Northern Delights

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Talking with some of the invariably optimistic players in the Toronto commercials animation picture, it seems that while the favorable exchange rate can only help attract U.S. business, everyone considers it nothing more than a mildly useful bonus. Though the competition is intense in a comparatively small and insular marketplace, business would be good one way or the other, they claim - although the availability of creatively challenging work, especially of the homegrown variety, may be another matter.

At Redrover, creative director Andy Knight says, "We haven't suffered too much from the recession at all. It seems to be business as usual. I hear some grumblings, but the work flows pretty steadily." Knight is a native Canuck who started his company in the U.K. as a cel animation house and moved it back home five years ago, where it's mutated into a mixed-media machine with a live-action and graphics sister company called Hero Films. Knight says the U.S./Canada job breakdown is roughly 50-50, and the Redrover reel boasts some choice American jobs. Among them are Snickers' "Voting Booth, from BBDO/New York, in which a voter is pestered by a shoulder-perched donkey and elephant; the AOL Moviephone "Lil' Red Riding Hood" parody, a cinema spot from Mad Dogs & Englishmen in New York; and Puma's soccer superheroics, called "Cameroon," from Gyro in Philadelphia. Though it may not appear to be the case, "there's not a spot on our reel, with the exception of Moviephone, that doesn't have CG on it," says Knight. "The Puma, for instance, is cel with some CG in there. We couldn't get the look we wanted in CG, so we used the CG as a function of the 2-D. Even the Snickers has tracking compositing, which is a 3-D program. The most obvious way to go with CG is with something that's photorealistic, but there are things you can do with it on a design front that are much more advanced." Knight is particularly proud of a new Toyota Matrix spot, from Saatchi & Saatchi/Toronto, in which Redrover animated live action. "It's a Canadian spot that was picked up for American release. That doesn't happen very often."

Started by a producer/director team from Toronto animation house Topix, Guru Animation Studio is not yet two years old - a company born in the recession? "People were a little shocked that we started an animation studio in this marketplace, but we've been really busy," says creative director Frank Falcone. At the same time, Guru has yet to do its first U.S. job. "Our first year was a mix of Canadian and Mexican projects," says executive producer Anne Deslauriers. "Our second year has been exclusively Canadian." Guru specializes in 3-D character animation, and the reel is, unsurprisingly, buoyed by the "candy and breakfast food work that tends to be the bread and butter of the business," says Falcone. "In the States there are more adult products being marketed with animation," adds Deslauriers. "There's even more in the U.K., but in Canada it tends to be segregated to the kids' products." Continues Falcone, somewhat enviously, "I think there's more risk taking going on in the U.K., by far. They use animation to sell beer." In comparatively conservative Canada, "when they do animation for children, they traditionally favor cel, but that's changing. You can make a case for 3-D looking more sophisticated, and many brand managers are seeking that wider appeal. While CG may be more expensive on a spot-to-spot basis, the money you save doing a campaign in CG more than makes up for it."

Among Guru's gigs are an inventive Nabisco Planet Snak campaign, from FCB/Toronto, and a cute Hershey's CG campaign, out of Mexico. Interstitials for YTV, sort of the Canadian Nickelodeon, have a lot of juvie attitude. But the Gurus admit they're still seeking what they'd consider an outstanding "adult" creative challenge. "We're definitely looking for animation that throws away some of the preconceived notions of animation," says Falcone. "We'd like to co-create rather than adapt work. We want to creatively grow with the medium - and it's a pretty flexible medium."

Julian Grey and Steve Angel, formerly at Toronto's Cuppa Coffee, opened Head Gear Animation in 1997. "We're a boutique that does an eclectic style of animation, so for us things have actually been pretty good," says Angel. "For traditional character animators who work on traditional commercials, I think it's been tough. But the last year and a half have been our best ever." Especially in light of the recent Carmichael Lynch "Heads" spot, for Ikea (see Creativity, The Work, March), which involves live-action heads on stop-motion bodies. "It's clearly the job that's getting the biggest airplay and the one we could best sink our teeth into creatively," says Angel. "It looks pretty lush, we had a lot of time to work on it. And the competition was American, as well as the great Aardman in the U.K.," he adds with satisfaction. How'd Head Gear win out? "They saw a film I'd done, called Sam Digital in the 21st Century, for Nickelodeon, which used the same head/body technique, and they really liked it."

Angel estimates 60 percent of Head Gear work is American-based, with a lot of broadcast design work for Disney, the Sundance Channel and Nickelodeon. They've done some eye candy for candy, like Jolly Rancher in Canada, "but we tend to stay away from established characters," he explains. "People will not be coming to us with Tony the Tiger boards." But Head Gear does do cel-based work, as in a great-looking Dove spot, for O&M/Toronto, and in fact the company does everything except CG. The breakthrough Ikea spot has no CG, which may come as a surprise to many viewers. "People think a lot of what we do is CG," notes Angel. "We don't know whether to take it as a compliment or what. We're building puppets and props and moving them frame by frame in front of the camera in the old Godzilla style - but hopefully much better. We do a lot of compositing in post that involves computers, but we don't create imagery there."

Meanwhile at Cuppa Coffee Animation itself, which embraces all animation formats, president/executive producer Adam Shaheen, who opened the company in 1992, pooh-poohs any Canadian exchange rate advantage, while noting that he's busier than he's ever been. "I always contest the idea that if you pay a certain amount of money for 30 seconds in Canada, the same money in the U.S. would get you two thirds of a spot," he says. "When people come here, it's not because they have the value of a dollar on their minds. It's because we offer a different kettle of fish." But that kettle has few commercials and a lot of broadcast design work. "The recession last year did reduce the number of the commercials being made, hence the number of animated commercials being made," he admits. "But this year we're seeing five times as many boards."

However, "it's the longform kids' programming and the broadcast design that offers us the greater creative latitude," Shaheen says. "Advertising tends to be a little tighter. But when they do come to us it's not, 'Here's a board, go execute it.' They want us to drive some of the creative." Cuppa Coffee has done its share of commercials, for clients like Coke, Fujitsu and ESPN2, but "we stay away from traditional animation," Shaheen says. "We specialize more in the bent side of mixed media; that's the work we choose to do. I don't go after cereal commercials." The "bent" style of HBO's Crashbox series of a few years back remains a prime Coffee stimulant. "Taking the mixed-media approach into kids' programming, there was some talk that it wouldn't work, there was too much going on for kids to digest," Shaheen recalls. "Kids do get mostly visual Prozac, but there's a market for sophisticated stop motion and mixed media for them." With 90 percent of his business U.S.-based, "the States have always been that much more progressive, looking for new ideas," laments Shaheen. "It's a smaller market in Canada, and it's a safer market." One Canadian high spot is the film title work for Toronto-based director David Cronenberg. Cuppa Coffee did the creepily evocative title sequences for Existenz and the upcoming Cronenberg release, Spider. "Our work was very much Cronenberg's cup of tea - excuse the bad pun," quips Shaheen. And there's an American upside to this too, he notes. "Now we're starting to get calls from Hollywood."