Vancouver's animation boom sparks talent search

Now one of the world's largest visual effects hubs, Vancouver hungry for more animators

An animator at work at Bardel Entertainment | Darren Hull

As film and television contracts continue to roll in, animation studios in Vancouver are facing a talent crunch.

“It’s pretty widely known that there is a shortage of labour supply in Vancouver,” said Scott Hanley, a human resources generalist at Bardel Entertainment. 

“Bardel and other animation studios are working collaboratively to try to increase the amount of training that junior animators are getting, and the outreach to high schools to ensure that they realize there is a career in animation.”

Bardel has hired 125 more staff since January to work on television shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rick and Morty  and Veggie Tales. In the last few years, large Hollywood studios such as Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain, Rhythm & Hues and Sony Pictures Imageworks have set up shop in Vancouver, bringing the number of studios to around 20. 

Vancouver is now one of the world’s largest animation and visual effects hubs, industry insiders say. Competitive government tax credits have been key to the growth of the industry.

Animators usually specialize in either 2D or 3D animation; junior animators are usually paid between $35,000 and $40,000 a year, while senior animators make $60,000 to $75,000, said Hanley. 

In the past three years, wages have gone up in both visual effects and animation as studios attempt to attract workers.

Capilano University offers an animation program with two streams: one for 2D animation and one for 3D. There is currently more demand for 2D animators in Vancouver, so last year Capilano increased its intake for that program to 50 from 25 students to keep up with industry demand. 

“2D is hand-drawn,” said Craig Simmons, co-ordinator of Capilano’s animation program. “Even though they use computers, most of that work is still designed and drawn by hand, frame by frame. 

“3D animation is more like puppet animation where the puppet is being constructed on a computer and then they can move it around anywhere they want.”

Local companies like Bardel and DHX Studios have recently been supplying a lot of television animation for networks like Teletoon in Canada or the Cartoon Network in the United States, Simmons said.

It’s standard across the industry for animators to be hired on contracts tied to each show. Although contracts are often renewed if a television show is renewed for another season, that can lead to loss of talented staff who can easily take another contract with a different studio, Hanley said.

Gaming companies also need animators, but Lindsay Mussell, a human resources manager with East Side Games, said her company hasn’t had any difficulty finding animators lately. 

“A lot of the artists we have here have contacts within the animation industry,” she said, “and we get a lot of referrals from the artists that we have who want to bring people over from that industry into games.” 

Film and gaming both have the reputation of requiring their workers to work long hours as project deadlines loom, but Mussell said offering full-time work, competitive wages and “more manageable deadlines” has been key to attracting senior-level animators.

Bardel is working on staff retention through offering in-house training, giving staff the opportunity to move up in the company and developing a strong company culture. The company tries to hire locally first, but has been hiring temporary foreign workers as well.

“Vancouver’s gotten so big recently that it’s a no-brainer for a company to move here because they’re going to be able to find the talent or recruit it because they’re already in Vancouver or [Vancouver] is on their radar because it’s one of the top three [visual effects] and animation hubs in the world right now,” Hanley said.