Title: Toon Boom Booms
Sub-title: Fresh from an Emmy Award win and breakthrough in Asia, this Montreal computer animation firm now plans a major push into the consumer market

If you want to know whether a manager has a pencil-pusher or entrepreneurial, mind-set, just ask about his competition. Pencil-pushers give talking-point answers like "I don't like to talk about competitors. My product provides the total solution..."
Joan Vogelesang is nothing like that. Since Vogelesang joined Toon Boom Animation in 1998, (she is now its CEO) she has been traveling the world, tirelessly promoting the company's leading edge 2-D, animation software. Toon Boom's Opus and Harmony packages are used by studios such as Disney, Fox and Universal to make hit cartoon shows including The Simpsons, Sponge Bob and Mischief City. Vogelesang knows her industry cold and doesn't mind talking about it.
"There are a lot of big players," says Vogelesang, fresh back from a trip to Los Angeles, where she picked up an Emmy award that the company had just won for engineering excellence. "So we've decided to target small niches and to become the best at what we do."
Vogelesang isn't kidding. According the Roncarelli Report on the Computer Animation Industry, more than $26 billion worth of global production was completed during 2003. But rather than try to grab business in the crowded 3-D animation field, which comprises 94 percent of the industry's production, Toon Boom is one of the only company's whose products are geared toward high-end 2-D studio applications.
Traditional television cartoons were (and in many cases still are) made with hundreds of individually hand-drawn frames, that are colored, dropped on a background, photographed and assembled into a strip. Toon Boom's Opus software, which is a perfected version of a package that it acquired from USAnimation, simplified the process, by enabling users to scan in line art into a computer, which is later colored electronically.
Opus's successor, Harmony enables users to computerize certain functions such as characters' hand, mouth and eye movements. One of Harmony's strengths is its inter-operability, which enables users to combine its features with those of other animation software.
For example users can drop characters they created using Harmony onto 3-D backgrounds created in other programs. Strips can also be rendered so they can imported into other third-party programs, where the sound is added and final editing is done.
"We used to use (Macromedia's) Flash to do our designs but switched over to Toon Boom several years ago," said Michel Lahay, a technical producer at Nelvana, which is also a part owner of Toon Boom. (Other shareholders include Innovatech, the company's managers and several smaller players). "The software is much more efficient to use and saves us a lot of money."
Lahay overseas development of two Nelvana series: 6Teen, (the 34th through 36th episodes of which are now in production) and a newer release series titled Di-Gata Warriors.
The trouble with marketing Toon Boom's high-end software is that only relatively few studios can afford to pay the stiff licensing fees to use the product, which can range from as low as $9,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And these studios are located all around the world. As a result, to chase them down and sign them up, Vogelesang has to travel a fair bit. In fact she spends as much as half of her time on the road, in Europe, South America, India and especially her most recent destination: China, which she visited last week as part of Jean Charest's trade mission.
China, where Toon Boom has major agreements with both Central Chinese Television and the Beijing Academy, is a hugely promising market, providing almost 40 per cent of Toon Boom's sales. Those sales were crucial to helping Toon Boom work its way through the technology bust, though the company did not emerge unscathed. At one point Toon Boom had to ask for protection from it creditors and it later went through a painful re-structuring and recovery.
But the institutional market will only take Toon Boom so far. To really grow fast, the company will have to make inroads into the consumer market. Several years ago the company released a consumer version of its studio suite titled Toon Boom Studio, which now generates about 10 per cent of its revenues,
a total that Vogelesang wants to raise to half within the next five years.
To do so, Toon Boom has been engaged in an aggressive marketing and production effort to target hobbyists and younger users. Toon Boom Studio's latest version was extensively re-jigged to make it easier to use and the interfaces have also been re-worked to make them more intuitive and user-friendly. Company officials have made serious in-roads into schools, selling the software at or even below cost in order to build up a loyal base of users, who will later pay big bucks for the product.
The big problem with the consumer market, is that right now it is dominated by Toon Boom's old nemesis, Macromedia's Flash, which has a longstanding and loyal fan base. That means that Vogelesang is going to have to pay even more attention to her competitors now, than she did in the past.

 

 

Fact Box:
Company Name: Toon Boom Animation Inc.
Web-site: www.toonboom.com
Location: Montreal
Owner: Nelvana, Innovatech, company managers
Founded: 1994
Products: 2-D computer animation software used to make television cartoon shows, such as The Simpsons, 6Teen, Mischief City
Estimated sales: $6 million
Employees: 40
Phone #: 514-278-8666

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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