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Disney Studio Draws on Canadian Talent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walt Disney Co. staged a coming-out party Monday for its new studio here, the first full-service Disney animation facility outside the United States and the latest signal of Canada’s emergence as a world center for commercial animation production.

The event, for the Canadian and U.S. media and Canada’s creative community, was dubbed the “official opening” of the studio, which occupies 30,000 square feet atop two floors of an office tower overlooking Lake Ontario.

But animators have been at work here and in a sister facility in Vancouver, British Columbia, for more than a year, and the real occasion Monday was the launch of the studio’s first production, a direct-to-video sequel to the 1991 feature “Beauty and the Beast,” which will hit store shelves in time for Christmas.

Lenora Hume, Disney senior vice president of international production, said the Canadian operation will produce mainly for the expanding home video market.

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“The Return of Jafar,” the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to “Aladdin,” sold a surprising 16 million copies worldwide and opened the way to a whole new product line for the company, Hume said.

Here in Toronto, a video follow-up to “Pocahontas” is in the works, as are videos based on original characters. The Toronto studio also may produce lower-budget theatrical features similar to 1995’s “A Goofy Movie.”

The major animated productions such as “Hercules,” on which Disney has built its reputation since “Snow White,” will continue to be made in Burbank.

The two Canadian studios, which operate as a single unit under the direction of Joan Fischer, a former Canadian public television executive, represent the most ambitious step yet in Disney’s expansion into foreign animation production. The company also has studios in Japan and Australia, but neither offers the full range of production available here.

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Because of a favorable exchange rate, production costs are generally lower in Canada than in the U.S., but Hume and Fischer said the decision to build a studio here was based largely on the availability of able animators.

“There’s an enormous talent pool here,” said Fischer. Animators “go to school here, train here, but then they often had to leave to get a job. So it made a lot of sense for Disney to come to them.”

Hume said that at the Australian studio, Disney trained its own employees and in Japan, where traditional animation follows a much different style than that associated with Mickey Mouse, the company drew on a small but enthusiastic group of “Disney-phile” animators.

Of 200 employees hired so far in Canada--150 in the Toronto studio--Hume estimated that 98% are Canadian. The company plans to add 25 more soon.

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Even before Disney moved in, Canada had developed as a major creative center for animation. Cartoon production companies like Toronto-based Nelvana Ltd., Cinar in Montreal, Lacewood in Ontario and Mainframe Entertainment in Vancouver have helped make this country the world’s second-largest exporter of television programming after the U.S.

(Hume spent 14 years as an award-winning director of photography and producer at Nelvana before joining Disney in 1990.)

The large number of production companies here and the booming world television market for animation have created what Scott Turner, co-director of the school of animation at nearby Sheridan College, calls a “feeding frenzy” for young talent. Sheridan students find themselves targeted by producers by the time they reach the second year of the three-year animation degree course. In some cases, bidding wars have broken out among prospective employers.

According to Hume, about 80% of the Disney hires are Sheridan graduates, and the college president, Sheldon Levy, said there are about 4,000 applicants every year for the 120 enrollment slots in the animation program.

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Film industry analysts here cite the Sheridan program, started 30 years ago, and the strong tradition of animation at the 58-year-old, government-owned National Film Board, as reasons for Canadian success in the commercial market. “It’s in our blood,” said Wayne Clarkson, director of the Canadian Film Center in Toronto, a nonprofit facility similar to the American Film Institute.

When satellite and cable television created a new international market for programming, Canada was ready to fill the niche, Clarkson said.

Canada’s success in filling that niche has lately generated a debate about whether the country’s cartoonists have sold out. Chris Robinson, director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, argues that Canadian animated filmmakers have lost their creative edge.

But such considerations aside, Clarkson predicts the boom is likely to continue. In the global market, animation often is an ideal product for crossing international boundaries, he noted: “A cuddly bear is a cuddly bear anywhere in the world.”

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