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By Peter Moreira

One morning in early June, Phillip Stamp was on calls with three animation studio executives in three different foreign countries. The first caller spoke of how busy their studio was – flat out, in fact. It was the same story with caller No. 2, and the third contact as well.

The fact is there is currently a global boom in the animation industry, and studios around the world are working at full capacity, as Stamp’s contacts indicated. Industry insiders say this is creating a huge opportunity for Halifax.

The global boom has been building for some time due to the explosive growth of streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. The COVID-19 crisis has only added fuel to the animation fire because animators can work just about anywhere and a lock-down doesn’t interrupt their work at all.

Stamp should know. He’s the Creative Director of IoM Media, the corporate name of the Island of Misfits animation group. He’s also one of the pillars of Halifax’s close-knit animation community and he and others see a huge opportunity for the city. Interviews with several executives in the field revealed that local animation studios have bid on so many projects that if they get one-third of the work in their sights, they will need to hire 300 animators by the end of 2020.

“We have a number of projects in development and if a fraction of those would go ahead in 12 to 18 months, that would mean we would be looking to hire 100 to 150 artists,” said Stamp, referring just to the hiring requirements of IoM Media.

Moving on to the labour demands of the broader industry in Halifax, he added: “That 300-figure could be conservative.”

A Perfect Marriage

One message that kept coming out in the interviews is that animation is a perfect industry for Halifax, especially right now.

“You have to look at the nature of the people being attracted by this industry,” said David Regan, the former Executive Vice-President of Strategy and Corporate Development at DHX, now known as Wildbrain “When you’re attracting 26-year-olds who are highly computer-literate, that is attractive. Just the raw talent is great, and it can be transferred to other digital industries.”

Halifax is also an appealing spot for animators. These are people who can earn up to $65,000 – a salary that can offer a nice quality of life in Halifax but is probably insufficient in more expensive cities like Toronto or Vancouver.

Of course, Halifax has already demonstrated its chops in the animation field, as DHX Media grew to become one of the most successful companies in the city’s recent history. Founded by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Donavan in 2004, DHX built up a network of animation studios in Halifax, Toronto and London. It also purchased and produced one of the world’s largest libraries of children’s animation, including such iconic brands as Peanuts. The company, whose stock market value once topped $1 billion, now operates under the name Wildbrain, which had been the name of its YouTube-focused operations.

Today, the community in Halifax comprises a few different studios, many with execs that worked at DHX. IoM Media, for example, was founded by DHX veteran Dana Landry, and is now involved mostly in television work in both 2D and 3D. It currently employs about 135 people in Halifax.

The other major player is Copernicus Studios, which was co-founded 17 years ago by CEO Juan Cruz Baldassarre, who still heads the operation. With about 100 employees, it is also focused on producing TV shows and works on feature films and digital platforms.

Other studios include Humina Huminah Interactive in Dartmouth and Cartoon Conrad in Beaverbank. Jam Filled Entertainment of Toronto opened a 10,000-square-foot studio in Halifax in the fall of 2019 to work on 2D projects.

Global Industry Booming

These various studios are part of a global industry that is thriving because of the global enthusiasm for streaming services. The success of Netflix has spawned what’s commonly known as “streaming wars”, with new entrants entering the market in the past few years, such as Disney+, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime. All these services need proprietary content to offer customers, including animation for children, for families, and adults.

Recently, industry growth was interrupted by consolidation as the phone giant AT&T bought Time Warner for US$108.7 billion (including the assumption of debt) in 2017, and Walt Disney purchased the film and TV assets of 21st Century Fox for US$71.3 billion last year. Those mergers (and the resulting regulatory and legal actions) resulted in fewer projects being launched, which impacted the industry in Halifax. But the industry has recovered now.

The COVID-19 crisis has only increased business opportunities. The lockdown has forced viewers to consume more online content at home, so demand has risen. What’s more, filming live-action video in the days of social distancing is challenging, so the only real option for putting out new material is to create new animation. This is the perfect storm driving industry growth in Halifax, though it’s difficult to put a percentage figure on how much the sector could grow this year.

Two years ago, members of the community came together to form the group Digital Animators of Nova Scotia, and take stock of the community. There were then about 500 to 600 animators working in the province, but spokespeople said the numbers dwindled during the consolidation of the past two years.

Now the local studios have begun hiring again, and some outfits may be back up to their 2018 levels. What all the players agree on is that the overall numbers are poised to rise in the near future.

“I would say there are somewhere between 300 and 400 people employed in the animation industry at the moment,” said Stamp. “We were in the vicinity of, like, 600 people a couple of years ago, and we can certainly get back to that level without too much difficulty.”
Juan Cruz Baldassarre, Founder & CEO, Copernicus

Baldassarre of Copernicus Studios estimates that about 30 percent of the animators in Halifax come from outside the country, and another 30 percent hail from elsewhere in Canada. He believes the sector could soon employ about 800 people in Halifax, which would allow the studios here to accrue annual revenues of about $50 million.

Challenges of Attracting Talent

When planning for a hiring binge in this industry, executives stress the importance of consistent and stable government funding programs for digital media. Animators would be reluctant to plan a career in Halifax if they were worried that supports available today could vanish in the future. A more pressing issue is travel restrictions caused by COVID-19.

“While we understand how seriously this [COVID-19] situation needs to be taken, we have to consider what to do to reactivate the economy,” said Baldassarre.

He argued passionately that animation is the perfect industry for a society recovering from a pandemic. Copernicus would like to hire 100 people this summer, which probably means 30 people would have to come from outside the country.

If Copernicus were allowed to bring in workers, it could place them in a hotel for a two-week quarantine equipped with workstations so they could get to work immediately. After the quarantine, once the animators have found a permanent house or apartment, they could continue to work from home for as long as the social distancing regulations were in place.

“Without losing track of how difficult the job is from a public safety standpoint, we’re saying to government that here is an industry that can do their jobs from home for an extended period of time,” he said.

Though the animation industry faces a challenge in hiring enough people to meet the current demand, Halifax has a lot of firepower in attracting animators. It’s well known as a fun city, an attractive coastal destination with a strong cultural community. Until recently, it boasted a vibrant night-life, and hopefully that will return. And, as mentioned above, it’s a city where animators can afford to live well and buy a home.

Robyn Webb, Director of Labour Market Development at Halifax Partnership, Halifax’s economic development organization, says Nova Scotia offers the best programs in Canada to recruit international talent, including the Nova Scotia Nominee Programs, the Atlantic Immigration Pilot and the Global Talent Stream.

“Halifax Partnership works closely with the private sector and our provincial and federal government partners to ensure programs are meeting businesses’ needs and addressing labour gaps in high-demand industries,” says Webb. “Halifax has the location, cost and quality of life international talent is looking for, and we’re here to help businesses promote these advantages and attract the people they need to grow and succeed.”

Regan said the animation community is currently in a stronger position to attract talent than a few years ago because there are so many studios, not just Wildbrain. People feel more comfortable moving to a city that is home to several players in their industry, rather than just one.

In addition to immigrants the industry would like to recruit, the country’s colleges and universities have some excellent animation programs. The Halifax studios have hired graduates from such schools as the Nova Scotia Community College, NSCAD University, Sheridan College in Ontario and the Vancouver Film School.

The final question about the current surge in activity is whether it’s sustainable, and animation executives for the most part see a bright future for their industry.

“You always wonder if you’re looking at a bubble,” said IoM’s Stamp. “But because it’s entertainment and content consumption, it’s one of the few things that has a certain amount of consistency through a number of different economic times. Given the demand for content and entertainment, I can only see a growth in it in the foreseeable future.”