Getting the cartoon treatment

Alumni take a tour of Dog River for Corner Gas Animated

It’s tough to reboot a television series and make sure it has all the nuances and eccentricities the original was known for. It’s even harder to do when making the switch from live action to animation.

That was the challenge tasked to the creators of Corner Gas, the iconic sitcom that ended its six-season run in 2009. In December 2016, the show producers announced they were working on 13 episodes of Corner Gas Animated, featuring the voices of creator, producer and star Brent Butt and most of the cast from the live-action version.

The remake delivered. The Comedy Network confirmed that the April 2 premiere became the highest-rated debut in the network’s history.

Its success can be shared with Smiley Guy Studios’ Mateusz Garbulinski (Animation ’01) and Neptoon Studios founders Todd Kauffman and Mark Thornton (Animation ’93). The three Sheridan alumni worked with Butt and the rest of the team to transform the Corner Gas characters.

Garbulinski serves as animation director on the project, with Thornton and Kauffman working as series directors.

The trio know their away around the animation industry. Garbulinski’s credits include the Christmas special Curse of Clara, Todd and the Pure Book of Evil and Wes Anderson’s latest flick, Isle of Dogs, while Kauffman and Thornton have more than 20 years of experience to their name with hits such as Space Jam, Osmosis Jones and Anastasia.

The varying styles and stories in these titles are not coincidental — they’re a key reason the animators have been able to stay active and working throughout their careers. Flexibility and collaboration is the name of the game.

“A lot of artists strive to have a style, and that’s great, but I kind of strive to not have a style because it keeps me working,” says Kauffman. “People know they can call on me and I’ll just fit into their pipeline. I can fit into whatever it is they want me draw.”

Along the same vein, maintaining industry relationships and working well within a collaborative environment keeps those calls coming.

“It’s such a collaborative industry…if you look at the end credits of any animated feature or show, it seems like there are thousands of names because there’s so much work that needs to be done,” says Thornton. “It’s a team effort, and there’s so much to learn on each project that it helps you move forward.”

Teamwork was a key component of Corner Gas Animated, as animators worked with the rhythms and patterns already established by the live-action series. The creators put together a package for the animators that showed the key expressions and dialogue clips from each character to be used as a reference.

“They provided us with mannerisms that they felt were a fit for the characters, and in the end, you kind of internalize those sorts of things and hope the animators adhere to the voices and understand the characters on the inside, whatever their backstory may be,” says Garbulinski.

Taking an analytical approach to work is in Garbulinski’s nature. Before deciding to pursue a career in animation, he had plans to study architecture. One day, while at St. Clair College, he came across a used book detailing the animation process behind Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. After spending a few days reading the book, he realized he wanted to pursue animation professionally.

Throughout his career, Garbulinski’s made a concerted effort to stretch and test his skills. He says he tends to prefer taking on projects where performance trumps action, making Corner Gas Animated — a project almost entirely based on performance — the perfect fit.

“It’s important to be reflective of the work that you do — be critical of your work and find ways to improve on it,” says Garbulinski. “A lot of what I learned is from my peers, both in the industry and in school, and having an open mind, allowing the information to sink in.”

Thornton and Kauffman relate, often playing off each other’s strengths in the projects they produce for Neptoon. The pair first worked together in the 90s at Phoenix Animation, and found themselves working at the same studio a number of times in the following years before founding Neptoon.

“A lot of artists strive to have a style, and that’s great, but I kind of strive to not have a style because it keeps me working. People know they can call on me and I’ll just fit into their pipeline. I can fit into whatever it is they want me draw.”

They say working on Corner Gas Animated was a no brainer. After all, who would turn down the opportunity to work on one of Canada’s most iconic series?

“I’ve always wanted to work on a primetime series,” says Kauffman. “I love the style they came up with ­– I don’t always get the opportunity to work on art like this, that isn’t as cartoony and squashy, so I was really happy to be doing it.

Kauffman says young animators should be ready to try new things and push their artistic limits to get what they want. “You have to be able to say ‘OK, I’m going to go do this now’ rather than wait for instruction. If you’re worth your weight and your artistic skills, other people will see that and hopefully give you more opportunity.”

Thornton agrees, adding expanding your skill base will help you get recruited to more projects for a longer time.

“There’s a lot to be done during production, with different roles taking place at different stages. If you’re versatile enough, you can work from the first to the final day, but if you stick with one skill, you might only be needed for so long.”

Corner Gas Animated airs on The Comedy Network, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The network has ordered a second season of the series.

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