frame" had been made in Montreal. Most of the work was done at Mikros Image, whose current projects include a First World War feature animation called Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, with leading roles for Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu.
Sgt. Stubby and many other features planned for Montreal are in the $20-to-$40-million range, well below the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster. The revenue streams and expectations are different too. A big DreamWorks feature must have a massive theatrical presence, driven by a tsunami of advertising and third-party promotions. The smaller Montreal features will still target theatrical release, Rosenbaum said, but will also be able to look at streaming as a primary revenue source.
"At $20- to $40-million, you can sell to content providers like Netflix or Amazon and still make back your money," he said. The new math is already affecting live-action films such as I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a modestly-budgeted feature that won a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was released straight to Netflix a month later.
A Netflix release doesn't require massive promotion, Rosenbaum said, because the subscribers are already there. Planning an animated feature for an audience more likely to watch on a home-based or even hand-held screen means less elaborate background composition, he said, and therefore lower production costs.
Rosenbaum said that small-budget features also allow the studios to be less tied to mainstream taste than a production that has to earn $1-billion to be a success. Cinesite recently acquired the rights to all of silent-cinema comedian Harold Lloyd's films, for a series of as-yet-undetermined animation-related projects.
"If it turns out that Harold Lloyd only appeals to cinephiles, that's okay with us," Rosenbaum said.
When Ted Ty moved to Montreal in 2014, l'Atelier Animation had yet to make a full-length feature. His first with the company was its first too: Ballerina, a 90-minute film that opened in Canada on March 3. It employed 34 animators, only four of whom were not Canadians.
Unlike Cinesite and Mikros Image, which still do contracted visual effects and production services, l'Atelier Animation plans to focus on long-form animation as much as it can. It has joined with two British production companies to make an ongoing series called Robozuna (now showing on Netflix), and it's developing a second feature called The Bravest, about firefighters in 1930s New York.
"There's a lot of farming out in this industry," Ty said. "We could just be a service studio, but we decided against it. Ballerina was entirely our project, and that's the whole idea – to be a purely original-content studio."
Ballerina cost about $30-million – roughly a third of the per-minute rate at a big Hollywood studio, Ty said. There was no leeway for the kind of expensive second thoughts typical of blockbusters he has worked on, but the small scale also provided a creative high that's harder to reach in a bigger shop.
"There's something nimble and flexible and very direct about me having contact with the producers and discussing the script, and helping with the story and planning the characters throughout," he said. "When it comes to animating the characters, all that will hopefully give them more depth."