With live-action productions at a standstill, Ottawa's animation industry is booming

Chris Wightman
Chris Wightman, studio manager at Atomic Cartoons Ottawa, says the animation company can barely keep up with demand for new content. File photo

As of the city’s leading animation studios, Big Jump Entertainment is no stranger to working on animated spinoffs of popular live-action series such as Trailer Park Boys.

So when Big Jump president Rick Morrison recently got a call from a friend at Toronto’s Smiley Guy Studios asking for help making an animated episode of a live-action show that had been forced to halt production due to the COVID-19 pandemic, naturally he said yes.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to jump on, and I thought maybe this is something that (could be) bigger,” Morrison says.

With live productions at major film and TV studios now at a standstill and millions of captive viewers around the world hungry for fresh content to help pass time during the lockdown, animation studios are suddenly finding their services in greater demand than ever, industry insiders say.

And animation companies in Ottawa, which has long been an industry hotbed, are no exception.

Big Jump is now teaming up with Smiley Guy Studios to deliver a special animated episode of One Day at a Time, U.S.-based Pop TV’s reboot of the popular sitcom from the 1970s and ’80s. 

Producing a completely animated episode of a live-action series is almost unheard of in Hollywood, but with the novel coronavirus putting the brakes on any work that requires large numbers of people to gather on a set, the rules have suddenly changed. 

Morrison says companies like his could help fill the void. He says he’s already exploring other potential opportunities with studios in California that have either halted production of live-action shows or are thinking of switching to animated versions of series that had been developed with live actors in mind.

“This could be a branch for a whole other revenue stream or industry product,” he explains, adding his 120-person operation has been steadily hiring new talent throughout the lockdown as Big Jump and Smiley Guy rush to meet Pop TV’s deadline later this spring.

Big Jump is far the only local animation studio that’s on a hiring binge. 

Hintonburg-based Atomic Cartoons has job openings across the board as the company looks to boost its production staff and ramp up its IT department to help animators furiously turning out episodes for streaming services such as Netflix work more efficiently from home.

“The phones are ringing, that’s for sure,” says studio manager Chris Wightman, whose company now employs about 65 people and expects to add at least another 35 by this fall as it begins work on a new one-hour animated feature for NBCUniversal, among other projects.

“We all feel very blessed that we’re in an industry that hasn’t really missed a beat and in fact is probably picking up steam.”

Wightman, a former Olympic athlete who helped launch the Ottawa production hub for Vancouver-based Atomic in late 2018, says the city’s animation facilities were already going at full tilt before the pandemic hit to satisfy demand for content from streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus. COVID-19, he says, has done nothing to quench that thirst. 

“Every studio in the city is busy right now,” he says. “The demand is growing, for sure. We’re hearing it and feeling it. 

“We were all looking for more talent and more artists to help with the productions, and that hasn’t gone away. Now there’s even more demand. It’s a good problem to have.”

At Ottawa’s Mercury Filmworks, founder and CEO Clint Eland says his 320-person studio was already operating at full capacity before the lockdown. While he hasn’t noticed any uptick in demand for new products from a roster of clients that includes Netflix, Disney and Amazon, he says major studios are suddenly putting far more emphasis on animated series. 

“Eighty per cent of their content production just went dark,” he says. “They’re much more focused on animated content because it is the only content being made right now.”

Wightman notes that the pandemic has also altered the way his industry works. He says today’s technology allows animators to work seamlessly from home, adding most of his employees say they’re just as productive now as they were in the studio. 

That realization could have benefits down the road, he adds.

“It really will allow us to expand our capacity in the future when things can get back to any sense of normal,” Wightman says. “We’ll actually be able to keep people working from home, which creates a great work-life balance. People have always wanted to work from home. We haven’t had the technology to really do it very effectively, and now we will.”