Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pixar in Vancouver Continued or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I've been quite surprised by the absolute glee that has resulted from the announcement that Pixar will be opening a studio in Vancouver. It is, of course, a good thing. However, I hope that the people celebrating are not blinded by the Pixar dust in their eyes. It is a good thing, but not a great thing. There are limitations relating to Disney, Pixar, general corporate behaviour and the nature of Canadian industry.

The good things are fairly straightforward. It's always good when there's an increase in employment opportunities, especially in the current economy. There will undoubtedly be educational benefits. Pixar will bring their rigs, their pipeline and their software tools and more people will have the opportunity to use them. While they are proprietary, the nature of software is such that once something exists, it is relatively easy to imitate. Just as Disney knowledge spread into the larger animation industry at the time of the 1941 strike, Pixar's approach will spread into Canada.

The Pixar name will enhance people's resumes and job opportunities. A commenter in the previous post seemed to believe I was endorsing Pixar by praising them "for being THE place." I was not praising them so much as pointing out a Canadian reality.

To date, Canada has no animation studios that can compete with Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, etc. Canadian studios have yet to produce an animated feature that grossed $100 million or attracted the same kind of critical attention. Furthermore, those features that have come out of Canada are based on scripts and stories that originated outside the country (Pinocchio 3000, The Wild, Everyone's Hero, 9, etc.) so even if any of those films had done well at the box office, it would have been a mixed endorsement of Canadian studios at best.

Canadian studios are aware of this. Therefore, when they see a resume with a big name studio on it, they see it as a mark of excellence. A studio better than a Canadian studio has seen fit to hire this person, therefore, they have no reason to question the person's skills. This attitude is not unique to Canadian animation. Many people go to Harvard for the opportunity to have it on their resume and many employers are happy to welcome Harvard graduates.

This does not mean that all graduates of Harvard or all former big studio employees are uniformly excellent. It also doesn't mean that people who came from other places are unworthy. However, when the hiring is being done by someone who is unqualified to judge someone's skills -- and that person might be from Human Resources or be a producer -- or if a company is in a hurry to fill a position, the right name on a resume is a shortcut to a solution. This is not fair, but it is a fact of life. Those people who work at Pixar Vancouver will be taken more seriously than those who work at other Canadian studios.

The last bit of good news will be determined by the quality of films that come out of Pixar Vancouver. If they are good, then the people who work on them will have the pride and pleasure of doing good work in an industry where that is rarer than it should be.

Now, on to the bad. The following quote comes from an email list I'm on. The author is a Pixar animator who has given me permission to reprint the quote but has asked to remain anonymous.
There are some factual errors in this article (big surprise). The Vancouver studio will only be producing ancillary work with legacy characters, like Cars and Toy Story. All the stuff that Pixar doesn't have the time or money to do to keep the franchises alive. The original shorts and DVD shorts will still be done in Emeryville. As I understand it, Pixar will still generate all the stories for the ancillary work, and the Vancouver studio will be strictly for production.
In other words, Pixar Vancouver is for outsourcing. It will be owned by Disney and not a service facility bidding on work, but will still be treated like a subcontractor. In essence, it will do the work that Pixar doesn't consider important enough to bother with itself. The article referenced above also states "John Lasseter, chief creative officer at both Pixar and Disney Animation, is not expected to spend much time at the Vancouver studio." That's because his time is too valuable to waste on what will be produced in Vancouver. I don't doubt that Lasseter will make an early appearance to give the staff a pep talk about what great work they're going to produce, but with the budgets, concepts and stories being worked out in Emeryville, Lasseter has no need to spend time in Vancouver. Should Vancouver not produce sufficiently good work, the Vancouver managers will be called to account in Emeryville. Lasseter's appearances in Vancouver will be more for morale and publicity purposes than for making creative or managerial decisions.

Now we get to the ugly, and I'm sorry to say that it relates more to Canada than it does to Pixar. While I've lived in Canada since 1980, I was born and raised in New York City. As a result, I've got a dual perspective on Canada. There is much about this country that I love; I feel more comfortable politically here than I did in the U.S. I value ethnic and cultural diversity and living in Toronto I am surrounded by people from all around the world.

However, Canada suffers from two major problems. The first is colonialism and the second is a small population. Canada never fought for its independence and has historically seen itself as a junior partner to a larger, protector nation. Canada entered World War II in 1939 when the British entered the war, even though Canada itself was not attacked. Since the war, Canada has seen itself as depending on the economic and defense largesse of the U.S. While Canada has not marched in lockstep with the U.S. (Viet Nam and Iraq being two examples), no political decision is ever made in Ottawa without first thinking about U.S. reaction. I don't doubt that if the U.S. was not so vehement about its war on drugs that marijuana would be legal in Canada.

Canada's population is 1/10 the size of the U.S. population. It is easier for U.S. companies to expand their products or services by 10% to take advantage of the Canadian market than it is for a Canadian company to grow by 1000% to compete in the U.S. market. Besides logistical problems, there is also the problem of securing the necessary capital.

Canada's economy can be roughly divided into three parts: natural resources, branch plants and protected industries (primarily culture and communications). The presence of resources is just a matter of luck. Because Canadian companies have difficulty competing with American companies 10 times their size, it has been easier to open branch plants of American companies than to create Canadian companies. For instance, many countries have their own car companies. The U.S., Japan, Korea, England, Germany, Italy, etc. all have cars identified with their countries. Canada has many auto manufacturing plants, but there is no Canadian car.

Entertainment falls in the area of protected industries and this is an area of particular annoyance to me. Canadians don't create markets. They wait until someone else creates a viable market and then Canadians go to the government and ask for protection in order to participate in the market. It's easy for American studios to dump TV shows in Canada for less money than it costs Canadians to create original programming. For the Americans, the money is pure gravy. On the face of it, it makes sense that the government should carve out a percentage of TV air time for Canadian programs and then figure out a way to fund them.

The danger of not doing this can be seen in the film industry. The U.S. walked into Canada in the 1920's and owned all the movie theaters. They treated Canada as part of the U.S. domestic market and the Canadian box office is still considered part of the U.S. domestic gross. Furthermore, on average only 3% of screen time in Canada is devoted to Canadian films. As low as that number seems, it's actually lower because the percentage is higher in Quebec due to language differences. So in English speaking Canada, the percentage of Canadian films is actually less than 3%. The government, not wanting this pattern to repeat in other aspects of popular culture, instituted various quotas and then fought to have culture exempt from the free trade agreement and it's successor, NAFTA.

While this works in theory, the reality is another story. What happens is that the companies who are protected under the quota spend more time working the system than creating work that would allow them to compete. As in most democracies, profitable companies make political contributions to protect their interests and are happy to hire former government officials to lobby for them at salaries higher than those people made in government. So while Canadian television has benefited from government intervention in ways that Canadian film has not, it has not done a significantly better job of creating popular work because the companies have been too busy protecting their profits.

Name a Canadian animated character who is a worldwide success. If you managed to name one (and I'd be surprised if you could), I'll bet that it was based on a children's book and was not an original character. The branch plant mentality combined with government protectionism has killed risk-taking in Canada and creative Canadians know this. That's why so many of them head to the U.S.

The problem is not the talent, the problem is the management. I can personally name dozens of Canadians who have worked at ILM, PDI, Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, etc. and have done well at those studios. The U.S. welcomes people with ability while Canada is content to let them leave. There are no Canadian animation managements with the guts, brains and resources to create original material that entertains a worldwide audience.

That's why when a company like Pixar opens in Canada, people are so gleeful. Maybe here is an opportunity to go beyond the run of the mill Canadian product. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. What comes out of Pixar Vancouver is going to be the equivalent of the direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell features. Those films make money for Disney, but nobody takes them seriously. They are there to bolster the bottom line, not to win awards, not to inspire critical essays, and are only known by parents with young daughters. With all due respect to the people who work on them, they are conceived as filler and they fulfill their corporate duty.

People in Vancouver have a right to be happy over Pixar's arrival, but keep it in perspective. The problems of Canadian animation (and entertainment generally) are still there and still awaiting solutions. When Canada produces its own Aardman or Ghibli, then no one will be cheering louder than me.


Hammy said...

Thank you for the very informative and educative post. I was among the many that was gleeful about this, despite it wouldn't benefit me but it would greatly benefit the talents I know in Canada. I had not much idea of the Bad and Ugly that goes behind it.

Regardless, I believe many will still keep a very gleeful mindset about this.

Molasses said...

Great post! Reading this actually made me way more "gleeful" than the Pixar news.

But this struck my interest:

"There are no Canadian managements with the guts, brains and resources to create original material that entertains a worldwide audience"

Really? There aren't any studios in your mind that are positioning themselves to do this here?

Ask because I'm a student and would love to find a place to intern that is poised to do this.

Mark Mayerson said...

I can think of studios with guts and brains but no resources. I can think of studios with brains and resources, but no guts. There is no shortage of studios without brains.

If anyone can suggest a studio that has all three, I'd love to know who it is.

corey said...

As much of a fan of PIXAR I am, and as much as I would love to work for them, this news didn't get me all wired up like everyone else, surprisingly.

You're right, it's gonna be a little sweatbox for the not-as-cool smaller projects that PIXAR Emeryville doesn't have the time for.

Grant it, it will be the most awesome sweatbox in Vancouver to work at, but I suspect so many people are thinking that it's going to be a small peice of Emeryville here in downtown Vancouver, where just the opposite is going to be true.

I really hope that Lasseter or whoever is in charge can carry over some of the best qualities that makes PIXAR a great place to work. You would think that since JL and Catmul were sent to fix Disney that they would not make the same mistakes.

Well, I will be applying nonetheless. I better learn 3D fast!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I think it really helps to keep our expectations realistic as to what to expect from Pixar Vancouver.

Steve Schnier said...

As always, a brilliant assessment of the situation. Loved the part about Canadian animation studios' guts, brains and resources. No truer words were ever written. I'd be laughing if it wasn't so true.

mrCatfish said...

Mark, really enjoyed your article. Having just arrived back in Vancouver after seven plus years in NZ and London, I'm happy to see action in the film industry in Vancouver.

The good thing for Vancouver is that there may soon be enough critical mass here to create the kind of floating free-lance market that London currently has in Soho. A place where skilled CG artists can just land and work, and where companies can take on big jobs without having to scour the world.

Having said that, I agree, although we have visionary software companies, (or used to!), we certainly lack visionary entertainment companies.

sh said...

Canada's geo/deographic situation reminds me of Australia. It is difficult for smaller English speaking countries to compete with Hollywood and the issue is definitely not talent.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

As always, a very informative article, Mark. I for one was on cloud 9 upon this news of Pixar and still have them in my sights. I totally agree with the Canadian ways and perception and raising captial to truly compete in the world will always be a problem in Canada. There is a template on how to do buisness (as outlined by bigger studios down south[will Canadians ever learn how to merchandise properly?]), yet instead of following and expanding that template, it is just easier to buy the product that is done down south and use that. I truly believe it is a problem that will never be solved in canada. That being said tho; It would be quite the boon to work for Pixar out west!

warren said...

BANG! That was the nail on the head. I love the sound of Pixar in Vancouver (and hell, I'll toss my name in the hat to see what happens), but I smell Disney Canada all over again - and I was there for that one.

As for the rest of your comments on a Canadian entertainment empire, absolutely spot on. Just not enough studios with the combination (g+b+r)...haven't found a place like that for my 11 years working here. Maybe it is time to split the country...

bandolero said...

I posted the essence of the statement from your Pixar friend elsewhere the day this news broke, saying no way were these "new shorts" going to concieved or boarded in Vancouver, but all in Emeryville. The work will be all grunt-outsourced TV and things like that, just as Dreamworks uses India. The immediate response was a challenge of "why? do you think we don't have the talent to do it up here?"

They didn't get it. I have every faith in the talent of Canadians but I'm stunned that so many people are so naive about big corporate businesses, and how proprietary Pixar is.
It's like assuming that because Apple opens a factory in Vancouver, they're going to be designing new iphones there. Ain't gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

"Grant it, it will be the most awesome sweatbox in Vancouver to work at, but I suspect so many people are thinking that it's going to be a small peice of Emeryville here in downtown Vancouver, where just the opposite is going to be true."

A sweatbox is a sweatbox, it isn't really tremendous fun anywhere. In fact, it can be a LOT more painful to be employed by a name one admires only to find you are totally removed from the creative center and considered anonymous muscle.

Anonymous said...

Australian animation studios managed to produce some highly original work (see MARY AND MAX and HARVIE KRUMPET) using a combination of provincial, federal, and private funding. Why is nothing like this in place in Canada? Perhaps the National Film Board was seen as the solution, but what has happened to the Film Board?
I believe that Canadian animators can do what Australian animators have done, if they decide to make it original and not aim it at some theoretical American audience. Live action television has accomplished this, why not animation?
Oh, and the arrival of Pixar in Vancouver cannot but be beneficial for animation schools in Canada and Canadian animation in general. Don't knock it too much.
(why don't some of the new hires work up an idea for their own short film? It's easier to present them on the 'inside' rather than out.) Good luck.

Matt Bell said...

Anonymous # 4 really hit the nail on the head for me!
Mark, I’m really sorry to hear about the lack of guts at Canadian studios. How much longer will a films success revolve around the US market? In the end none of us should be giving excuses about what we were 'able' to create with our time, even if by all accounts we could have.

Mark Mayerson said...

Matthew, there is no shortage of Canadian studios with big ambitions and hopes. Their problems are that the Canadian market is too small to provide them with the opportunities they seek and that they are too small to compete with larger companies in the U.S. where there are greater opportunities.

The problem is systemic. There is a similar systemic problem in the U.S. where smaller independent studios have been eliminated from most TV work by the fact that the broadcasters now own their own studios.

My hope for the web (and I may be over optimistic) is that because creators can go directly to the audience, without having to satisfy gatekeepers, perhaps we'll see a new business model where creators have more opportunities.

JPilot said...

Triplettes of Belleville was done in Canada. Guts + Brains + Resources = critical acclaim and a nice little profit.
But once it was done, the powers that be decided Scotland was a better place to do their next films.
There is no rule without the exception.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid it all boils down to business, how to make more money for less money. These 'creative' industries are owned and run by business men, they couldn't care less for the craft. Unfortunately there are thousands of artists who are willing to sign up and follow these men, because we understand that if you have a brand name on your CV it will turn heads. Yet this only perpetuates the problem further......... if we want this industry to change, it must start with us. Artists need to develop the confidence in their own ideas, trusting in their abilities and committing to the craft, realising that they too can develop to the level of a Pixar animator without ever having to work there. Its not magic.... its just good hard work.

Molasses said...

@Mark: Is it possible to have guts + brains but not resources? Imo, their guts + brains must be overrated.

Could you continue this discussion on the Canadian industry into a series in some way? Love to hear more of your thoughts on it.
Maybe as it relates to "Sita" and the opportunities afforded by the internet? Or the book "Fans, Friends & Followers"?

@JPilot: I believe in Black Swans too but imo Triplettes is not the exception.

Directed and written by a Frenchman. It was made in Belgium & Canada. I believe the Canadian one was Production Champion and it was only formed for the film. Both studios closed after production.
It was produced by so many different companies & countries. Mainly Les Armateurs in France. The others in the UK, France, Belgium & Canada.

Anonymous said...

Great article, and for the most part of it, I concur. However, one has only to look at the creative talent that is born out of Vancouver including, Black Box, former EA Sports, Radiant, and the list goes on, to realize, that this city is host to a roster of skilled product developers, company creators, and incredible entrepreneurs in the gaming industry, that exude brains, and the guts. Guts enough to build companies, that are later targets for the world stage. I have seen the city's reputation grow by leaps over the last 10 years, and quite frankly, it is one of the best hotbeds for talent, and creativity on the planet. We may not have Lassie, or Pinochhio, but, one only has to look at the brands created here at EA and other studio's alike to know, that we are not a production outsourcing city only.

Mark Mayerson said...

Justin, what generally happens is that the people supplying the resources end up overriding the people with the guts and brains.

There is an abundance of talent of all kinds in this world. So much of it gets wasted or ill-used by people with money who don't understand it. There are many studios with guts, brains and talent who have been unable to find money or who find money with too many strings attached. Guts and brains are not over-rated, they are under-appreciated by money people who are either too protective of their money or who feel that their money somehow makes them smarter than the people they're financing. In either case, they get in the way of people with guts and brains.

I haven't read Scott Kirsner's book yet, though I intend to. My thinking these days is that the goal of creators should be figuring out how to deliver their visions as inexpensively as possible. That allows them to test ideas via the web and to build an audience. The fewer resources you need, the more likely you'll be able to find them.

However, this is not a recipe for Canadian companies to go up against Pixar, DreamWorks, etc. The few larger companies that have the resources need more guts or brains if they're going to compete, but my feeling is that they are comfortable with their current market niches and unwilling to take any chances.

Creative people will try anything. Business people will only try the sure thing. That's why I hope for a business model where the creative people can do without business people, but maybe I'm naive.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling that Lasseter was completely opposed to the Vancouver satellite.

Mark Mayerson said...

Anonymous, I am not an expert on the gaming industry. If what you say is true, I think that's great.

I'm genuinely curious here. Are the games being made at EA Vancouver originating there in terms of content? Or are they handed to EA Vancouver from somewhere else?

Life Insurance Canada said...

Awesome post, and I must agree with you with most of the stuff you said. It's a bit sad that we're just a country that does the dirty work but oh well, at least it creates some jobs. I don't see it being a huge competitor of the Canadian entertainment companies since it won't produce any blockbuster movies. Thanks for the article!

Take care, Lorne

Anonymous said...

"Canadian studios have yet to produce an animated feature that grossed $100 million."

CORE made a film that made more than $100 million (even before DVD sales):

Mark Mayerson said...

Okay, you win.

But you will note that domestically, it grossed less than $38 million. You will also note that with a production budget of $80 million, a $102 million worldwide gross does not put the film into profit.

The bottom line is that nobody in Canada or at Disney considers The Wild a hit.

Anonymous said...

"There are no Canadian animation managements with the guts, brains and resources to create original material that entertains a worldwide audience."

Sure there are Mark. There are many taking chances and now succeeding.

But is a a David Vs Goliath battle - and those who've finally cracked the US market with original TV are laying the groundwork for how it will be done in the future.

Film will follow - I'm sure of it. They don't all have to be blockbusters with talking animals (Thank god). The world is flatter and flatter and western sensibilities (and now wealth) are finally extending beyond the US border (or US wealth is collapsing!).

I remain cautiously optimistic - and the caution diminishes with each passing year!

I hope you don't teach yours students to be so gothic and hopeless in their approach to life as animators.

Molasses said...

@Mark: Well, I'm young, naive & idealistic. A triumvirate of...something...not good. :D

Anyways, I think you might of misunderstood me? I was trying to say, for those studios you're thinking of, the quality/ amount of the guts + brains must be overrated. If one truly has both, finding a compromise with the money people should be natural and easy.

But that's probably just the above speaking. :)

@Anonymous: "I hope you don't teach yours students to be so gothic and hopeless in their approach to life as animators."

I read this post and saw it more as a call to action rather than either of those descriptors. Especially this line: "Name a Canadian animated character who is a worldwide success." I can't and it tears me up. Everything I think of is either too small or a product of a co-production. If the situation can be described like this; pragmatic changes are needed.

Zartok-35 said...

Anyone remember The Raccoons? They say that got popular outside of Canada.

Brubaker said...

And as much as I hate the show, the season finale of "Total Drama Island" (a Teletoons show) gave Cartoon Network one of the highest ratings in its history.

Anonymous said...

What about Vancouver animation studios like Bardel, Rainmaker (formerly Mainframe) and NerdCorps? They don't count?

ReBoot was the first CG television series ever made...your telling me that didn't take guts and brains?

Viva Pinata is, at the very least, a mild success is it not?

How much did Space Chimps gross at the Box Office?

Of course these don't compare to Shrek, Toy Story et al...but to completely overlook them is a gross injustice imo.

Rest assured animation is alive and well in Vancouver...maybe not in the form of big-budget movies, but definitely in television, video games and direct-to-DVD....combined these industries are larger than Hollywood.

Just sayin'

Anonymous said...

the only popular series to come out of vancouver has been Ed Edd & Eddy.

Viva Pinata? who the fuck watches THAT?

Brubaker said...

Would "Ed, Edd n Eddy" count, though?

Yes, the show is/was produced in Canada at aka Cartoons, but it was created for American television and Cartoon Network owns it outright.

AFAIK, the show never aired in the country it was produced in.

warren said...

Scratch that 'moving out of the country' statement, I'm moving into the Van! Thanks for the tips on where to apply, guys... :)

car2ner said...

Nice blog! See also human frame-by-frame animation on the bed

Juanma said...

This is a raw honest truth!
I was actually discussing that with a Studio Owner the other day.

Im Colombian ,I studied animation here in T.O and I'm trying to get people interested in a pitch idea...
and its not going so well...
Im even thinking about going to the states.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this insightful article about the sorry state of animation in Canada. Your analogy about Canada being a branch plant of Pixar is sad, but true and in keeping with Canadian tradition (GM, Chapters, you-name-it)

That metaphor about sweat shop animation is so true too.
As I have learned from our daughter and her husband who graduated from Sheridan in the 1990's and are currently working in a 'model' Californian animation studio that even the top places take advantage of their youthful, enthusiastic workfore. It may be super creative, and pay great wage but the long 10 to 12 hour days and 6 day work weeks are more the norm than not....and that's in the 'best' studios!
I feel sorry for the many students who will graduate from places like Sheridan with 10's of thousands of dollars owing in student loan debt, with talent, and with slim chances of any employment.
Creativity and art are essential to our health and well-being as a species. Perhaps it's time to restore funding to the National Film Board? Maybe 5% of film profits should go into an 'animators' fund' to pay for a publicly owned studio-lab where applicants could collaborate on independent works.
Good for you for publicly discussing the "Elephant in the Room". that is the North American animation industry.

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