Business

Not just a toy story

Vancouver’s Mainframe plans to expand its offerings

December 22 1997
Business

Not just a toy story

Vancouver’s Mainframe plans to expand its offerings

December 22 1997

Not just a toy story

Vancouver’s Mainframe plans to expand its offerings

Chris Brough is one of those men who commands attention. Not only is he an eye-scaling six feet, four inches, but he talks with lickety-split speed, spitting out

figures and comments faster than a television remote control can scan stations. These days, peo-

ple in the entertainment industry are listening to Brough closely, not

only to catch every phrase, but also because his Vancouver-based company, Mainframe Entertainment Inc., has made television history, creating the first animated shows using a technology called computer-generated imaging, CGI for short.

Better still, those two programs are among the most popular animated series in North America. Beast Wars, a show about robots that transform into animals, is the top-rated cartoon among American kids aged 2 to 11. (In Canada, the series’ name was changed to Beasties after broadcasters objected to the word “wars.”) And ReBoot, whose characters reside inside a supercomputer and battle both computer games and viruses, is number 1 on Canada’s YTV. Both shows air in 63 other countries. “There was a lot made about digital animation when the movie Toy Story came out,” says Paul McGuire, a YTV host. “But ReBoot had already been on TV in Canada. It was groundbreaking.” There are other animation companies using computer technology to create entertainment—including Pixar, the company behind Toy Story, and Toronto-based Nelvana, makers of Donkey Kong Country. “But Mainframe has a good lead,” says Jonathan Robinson, media analyst with First Marathon Securities in Toronto. “It’s constantly upgrading its capabilities with new software.” Unlike the traditional artists over at Disney, most of Mainframe’s animators are twentysomething computer nerds who spend their days in darkened rooms hunkered over Silicon Graphics workstations, programming characters to talk and move. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, is their patron saint, and they have taken his ideal of special effects into the world of animation. “At Mainframe, we have created a virtual world with characters, scenery and vehicles,” says Brough, who at 50 is the resident Mainframe Methuselah. More prosaically, McGuire says ReBoot and Beasties are “eye candy, plus the stories are really good.”

Six months ago, Mainframe went public with a $37-million offering

on the Toronto Stock Exchange. “We had to create a war chest to expand so we could do feature films,” says Brough, the company’s CEO and a former producer and director of such shows as The Flintstones and Yogi Bear for Hanna-Barbera Studios. The company lost $5.4 million in the six months to Sept. 30—but Brough says that is normal for a young, rapidly growing company. Four years ago, there were 30 employees. “In the beginning, we were running this company out of a couple of hotel rooms wired with machines and cables,” Brough says. Today, there are 220 people using $10 million worth of computer equipment on 2V2 floors of a downtown Vancouver building.

Using the software it developed in-house, Mainframe is now expanding its offerings. There is another children’s series in the works,

to be called Age of Chaos, along with a prime-time science fiction show for adults. “Adults like the stuff we do,” Brough says. “The imagery is mythic and compelling, the men are big, the women are sexy, so we think there is a broad audience out there.” Mainframe learned that adults were watching ReBoot—in fact,

YTV says a third of the audience is over 24—and so this season the show has taken on a darker tone and the boy hero, Enzo, has morphed into a muscled teenager, becoming a match for the equally muscled and shapely female lead, Dot.

In conjunction with IMAX, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company that specializes in large-screen movies, Mainframe has created a hightech motion-simulator ride in which 18 passengers are immersed in the action on a four-metre-high, 180-degree screen. The firm also is talking to U.S. studios about feature films. There are video games in the works and an existing relationship with Hasbro Inc. to produce Beasties action figures. All of this is dizzying stuff for a company that got its start because of a 1985 rock video. Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, which was animated by Mainframe’s founders using CGI technology.

Compared with ReBoot and Beasties, the Dire Straits’ video was technically crude, but it inspired Mainframe’s three founding British animators—Ian Pearson, Gavin Blair and Phil Mitchell—to consider an animated television show. The late Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, helped to introduced them to Brough, who liked their work. “The big challenge for every studio is to beat Disney,” says Brough, who was then living in Los Angeles. ‘You don’t want to make anything that remotely resembles their stuff. If you make an image that looks so different, so startling, then you’ve got a leg up.” In 1993, Brough and his three newfound partners moved to Vancouver, whose attractions included the cheap Canadian dollar and skilled animators.

Mainframe is hoping to create feature-length films in the near future. “The challenge for us,” says Brough, who owns close to 20 per cent of the company, “is to find new properties that we think have vision and soul, and to turn them into something people will want to watch. We know we’re never going to replace traditional animation. We just think we’ve come up with another way to tell a story.” A story that has compelled kids from around the world to turn on their television sets.

JENNIFER HUNTER in Vancouver