Vancouver didn’t become one of the world’s leading cities for Digital Entertainment & Interactive overnight – it’s a result of over 30 years of innovation, hard work, and unwavering entrepreneurial spirit. This is part 1 of a 2 part series where our DE&I sector expert Nancy Mott recounts how the sector started, where it is now, and what the future holds.
As Manager, Digital Entertainment and Interactive at the Vancouver Economic Commission, Nancy works strategically to grow and strengthen the Vancouver screen-based industry as well as to support the local businesses that form the basis of this sector. Included in her portfolio are film, television, visual effects and animation, gaming, VR, and mobile entertainment. With her move to the Vancouver Economic Commission in 2011, Nancy brought with her 20 years of experience in the film and television industry in both production and business development for practical filmmaking, visual effects and animation. In fact, Nancy was an executive producer for feature films in the visual effects industry with former clients such as Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney Studios.
Q: When did the DE&I industry in Vancouver start?
Nancy: We saw some TV programmes being made here in the ‘70s, like The Beachcombers. It was in the ‘80s though, that we started getting much bigger productions. Henry Winkler was one of the main producers on MacGyver, and they came to Vancouver to film. That was sort of our first international/US star powered project that had big credibility. We also saw the beginning of the big Hollywood feature film with projects like Runaway, with Tom Selleck. He was the biggest star of TV at the time. The industry began to grow exponentially with the establishment of Cannell Studios. Producer/Creator Stephen J Cannell of the Rockford Files fame brought up series starting with Wiseguy and 21 Jump Street.
Q: Was TV the only DE&I sub-sector to take root at that time?
Nancy: Not at all. The animation industry also started really developing in the ‘80s too. Marv Newland from National Film Board came and opened up International Rocketship in Vancouver in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. Subsequently, Bardel Entertainment and Studio B Productions opened up in the ‘80s. They were small animation studios, mostly doing service work for bigger broadcasters. At the same time in video games, Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember founded Distinctive Software and came up with a widely popular, 8-bit driving game called Test Drive. Film making, animation and video games were all starting to buzz at that same time.
Q: Why was it happening in Vancouver?
Nancy: Vancouver has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and working in these industries at the beginning required a lot of work, especially on the film making side. We had to train crews very quickly, hustle for equipment rentals and work really hard. There were also people in these industries who loved Vancouver, like Marv Newland on the animation side. Then when he opened up here, the people who used to work for Marv from Studio B and Bardel opened up their own company. So again it’s that entrepreneurial spirit. People here just wanted to carve out on their own and will work hard to do it.
“Vancouver has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and working in these industries at the beginning required a lot of work, especially on the film making side.”
Q: How did emerging technologies at that time influence the growth?
Nancy: Vancouver loves technology. We are early adopters of it. We also love the entertainment industry. So people like Don, who was part of the game industry when it was about Pong and Space Invaders, took new technologies that came along and used them to build new things. The rise of the personal computer was one of those technologies. Workstations were a lot more expensive back in the day, but they could get the tools to build new things.
Q: Was Vancouver getting any international recognition at this time?
Nancy: We were getting international recognition for the animation work that Marv Newland was doing earlier, but recognition really started more in the ‘90s. We were still primarily a TV town, but the X Files were here then, as was Outer Limits and Stargate, and we were starting to get more feature film work like Jumanji, Deep Rising and Mission to Mars. It was a slow and steady growth at that time.
Q: Vancouver is now the world’s largest visual effects hub of companies. How did that get started?
Nancy: Visual effects and animation often use the same tools. Visual effects integrates animation into practical film – it’s the bridge between the two. In the ‘80s, there wasn’t much animation, so there weren’t a lot of visual effects. It was all explosions and manipulating the film. Then in the ‘90s, Mainframe Entertainment developed the first CG commercial TV project called Reboot. This predated Pixar so we were really ahead of the game. The idea for it was born in the late ‘80s, tested in 1990 and received its detailed look in 1991. By 1994, it had produced Reboot – motion capture added to animation. It was a huge success.
Q: Did these early, individual DE&I successes lead to further growth in the industry?
Nancy: Absolutely. People are trained in the larger companies and then want to open up their own companies. For example in video games, Don Mattrick’s success with Distinctive Software led EA to buy it in the early ‘90s and create EA Canada arguably still the largest games campus globally. Over time, Executives from EA decided to open up Radical Entertainment and Relic Entertainment, similar to what happened in animation. From Relic and Radical and EA spawned Propoganda Games, Slant Six, United Front, Next Level Games, Smoking Gun Interactive. I used to work at a VFX company called the Embassy of Visual Effects. We all used to work at Rainmaker Visual Effects. Then the team decided to open up their own company and focus on high end commercials. That’s kind of what happens here.
Q: Was there enough talent to supply the growth?
Nancy: At that time, we started getting more post-secondary talent, mostly from private schools. The public schools were changing the curriculum too, but it was mostly the private schools. Vancouver Film School, Art Institute, Lost Boys, Vancouver Animation School and institutions like that were growing in the mid 2000’s. UBC, SFU and Capilano do have a pretty good curriculum now, but it’s very difficult to keep up with trends and technology because of the costs involved. Private schools are able to adapt quickly to changes in technology and software. Public schools take longer to make adjustments.
Q: Did growth in one DE&I sector impact other sectors and the whole ecosystem?
Nancy: It certainly did in the case of film, animation and visual effects. In the 2000’s, we started seeing even more feature film production– Blade, X Men, Elf, Night of the Museum – and bigger shows, like Fantastic Four and Battle Star Galactica. We also started to see the exponential growth of the visual effects in these films, and visual effects companies in Vancouver to service them. Animation grew with companies like Nitrogen, Big Bad Boo, Cap Com, and visual effects started growing outside Rainmaker. The success was encouraging local companies like Image Engine, Artifex and Gold Tooth creative, and even some international companies. Zoic was the first US company to open a studio in 2006 and are just hitting their 10th anniversary here. London based VFX studio, MPC, established in Vancouver in 2007. Global companies recognized what was happening here.
Q: What made Vancouver go from a popular DE&I destination to a global centre?
Nancy: The Olympics really put a spotlight on Vancouver’s DE&I industry. We did have the industry here before, but that allowed us to show international companies the city and the ecosystem. The next big turning point was in 2011, when SIGGRAPH decided to hold its first conference outside of the US in 37 years in Vancouver. It was a testimonial to what Vancouver had become. Subsequently, we had it in 2014 again. That is a big, big deal, and now we seem to be part of the rotation. It will be back in Vancouver in 2018.
Of course, the steady tax credits for physical production and visual effects was a major draw but I would argue that they mean little if you can’t do the work. Vancouver was ready for the challenge.
Q: What types of projects are you seeing come to Vancouver these days?
Nancy: We are seeing real big money come to Vancouver. Vancouver’s poised to have a growth economy – one of the only ones in Canada – and really it’s because of these industries and technology.
Q: Is there one that everyone would know?
Nancy: There are so many. We’ve assisted with many projects. I think one of the most recent was Deadpool. We facilitated the closure of the Georgia Viaduct which was critical to the scene. It was a huge success. The public was given a couple of months warning that the vein going out of the city would be closed for three weeks during morning rush hour. It was back open everyday at 3pm. The crews practiced tearing down the complicated set. They were able to achieve this in 20 minutes. It was amazing to watch. Fans came every day and there was such a positive spirit surrounding the shoot. We figured if London can close Trafalgar Square for Mission Impossible, we can close the Georgia Viaducts in support of the film industry.