The Animators

There’s hardly any pencil and paper behind today’s greatest cartoon characters. Instead, the likes of Bart Simpson and Peter Griffin draw life from the computer software of international powerhouse Toon Boom Animation Inc.

Joan Vogelesang, CEO

Unless you work in animation, you may have never heard of Toon Boom. But if you’ve watched an episode of The Simpsons, you’ve seen the company’s technology at work. Founded in Montréal in 1994, Toon Boom develops software used to make animated movies, cartoons, and educational products—anything requiring animation.

Once upon a time, animation was created by drawing thousands of images by hand. Now, that drudgery is largely handled by computer software. Toon Boom is the leading supplier to high-end animation studios, with its products in at least 90 percent of them, including powerhouses like Warner Bros., Fox, and Disney. Its software is also used to create about 80 percent of popular cartoons seen in North America, including shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill. The company has also won multiple awards, including the HSBC International Business Award and the 2005 Primetime Emmy Engineering Award.

“At the high end, we very much act as the industry’s glue,” says CEO Joan Vogelesang. “If a studio needs to outsource work, they will call, and we can advise them which outsourcer can provide the quality of work they need.”

When Vogelesang joined the company as COO in 1998, Toon Boom primarily supported Disney’s studios. “At the time, all of Disney’s direct-to-video releases were done with our technology, ” she says. Vogelesang developed a clear vision for Toon Boom’s growth. She knew the company had to maintain its foothold in the highly competitive Hollywood animation market through strong relationships with big studios. However, she also saw the opportunity for Toon Boom to expand its reach, both geographically and in terms of the type of animators it supplied. “We needed to redesign the products, simplify them, so that we could have a multiple-product offering targeting smaller studios, individual animators, and hobbyists,” she says. The strategy required paring down Toon Boom’s software and redesign its user interface. The result was a diverse suite of products aimed at every level of the animation industry.

With major software packages like Toon Boom Harmony, the company targets the industry’s leading TV and movie studios, as well as smaller studios, freelance animators, and hobbyists, with Toon Boom Animate and Toon Boom Studio. The company also introduced a highly successfully Storyboard application, allowing artists to map out their video story lines and sequences via computer, instead of pencil and paper. More recently, the company unveiled its Flip-Boom Doodle app. The software’s easily navigable tools and templates allow casual users and even children to create their own animations.

“The other decision we made at that time was to become net exporters, to focus on the international market,” Vogelesang says. By the late 1990s, Toon Boom already had operations in China and Taiwan, and was investing in India.

Over the course of 16 years, Toon Boom has developed a presence in 122 countries, forging a successful method for building foreign markets. “Ultimately, what we do is find entrepreneurs who are willing to set up a working studio and attach a training facility to that studio,” Vogelesang explains. Experts are then brought in from other countries to train the local staff. “But to build the industry, you have to be willing to put 12–18 months into an investment, learning what’s happening on the ground and making sure you can find the right people to finance it, and the right people who can work in it.”

The international market provides a significant opportunity for an export-driven company like Toon Boom. “There are hundreds of TV stations in these countries looking for content,” Vogelesang says.

However, in many places restrictions on foreign content exist. In Argentina, for instance, 60 percent of broadcast content needs to be local. “So, we can teach [TV stations] how to do it, we can sell them technology, and we can introduce them to partners,” Vogelesang says. “There are a lot of things we can do to help them, which then results in us doing business.”

With a booming market for entertainment products worldwide, Toon Boom is currently enjoying the benefits of its international reach, growing by double digits annually. “Once you realize that you can have success in one region, there really is no compelling reason not to go into multiple regions,” Vogelesang says.

The expansion has also protected Toon Boom from economic downturns in specific regions. Still, the industry is more resilient than most. “There is always a need for entertainment, and when the economy is bad, that’s when people really turn to entertainment, and really turn to animated, light-hearted entertainment,” Vogelesang says.

Vogelesang came to Toon Boom almost by accident. After running a company in California in the mid-1990s, she wanted to return to Canada. Her resumé chanced its way into the hands of someone who knew that Toon Boom was looking for a candidate with international-business management and product-engineering experience. “I had this very strange background managing product design and development, as well as building out an international sales organization,” Vogelesang says. While she knew nothing about animation at the time, she was intrigued by the opportunity. “When you go from very large organizations to one you are trying to build into a medium-sized one, it is a totally different beast,” she says. “You get to find out if you can do it. There’s a lot of stress, but it’s good stress.”

Toon Boom’s leading product has been updated and redesigned over the years, permitting the addition of new features like 3-D. And its breakthrough storyboard application allows animators to transfer animation planning from paper to computer. “You can have a completely paperless process that can get you feature-film quality, which is amazing,” Vogelesang says. “We have a 3-D storyboard that works very well, and we are going to continue to build on those products.”

The Lodge School: In keeping with Toon Boom’s expansion into educational software, the company partnered in March with the Lodge School Old Scholars Association in Barbados. Under terms of the partnership, the Lodge School will integrate animation training into the school’s curriculum in return for support from the company. Toon Boom sees the Caribbean as a potential centre for animation-industry growth. The Lodge School will use Toon Boom software applications to help train future animators and enhance student performance and scores in other areas of study.
Bluffton Elementary School: Located in South Carolina, Bluffton Elementary (pictured above) implements Toon Boom’s Flip-Boom Doodle software into the school’s core curriculum. The software’s easy-to-use templates allow for a more navigable and engaging experience, and help improve learning skills in grades K–12. Toon Boom now has its products in more than 7,000 schools.

Keeping Toon Boom on a technically innovative course is a leadership issue. “There is always a tendency for people to be very comfortable doing what they are doing,” Vogelesang says. “We saw the reality with RIM and Nortel: when you become complacent and you are a development organization, you really lose the game.”

She notes that leading companies often assume the marketplace will stay the same. “I spend a lot of time trying to emphasize that we have to reinvent, we have to change all the time,” she says. “Some leaders are keenly aware that you have to keep reinventing yourself, and some leaders are steady state leaders who don’t realize that you have to be fast in your implementation and creativity.” Vogelesang falls into the former camp.

In order to keep ahead of changing technology, Toon Boom keeps its fingers on the pulse of the industry. To aid this, it has consulting teams visit major studios and work with the animators to discover their needs and how they would like to see the products evolve.

Recently, the company has turned to the education market. “We were sitting around discussing the difficulty of educating boys,” Vogelesang recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, they are bored.’” She felt that boys, especially minority boys in the United States, didn’t engage with traditional school curricula. If they could interact with the subject matter and create their own answers, that would change. “I can remember people on our board laughing at me, saying, ‘So you’re going to solve the educational problems in the United States?’” Vogelesang says. But she would not be dissuaded. The company set about developing educational software to improve learning skills in the K–12 school market.

The effort paid off. Toon Boom now has its products in 7,000 schools and is the focus of growing media attention. Vogelesang was recently interviewed by Larry King as part of a Discovery Channel special on education. Schools that use the company’s programs have seen significant grade improvements from minority students. “We plan on building the education sector so that once we have perfected it in North America, we can roll that out internationally,” Vogelesang says.

With a global and innovative focus, Toon Boom looks likely to keep on top of the worldwide animation industry for years to come.