Toon Town: Vancouver’s animation and visual effects industry cracks the billion-dollar mark

A mix of local and international players have made their mark.

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Bron Studios co-founder Brenda Gilbert looks to the future

A mix of local and international players have made their mark

It‘s Saturday morning at the Vancouver Convention Centre, and there’s something strange going on. I’m here for the Digital Entertainment Career Fair organized by the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC), but my eyes are momentarily flooded with spandex and sparkles. When I pause to consider whether I’m witnessing a stunt to entice more women into tech careers, someone whispers in my ear: a cheerleading convention has come to town.

Inside the career fair proper, natural order is restored: packed with orderly lines of people wearing muted colours and oversized backpacks, the room plays host to the hopeful, faces down in their phones, waiting patiently for the opportunity to pitch themselves to the 40-plus businesses in attendance.

Some are graduating students, some professionals who have clocked a year or two’s experience, looking for the next step in animation or visual effects (VFX); the cohort skews young, but there’s a surprising number of more seasoned faces peppered around.

Chatting to some of those lining up, I find a disparate group: there’s the young woman from France, hoping to have her visa sponsored by an employer; the animator looking to move up from his entry-level position but fretting that the work on his phone he plans to show a recruiter isn’t his best; and the 40-something who drove up from Seattle at the crack of dawn, who has a long career in games but wants to cross over to VFX and, he says, Vancouver is the place to be.

It may feel a bit like a cattle call, but there are jobs to be had in this room (one successful pitcher was heard telling anyone who would listen that the gathering had changed her life). Although the work on offer (and the company cultures) may be considered fun, the atmosphere here is serious.

No wonder: the capacity of the digital creative industry in B.C. right now is huge; it’s the new big factory in town, offering steady work and good pay. Direct industry spend in Metro Vancouver has almost tripled since 2012, according to the VEC, and is expected to surpass $1 billion this year.

In March, a delegation from Film London visited Vancouver to tour studios and begin working on the finer points of a deal made at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 that the two cities would work together to capitalize on future business opportunities in animation and VFX.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” VEC executive director Nancy Basi says of B.C.’s presence on the world stage. What began in the 1970s with the National Film Board grew in the 1980s and ’90s with Bardel Entertainment and Studio B (since acquired by DHX Media).

The 2008 economic crash stalled things, but the VEC leveraged the 2010 Winter Olympics, bringing in delegations from international studios for a spotlight on the city during the Games. It followed that effort with a business mission to the 2012 London Summer Olympics and plans to do something similar for the Tokyo Games next year.

In 2011, SIGGRAPH chose to hold its annual conference on computer graphics in Vancouver, the first time the event had travelled outside the U.S., and in 2015, Sony Pictures Imageworks expanded its presence from a small Yaletown studio to a 74,000-square-foot global headquarters.

While Vancouver is the centre of the action, businesses are popping up in Victoria and Kelowna, with some satellite studios of bigger operations opening in smaller communities. Bron Studios, for example, has a 20,000-square-foot main studio in Burnaby and satellites in Duncan and London, Ontario. What began as a boutique shop in Vancouver back in 2010 is now a sizable operation that includes film and television production under its seven-company umbrella.

Bron’s production turnover for 2019 is “in the hundreds of millions,” co-founder and president Brenda Gilbert says. The studio’s website emphasizes a casual workplace and company-organized events to encourage team-building; “work hard, play hard” is something of a mantra in this industry. “There has to be more than monetary incentives,” Gilbert explains. Of about 180 staff, 125 to 130 work in Bron’s animation division; the longer production pipeline makes staff retention and satisfaction a priority in Vancouver’s competitive market.

The biggest queue at the career fair is for Sony Pictures Imageworks. The recruiting team is working hard, giving each hopeful time to discuss their work and offering advice. Newbies are directed to take one of the industry-approved courses at local film schools; lines begin to form at booths hosted by Vancouver Film School, Capilano University and others offering the technical training a starting-out animator requires. With industry salaries beginning at around $50,000, it’s a trade that pays.

For Basi, the employment possibilities in the industry are so great—and, she points out, extend beyond entertainment to scientific and medical applications—that she believes it’s time to bring grade schools and parents onside. “It’s really important that game play and digital play is seen by schools and parents as the future,” she argues. “These are high-paying jobs with a secure future, but I don’t think parents really believe these jobs exist.

“Kids need to play computer games and build up their digital skills,” Basi adds. “The possibilities for using those skills in their careers are infinite.”

VFX marks the spot

According to the Vancouver Economic Commission, the city’s visual effects and animation industry: 

  • Is the world’s No. 1 animation and VFX cluster
  • Provides 10,000+ jobs
  • Comprises 60+ domestic and foreign-owned studios

In 2018, the Hollywood Reporter named three Metro Vancouver VFX schools to its unranked list of the top 10 globally:

1. Lost Boys Studios

2. Think Tank Training Centre

3. Vancouver Film School

Among the animated films made with Vancouver talent:

The Prophet (Bardel Entertainment, 2014)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Imageworks, 2018)

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Animal Logic, 2019)