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Halifax animators bring worlds to life

Local animation studios are wowing audiences around the globe and building an industry at home in Nova Scotia

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A small but thriving animation industry in Halifax affords artists like David Fernandez a chance to ply the craft in Nova Scotia. Photo: Chris Muise

If you’re a parent raising children today, you’ve probably seen the slapstick adventures of five adolescent superheroes, Teen Titans Go. Even if you’re not, there’s still a good chance you’ve seen it. It’s a ratings juggernaut, one of the most-watched kid’s show on earth.

But you probably don’t know they make it in Halifax, down the street from the Seaport Farmers’ Market. The show is written and voice acted in Los Angeles, but Warner Bros. hires Copernicus Animation Studios on Barrington Street to animate it. About half the episodes are produced in Halifax (Copernicus shares this contract with a studio in Vancouver, which animates the rest).

“People are very surprised that it’s done here,” says Copernicus co-founder and vice-president Murray Bain. “They think you have to go to Hollywood to work in television, or work in the movies, but ideas can be anywhere.”

Historically, overseas studios have done much of Hollywood’s animation. “We’re the overseas now,” jokes Andrew Holland, another co-founder and VP at Copernicus.

When it comes to the Halifax animation industry, Teen Titans Go is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of after-school and Saturday morning programs are made here, as part of a small but robust animation industry that’s one of Halifax’s hidden gems.

High-profile projects like Teen Titans Go, or DHX’s Inspector Gadget reboot, didn’t come overnight. The Halifax animation industry has been percolating for the last 15 years or so.

“When we started, we outnumbered the employee of one,” says Bain, who co-founded Copernicus with Holland and Paul Rigg, the company’s president. They formed after Rigg’s visual-effects company folded and the others lost work at a studio creating dot-com company training videos. Their first was a series of short animated snowman commercials for Eastlink.

Studios like Copernicus employ many Nova Scotians as animators, but also attract talent from
around the world. Photo: Chris Muise

Meanwhile, DHX started out doing stopmotion projects like Poko as the Halifax Film Company, before merging with Toronto-based Decode Entertainment. Now computergenerated cartoons are its bread and butter. Copernicus works in Flash animation, which is technically computer generated too— scenes begin and end on computer screens. It’s one part computer and one part traditional hand-drawn animation, as artists draft images by drawing on the screen.

“We call it tradigital,” says Rigg, adding that in the past, Halifax couldn’t have been home to this sort of business. “The digital revolution… the speed of the Internet, has enabled this.”

Phillip Stamp is DHX’s vice-president of current productions. “When I joined the company in 2012, we had about 65 artists and support crew working here,” he recalls. Now, in 2017, we have over 240… “There’s been a huge expansion just of capacity and where we’re selling our shows to.” DHX has six shows in production and two in development at the studio today, versus just one of each when his tenure began.

By absorbing an already-established media company, DHX owns the rights to many of the shows it makes. Copernicus, on the other hand, has always been a service producer, meaning that other companies hire it to make their productions; it doesn’t own any big-name intellectual properties.

Copernicus got its shot in the arm by impressing John Kricfalusi (creator of the 1990s Nickelodeon cult hit Ren & Stimpy) with work on a music video for Tenacious D that he was directing. “I think it helped our profile a lot, because he’s notoriously hard to work for, and if you can prove that you can make him happy, then it’s kind of like a stamp of approval in the animation industry,” says Bain.

He continues. “Eventually, our reputation grew to the point where bigger and bigger profile clients would trust us.”

More projects mean more animators. Rebecca MacInnes grew up in Cape Breton, devouring cartoons like Gargoyles, ReBoot, and Freaky Stories. Now she works at Copernicus as an animation supervisor. She wanted to be an animator for years, but didn’t expect to be able to do it in Nova Scotia. “I was worried that I’d have to go [to], I was thinking, Toronto or Vancouver or the U.S., heaven forbid,” says MacInnes. “I feel extremely lucky that I get to work in here. It still takes me time to realize that I go in to work and I draw every day, and the stuff that I do will be seen by untold numbers of people all over the world.”

These studios also attract talent from afar, too. David Fernandez is a 30-year-old layout artist; he draws the background art. He grew up in New York City but prefers it here. “There’s a lot of work for little compensation,” says Fernandez, who followed his wife to Copernicus after she landed a job there. “That fast-paced metropolitan life [was] starting to wear on me a little bit, and everybody’s just so angry all the time… everything is a little more relaxed [in Halifax], I would say. Nobody here is looking to get something out of you.”

Halifax’s atmosphere makes for a good studio HQ, according to Rigg. He also cites the city’s community of talented young professionals, thanks to the presence of great art scenes and NSCAD. But the best thing Halifax has going for it, according to Stamp, is the animation community that has grown here.

“It’s tougher in other bigger cities, where there are many, many, many other studios,” says Stamp. “If you’re an artist working in a studio there, you’re a hired gun. You know that when your job is done there, you’ve got tons of options to go elsewhere. But here, the artists are invested in the studios, because they come here and make this their home… It’s a real tight-knit community.”

“It’s to my benefit that Teen Titans Go is being made here, and I like to think it’s to other studios’ benefits that Gadget is being made here,” says Stamp. “It creates a nice ecosystem that everyone can be proud of all the work that’s being done in Halifax, whether you’re directly involved in it or not.”

The future of Halifax’s animation industry isn’t certain, though. Government support is vital. “It’s not just the government in power today,” says Rigg. “It’s the successive governments that need to say, ‘those industries need to be preserved and supported.’” And a big way to do that is to encourage more people to take up the craft. “[If] you’re talking to your kids or your grandkids, and you see some spark of talent or interest… they have a mindset towards perhaps technology and art… you can do that, and you can pursue it from here,” says Stamp.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story indicated that DHX owns the rights to shows created by another animation company. The story above has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

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