B.C.’s animation prowess draws industry giants

DNEG, Disney launching Vancouver animation studios

Visual effects workers at DNEG’s Vancouver office will soon be joined be a new animation team | Submitted

It’s been more than 15 years since Tom Jacomb made his first venture into Vancouver’s animation sector, serving as a line producer for the 2005 Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) feature Valiant.

“A lot of those people [from the film] are still in Vancouver, still making great movies,” said the London-based Brit, newly promoted to president of DNEG Animation.

Jacomb’s Vancouver connection will be tightening in the coming years after DNEG’s – or Double Negative Ltd. – parent company secured a US$250 million equity investment from Novator Capital Advisers in mid-August in a bid to massively expand its animation division.

And it’s not the only global giant eyeing big plans for the West Coast.

Prior to last month, DNEG’s Vancouver office was focused on VFX work, having brought home an Oscar for the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Coincidentally, Canadian actor Ryan Gosling starred in the lead role in both First Man and Blade Runner 2049 – the latter of which also earned an Oscar for the DNEG team back in 2018.

With the new cash in hand, the VFX company is hiring as many as 100 animators in Vancouver, launching a new studio in Toronto and expanding its Montreal office.

The Vancouver animation team, which will initially be based out of DNEG’s VFX office, has already been tasked with moving into production on five new animation projects.

“It’s a pretty mature market, and so the talent in Vancouver really is top notch. And that’s what we’re really looking to tap,” said Jacomb.

Glassdoor Inc., which calculates industry salaries based on self-reported data, estimates the average annual income for an animator in Los Angeles is about $106,000 compared with about $62,000 in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, DNEG’s interest in Vancouver’s animation prowess comes only a few weeks after Disney revealed it was launching an animation studio in the city this coming January.

The new studio has been tapped for long-form series work, such as the Moana adaptation for the small screen, as well as other projects for the Disney+ streaming service.

Disney has already scooped up local mainstays for talent, having recruiting Vancouverite Amir Nasrabadi from Canadian animation giant WildBrain Ltd. (TSX:WILD) to lead the new team.

When asked about the location and headcount of the new studio, a Disney spokesman told BIV more details would come some time in the future.

WildBrain’s 75,000-square-foot Vancouver studio in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood sits just three blocks from DNEG’s office, further cementing the area as a hot spot for gaming, VFX, animation and post-production work.

The Vancouver Economic Commission estimated last fall that the combined VFX and animation sectors contributed $1 billion to the provincial economy as of 2019 – about the same as the preceding year.

While most of Vancouver’s animation studios are relatively small, other global giants have made their mark in the city. Sony Pictures Imageworks (Vancouver) garnered praise for the 2018 feature film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for both the storytelling and distinct visual style of the animation.

WildBrain and Sony employ about 700 workers each in Vancouver.

And while the industry is one known for creativity and collaboration, Jacomb said advances in remote working over the past 18 months have made it possible to accommodate talent who may no longer wish to come into work five days a week.

“You can absolutely feel in touch with all the teams: Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Mumbai, London,” said the animation chief, who oversees about 600 artists across the world.

“Managing global teams has – I really hesitate to say this – but I do believe it’s never been easier because the technology is there now.”