Spinning a spell of cartoon magic

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1986

Spinning a spell of cartoon magic

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1986

Spinning a spell of cartoon magic


The film’s animated stars, a gaptoothed man and his cross-eyed wife, are deadlocked in a game of Scrabble. They both have nasty habits. As they play, she removes her eyes and rattles them around in her hand; he slices up the furniture with a saw. Midway through the game, she goes upstairs to vacuum the bathtub while he falls asleep in front of the TV. And neither of them hears the voice that interrupts the program to announce the outbreak of “a severe worldwide nuclear war.” That scene is from The Big Snit, the one Canadian-made contender at next week’s Oscar presentations. Produced by the National Film Board (NFB) and directed by Winnipeg’s Richard Condie, The Big Snit is a little snippet by Hollywood standards—a 10-minute, $128,000 cartoon. But it serves as the latest proof of Canadian prowess in animation: of eight Oscars awarded for animation since 1977, Canada has won four. Said Douglas Macdonald, executive producer of English animation for the NFB: “We have a tremendous pool of talented animators. Ani-

mation is a very Canadian thing.”

Canada earned its reputation as a world animation capital through the NFB, which has been nominated for 51 Oscars since it was founded in 1939— 19 of them for animated shorts. But more recently, several private Canadian studios have had a major impact in the commercial domain of children’s films once ruled by Walt Disney’s empire. The Care Bears Movie, a cartoon feature by Toronto’s Nelvana Ltd., was the top-grossing Canadian film last year, with a North American box office revenue of $25 million, making it the most profitable non-Disney animated film in history. This week a sequel by Nelvana titled Care Bears Movie lí: A New Generation opens in about 1,500 theatres across the continent.

Meanwhile, The Raccoons TV specials, created and produced by Ottawa’s Evergreen Raccoons Productions for the CBC, have found an audience in 20 countries from Australia to Iran. And in the United States the masked mammals of the Evergreen Forest have become prime-time stars

of syndicated television. Despite rising costs and severe competition, Canadian-made animation has helped to reinvigorate an industry that was stalled in the stilted rhythms of Saturdaymorning TV cartoons. Declared Michael Hirsh, one of Nelvana’s three partners: “There has never been a more exciting time for animation.”

But producing animation is a costly, intricate and precarious venture at the best of times. Although the NFB spends only about $1 million a year producing animated shorts, commercial producers may gamble as much as $8 million manufacturing a full-length cartoon movie. And the chronic financing problems that afflict Canada’s film industry are magnified in animation, which is more labor-intensive than live action. Said William Stevens Jr., chairman of Nelvana’s main Canadian rival, Atkinson Film Arts: “The problem in our industry is that we are producing a very expensive product that cannot be supported by the Canadian market alone.”

Still, Canada has a unique source of talent to fuel its industry. Of North

America’s three animation schools, the most comprehensive one is at Toronto’s Sheridan College. With 200 students enrolled in its threeyear program, Sheridan produces about 45 trained animators annually. In fact, 1983 graduate Jon Minnis won last year’s animation Oscar for Charades, a humorous fiveminute student film he made at Sheridan. “It was a portfolio piece,” he said. “I just hoped to show it around and get a job.” Minnis, 36, works at Michael Mills Productions Ltd. in Montreal, a commercial studio where he animates TV ads for everything from motor oil to ice-cream bars.

Run by Thomas Halley, who helped animate The Beatles’

1968 feature Yellow Submarine, Sheridan now attracts students from around the world.

The NFB has been an international mecca for animation for three decades. In an increasingly regimented industry, it offers animators an unusual degree of self-expression. British-born Eunice Macaulay, 62, who joined the NFB’S staff in 1971, said it has a legendary reputation outside the country. “We grew up knowing about it,” said the animator. “For us, the film board was like an Aladdin’s cave.” Indeed, one of the two nominees competing with Richard Condie for the animation Oscar next week is Britain’s Alison Snowden, who recently moved to Montreal with her Canadian husband and is now making a film for the NFB. Snowden produced her Oscar entry when she was a student in London. Titled Second Class Mail, it is the brief but explosively funny story of an elderly woman who orders an inflatable man by mail. Pursuing the theme of old-age romance with the NFB’s support, Snowden, 26, is now making an animated love story about a pensioner infatuated with a woman living across the street. Modestly, Snowden describes it as “a silly story about this bloke who gets born and goes through life and dies.”

The NFB nurtures a wide variety of idiosyncratic styles. Currently, Vancouver’s Kevin McCraken is filming images directly off a computer monitor to create a robot character in an otherwise hand-drawn cartoon, while in St. John’s Anne MacLeod is animating images with back-lit colored sand to make Sea Urchin, a story about a fisherman who snags his net on a whale. In most cases, the NFB’S animation shorts are handmade by a single artist who does all the the drawings—as

many as 7,000 for a 10-minute film. The same person might also write the script, produce the sound and edit the film. Said the NFB’S John Weldon, a 1979 Oscar winner: “We don’t have an assembly-line approach here.”

By contrast, creating a cartoon feature for the commercial market requires almost a year’s work from an assembly line of up to 300 people. Even then, the animation quality is inferior to the meticulous standards set by Disney. During the 1950s Disney’s Holly-

wood studio spent six years producing Sleeping Beauty, a perennial favorite that was rereleased this month. But the Disney tradition of investing each second of film with 12 richly detailed drawings has become too expensive. For most studios, eight drawings per second, producing jerky results, is now customary for so-called “full” animation. Said Raccoons executive producer Sheldon Wiseman: “Anyone trying to produce to Disney standards today would lose money.”

Even with lower standards, commercial animation is a risky business. In fact, Canada’s largest animation studios—Toronto’s Nelvana and Ottawa’s Atkinson Film-Arts—have both teetered on the brink of financial ruin in recent years. Nelvana almost collapsed in 1983 when its Rock V Rule—an animated rock ’n’ roll feature that took three years and almost $8 million to make—failed to win theatrical distribution. And last October the production of an 11-part, $4.7-million Raccoons series for the CBC stopped for two months after a bitter financial dispute erupted between the show’s creative producers, Evergreen Raccoons Productions Inc., and Atkinson’s animation studio.

Evergreen challenged the studio’s cost efficiency, and Atkinson said that the producers had not been paying their bills. Atkinson chairman Stevens said: “We pulled the plug on the project because we were losing a lot of money.” The studio finally resumed production after the Evergreen producers agreed to provide another $250,000. Already aired on the CBC, the

first six episodes of the Raccoons series have won high ratings. Now, amid an atmosphere of continuing acrimony, Evergreen and Atkinson are completing the remaining five episodes, scheduled to air on CBC next season.

Nelvana has chosen the safe option of becoming a subcontractor for bankable American properties. Lucasfilm, the U.S. creators of Star Wars, hired the Toronto firm to animate its Ewoks and Droids series for Saturday-morn-

ing TV. And Ohio’s American Greetings Corp. and Kenner Parker Toys commissioned Nelvana to produce the two Care Bears movies. To create Care Bears II, Nelvana adopted a cost-cutting formula favored by the major American animation studios: it subcontracted the routine drawing and coloring to animators in Taiwan and Korea. But at Atkinson, Stevens says he is determined to keep his company’s work in Canada, even if that occasionally involves hiring students slightly above the Ontario minimum wage of $4 an hour. “How long will it be,” he said, “before the Asians capture our market and dump their animation in Canada?”

Stevens has a legacy to maintain. Founding Atkinson in 1974, he merged it with Canada’s oldest film production company, Crawley Films, in 1982. Last year Atkinson produced a bittersweet Christmas story adapted from Canadian Lynn Johnston’s syndicated comic strip, For Better or For Worse. Aired last December it drew an impressive 2.5 million viewers on CTV. The studio has also animated The Velveteen Rabbit and Rumpelstiltskin for CTV and the U.S. cable network Home Box Office. Its current projects include a half-hour cartoon with music from the rock group Rush, a Babar the Elephant special for release on CTV

next Christmas and a decidedly uncomic animated film on rifle ballistics for the federal defence department.

Despite its diverse activities, Atkinson has still not scored a huge commercial windfall with an in-house production. And it has no share in the marketing of the Raccoons characters, which have spun off some 50 licensed products ranging from pyjamas to rubber masks. Nor does Nelvana own the Care Bears movies, which originated

as epic advertisements for a $500-million-a-year stuffed-animal empire.

Merchandise has become a controlling factor in big-budget animation. Care Bears II is shrewdly designed to sell a whole new generation of toys, Care Bear Cubs, which are just younger versions of the original characters. The film, as saccharine-sweet as its predecessor, conjures the happy childhood of the Care Bears, which cavort among the clouds in the rainbow-riddled Kingdom of Caring. Meanwhile, spreading hatred among the mortals below is a satanic demon named Dari Heart, who can transform himself into a variety of vicious red-skinned animals. But in his heart of hearts, Dark Heart is just a naughty boy in a scarlet jogging suit, and at the end of the film even he joins the forces of sweetness and light.

Canadian animation often provides a soft-edged alternative to the raucous violence that pervades American TV cartoons. In stark contrast to the brutal heroes of Masters of the Universe, the Raccoons are peaceful denizens of the Evergreen Forest, resisting the creeping capitalism of aardvark archvillain Cyril Sneer. Still, with its lowkey Canadian charm, The Raccoons has penetrated the U.S. market—and a measure of its quality is that it became the first non-Disney animation to appear

on the U.S. cable’s Disney Channel.

Yet Canada’s most distinctive animation is aimed at adults. The NFB’s work conveys a unique perspective, often marked by a black sense of humor. And no joke is blacker than nuclear war. In fact, the first NFB film to win an animation Oscar was Norman McLaren’s Neighbours; like Condie’s Big Snit, it portrayed a domestic dispute ending in atomic attack.

Shy and soft-spoken, Condie is casual about his Oscar nomination: “I have talked to other animators who have won, and they say it’s not a big event,” he said. In any case, The Big Snit has already won the International Film Critics Prize at animation’s most significant annual festival in Annecy, France. And it received the Hiroshima Award at Japan’s Hiroshima Festival-recognition for its wry comment on the nuclear nightmare.

The Canadian character seems wellsuited for animators. “Canadians are a restrained people,” noted the NFB’s Weldon. “And animators are actors who are too shy to go out onstage. We act on paper.” Over the years their activities have become bolder. And as television mesmerizes new generations of children with its Saturday-morning rituals of cartoon violence, at least some Canadian artists are working to cast gentler spells with animation’s magic.