Brownstein: Montreal animation studio serves up Green Eggs and Ham

Tonic DNA is putting finishing touches four episodes of the classic Dr. Seuss series debuting on Netflix and produced by Ellen Degeneres.

Left to right, Bernard Lajoie, Howard Huxham and Stéfanie Bitton of Tonic DNA in Montreal on Wednesday February 27, 2019. The studio has been around 35 years and is now creating three episodes of Dr. Seuss cartoon series Green Eggs and Ham, which will air on Netflix and which is being produced by Ellen Degeneres.

Bernard Lajoie, left, Howard Huxham and Stéfanie Bitton of Tonic DNA. The Montreal animation studio, formerly known as Studio Pascal Blais, is marking its 35th anniversary. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

While Ellen Degeneres will be busting moves with her fans Friday night at the Bell Centre, dozens of Montreal animators and illustrators will be busting their own moves in the Old Montreal studio of Tonic DNA. They’ve been putting finishing touches to four episodes of the first season of the classic Dr. Seuss series Green Eggs and Ham, debuting on Netflix in November and produced by the ever-dancing Degeneres.

No word yet if the two sides will hook up during Degeneres’s layover in town, but she would certainly be blown away by the images being concocted in the cartoon studio.

“We have invited Ellen to come to the studio Friday, so we’ll see what happens,” says Stéfanie Bitton, one of the three Tonic DNA partners, along with Howard Huxham and original co-founder Pascal Blais. “It would be nice to say that she was coming to Montreal just for us, but that’s not quite the case.”

Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Keegan-Michael Key and Adam Devine (as Sam I Am) will be supplying some of the pipes for this series, which Netflix has described as a “postmodern Planes, Trains and Automobiles through the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss.”

Tonic DNA, formerly known as Studio Pascal Blais, is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and if its rapid growth is any indication, parents take note: Don’t let your kids grow up to be cowboys. This city may be suffering on certain economic fronts, but it’s become abundantly clear that Montreal is a world-class hub for animation as well as the special effects, video gaming and AI industries.

Thanks to its Dr. Seuss deal and association with animators like Oscar-winning Aleksandr Petrov (The Old Man and the Sea) and two-time Academy Award nominee Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back, Strange Invaders), Tonic DNA has mushroomed from a staff of 15 to 90 and soon-to-be 120.

Hollywood’s Warner Bros. is also heavily involved in the Green Eggs and Ham series and was clearly impressed with Tonic DNA, so much so that it contracted the studio to do part of its reboot of 1,000 minutes of the vintage Looney Tunes series, including three new specials.

“No question, these projects are the biggest we’ve undertaken, in terms of the scope, scale and number of artists involved,” Huxham says. “The Petrov project really put us on the international map, but we hadn’t had animation teams of more than 25 people up until these projects.”

Their studio, while quite massive, is currently crammed with artists hand-drawing and illustrating on their computers. It’s obviously a young person’s game as the majority are in their 20s and early 30s — born well after such Looney Tunes visionaries as Mel Blanc, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery enthralled the world with such cartoon critters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn and, Huxham’s personal fave, Sylvester.

Curiously, while adept at more high-tech animation techniques, like stop-motion and 3D, Tonic DNA is doing 2D on the Dr. Seuss and Looney Tunes projects.

“Old school is back again,” Bitton says. “There’s definitely a revival of 2D traditional in terms of series work but also even in advertising, which is part of our core business.”

Adds Huxham: “The pendulum has turned back. The Looney Tunes project is a little bit groundbreaking in that it’s all traditional 2D. There are no rigs, no puppets here. It’s all hand-drawn. They came to us because we have a long history of doing hand-drawn, 2D animation, but on a smaller scale. But there were so few studios left doing this style that they needed people who worked in it and understood the style.”

Industry experts foresee even greater demand for animation of all varieties, what with the proliferation of Netflix and Amazon Prime and the upcoming Disney streaming service.

“They’re all going after really high-quality animation content these days,” Huxham says. “They’re no longer just broadcasters. They’re developing, producing and distributing their own content.”

Huxham also concedes it’s been a real trip for him, wandering through the studio and seeing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck on computer screens. “It brings me back to my youth.”

It’s also been a blast for animation supervisor, Guillaume Blackburn, 34. He just finished his doodling and drawing on Green Eggs and Ham and is now on the Looney Tunes project.

“This is really like a dream come true,” says Blackburn, a 10-year vet in the field. “Even though Looney Tunes had been around before me, I’ve always been a fan, because they’re more than cartoons. They provide super social commentary, too. And how cool are the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote?”

Cool. And they can bust moves to mesmerize Ellen.

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