Will the next Mr. Disney please stand up...
Never one to misread his audience, film director Clive Smith sauntered into a roomful of investors last month, a shadow of his flashy self. Gone was the usual black leather getup —jacket, pants and matching tie. Only a handful of silver rings sparkled discreetly against his cream blazer, a small concession in dressing down for this buttoned-down Bay Street affair. Slipping self-consciously into a seat among doctors, lawyers and assorted entrepreneurs, Smith and his partners in Nelvana, Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert, focused their eyes on their feet as investment dealer Michael Harrison mounted his pitch for Drats, their first feature film—a $5.4-million rock musical being parcelled out in units of $5,000. Bargain basement, argued Harrison, because this film is animated—no actors to fuss about money and overtime. Dirt cheap, he promised, considering the musical talent they were going after—Deborah Harry, Tom Petty, Meat Loaf, maybe even Mick Jagger. Middle-aged eyes glazed at the names. Feet shuffled. “And believe me,” vowed Harrison, “this is one group of guys that won’t be hiding the proverbial Rolls Royce in the budget—maybe a small Toyota but not a Rolls.” The crowd tittered in appreciation; this they understood.
Ten years ago the notion of this gathering would have been absurd: 150 of
Toronto’s best, brightest and betterheeled flocking to the Chelsea Inn to sip coffee at the cocktail hour and see about investing their well-taxed cash in an animated feature film that wasn't made by Disney. But in the next few months Canadian investors will be offered a chunk of still another animated feature, Ivan (Meatballs) Reitman’s Heavy Metal Presents; and of the four animated features in theatres next Christmas at least half will be homegrown. With the cushiest tax breaks for film investors in the world (outside of West Germany), a healthy tradition in animation at the National Film Board and some of the most ambitious young talent anywhere, Canada is leading the perennial race of animators around the world: who will be the first to fit Uncle Walt’s shoes? Like a celluloid Sleeping Beauty, character animation is waiting to be kissed out of a 30-year doze, an interlude that has let the jerky stickmen figures of Saturday morning cartoons give the art of animation a bad name.
The Nelvana animation studio has spent almost a decade grooming itself to win the race—with not so much as a 10-speed bicycle hidden in the streamlined budgets of its high-quality efforts. It has done its warm-up exercises on award-winning half-hour television specials, carefully choosing and nurturing a staff of more than 100 animators and production people. With Drats this young studio, now one of the 10 largest
in the world and unarguably the most successful in Canada, takes off its training shoes, determined to rescue animation from the nursery and, with the help of science fiction, special-effects wizardry and pop music, enchant a generation that has grown up taking trips to the moon for granted. “After 30 years, there is much more to be done in animation than Disney did,” says Smith. “We’re taking the best of his approach —his storytelling, his production methods—and applying them to further our own ideas.” Coupled with a seemingly tireless energy, Nelvana’s commitment to quality has made them the odds-on favorite in international circles. “They are very unique, creative people doing the finest of character animation,” says Jamie Kellner, who, as vice-president of Viacom, gave Nelvana its first break in U.S.-television. “They are the rebels of the business, constantly proving they can do things others think impossible.”
Rebel is a polite word for Nelvana’s public image when it was founded. “We were perceived as hippie weirdos who spent a good six years being what I would call failures,” recalls Hirsh. Back then, Nelvana was only the latest on a long list of business ventures dreamed up by Hirsh and Loubert, a list that ran the gamut of selling candles on street corners at Christmas to co-authoring The Great Canadian Comic Books (Nelvana was named after one of them). It was a partnership that had started at
York University in the late ’60s when the two spent weekends making “experimental film” such as a classic version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter set in a supermarket, an effort that Loubert calls “crazed.”
In 1971, with 75 cents and their personal Chargex cards, they founded Nelvana (known briefly as Laff Arts) in a dirt basement, commissioning Smith, then a successful free-lance animator, to design the company’s stationery. The result—a little man on the front of a card who dropped his pants on the inside-cemented the relationship. Smith, whose weekly salai y dropped to $25 after his move to join Nelvana, marvels at the group’s naïveté: “Why we thought that card would appeal to people in the commercial business is beyond me.” Quite simply, the card didn’t; Nelvana got its first financial break when a saleswoman cut Loubert’s badly overextended Chargex card into little pieces and a bank manager finally agreed to lend them enough to pay their debts and start production. Even with this boost, the three seemed to exist mostly on yogurt mixed with a large dose of innocence. Dressed in suits from the Salvation Army, they made the rounds of Toronto commercial houses looking more like Mafia hit men than aspiring film-makers—an image only reinforced by their accountant who, suffering a nervous breakdown, attacked their bank manager with a magician’s wand and accused him of corrupting the $2 bill.
Their savior finally appeared in the form of the CBC which, in more than one effort to keep the wolf from Nelvana’s door, contracted five 13-minute children’s films. “It was really kitchentable production,” says Smith. “I was doing backgrounds, storyboards, animation and shooting the film with a camera in our bathroom.” He was also the star of this Monty Pythonesque se-
ries, dressing up as the original HB conehead in Mr. Pencil Draws the Line. When they found they had misread the contract and had one more film to make on a blown budget, Smith climbed into his Halloween costume (green garbage bag, green tights and flippers) and paraded around town, creating Mr. Rubbish ’s Children ’s Tour of the Big City. This Sisyphus-like progression—two steps forward, three back—could have continued for years had their new accountant not suggested they get out of the film business. “This was a guy on our side saying that we should declare bankruptcy,” says Hirsh. “When most people would have folded, we decided to expand and get more aggressive. It’s called creative capitalism.” Their weekly salaries, having spiralled to $125, were cut back to $75 and they whipped together a half-hour television special, The Christmas Two-Step. This was the last time Nelvana mixed its animation with live action: the CBC
grabbed the show, but U.S. broadcasters didn’t even nibble. “They wanted live action or animation, not a curious combination,” says Hirsh.
With visions of Disney dancing in their heads, the three plunged blindly into making A Cosmic Christmas, a 30minute fully animated film which was cranked out at the painful rate of 11 seconds a week. “We burned the midnight oil to do stuff the Disney people could do in their sleep,” says Frank Nissen, hired for the film and now Nelvana’s director of animation. “Animation is like anything—once it stops being practised and enough time passes, the knowledge is lost. It’s like asking a 10-year-old what Buddy Holly sounds like.”
If the process was a struggle, the timing was a blessing: the 1976 film taxshelter ruling flushed out investors for
the $250,000 project and the story of Peter and his goose, Lucy, showing three extraterrestrial wise men the meaning of Christmas, adding space glitter to a sentimental season, was tailor-made for the audience of 1977, already smitten with Star Wars. Even so, Hirsh, selling the film in the U.S., came up against the brick wall that plagues animators on the fringe: it wasn’t Mickey or Charlie Brown. “Who is this Peter?” asked one broadcaster. “Why don’t you have Santa stop an alien invasion? Now that I’d buy.” Finally Kellner at Viacom, the largest U.S. supplier of independent syndicated programming, gave them a break. “Their story was original, which is unusual, their use of music was novel and they went beyond the standard,” says Kellner. “They entertained and still got a point across. Who the hell can argue with that?” Almost no one, it seemed. A Cosmic Christmas, seen by 15 million in North America, had the widest degree of syndication in the U.S. except for Lawrence Welk. In the next three years Nelvana produced four more original shows hitch-hiking on well-known themes: The Devil and Daniel Mouse, a rodent The Devil and Daniel Webster; Romie-0 and Julie-8, Shakespeare with a mechanical twist; the Intergalactic Thanksgiving, of pilgrims in space; and last month’s Easter Fever, a rabbit Roots. Their five-star formula was a delightfully cluttered visual style, vocal performances by the likes of Sid Caesar and Garrett Morris and by far their greatest talent—Smith’s brilliant choreographing of action to musical scores by ex-Lovin’ Spoonful John Sebastian. The rest of Nelvana history rivals Rocky: director George Lucas chose them over major U.S. studios to animate a segment of the 1978 CBS Star Wars Holiday Special; and Viacom, having sold the specials in 33 countries, collaborated in another five-picture
deal, the first of which, The Day the Earth Made the Playoff's (music by Rick Danko of The Band), will run during this year’s World Series.
With Drats, Nelvana goes back to Square 1, once more tangling with the unknown. “Cosmic was a little island that we had to grope our way around, but it was a graspable shape,” says Nissen. “This feature is like a cliff with a plateau on top that goes on and on— no discernible end.” Set in the “medieval future” and peopled by creatures called Drats, this morality tale is loosely based on the Pied Piper legend: Mok, a megalomaniac rock star and a shape-changer, uses mind control music plus the local electrical supply to kidnap
Angel, the lead singer of a rival band. The film’s finale is a musical battle between Mok and the hero Omar. “No one has come up with the perfect combination of animation and music,” says Hirsh. “We’re trying to structure a musical experience that will be as exciting for the ’80s as Woodstock was for the ’60s—a major musical event.”
If Drats is to be any kind of event, it must appeal to teen-agers, the box-office bonanza group. Since the mid-’70s, animators have tried to captivate a larger audience with a style less cloying than cute little bunnies and less raun-
chy than the X-rated efforts of Ralph Bakshi—randy Fritz-the-cats spouting obscenities. Nelvana’s special strengths should be the ticket. By next month it will be one of two studios in the world to own a $250,000 special effects computer which will help it devise the visual fireworks to compete with next year’s blockbustering Superman II and Star Wars ///—effects that Loubert admits will “scare kids’ socks off.” “We’re going beyond Disney, dealing in areas of myth the Disney people left off in their recent work,” says Nissen. uStar Wars was myth, adventure and science rolled into one; we’re going to do the same thing in a magical way through animation.”
If Nelvana has designs on matching Disney’s creativity, it also has taken a long look at Disney’s empire. By itself, a good animated film has a life of 20 years or more (last year’s re-release of 1961’s 101 Dalmations reaped $7.3 million); Nelvana is already looking at the goldmine of pay-TV and video-disc sales. It is also starting a merchandising kingdom, piggybacking its characters into book,
record, puzzle and, soon, T-shirt licences. In fact, much of the appeal of an investment in Drats is a share in ancillary profits which Hirsh predicts will account for 40 per cent of Nelvana’s income in five years. Drat watches? The Wonderful World of Nelvana? Hirsh shrugs: “Three years ago I couldn’t see us doing puzzles.”
For the moment, he and his partners, all in their early 30s, are enjoying the luxury of working weekends on a film they spent years dreaming of. Their fantasy factory, a no-frills studio in a waterfront warehouse, still has a warm
clubby atmosphere: a cafeteria where juice is freshly squeezed and four pinball machines serve as “safety release valves for animators,” posters announcing the Monday afternoon movie and a color department where paint is labelled “Lucy’s bum” or “Mayor’s mouth.” The animators, cast closely to the characters they draw, are taking drama lessons twice a week; slender Charlie Bonifacio, drawing Dizzy, a tubby bass player, is being coached on obesity.
But the casual air is deceptive: these people are still running a race—one that is all the more interesting considering the competition. Ivan Reitman, who approached Nelvana to make his film and was turned down, promises he is making “the most original animated feature of all time.” Budgeted at $7 million, this film is costing Reitman more than all his money-makers put together—an ominous commitment from one who seems to know the public better than his own mother. At this point Hirsh is guarded in gauging the outcome: “There is going to be a scramble
in the next few years to be the next Disney. I’m not sure that anyone can be exactly that again, but there will be one top producer of animated films and we’re striving to be that company.” Listening to Nissen, who is not quite so guarded about his passion, the winning becomes a moot point—either way Nelvana can’t go wrong. “We are the last magicians,” he explains earnestly, leaning forward to make his point. “We have the potential, in a day and age when everything is thoroughly logical, to bring people magic. At Nelvana, that’s all we are after.”