Vancouver-based studio expands to Ottawa’s burgeoning animation industry

Atomic
Atomic Cartoons Ottawa manager Chris Wightman. Photo by David Sali.

From his office in what used to be known as “Animation Alley,” Chris Wightman sees an industry drawing momentum from a world-class talent pool and state-of-the-art facilities.

Wightman, a digital media expert and former Olympic athlete, is the manager of the city’s newest animation studio, Atomic Cartoons Ottawa. The production hub for Vancouver-based multimedia firm Thunderbird Entertainment Group opened on Wellington Street West on Monday with a handful of employees and big plans to expand rapidly over the next couple of years.

Noting that the city’s first animation studio, Crawley Films, was located just a few blocks away on Fairmount Avenue, Wightman says it’s fitting that Atomic chose to set up shop in Hintonburg in a space once occupied by another key local player in the animation industry, Amberwood Entertainment.

“We’re really excited to be back in the neighbourhood and continuing that animation heritage where it all began,” he says. “Hintonburg’s a great spot.”

Founded nearly two decades ago, Atomic Cartoons now employs 500 people in Vancouver. With its West Coast office bursting at the seams and a major new contract with a huge U.S. streaming service on the horizon, the firm scouted potential expansion sites across Canada before choosing the National Capital Region.

“I know Ottawa; I love Ottawa,” says Thunderbird Entertainment CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron, a journalism graduate of Carleton University who attended film school in Vancouver and joined Atomic in 2011, four years before it merged with its parent company. “It just felt right on every level.”

Ottawa’s animated history

Wightman and Twiner McCarron say the capital’s rich animation history and critical mass of companies were key factors in Thunderbird’s decision to expand here.

The Ottawa International Animation Festival, held each fall, is North America’s largest such event. Meanwhile, seven major studios now call the city home, employing almost 1,000 animators who create content for major production companies from Disney to Marvel.

“They’re bringing world-class productions in and there’s world-class talent coming here,” Wightman says. “There’s room, we feel, for more. We’ve got more work than we can handle in Vancouver, and bringing it to a city that’s got a great talent pool is something that just made a lot of sense.”

One of the Ottawa studio’s first projects will be an animated series for Netflix, The Last Kids on Earth, based on the best-selling book series by Max Brallier.

Twiner McCarron says the office will grow slowly at first, employing about half a dozen people in the early going. But she expects Atomic’s Ottawa branch to be buzzing with up to 200 employees in the not-too-distant future as more projects come down the pipeline.

Ottawa film commissioner Bruce Harvey calls the National Capital Region “the birthplace of animation in Canada,” noting the first Canadian TV series ever exported south of the border was a made-in-Ottawa animated production called Tales of the Wizard of Oz.

Algonquin College and La Cité now offer world-class animation programs that attract students from across Canada and around the world, he says, while the region’s quality of life and relatively affordable housing make it an enticing draw for talent from out of town.

“The lifestyle here is a definite attraction,” Harvey says. “In Vancouver today, a lot of young animators either live with their families or they share housing together because it’s so expensive to try and get a place to live in Vancouver.”

Twiner McCarron agrees.

“I actually cannot believe the number of people who have raised their hands from Vancouver wanting to move to Ottawa,” she says. “The cost of living is a little unwieldy in Vancouver, and for young people I think Ottawa is a friendlier market if you’re looking to get into the housing market with a stable job.”

Setting the sound stage

Soundstage
A rendering of the incoming $40-million sound stage. Provided by the Ottawa Film Office.

A $40-million sound stage that’s expected to open in the city’s west end in 2020 will also offer a flood of new opportunities, proponents say.

The National Capital Commission and city council gave the green light to the partnership between the non-profit Ottawa Film Office and Toronto-based TriBro Studios last month, and construction could start as soon as the spring.

The Woodroffe Avenue site will include four sound stages for film and TV productions as well as office space for animation firms.

The new facility was a “nod to us that the city was committed to the industry,” says Twiner McCarron, adding it played a “huge” role in the company’s decision to come to Ottawa.

Animation already injects between $50 million and $60 million into the city’s economy in direct spending every year, Harvey says. He expects that number to keep growing as local studios continue to scale up.

“Right now, I would say if you’re a talented young animator, your chances of getting hired are 100 per cent,” he adds. “There’s not a lot of jobs that you can guarantee that in, but in the animation sector right now … if you are a good animator, you’re going to get hired.”

Neil Hunter, one of the co-ordinators of Algonquin’s animation program, argues the local industry is nowhere near reaching its “critical mass” yet.

He believes a state-of-the-art sound stage could trigger a whole new wave of related spinoffs in areas such as computerized visual effects, virtual reality, green-screen animation and motion-capture technology for gaming.  

“Atomic coming in, I think, is awesome,” Hunter says. “But it’s just one part of something bigger happening in all of Ottawa.”

Harvey echoes those thoughts, predicting the city could “easily double” the $100 million worth of annual film and TV production work it does within the next few years.

“We’re in a very fortunate position right now,” he says. “I’m a lucky guy.”