Animation is a dynamic and creative career pursuit

From school to studio, careers in animation are plentiful.

Article content

While COVID-19 prompted many Hollywood North sectors to pause, Vancouver’s animation and visual effects (VFX) studios shifted into overdrive in order to keep up with expanding demand.

Advertisement 2

Article content

“In 30 years of working in the animation field, there have always been ups-and-downs,” said veteran local animator Scott Kiborn. “But I can’t ever recall a period where projects that were sitting on the fence, things that were shelved and more all got green-lit at once and everywhere was hiring.”

Article content

Entertainment Weekly declared cartoons to be the king of COVID times, while projected worldwide animation market growth to increase from about US$180 billion to US$587.1 billion by 2030. These figures undoubtedly helped heavy-hitters such as Disney and Atomic Cartoons to expand local operations in recent years.

All indicators of a near-constant upward trajectory appeared to be in place for the sector.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Cut ahead to mid-2023, and projected streaming viewership declines following the rabid growth of the past few years have served to rattle the field.

Following Netflix’s Academy Award-winning animated feature Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and acquisition of Animal Logic studios, the streaming service was subject to industry reports of a “purge” in its ranks. Among the cancelled projects was a highly anticipated Gorillaz movie, among others. The streaming giant still has nine new animated feature films slated for release over the next 18 months.

The moves have prompted industry experts such as Michelle Grady, executive vice-president and general manager at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the Vancouver-based studio that produced the Oscar-winning 2018 feature film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and is releasing its sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, later this year, to keep close tabs on the shifting landscape of the industry.

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

She sees present market reports as more of a rationalization than a radical revision.

Promotional stills from Sony Imageworks for the upcoming Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse animation feature coming in 2023.
Promotional stills from Sony Imageworks for the upcoming Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse animation feature coming in 2023. Photo by Aymeric Kevin Sony Imageworks. /jpg

“Right now, a lot of forces are at play looking at what kind of choices studios and streaming services are going to be making in terms of what it will be and how much,” said Grady. “We’ve known for a long time family entertainment is its own unique beast and Spider-Verse expanded the medium. But the pandemic just exploded it. The pullback in production is there, we know this, but there was so much demand over the pandemic that it’s still going strong.”

The level of demand was so “robust,” according to Grady, that it was a challenge to keep up. In that sense, a slight slowdown wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

“Perhaps this will give us a chance to catch up,” Grady says.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Finding animation workers to meet demand has been a challenge during busy times — Grady estimates there are 6,000-plus workers in animation in Hollywood North today with those numbers expected to grow — with rumours circulating about workers being poached midway through productions in order to work on other ones.

Even with a downturn, the future looks more animated. The demand for a steady stream of new talent continues. Since 1995, Capilano University has looked to fill that demand by training students to work in the industry.

Veteran animation industry professional Glenn Sylvester chairs the school of animation and visual effects at the North Shore campus. A graduate of one of Canada’s few four-year programs, Sylvester spent more than two decades working in Canada, the U.K. and numerous North American locations before landing in Vancouver.

Advertisement 6

Article content

In the past, moving wasn’t unusual for animators like Sylvester as the Canadian market was underdeveloped. Today, Vancouver has grown so much that it’s a go-to hub for global workers, with many foreign students graduating right into the local industry.

“We graduated our first classes in the two-year 2D commercial animation in 1996, expanding to include a one-year add-on in 3D, which proved very popular and we also have a VFX program,” said Sylvester of the university’s animation offerings. “Regardless of what you do, you will always need to have some understanding of how to create something appealing and unique. The ones who catch the eye of recruiters are those whose personal reels have something special and that is a big part of the training.”

Advertisement 7

Article content

At $22,000 per term, the animation program tuition is higher than the average $4,500 to $15,000 per semester for an undergraduate degree at Cap. lists the low-end, entry level animation job salary average at around $50,000-plus per year, so there will be some lean years for most new employees. Add in that almost all jobs in the sector are on a contract-to-contract basis, and it comes as no surprise that part of the education curriculum is managing expectations.

That isn’t stopping 19-year-old first year program participant Kendra Julien from pursuing her dream of getting into the business in 3D modelling, with a personal interest in hair and clothes design. This computer-oriented skill is transferable across animation, VFX and gaming.

Advertisement 8

Article content

“I saw a collection of original finished short 3D animated films from across the world in middle school and it blew me away, because I thought animation was the usual Barbie cartoons and such,” said Julien. “In Grade 11, I took an animation class at high school taught by the coding teacher and completely loved it. I worked on it during lunches, after school and bought a laptop with money I’d saved to keep learning at home.

“When the decision came to pursue something else and have a very serious hobby or just go for it, I enrolled in 3D animation and here I am.”

Admitting that she is “no Picasso,” Julien loves the number of software programs such a MAYA or Blender there are to learn to perfect the craft of modelling. The more that’s learned, the more exciting prospects of future employment becomes.

Advertisement 9

Article content

This sentiment is echoed by Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (Vanarts) animation graduate Maria Shakula. The Ukrainian war refugee came to Vancouver to study 2D animation as a scholarship student. Now she’s employed full-time in the field.

“I had not done anything in art or animation before and was attending International Relations and Tourism, which wasn’t looking too good in Ukraine,” said Shakula. “In my entire life, I had maybe done one or two animatics for YouTube and been a doodler, but I took my shot to come to study in Vancouver. I think I’m pretty lucky to get into Vanarts, and now I’m working at Atomic Cartoons.”

Animators being briefed at Sony Imageworks studios in Vancouver.
Animators being briefed at Sony Imageworks studios in Vancouver. Photo by Sony Imageworks /jpg

Moving forward, both Julien and Shakula have an opportunity to join the 156-member-strong Vancouver Women In Animation (WIA) group.

Advertisement 10

Article content

Through industry-supported programs such as its mid-level career WIA Animation Career EXCELerator, the group advances women in the animation industry giving them key credits in a group-created short film with accompanying mentorship and training.

Designed to counter excuses heard in the industry that women lack experience or aren’t trained for certain roles, the program is helmed by Flying Kraken Creative Studios co-founder Rose-Ann Tisserand.

“The last five to seven years have seen a significant improvement in the number of women working, both as a product of initiatives in the animation industry to advance diversity as well as the demands for qualified talent,” said Tisserand. “Women outnumber men in schools now, so there has to be a way to build towards gender parity in key creative roles.

Advertisement 11

Article content

“Historically, a lot of women leave before they advance to those levels, and we want to see this change.”

Looking at the state of the sector today in terms of career prospects, Kiborn — who has worked on everything from game-changing early DreamWorks’ features such as Anastasia and the Road to El Dorado to serialized shows such as PBS’s Molly of Denali — still thinks it’s a great gig.

“There is some slowdown in 2D at the moment, but lots of people are still working,” he said. “As with everything, the cost of living relative to salary is becoming an increasing challenge to every business, and studios are moving into everywhere from the Okanagan to Vancouver Island to counter that is an interesting development.

“It’s a great career, but you need to have your eyes open that you are entering an industry where there are very few full-time postings and you don’t really develop seniority over time. Each and every contract, you come in fresh competing for a position against every new hotshot entering the job market.”

[email protected]

More news, fewer ads: Our in-depth journalism is possible thanks to the support of our subscribers. For just $3.50 per week, you can get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by subscribing today: The Vancouver Sun | The Province.


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement 1