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April 15
2024

ISSUE

Spring 2024

VFX IN CANADA: A GLOBAL LEADER CONTINUES TO EVOLVE

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Toronto-based Herne Hill Media worked on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities soon after the firm opened its doors in Toronto. (Image courtesy of Herne Hill Media and Netflix)

Toronto-based Herne Hill Media worked on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities soon after the firm opened its doors in Toronto. (Image courtesy of Herne Hill Media and Netflix)

Powered by studios in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, Canada continues to grow and evolve as a major hub of the global VFX industry. Tax incentives, immigration policy, quality of life, excellent VFX and animation schools and beneficial time zones have all contributed to Canada’s prominence in global VFX. Moreover, a consistent number of Hollywood productions are lensed there, confirming Canada’s reputation as a world-class source of talent and innovation.

“Canada has always been a leader in the industry from the early days of the National Film Board to companies like Alias (now Maya) and SideFX, who have defined the founding principles of VFX and animation,” says Dave Sauro, Partner and Executive Producer at Herne Hill Media, a Toronto studio founded in 2021. “Canada has become a center of excellence not just for VFX, but also for film production in its entirety. Whatever is scripted, we can bring it to life.” Herne Hill worked on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities soon after the firm opened its doors. Sauro notes, “We are currently in various states of post-production on a few different projects, including In the Lost Lands, which is an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin short story directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.” The firm is also finalizing Lee Daniels’ The Deliverance and The First Omen.

On the other hand, perhaps Canada’s VFX success “has got something to do with the long, cold, dark winters?” asks Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer, General Manager & Cinesite Group Chief Operating Officer VFX at Image Engine. Founded in Vancouver in 1995, Image Engine merged with Cinesite in 2015. “When you spend a good deal of time indoors following your passions, that creates a kind of fertile ground for the focus, creativity, technical knowledge and innovation that high-end visual effects require. It seems to me that Canadians have never been shy [about] a little hard work either! Canadians have had a strong presence in Hollywood, animation and visual effects for a very long time.”

In recent years, Image Engine has worked on a healthy mixture of high-end series like Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian, 3 Body Problem and Lost in Space as well as the Fantastic Beasts films, Mulan and District 9, Elysium and CHAPPiE for director Neill Blomkamp, and Zero Dark Thirty for director Kathryn Bigelow.

COMPUTER ANIMATION

“Canada has always been a front-runner when it comes to computer animation. Maya, and Softimage before Maya, began in Canada. Canadians filled many of the earliest positions because we were more familiar with the software and skills needed for those early films and TV shows,” says Scott Thompson, CEO and Co-Founder of Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver. “That legacy helped Canadian schools better address the positions made available at studios that have settled north of the border.”

SideFX, co-founded in Toronto in 1987 by current President Kim Davidson, used its software, PRISMS, to lay the groundwork for Houdini. SideFX technology has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences five times for Houdini and its breakthrough procedural-based technology. Numerous VFX studios working on Oscar-winning and/or blockbuster films have used the software.

With its flagship product Houdini, SideFX has been a key driver in the growth and innovation of the Canadian VFX industry, particularly in Toronto,” comments Christopher Hebert, SideFX Senior Director of Marketing. The company’s work “has led to significant advancements in VFX and animation, making Houdini a staple in many studios and pushing the boundaries of visual effects capabilities. This influence extends to job creation and talent development, with SideFX employing a significant portion of its workforce in Canada. Their contribution to the software development ecosystem – as well as initiatives like the Houdini Internship Program – not only supports the local economy but also ensures a high level of VFX expertise within the country, fostering a robust and skilled VFX workforce.”

Also in Canada, Alias Research launched in Toronto in 1983 and Softimage in Montreal in 1986, eventually resulting, after various acquisitions and mergers, in (Autodesk) Maya, the award-winning, widely-used 3D model and animation software. In 2003, Alias was given an Academy Award for Technical Achievement for the development of Maya software.

Image Engine Design in Vancouver has been a key contributor to the Netflix series 3 Body Problem.(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Image Engine Design in Vancouver has been a key contributor to the Netflix series 3 Body Problem.
(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Recent projects for Montreal-based Raynault VFX include Secret Invasion Season 2 for Disney+ as well as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, All the Light We Cannot See, White Noise and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. (Image courtesy of Raynault VFX and Disney+)

Recent projects for Montreal-based Raynault VFX include Secret Invasion Season 2 for Disney+ as well as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, All the Light We Cannot See, White Noise and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. (Image courtesy of Raynault VFX and Disney+)

MARZ in Toronto contributed VFX to Moon Knight as well as WandaVision, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Wednesday, Stranger Things and the Percy Jackson series.(Photo: Gabor Kotschy. Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

MARZ in Toronto contributed VFX to Moon Knight as well as WandaVision, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Wednesday, Stranger Things and the Percy Jackson series. (Photo: Gabor Kotschy. Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Canada’s early animation and VFX software legacy and long history with Hollywood have helped Canadian film and VFX schools, like the Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver, consistently address the need for talent to fill available positions at studios.(Image courtesy of Think Tank Centre)

Canada’s early animation and VFX software legacy and long history with Hollywood have helped Canadian film and VFX schools, like the Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver, consistently address the need for talent to fill available positions at studios.
(Image courtesy of Think Tank Centre)

When new computer animation tools arrived, Canada’s art schools began “modifying their classical curriculums by adopting tech,” explains Lon Molnar, Co-Founder of MARZ, a VFX studio that launched in Toronto in 2018. “In the early days, Sheridan College outside of Toronto became a world-renowned leader for animation due to its talented faculty. In the ’90s, schools like Vancouver Film School built a reputation for training traditional and computer animation while cranking out amazing talent – and still do. The Canadian Government along with certain territories jumped on board and supported the industry with various incentives. Filmmaking in Canada as a stand-in for various locations grew while solid investment in soundstages in centers like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal followed the demand.

Add all this up and eventually you have a vibrant industry with a reputation to deliver.” MARZ contributed VFX to projects such as WandaVision, Moon Knight, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Wednesday, Stranger Things and the Percy Jackson series.

“[I]t’s hard to imagine a more multicultural, multinational visual effects company than  a Canadian one. Canada has always been a tremendous draw for immigration, and the visual effects industry has been a strong contributor to that story. It seems like Canada has found the right soupy mixture of various factors that have created an environment that supports the talent that’s so crucial to visual effects work. The job now is to continue to grow that talent base through continuing immigration, creative and technical development opportunities and strong industry leadership.”

—Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer & General Manager, Image Engine

CONTINUED TRAJECTORY

The acceleration of the visual effects industry in Canada over the last 25 years or so can also be attributed to “gradual factors such as the introduction of tax incentives in the late 1990s, strategic investments in education and the establishment of high-quality studios in cities like Vancouver and Montreal,” says Valérie Clément, VFX Producer for Raynault Visual Effects. In addition, Clément observes, “The boom in film and TV production in Canada has significantly boosted the exposure and vigor of the VFX and animation industry at large by creating increased demand for services, ensuring a steady flow of projects, fostering collaboration opportunities, contributing to the economy, driving talent development, gaining global recognition and spurring technological advancements.”

Clément points out, “Of course, the government incentives – generous tax credits, for example – played a huge role. There is also the skilled workforce, the strong infrastructure with more and more visual effects studios located mainly in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.” Clement’s firm, Raynault VFX, was founded in Montreal in 2011 by industry legend Mathieu Raynault, He surrounded himself with a small, select team of artists and grew the studio into a full-service VFX facility. Some 2022-2023 projects have included Percy Jackson and the Olympians, All the Light We Cannot See, White Noise, His Dark Materials, Season 3, Thor: Love & Thunder, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, The Old Man and Invasion. Clément also emphasizes the advantage of Canada’s time zones compared to those of Hollywood. There is a limited or non-existent time difference, such as Vancouver sharing the same time zone as California as opposed to London being eight hours later.

Ryan Stasyshyn, Managing Director of Toronto-based Mavericks VFX, cites these reasons for Canada’s VFX success: generous tax incentives and rebates offered by various provinces, a skilled workforce, strong government support, a favorable exchange rate (vs. USD) and, as Clement notes, a significant amount of physical production taking place in Canada. Recent high-profile projects for Mavericks VFX are John Wick: Chapter 4, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Fellow Travelers, The Offer, Don’t Worry Darling, The Boys, The Expanse and Halo.

Recent high-profile projects for Toronto-based Mavericks VFX include John Wick: Chapter 4 as well as Fargo, Fellow Travelers, The Offer, Don’t Worry Darling, The Boys, The Expanse and Halo.(Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

Recent high-profile projects for Toronto-based Mavericks VFX include John Wick: Chapter 4 as well as Fargo, Fellow Travelers, The Offer, Don’t Worry Darling, The Boys, The Expanse and Halo.
(Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

Toronto-based Mavericks VFX contributed VFX to the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. (Image courtesy of Hulu)

Toronto-based Mavericks VFX contributed VFX to the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. (Image courtesy of Hulu)

TIPPING POINT VANCOUVER

Walsh notes, “I think a key turning point in Vancouver’s history as a hub for high-end visual effects work was when Image Engine completed our work for Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 at more or less the same time that [Vancouver-based] The Embassy did some stunning work for Marvel’s first Iron Man and MPC created some solid work for Watchmen. I think this was around 2008-2009. This was the first time that Vancouver visual effects studios, broadly speaking, were really producing work that was the equal of any location, any company in the world. In fact, District 9 was the only project to beat Avatar in any category at the VES Awards that year! The town really grew from that point on. We were on the map, as they say. Since then, Vancouver has gone from strength to strength and has continued to lead the Canadian scene.”

LIFE PERKS

There are many advantages to living in the three major Canadian cities. In Toronto, Stasyshyn notes, “We have a vibrant cultural scene that’s extremely diverse. It’s also a very welcoming city with lots to explore and do.” Clément notes, “[Artists] also have access to all the perks of working and living in Canada: good quality of life, high living standards and a safe environment with the emphasis on a healthy work-life balance.”

Sauro also points to the opportunity to live and work in different parts of Canada. “Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are all important VFX hubs in the Canadian market, and each offer something different from a lifestyle perspective. Whether it’s the great outdoors of Vancouver, the big city living of Toronto or the European feel of Montreal with its excellent restaurants, each can allow you to not only earn a living doing what you love, but also live in a city that best fits your interests outside of work,” he explains.

In addition to Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Toronto-based Herne Hill Media is involved in In the Lost Lands, which is an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin short story directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, as well as Lee Daniels’ The Deliverance and The First Omen. (Image courtesy of Herne Hill Media and Netflix)

In addition to Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Toronto-based Herne Hill Media is involved in In the Lost Lands, which is an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin short story directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, as well as Lee Daniels’ The Deliverance and The First Omen. (Image courtesy of Herne Hill Media and Netflix)

MARZ in Toronto provided VFX for Spider-Man: No Way Home.(Photo: Matt Kennedy. Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

MARZ in Toronto provided VFX for Spider-Man: No Way Home. (Photo: Matt Kennedy. Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Image Engine Design in Vancouver has worked on the Fantastic Beasts films, including Secrets of Dumbledore, and high-end series such as Game of Thrones,The Mandalorian, 3 Body Problem and Lost in Space. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Image Engine Design in Vancouver has worked on the Fantastic Beasts films, including Secrets of Dumbledore, and high-end series such as Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian, 3 Body Problem and Lost in Space. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Image Engine Design in Vancouver provided VFX for Venom: Let There Be Carnage.(Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony and Marvel Studios)

Image Engine Design in Vancouver provided VFX for Venom: Let There Be Carnage. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony and Marvel Studios)

Image Engine Design provided VFX for 3 Body Problem.(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Image Engine Design provided VFX for 3 Body Problem. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Montreal-based Raynault VFX contributed to FX Network series The Old Man.(Image courtesy of Raynault VFX and FX Network)

Montreal-based Raynault VFX contributed to FX Network series The Old Man. (Image courtesy of Raynault VFX and FX Network)

BENEFITS & SUPPORT

In addition, “Employment standards in visual effects companies across Canada are generally very high,” Walsh notes. Wages are generally on par with anywhere in the world that’s doing equivalent levels of quality of execution. Aspects like healthcare and benefits again are on par or above those offered in other visual effects hubs around the world. And there’s a broadly diversified industry with many different companies in terms of shapes, sizes and focuses. [For artists], Canada represents a prime location to consider plying your trade.”

“Canada has a government that understands the importance of supporting the arts,” Sauro says. Part of that help comes in support for non-Canadians studying and working in VFX. Walsh notes that Canada “is a relatively open country that supports companies towards their immigration needs.” Aline Ngo, Image Engine recruiter, notes the importance of “facilitating the retention of skilled talent in Canada.” She says that enabling the stays of visual effects graduates with a government visa help is key. One path is “the possibility of getting a three-year post-graduate work permit after graduating.”

INCENTIVES

“Government support has played a pivotal role in Montreal’s VFX industry success,” Clément comments. “Generous tax incentives and subsidies attract studios, fostering growth. Investment in infrastructure and education ensures top-notch facilities and a skilled talent pool. In essence, government backing has been instrumental in shaping Montreal into a VFX pole.”

Walsh comments, “There’s great local support for the industry in the three main cities where the majority of the visual effects work transpires – Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. Labor-based tax credit regimes certainly don’t hurt when attracting the client base, but without the talent to execute the work, no amount of tax credit will matter.” Likewise, Sauro affirms, “We can’t ignore the obvious benefits tax credits play, both at a provincial and federal level, in attracting studios and producers to Canada, but that alone is not enough.”

“When you look at the post-secondary institutions in this country, we’re fortunate to have some of the best for VFX, animation and design: OCAD University, Sheridan College,

Humber College, Vancouver Film School, etc. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

—Dave Sauro, Partner and Executive Producer, Herne Hill Media

SCHOOLS

VFX and animation schools have also helped build the industry. Sauro comments, “When you look at the post-secondary institutions in this country, we’re fortunate to have some of the best for VFX, animation and design: OCAD University, Sheridan College, Humber College, Vancouver Film School, etc. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Stasyshyn points to Seneca College, Sheridan College and Vancouver Film School (VFS) as some of the top VFX and animation schools in Canada. “These schools have played a crucial role in shaping the skills of the Canadian VFX workforce. Their programs often include hands-on training, industry connections, networking events and exposure to some of the latest technologies.”

For SideFX, “The proximity to top-tier educational institutions – like the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto, renowned for their software development and graphics labs, and colleges like Sheridan College, known for its CG education – ensures a steady stream of skilled graduates and potential innovations in VFX technology,” says Hebert. Clément adds, “In Montreal, the VFX talent pool has expanded through esteemed educational institutions like NAD [The School of Digital Arts, Animation and Design] providing industry-relevant education. The establishment of major VFX studios has also significantly expanded career opportunities for local artists.”

Noteworthy Canadian VFX/animation schools also include public schools Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Langara College, British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and Capilano University and private institutions like Lost Boys School of Visual Effects, Think Tank and Vancouver Film School (VFS), according to Ngo.

“Government support has played a pivotal role in Montreal’s VFX industry success. Generous tax incentives and subsidies attract studios, fostering growth. Investment in infrastructure and education ensures top-notch facilities and a skilled talent pool. In essence, government backing has been instrumental in shaping

Montreal into a VFX pole.”

—Valérie Clément, VFX Producer, Raynault Visual Effects

“With a focus on story and problem-solving, we have been serving our industry with students who are prepared for an adaptable career in VFX,” says Colin Giles, Head of the School for Animation & VFX at Vancouver Film School. “Given the rapid changes in techniques and technology, we continue to upgrade our facilities and curriculum to not only stay in tune with current methodologies, but prepare our students on why these changes can enchant their storytelling and help them find their artistic voice.” Thompson remarks, “Canadian-based studios have a substantial piece of the VFX pie, so students are very close geographically to their first VFX job. These studios also give Canadian schools access to instructors and mentors that are working on the biggest VFX films and TV shows being made. At Think Tank, we are continually polling the industry to better understand the software, workflows and demands of the FX industry.”

Vancouver Film School continues to upgrade its facilities and curriculum to stay in tune with current methodologies and better prepare students for the evolving industry.(Image courtesy of Vanouver Film School)

Vancouver Film School continues to upgrade its facilities and curriculum to stay in tune with current methodologies and better prepare students for the evolving industry.
(Image courtesy of Vanouver Film School)

Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver is among the wealth of animation and VFX schools in Canada developing a steady stream of creative and technical talent that keeps the industry growing. (Image courtesy of Think Tank Centre)

Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver is among the wealth of animation and VFX schools in Canada developing a steady stream of creative and technical talent that keeps the industry growing. (Image courtesy of Think Tank Centre)

Canadian VFX/animation schools work hard to stay in demand and stay in touch with the VFX companies. Lost Boys Co-Founder and Director Ria Ambrose Benard comments, “We were the first school to teach Houdini for FX and Katana for lighting. This helped our students stay ahead of the curve and in demand when the industry was growing. The FX program and the lighting program were designed at a request from the studios in the industry years ago.” Giles notes, “The growing talent pool is being fueled by high school interest, and international students are attracted to animation schools across Canada. This has allowed the VFX industry to tap into deep tax credits and build a sustainable nationwide industry. In addition, like VFS, we are able to bring in top instructors and mentors from the expanding VFX footprint.”

Walsh continues, “Bringing visual effects work north seems to have been a natural progression. Initially, many of us left home to work abroad because that’s what you had to do to experience working on the visual effects shots that captivated our attention. However, there was a turning point around the late 2000s when many of us returned home and brought our new-found friends from around the world with us! Since then, it’s hard to imagine a more multicultural, multinational visual effects company than a Canadian one. Canada has always been a tremendous draw for immigration, and the visual effects industry has been a strong contributor to that story. It seems like Canada has found the right soupy mixture of various factors that have created an environment that supports the talent that’s so crucial to visual effects work. The job now is to continue to grow that talent base through continuing immigration, creative and technical development opportunities and strong industry leadership.”

VFX STUDIOS

Other notable Canadian VFX/animation firms include Spin VFX (Toronto), Rocket Science VFX (Toronto), Rodeo FX (Montréal, Québec City, Toronto), Soho VFX (Toronto), Guru Studio (Toronto), Folks VFX (Toronto), Zoic Studios (Vancouver), The Embassy (Vancouver), Hybridge Ubisoft (Montréal), Artifex Animation Studios (Montréal) and Alchemy 24 (Montréal).

Branches of foreign VFX and animation companies have also contributed to Canada’s growth in visual effects. Vancouver has outposts of Wētā FX, ILM, Framestore, DNEG, Pixomondo, Sony ImageWorks, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Digital Domain, Crafty Apes VFX, FuseFX, Scanline VFX (owned by Netflix), Ghost VFX, Luma Pictures, Clear Angle Studios, Animal Logic, CoSA VFX, Barnstorm VFX and Ingenuity Studios, among others.

Montréal branches include Framestore, DNEG, Pixomondo, Sony ImageWorks, MPC (Technicolor), Mikros Animation (Technicolor), Digital Domain, Mathematic Studio, Crafty Apes, Folks VFX (Fuse Group), Outpost VFX and Scanline VFX. Toronto facilities include DNEG, Tippett Studio and Ghost VFX, among others.



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