For a man who’s been tapped to lead a marquee series of projects at Ottawa’s fastest-growing animation studio, David Gerhard had a somewhat awkward introduction to the art form that’s dominated his professional career.
“When I first started watching cartoons when I was really little, I remember being really afraid of them,” he tells OBJ with a chuckle. “Rocky and Bullwinkle would come on, and the colours and the sharp contrasts actually kind of scared me. But I soon fell in love with them once I got over that fear. My mom raised me on a healthy dose of Ren and Stimpy, Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
Gerhard, 42, has continued to cultivate that affection over more than a decade as an animator and director for a number of prestigious studios south of the border, including industry heavyweights such as Warner Bros. and the Cartoon Network.
After six years at Nickelodeon’s studios in Burbank, Calif. – including the past two as the creative director of the animation giant’s alternative media team – Gerhard decided to leave sunny southern California for the Great White North. He started a new job as creative director of Ottawa’s Atomic Cartoons in early November, overseeing teams working on projects for NBCUniversal.
The Hintonburg studio has been on a hiring tear since opening its doors in late 2018. The headcount at Atomic’s Wellington Street workplace has risen to nearly 50, with another hundred or so employees expected to be brought on board by the middle of next year.
Atomic has quickly made a name for itself as producer of the Netflix series Last Kids on Earth, a show about young students battling zombies. Its deal with NBCUniversal, one of the world’s largest media organizations, is sure to accelerate that momentum.
“I like the projects that they’re working on and the direction they’re heading,” says Gerhard, adding he was ready for a new challenge after spending most of his career to date in California.
“(Atomic) just seems like the right fit. Ottawa has this rich (animation) history and the energy behind the artistic vision of Ottawa is growing. I think it’s just gonna be a really fun and interesting ride to grow with this studio and grow with the animators and artists in Ottawa.”
At Nickelodeon, Gerhard was a driving force behind cutting-edge advancements in technology that included a virtual reality experience featuring characters from the network’s 2D-animated series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even putting his skills as a puppeteer to good use playing Donatello.
The studio was a “lovely home” that let him spread his wings as an animator, he says.
“I’m a bit of a tech geek on top of being an animation geek,” he explains. “I got to do a lot of new, innovative storytelling stuff that was just a lot of fun.”
Gerhard, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., and studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, is now looking to build on those experiences in Ottawa.
The nation’s capital has long been an animation hotbed. The Ottawa International Animation Festival has been running since 1976, and the city is home to more than half a dozen acclaimed studios that include Mercury Filmworks, which now employs nearly 300 people and recently won an Emmy for its work on the Netflix series Hilda. Meanwhile, a $40-million sound stage that’s expected to open next year on Woodroffe Avenue will include four sound stages for film and TV productions as well as office space for animation firms.
Atomic might be the new kid on the block, but it comes with an impressive pedigree. Its Vancouver head office has 500 staff and has produced series for some of the biggest names in the industry, and Gerhard can’t wait to get to work putting the Ottawa location on the map.
He says the explosion of social media platforms and video streaming services and the use of new software technology are revolutionizing the industry. In contrast to the traditional 22-minute episodes of the past, today’s animated shows are often 11 minutes or less, and many are produced in a non-linear format better-suited to platforms such as Snapchat.
“It’s actually sort of an exciting time to be making animation because there’s so many different (elements) to explore,” Gerhard says. “It all comes back down to creating good characters and good stories. The tech is really just a fun way to explore that.”
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