What’s the fastest route for a cartoon artist to plummet from his second-storey office into a boardroom?
The castle of dreams at Cartoon Conrad is a retrofitted farmhouse where Luke Conrad and his team work on projects for animation giants like Universal, Netflix, Warner Brothers, and Disney.
Since age four, Conrad wanted to make cartoons. He aspired to be an animator for Disney in Burbank, Calif. Originally bound for an established animation program at Sheridan College in Toronto, Conrad opted instead for a then-new NSCC animation program in Truro, because a high-school friend was going too. “I thought I’d do that first, and then I’ll go to Sheridan,” he recalls.
Midway through his studies at NSCC, an animation company named Caleidoscope snatched him up. As the youngest of 40 employees, he faced a steep learning curve. “I was trained more on the paper side in school, and then when I got my first job it was all digital,” he says.
He considered going to California, but it didn’t feel right. Burbank became his backup plan.
He registered a business name, Cartoon Conrad Productions, planting a seed in 2003 that sprouted in 2004 when he rented his first office space at a church. “I had set up my computer and my desk,” he says. “I had no clue how to get work.”
Conrad had difficulty seeing himself as a business owner. “One day it just dawned on me,” he says. “It’s not about wearing a suit. It’s about connecting with people and doing a good job.”
Soon he was building relationships through local and Canadian connections, bringing in more work than he could do himself. Conrad invited others like animation director Adam King to join him. “He sacrificed a good job to be beside me and help out,” Conrad says.
They’ve worked together for 12 years. “I don’t know why I did it, because I took a huge pay cut,” King laughs. He adds that the company he previously worked for went out of business a couple of years later.
King describes Cartoon Conrad as an accordion surviving a challenging industry, as it expands and retracts as work comes and goes. “The fact that we are not only still around, but we seem to grow in little steps every year, is something I’ve always been proud of,” King says.
The business was incorporated in 2007, and by 2010, Cartoon Conrad was working on the CBC project Razzberry Jazzberry Jam. The growing team moved to a larger space but soon the unexpected happened. “Seventy per cent of our work came from one company ,” Conrad says of Trapeze Animation’s P.E.I. location that “ended up just shutting their doors.”
The accordion squeezed, and Conrad’s crew shrunk from 40 to five. “It was insane,” he says of the layoffs. In an effort to change his business model, Conrad’s relationship-building approach to business went international; he started attending film festivals in New York and Los Angeles.
At what Conrad calls “our lowest point,” he switched from renting a business space to building a community. In 2012, his vision saw past critters and dust to the soul of the abandoned farmhouse sitting on 1.6 hectares in Beaver Bank. After taking six months to clean up the property, he moved 10 artists in just as the international relationship seeds started to sprout.
As a “service studio,” Cartoon Conrad is often a third-party doing varying portions of animation projects. Lalaloopsy, a number one show on Nick Jr. featuring animated ragdolls going on adventures, was among the harvest of work, but it didn’t come easy. After initial interest, Conrad “felt like it was starting to kind of slip away.”
“I just hopped on a plane, went to the studio, showed up and ended up talking to them and convinced them to give us the project,” he says. “It was like a $2,000 ticket which was a lot of money at the time for me, because it was so slow.”
Cartoon Conrad animated one episode and received feedback that the client clapped at the end of the screening. Additional episodes led to four years of work.
A Netfix project, Kulipari-An Army of Frogs, was another seed. By 2015, Cartoon Conrad ballooned to 100 staff. “Adam and I were carrying a lot of weight,” Conrad says. “We had a [business] structure for 40 people. We didn’t have a structure for 100 people.”
The larger projects ended, and the staff retracted back to 40. Conrad recognized that a new business model was needed to prevent burnout, allow time for personal creativity, and support future growth. He consulted experts and hired key people.
Cartoon Conrad’s employee base now runs at 60 and the business is growing steadily. New properties meld with the original farmhouse land like spokes on an expanding wheel. Inside studios that were once homes, rows of headphone-wearing artists create cartoon worlds.
Conrad’s former instructor at NSCC, Peter Labelle, still teaches in the animation program that he helped pioneer in the late ‘90s. He says Conrad is a talented animator who has always given back. “He could have worked anywhere in the world, but he decided he’s from Beaver Bank, and he wanted to stay there to raise a family,” Labelle says.
Labelle brings his students on field trips to Cartoon Conrad’s offices to show them what’s possible. He says the unusual location prevents the company from getting too corporate and that Conrad tries to keep people employed in a business that goes in cycles. “I always tell people it’s a really good place to work. They really treat their people well,” Labelle says.
Katrina Walsh, a former senior vice-president at DHX media, owns Boulevard Productions in Halifax. From 2016–18, Cartoon Conrad was the animation house for Addison, a show she produced for Six Eleven Media that airs on CBC. She describes Conrad as a problem-solver who is successful because he surrounds himself with talented people.
“With any new production, there are always growing pains and everybody getting on the same page, but what I really liked about working with them is Luke is very collaborative,” Walsh says.
She says when first visiting Cartoon Conrad she sensed the community atmosphere. “That is great comfort to a producer,” she says. “People who are happy in their work environment are more productive.”
Conrad’s turned down three offers to buy out his business. “That’s not what I want my legacy to be,” he says. “You constantly have to remember the reason you started.”
As a child, in the early morning he spun the dial on the television set and stared at the “coloured blocks” until suddenly, “O Canada” blared and cartoons began. “I had to build my own world with what I had,” he says of his upbringing.
It was once Conrad’s dream to move to Burbank. Instead, he chose Beaver Bank, the community where he “could find a friend anytime.” It’s here where Conrad plants relationship roots that ground him when he shakes hands with CEOs and celebrities in California and beyond. It’s here where artists animated the latest Woody Woodpecker project.
Conrad dreams of building more: a live-action studio, artist housing, writing rooms, a café, and a school. “To be able to get to that goal, we need to start creating our own material,” he says. “We’ve been holding ideas for many years, kind of waiting for the right timing.”
And it seems like now is the time.
“When I first started, in one way I didn’t think very highly of myself,” Conrad says. “You could go your whole life without giving something a shot.”
Reality show rejects
Luke Conrad and Jock Hiltz rode the wave of 13 reality shows, auditioning whenever they could, just to get on TV. Conrad says at first it seemed a distraction from animation, but it ended up being valuable experience.
“What you didn’t see behind the scenes was that they all wanted to make a deal,” Conrad says of their 2009 Dragons’ Den appearance. “We just wanted another rejection.”
The pair asked themselves, “What are people trying to do, and how can we not do that?”
For So You Think You Can Dance, they brought guitars. The Canadian show tossed them out, but the American show gave them a minute of airtime.
Cubicle to the Cage filmed them as seagull breeders living in a van, barbecuing frozen waffles, and baiting seagull traps with french fries. They appeared on the show, but this footage didn’t air.
In Recipe to Riches, they stuffed Stampede meat into a duck, burnt it, and wrote a song about “a herd in a bird.”
The second time around on Dragons’ Den the duo made a deal. They also filmed two seasons of their own Eastlink show, Nova Scotia Revealed.
Now Luke and Jock pitch together for real internationally. “We can pass the puck really easily,” he says. “In the end, it’s all stories.”