Spotlight: The Canadian VFX Industry
Intro and Disclaimer:
Hi. So before this article gets started I wanted to place a little disclaimer here, so I don't tick off any of my coworkers or employers in the past, present, and future. This article is just to give a better focus on the Canadian VFX industry as a whole. I am a history buff by trade, and I love making sure the history of our nation, industry, and present are preserved. We've done a lot as a nation as a whole, and I'm pretty proud of it. I would like to talk about our history, present, and future as neutrally as I can. But at the same time respect it. As well as draw attention to the places where we have evolved, become better, and could do better. And to me, that's my right as Canadian VFX artist. Plus, I just love this Country.
I also did my best to draw attention to the Canadian privately owned VFX companies scattered across our land. Sorry if I missed any of you. It was not purposely done, but there are a lot of companies to cover. And there are quite a few that have other locations across the globe. So if there is a company with its main location, investors, or has privately owned stakeholders outside Canada, I have excluded them from the list. Sorry. I really want our Canadian companies to do well and be remembered during Covid, and in the future.
(Also special thanks to Adam Baker, Jean-Marc Laurin, and Christian Moreton for pointing out flaws in the article , and information I missed.)
Long Live The Canadian VFX Industry.
History of the Animation and VFX Industry
So before we explore the present day environment of the industry of The Great White North, let talk about some important moments in our history. There has been a lot of technical advancements done by Canadians in our field; so starting from the early 1910s here are some highlights. Keep in mind, most of the CG industry spawned out of animation and filming techniques.
-The first films shot in Canada were filmed in the Niagara Falls area. Most, if not all are produced by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, and Edison Studios. In 1896. James Freer is recognized as the first Canadian filmmaker. Most of his films are documentaries about Manitoba. As he was originally a Manitoba based farmer. In 1904, Leo-Ernest Ouimet builds a custom projector in Montreal. He opens the first permanent seated movie theatre in Canada in 1906. In it's height it was enlarged to 1200 seats after 1 year of business. It stayed open until 1992.
- Cartoonist and painter Raoul Barre introduced a new paper innovation. Getting tired of his paper slipping while creating 2D animated cartoons, he created the standard model of paper we know now. He added tiny perforations., "peg bars" in the paper so it could be held in place. He also introduces The Slash System. This is a method that allows the artists to only draw the background of their animation once. Instead of drawing it multiple times, which can cause multiple inconsistencies. By leaving a blank space in the background image, it gave more freedom for the artists to draw around the background.
- Canadian Mack Sennett from Melbourne Quebec opens Keystone Studios in Edendale, California. It becomes the first fully enclosed film stage. Mack also becomes famous for his original slap stick comedy films.
- Raoul Barre introduces a "new pipeline" system. By making the cartoons in an assembly line way, he discovers it is now easier to mass produce cartoons. His methods are still used to this day.
- The first Canadian feature film, Evangeline, is produced by the Canadian Bioscope Company.
- The province of Ontario established the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau.
- Jack (J.A.) Norling produces The Man Who Woke Up. This is the oldest surviving animation made in Canada to this day.
- Canadian Mack Sennett wins an Academy Award for his film: Wrestling Swordfish. He is also nominated for another award which was the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film for the movie; The Loud Mouth.
- Mack Sennett's Studio goes under due to The Great Depression.
- Norman McLaren creates his first experimental animated film Seven Till Five.
- Mack Sennett produces his last films. These are The Timid Young Man and Way Up Thar.
- Mack Sennett is presented with an honorary Academy Award: "for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen".
- Animation production was very low scale. American production companies did not see a market for animation, or Canadian animated content. So the fathers of Canadian animation; Jack (J.A). Norling in Winnipeg, Jean Arsin, Charles Lambly, Harold Peberdy, Bert Cob, Walter H. Swaffield and Bryant Fryer got to work. Their animations were mainly used for advertising and educational purposes for this time.
- The Canadian National Film Board is founded.
- The National Film Act of Canada is founded.
- The Canadian Film Awards are founded
- Norman McLaren comes to Canada to work for the Canadian National Film Board.
- Norman McLaren struggles to keep up with the animation demands of the NFB, and in response creates their first animation division. This animation section is primarily made up of art students.
- Canadian Norman McLaren wins an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for his film Neighbors.
- Norman McLaren wins a Silver Bear for best short documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival. This award is presented for his film Rythmetic.
- Norman McLaren leaves the NFB and starts to teach animation techniques abroad. He travels to China and India to kick start their animation industries. Partnering with UNESCO, he achieves a lot during this time.
- Nothing much happened here. But...
- Between the 1960s-1970s, a lot of Canadian voice actors started making their way into American cartoons. Such as Paul Soles and Paul Kligman. Animations start being subcontracted to Canadian cities. Such as Crawley Films in Ottawa and The Guest Group in Toronto. In 1968 The Canadian Film Development Corporation is founded to promote the film industry. This corporation would later be rebranded Telefilm Canada.
- Mack Sennett Dies at the age of 80 years old.
- Norman McLaren wins a BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film for his film Pas de deux.
- Independent Canadian companies start to form in the film industry. A lot of them are centered around children's programming. Some animated children's shows made during this time were: The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo, The Toothbrush Family, Ukaliq and The Sunrunners. All of these were produced by Al Guest and his partner Jean Mathieson at their Toronto company Rainbow Animation.
- Nelvana Limited is founded. This is the start of the growth and stability of the animation industry in Canada. Nelvana starts producing live-action/animated shorts. They also start taking advantage of Canadian broadcasting rules, and start airing TV specials. As well as working on The Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978. Then going on to produce popular shows such as Inspector Gadget and Care Bears through the late 80s and 90s.
-The ACTRA (Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists) Awards are founded.
- Nigel McGrath begins his VFX career. He will do amazing things for the industry, as seen later on in this article.
- The Ottawa International Animation Festival is founded.
- The animated short The Street is released.
- Other production companies also enter the market around this time such as the Atkinson Film-Arts in Ottawa. They start to produce animated shows based on books. Such as, The Jean De Brunhoff Babar books, and the Lynn Johnston comic strip For Better or For Worse. As well as much more.
- The Canadian Film Awards are discontinued.
The 1980s: The French animation of CBC in Montreal wins two Oscars. In 1981 they win an Oscar for their animated short Crac, and another in 1987 for The Man Who Planted Trees. Both were produced by Frédéric Back. During this time colleges and universities start to offer animation programs. These programs and degrees start to be marketed with high acclaim. In 1984, Sheridan College won an Oscar for the animated short Charade. This film was made by one of their students, Jon Minnis.
- Nigel McGrath starts his first VFX studio and company. It handles Film VFX, Computer Graphic Design, Film Production. It will later evolve into something bigger.
- Porky's Becomes the highest grossing Canadian Film. It earns $111 million at the box office.
- Canadian Director David Cronenberg releases one of his best and commercially successful films: The Dead Zone. It grosses $20 million at the box office.
- The Toronto Animated Image Society is founded. As well as the Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary.
- Alias software (Alias Research) is founded in Toronto by Nigel McGrath, Stephen Bingham, Susan McKenna, and David Springer. It is first unveiled at SIGGRAPH '85 in San Francisco. Initial versions ran only on Silicon Graphics computers.
- The animated short The Big Snit is released.
- ACTRA Awards are discontinued.
-The Gemini Awards take over as the new Canadian film and TV awards system.
- Director David Cronenberg, a Toronto native releases The Fly. It is filmed and produced in Toronto. It grosses $37 Million at the box office. it also wins an Oscar for best makeup.-Softimage is founded in Montreal, Quebec. For well over 20 years they go onto produce on of the most popular animation softwares on the market.
-Sidefx is founded.
- Nigel McGrath helps found Side Effects Productions which is the R&D side of Sidefx.
- Norman McLaren dies at the age of 72 in Montreal.
- The animated short The Cat Came Back is released.
Discreet Logic is founded. They eventually become incorporated into the company known as Autodesk. It is co-created by former Softimage sales director Richard Szalwinski.
- Discreet Logic acquires a software called Flash from Softimage. This later goes on to be known as Autodesk Flame.
- Side Effects Productions splits off from the rest of Sidefx. Nigel McGrath rebrands it and founds what is now known as Spin VFX.
-Softimage is bought out by Microsoft.
- C.O.R.E Digital Pictures forms in Toronto. It is founded by John Mariella, Kyle Menzies, Bob Munroe and the one and only, William Shatner.
- Alias Research is purchased by Silicon Graphics and merged with Wavefront Technologies.
- Houdini 1.0 is released for commercial use.
- Discreet Logic becomes Autodesk Kinetix.
- Mathieu Raynault starts his career as one Canada's most recognized and diverse Matte Painters. He will go on to work on Star Wars, and eventually found Raynault VFX in Quebec.
- Microsoft sells Softimage to Avid Technology, Inc.
- Flash cartoons start making their ways to TV networks. Such shows as: Chilly Beach (2003-2006), on the CBC, and Odd Job Jack (2003-2007), on the Comedy Network. Canadian CGI starts to raise it's head, and the show Tripping the Rift showcases some CG Canadian work. VFX and CGI start to boom in Canada, and the industry starts to move towards adult content and entertainment. The NFB of Canada also acknowledges other key animators in history. Such as: Jacques Drouin, Chris Hinton, Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, and Janet Perlman. Also, A TON of Toronto based VFX companies were founded during this time. Soho VFX (2002), Tendril Studio (2010), Rocket Science VFX (2002), and Mavericks VFX (2011) just to name a few.
My Big Fat Wedding becomes the highest grossing Canadian film to date. Grossing $240 million at the box office. OPA!
-The ACTRA Awards are revived. However, they are changed to recognize, promote and award local talent.
- Alias is acquired by Autodesk. It's name is changed to Autodesk AliasStudio. This marks a decline in the software's use. Alias slowly becomes Maya.
- Autodesk Kinetix rebrands as Autodesk Media and Entertainment.
- VES Toronto starts to host events for VFX members and collaborates with the city's studios.
- Zack Snyder's 300 becomes a huge undertaking for many VFX studios across Canada. This includes studios in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and other provinces.
- C.O.R.E releases the animated film The Wild with Walt Disney Pictures. The film was a commercial success, but had several negative reviews. However, it had the largest production crew for a film ever made in Canada. (500 employees.)
- Autodesk acquires Softimage for $35 Million. This marks the decline in the softwares use as Autodesk starts to salvage the software into what is now known as Maya Animation Tools.
Resident Evil: Afterlife becomes the most successful production in Canadian film history. It grosses $280 million internationally, and $7 million in Canada. The VFX for the film was also primarily done in Canada. Mostly by Toronto based studios Rocket Science VFX and Mr. X.
- C.O.R.E Digital Pictures, one of the largest animation and VFX in Toronto goes defunct.
- TAAFI is founded.
- NFB Animation Studio executive producer David Verrall retires after working for 34 years and on 240 films.
- Adult Swim comes to Canada. They start producing content such as Rick and Morty.
- Image Engine opens a new studio in Vancouver.
-The Gemini Awards are discontinued.
- Protests happen down in America regarding the treatment of Oscar winning studio Rhythm and Hues. After creating and producing the FX for the movie Life of Pi, they filed for bankruptcy. Then they collected their Oscar while being cut off mid-speech. Artists are mad, and all around the world people change their social media icons to a green screen. The aftermath of this event is also felt here in Canada.
- The appeal of VFX Unions slowly started to gain traction with artists, but studios aren't on board with the idea.
- Some international VFX companies meet to consider a formation of a trade association to better protect themselves against bankruptcy.
- Unrest in Montreal rises. At some studios, artists aren't being paid as per their contracts. Checks bounce, and certain VFX studios are called out for their actions.
- The Canadian Screen Awards is founded. This marks a change from the previous Gemini, Canadian Film Awards, and ACRA. The Canadian Screen Awards aims to create a unified film, VFX, and TV award system.
- The NFB releases a an iTunes app entitled McLaren’s Workshop. Which allows users to experience Norman McLaren's animation techniques.
- Canadian animation company ToonBox Entertainment creates the animated film; The Nut job. This film becomes the highest-budgeted and highest-grossing Canadian animated film ever.
- ILM opens their Vancouver office.
- Technicolor acquires one of Toronto's largest VFX houses; Mr. X.
- Pixomondo expands their Toronto base. They move into the Revival 629 studio space, and start to plan for the future.
- Sony Imageworks moves their main headquarters to Vancouver.
- Canadian animated productions are now responsible for over $219 million of TV and movie entertainment.
- UK company CineSite acquires the Canadian VFX house, Image Engine.
-The last update of Softimage is released by Autodesk.
- American media company Frederator Networks, Inc. merges with Canadian animation studio Rainmaker Entertainment. They form what is now Wow Unlimited Media.
- Legend 3D is one of the main companies in Toronto to receive a grant from the Provincial government to continue to grow their Toronto location. They are given about $30 million to retain and grow the 240 employees they have at their Toronto office.
- The Shape of Water wins an Oscar. This win was huge for the Toronto VFX community as the movie was filmed, edited, and produced in Toronto. The VFX work was done by Mr.X's Toronto location, and that is where the Oscar currently resides.
- Legend 3D leaves Canada, and closes it's Toronto office. Their reasons for doing so are to reduce costs, and relocate the company over to India. However, their statements conflict with their promise of the previous year. Suddenly, the only stereo conversion company in the city becomes Stereo D.
- MPC Vancouver shuts down. It is a huge blow to the B.C VFX community as a whole, and over 800 workers are laid off.
- Autodesk turns Alias into a few different marketable versions. These include: Autodesk Alias AutoStudio, Autodesk Alias Surface, and Autodesk Alias SpeedForm.
- Covid-19 takes over the VFX and film industry. Everyone starts working remotely. It's not clear if WFH will become the new normal. Live action productions are halted, and a lot of franchises start to look into the animated world.
- Pixomondo builds the World's largest virtual production studio in Toronto.
- Producer Malcolm Angell dies as a result of long hours in the industry, and other issues. His death highlighted a lot of the labor issues in VFX and animation here in Canada. As well as the industry as a whole. Rest in peace.
Let's talk about something I love. Which means, talking about current thriving Canadian Software.
Let's talk about SideFx. (You can read my article on the history of Houdini HERE.)
Canada has a lot to offer when it comes to animation/VFX software. The first being Houdini. Houdini is a 3D animation software application developed by SideFX, based in Toronto. It was adapted from another program called PRISMS in 1987 by Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic. It is probably the most procedural software currently on the VFX market. They have also been awarded 4 Oscars. In 1997, 2002, 2011 and in 2018 for their advancements in software development.
Another important company is Toon Boom Animation Inc.
Founded in 1994, Toon Boom is a 2D software company. They specialize in storyboarding and animation software for the games, mobile, animation, and VFX industries. Their software has been used pretty much everywhere. They were also awarded two Emmys. Once in 2005, and another in 2012. They were acquired by Corus Entertainment in 2012. However, they still operate mostly independently.
Now, let's move our spotlight onto some key Canadian cities for film/TV production.
Vancouver has always been a hub for the film industry. So much so, that it is nicknamed "Hollywood North". It has numerous tax credits, and other resources that have helped give it that name over the years. Plus, a booming VFX industry. The total work in BC now accounts for 60% of all film and TV productions in Canada. On average, their industry generates 36,000 annually. But how did it's industry get started?
In the late 1980s film and VFX studios started to develop in BC. However, the government of British Columbia didn't provide any incentives for companies until 1998. So, it was a slow start for most studios in the area. Creative BC, a branch of the BC government is now currently responsible for overseeing and distributing all tax credits. These incentives cover a huge range of filming and production costs for both labor and the digital world. All of these tax credits have helped encourage a huge amount of international companies to come to Vancouver.
The location of Vancouver is also very convenient to the film industry. It is located directly above LA, so any California based companies can just stop by and visit. It is also located in the same time zone as California, so artists and producers can sync up in Realtime.
Vancouver also has one of the largest hubs of VFX and film production programs in Canada. It has some of the best colleges and universities for the film industry in the world. Some of the larger schools there are: Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Film School, and Emily Carr University. With both a strong education system and industry, Vancouver has created a huge base of talent.
Montreal currently houses more than 40 VFX and post-production companies. It is one of the world's largest post production hubs. Just like Vancouver it offers a variety of tax credits, and is fairly cheap for artists in the terms of living expenses.
Some of the benefits of their insane tax credits are:
- 20% cash-back for all expenses.
- 16% bonus on all CGI and green screen shots.
- In Québec, the tax credits are applicable to all expenditures, and the producers have no obligation to release the film in Québec.
All of that allows for a major discount for special effects and computer animation. Which is great for smaller studios to develop their clientele.
Canada on a federal level also offers an additional tax credit of 16% on all Canadian labor expenditure. So if you are a VFX house in Canada, you are covered. But if you are in Quebec you're gonna have a lot of fun.
There is only one downside to working in Quebec. Companies in Quebec do pay less than other locations in Canada on average. However, this can change if you choose to work for a larger company rather than a smaller studio.
Now.....I am a bit biased because I have lived, went to school, and worked for all of my career in Toronto. It's a huge city, and it has a lot of promise. There are a lot more small and medium size companies in Toronto than in Vancouver or Montreal. The largest either being Pixomondo or Mr. X. Most of the VFX houses have been around for 10 years or more.
Overtime pay and compensation is great when it comes to working in Toronto. A lot of companies in the city care about the heath of their employees, and will allow them to step away for outside-work issues or emergencies.
Toronto also has its variety of tax credits for filming and VFX. One popular one being The Ontario Computer Animation and Special Effects Tax Credit. Which gives an 18 percent refundable tax credit to digital animation and visual effects for film and TV. The provincial government of Ontario also actively encourages productions to film in and around the city. Toronto is also a favorite location for many Hollywood producers. One being Guillermo del Toro who has used the city for his TV shows, and Mr. X for creating the VFX for his film: The Shape of Water.
As of 2014, the VFX and animation industries in Ontario collectively earn over $397.8 million annually in revenue.
Animation and Visual Effect Programs and Schools
I get asked a lot: "Where should I go to learn VFX and animation in Canada?" Well here is a great list of a few colleges that offer VFX and animation programs. Let's start off with VFX degrees. Disclaimer: This isn't all the available in Canada for VFX and animation, but it's a pretty good chunk of them.
Visual Effects Sheridan College:
LOST BOYS SCHOOL OF VFX:
Toronto Film School:
Infocus Film School:
George Brown College:
3D Computer Animation Major Emily Carr:
SAE Creative Media Institute:
Max The Mutt:
Northern Alberta Institute of Technology:
Canadian VFX Studios
So I thought It might be fun to end the article with a list ALL, or at least a good chunk of VFX companies started here in Canada. Or privately owned here in Canada. All of these companies are now part of the history of VFX here in this amazing country, and you should totally research them! As of 2020, most of these companies are up and running around the provinces and they have some incredibly talented artists working for them. As well as numerous productions under their belts. So if you'd like to support Canadian studios, or would like to work for a Canadian studio here you go. :)
ON Animation Studios:
Artifex Animation Studios Inc.:
Stellar Creative Lab:
Lux Visual Effects Inc.:
Rocket Science VFX:
New Machine Studios:
Huminah Huminah Animation:
So if you have made it this far. Thank you. I wanted to take this moment to bring a spotlight to some Canadian artists, or artists(In no particular order) that I have worked with, or have been inspired by in the VFX/Animation industry. I guess you could call this list my credits reel of 2020. All of these artists currently work in Canada, and you should check them out. Some of them are also people who have had a HUGE impact on my choice to go into VFX. They've helped me make me who I am today, and they certainly deserve a lot of credit. Thank you to everyone who is on this list. I would not be where I am today without you, and I hope to work with you again soon. To everyone who is not. Hopefully, in the future our paths can cross and I'll see you soon. Happy Holidays! And Happy New Year!
Dhaval Mistry Joseph Triolo Daniel Wang Richard Noun Madison Lederer
David Ertsinian Jonathan Nguyen Thara Sekar Filip Kicev Oleksii Koba
Daniel St-Amant Nader Gholipour Pankaj Brijlani Genevieve Forte Nadav Ehrlich
Andrew Maynard Russel Rehmund Patrick Baumann Michelle Ryan Dan Pratezina
Adam Baker Matt D'Orazio Paul Anderson Steve Michaelides Bruno Pedrinha
Jorge Razon Matteo Buda Cassandra Giles Fadi Sara Dan Couturier
Jessa Kristelle Naranjo Matt Collie Carter Vandergrient Terry Posthumus David Booth Reddick
James Albiez Alasgar Hasanov Youcef Bessaa Golnar Madraki Jamie Presement
Leanna Kruse Keith Sellers Zhiying Song Nenad Nesha Peric Jason Par
Janna Miller Tara Mason Fernando Gallo Warren Douglas Mohamad Salame
Aaron Wright Keaton Cardoza Tyler Wicks Rushi Patel Emily Fung
Jacob Lunn Jeffy Mathew Philip Sunny Wong Sammie Kang Serjan Burlak
Arundhati Ray Paul Neale Haley Pierce Adam Tamblyn Kelly McKarthy
Omer Okmen Nicole Super Kelly Knauff Hakyung Chang Clementine Lo
Kai Wheatley Colin Cunningham Jim Maxwell Paul Wojdylo Richard Thorogood
BRIGHT NORTHERN LIGHTS: THE EVOLUTION OF THE CANADIAN VFX INDUSTRY:
Canada showcases animation expertise at MIFA:
Toon Town: Vancouver’s animation and visual effects industry cracks the billion-dollar mark:
International Animation Day Shines Spotlight on Canada:
GETTING INTO THE VFX INDUSTRY IN TORONTO?:
Vancouver vs Montreal vs Toronto for VFX:
Think Tank Training Centre:
Vancouver Film School:
Post-Production, Visual Effects and Digital Animation Grant (PPG) Alberta:
HOT SPOT FOR VISUAL EFFECTS AND ANIMATION CREATION:
Greater Montréal’s Booming VFX Industry:
Animation and Visual Effects Alliance of British Columbia/Alliance de l'Animation et des effets visuels de la colombie britannique / DAVID DYER, Consultant:
Business Intelligence: Ontario's Computer Animation and Visual Effects Companies, 2018:
History of Canadian animation:
Why Toronto Has Become Hollywood's Go-To Source for VFX Movie Magic:
Visual Effects in Toronto:
Rise of Canadian VFX:
Over 100 years of VFX: the digital age:
Protests as Oscar-winning 'Life of Pi' VFX studio faces bankruptcy:
MPC, Studio Behind ‘The Lion King,’ Shuts Down Vancouver Studio:
VFX Unionization Effort Struggles to Gain Traction:
Visual Effects Companies Meet to Consider Formation of Trade Association:
Trouble at Newbreed VFX Cementing Montreal’s Bad Rep:
Creative BC is responsible for the administration of British Columbia's motion picture tax credit programs.:
Cinema of Canada:
Top 10 Highest-Grossing Canadian Films:
Jessa Kristelle Naranjo
Jeffy Mathew Philip
Nenad Nesha Peric
David Booth Reddick