The Academy Award-winning Hollywood animation studio Pixar, which is set to launch Toy Story 3 in June, opens its new studio in a historic Vancouver building for an invitation-only sneak peek this morning - one of the highlights of what has become an exciting year for the city's digital-animation and visual-effects industry. At a time when U.S. production is in the doldrums here, no fewer than three American studios are opening up shops in Vancouver: Pixar, Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, which plans to formally announce its Vancouver studio next month.
The reasons for the boom appear to be three-fold: Vancouver's talent base, its proximity to - and shared time zone with - Los Angeles and the digital-animation or visual-effects tax credit offered by the B.C. government.
"We felt that Canada and Vancouver specifically offered the right blend of advantages that we were looking for," says Amir Nasrabadi, general manager of Pixar Canada's Vancouver studio. "We felt that we could not get all three of those things anywhere else."
Pixar, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, whose films include Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall• E and Up, is currently working out of a 7,000-square-foot facility, but hopes to expand the operation to up to 25,000 square feet.
The Vancouver studio will make short films featuring the company's so-called legacy characters, such as Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story and Lightning McQueen from Cars. The shorts, meant to keep the characters and the franchise top-of-mind, will be distributed through a variety of channels in the Disney empire, including theme parks, DVDs and its website. Its first project, involving one of the company's well-known characters, will be unveiled this morning.
"We have no intent on doing feature films here and we have no intent at this point of doing the original shorts," Nasrabadi says.
(Pixar's original shorts are what launched the company; it was its 1986 short Luxo Jr., about a couple of anthropomorphized desk lamps, that put the company on the map.)
Gloria Borders, president of feature film operations with Hollywood's Digital Domain ( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Titanic), which opened a Vancouver operation in January, says Pixar's arrival is good for the Vancouver market over all. "Pixar opening up shop, there is going to be a huge plus," Borders said from L.A. last week. "It's just raising the bar [in terms of the]artists that are going to be knocking on Vancouver's door."
Digital Domain's Vancouver shop is currently working on Tron: Legacy and Thor. Up next: the Dreamworks project Real Steel.
"I can tell you that every film that we're working on right now has a Vancouver component," Borders says. "So it's quite an array of great projects that are going to be coming up there."
Next month, Sony Pictures Imageworks ( Alice in Wonderland, 2012), the animation and visual-effects arm of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, will announce its plans to open a Vancouver studio this spring.
Along with the studios already operating in Vancouver, including Rainmaker Entertainment, it's a boom time for young animators and the schools that educate them.
"It's huge," says Marty Hasselbach, managing director of the Vancouver Film School. "Vancouver is definitely on the map in terms of CGI and digital animation."
Adds Dennis Chenard, director of industry relations for the Centre for Digital Media: "Even with the [high]Canadian dollar, there's still a lot of production work happening here. ... There's a lot of talent in this town."
Another big Hollywood player could be next. Both Hasselbach and Chenard say the interactive-entertainment software arm of George Lucas's company Industrial Light & Magic (best known for the Star Wars films) is thinking about expanding north.
"LucasArts is definitely looking at Vancouver," says Chenard, who says his students have had some face-time via Skype with Skywalker Ranch, the company's creative headquarters.
LucasArts did not respond to a request for comment by deadline yesterday.