Algonquin College names Mercury Filmworks' Jerry Popowich alumnus of the year

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Jerry Popowich is partner and vice-president at Ottawa's Mercury Filmworks. Provided.

Jerry Popowich remembers the day he told his high school guidance counsellors in Thunder Bay he wanted to draw animated cartoons for a living.

“They were like, ‘Go work in a paper mill,’” he says.

So Mr. Popowich set his artistic ambitions aside and joined three of his brothers punching a clock at the local mill in the Northern Ontario city.

“I guess the joke kind of went that, ‘Well, if I don’t get into animation, at least I can make the paper that those lucky people that know how to (draw) work with,’” he says with a chuckle.

After he’d been on the job nearly nine years, an old football teammate who was enrolled in the animation program at Algonquin College happened to join the mill’s crew for the summer and told Mr. Popowich what he was studying.

“I almost lost it,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What? You can do that in Canada?’ He said, ‘You should try it out.’”

At the age of 28, Mr. Popowich finally decided it was time to stop making paper and start drawing on it.

“If that didn’t happen, I don’t know, man,” he says of the chance encounter that changed his life. “I got lucky.”

Today, the 53-year-old is a partner and vice-president at Ottawa’s Mercury Filmworks, one of Canada’s most recognized animation studios. Over a 25-year career, he’s had a hand in some of the most popular animated series of all time, including the Simpsons, while working with the world’s biggest studios, from Disney to Marvel.

“I still draw Homer today,” he adds, laughing. “It’s kind of a party trick.”

In his roles as an artist and a studio executive, Mr. Popowich’s work has garnered wins and nominations for almost every television award in North America, including Emmys, Annies and Pixies.

He also has a spot in the Algonquin College Hall of Fame, and Wednesday evening, Mr. Popowich will return to his alma mater to receive Algonquin’s Alumnus of the Year Award. He’s being honoured for his contributions to what has become a thriving industry in the capital, where four major studios simply can’t find enough talent to keep up with demand.

“This industry has grown over the last 15 years, and it only seems like it’s getting busier,” he says.

It’s a far cry from the job market that greeted Mr. Popowich when he graduated from Algonquin in 1992.

Painting Santa Clauses

“I still remember driving around in my Chevette with no brakes to paint Santa Clauses on windows of coffee shops trying to make ends meet,” he recalls. “At that time, the industry was not what it is now.”

He eventually landed a position at now-defunct Funbag Animation Studios, where he spent the next decade. In 2003, he joined forces with Mercury founder Clint Eland, who was in the process of relocating his studio to Ottawa from its original home in Vancouver.

“It was a great kind of marriage between the two of us,” Mr. Popowich says. “He brought all his business sense, and I brought the creative and the people.”

Since then, Mercury Filmworks has grown from a fledgling studio with 15 employees to a bustling enterprise that employs 270 people. With justifiable pride, Mr. Popowich notes that nearly 80 per cent of the company’s workforce studied at Algonquin.

“There are thousands of (Algonquin grads) now that have jobs in Ottawa and across the country,” he says. “A lot of talent has come out of that college, and a lot of talent has come out of our studio and is still in our studio.”

Among the talent Mercury produced is Trent Correy, an Algonquin graduate who worked at the firm for several years before moving over to Disney in 2012. Mr. Correy will join his former colleague and mentor on stage Wednesday night when he receives the college’s Creative Arts and Design Award.

“A lot of talent has come out of that college, and a lot of talent has come out of our studio and is still in our studio.”

Mercury currently has about 120 animators on its payroll but could easily accommodate far more, Mr. Popowich says. The studio turns down jobs on a weekly basis, he says, because it just doesn’t have enough staff to take them on.

“We want to keep doing the work, but with the shortage of animators, it’s tough,” he explains.

Knowing how close he came to giving up on his dream, Mr. Popowich says he hopes his award will help inspire a new generation of artists to follow through on theirs.

“Growing up, I drew cartoons all the time. I was always doodling. I wasn’t the best academically, but I think that’s OK. I think it’s OK to let some kids know out there that you don’t have to be the smartest guy in class, but if you can draw, there’s an industry out there that you can be quite successful at, and it’s quite lucrative, too.”