Q&A: Amir Nasrabadi Wraps an Eventful 1st Year as EVP/GM, WildBrain Vancouver
A lot has changed at the ever-growing WildBrain Studios (www.wildbrain.com) kids’ and family entertainment co. since Amir Nasrabadi joined the Vancouver team as Exec Vice President & General Manager. (Even the name — Nasrabadi was appointed to DHX Media in April 2019, and the company rebranded in September.) The exec brought years of experience culled from serving in senior positions across a variety of departments at top studios, including Illumination Ent., Paramount Animation and The Walt Disney Studios, where he was VP of finance & operations for DisneyToon before launching and running Vancouver-based Pixar Canada in 2009.
Nasrabadi returned to Vancouver to join WildBrain on June 10, 2019 and, after a full year of overseeing the production of animated hits such as Blaze and the Monster Machines, Carmen Sandiego, Chip and Potato, Fireman Sam, Ninjago, Polly Pocket and Apple’s Peanuts projects (including Snoopy in Space), was able to carve out a few minutes to reflect on the past 12 months and give Animag a glimpse at what’s to come.
Animation Magazine: Can you tell us about some of the new activities at the studio? What can we look forward to in the next six months?
Amir Nasrabadi: Well firstly, what a time we are living through – I hope Animation Magazine readers and our community are managing to stay safe and well. I want to start by letting everyone know that our studio and our company fully support the peaceful protesting against racial injustice in the U.S. and everywhere. As a first-generation immigrant and having lived in Los Angeles for over 35 years, this situation is impactful to me in many ways. Silence is no longer an option, and I want to be clear – Black Lives Matter.
One of the first things I prioritized when I started at WildBrain was to move diversity within our studio to the top of our priority list. Our studio population of over 700 is gender balanced at 50/50, but our leadership positions are not there yet. We have lots of work to do still. As new projects are greenlit we are actively making room for new and under-represented voices to move up into leadership positions. It will take some time, but we will get there.
Generally, at WildBrain – since our rebrand from DHX Media – the past 12 months have seen significant advances at our studio that we’re very excited by and which lay the foundation for further growth, both creatively and in terms of our size.
I came into the role with three main areas of focus. Firstly, to make sure the studio culture is healthy, vibrant and artist-focused, so we can thrive creatively – that’s essential. The second was to identify opportunities for enhancing our technical pipelines and innovation to support a higher level of quality in production. Last, but by no means least, is to elevate the artistry coming out of our studio by building out an Artist Management function as well as bringing in a handful of institutional creative leaders to provide hands-on guidance and mentorship as our studio and our crews continue to evolve artistically.
We have been undergoing a somewhat quiet revolution, but the result has been a next generation of projects to come out of WildBrain Studios that we feel is taking our work to a whole new level.
Another element is our shift to focus on premium quality content, which includes looking at branching out to feature film work, and even smaller creator-led original short films. We are working on finding the right opportunities in both these veins and we have some interesting prospects that we hope to be able to share with you soon.
What are some of the recent technical and creative advancements that you have witnessed at the studio?
Our 2D work has really progressed incredibly in the last little while, largely led by Carmen Sandiego, Snoopy in Space and Dorg Van Dango (a co-production with Cartoon Saloon). All three display the level of quality and spectrum of style we can achieve. Snoopy in Space and Carmen Sandiego have both picked up nominations or awards in the Annies, and more recently, our studio has collectively received eight Daytime Emmy nominations.
As we dive into the next batch of Peanuts content, we are adding a Lighting & Shadows department, which will take the next batch of original content to another level of quality, with a stunning art style led by our Production Designer, Pascal Campion. We have also just announced a reboot of Johnny Test for Netflix, which we are producing in 4K (our second 4K project after Snoopy in Space). Public and fan reaction to the news and the redesign has been super positive, and it’s a fun project that animators really get to flex their comedic muscles on.
On the 3D side, we are utilizing the Unreal game engine for the first time on a new season of an established preschool series. We are thrilled to be working closely with Epic Games on the integration and development and are excited to be at the forefront of a large-scale deployment of this application within our pipeline. We feel that the introduction of Unreal will drive significant qualitative improvements on this project and provide our directors with a new and exciting process. Our modelling, surfacing and rigging teams have also taken a huge leap forward with our first bi-ped fur characters on Go, Dog. Go!, a co-production with DreamWorks. The next generation of 3D work that you see from us will be noticeably different, and we really can’t wait to show it off and keep building on it.
Are you currently hiring new talent?
We are crewing up on some really exciting shows, so recruitment in all areas, especially at the supervisor level, will be a firm focus in the coming months. We’re looking at nearly 200 positions to fill over the next several months!
As mentioned earlier, a major focus has been building a roster of institutional creative leaders. We already had lots of really strong animation directors/supervisors in house, who have really stepped up to the plate as leaders in the studio and have also been recognized externally for their achievements – Melanie Daigle and Flávia Güttler were both recognized by Animation Magazine as Rising Stars [2019 and 2020, respectively], and Kaitlin Sutherland was selected to participate in Women in Animation’s Five in Focus program [now Animation Career EXCELerator].
Over the past few months we’ve brought on board some more amazing talent in this regard. These hires include Sony and Pixar animation veterans Matthew Shepherd and Jon Mead. Both bring a breadth and depth of experience to our animation teams that we have not had in the past. In addition, on one particular project we have welcomed the powerhouse team of Clay Kaytis, Raymond Persi, Erik Wiese and Ben Gluck. I’m lucky to have worked with all four of them at various points in time while in L.A and can personally attest to their superior character and talent. We’re delighted to have them on board and look forward to adding to the ranks with more talented people this year. Our message is very much that we are a home for creative people, where experienced artists can lead and take ownership and everyone can develop their craft.
What was the biggest lesson you learned over this past year?
People first. I’ve always been a proponent of a strong, artist-driven culture to promote and harness team spirit and creative energy – it helps to collectively drive and inspire, and it’s the glue that holds everything together. But more important than that is the welfare of our people. This year, COVID-19 has shown all of us how laser-focused we can be in the face of uncertainty and adversity. That our output and spirit are still strong is testament to how important this lesson has proven to be. This year has been the biggest leadership challenge in my career and I’m so proud of how we’ve responded as a team through this tough time. I have especially high gratitude for our tireless support departments in IT, HR and Facilities who have truly accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible.
How did the COVID-19 work-at-home situation change the way the animation teams work on a daily basis?
We responded very quickly to the lockdown – with a phenomenal, almost overnight effort, we deployed work-from-home solutions to 700 employees. I’m proud to say that we are running at nearly full productivity thanks to the support departments I mentioned. The situation has shown that remote work is a viable option in the animation world. We’re taking that to heart, and plan to expand our capacity via work-from-home solutions even when the pandemic ends. We are in no hurry to bring teams back into the office and while there are a number of factors to consider, we are looking at what it means to offer all our employees the option of working from home or being at the studio. I think we will look back at this moment in time as pivotal for our industry … in a positive way.
What do you think sets the WildBrain brand apart from other animation outfits?
I mentioned our team culture as being a big part of who we are and what we stand for, and I think this significantly enhances the experience of working here. We’re a company that puts our artists and creative first and ensuring that our pipelines and tools are up to the task. Our diversity of work speaks for itself as our ‘brand’, and we are privileged to work across an incredible slate of original and heritage IP, as well as across a number of amazing service projects for a world-class clientele. Our talent is an award-winning collective of creatives who we champion throughout their careers, and as a group WildBrain has considerable size and scope while still being nimble enough to embrace new opportunities.
The work we do at WildBrain Studios is a crucial part of the creative force that drives the overall WildBrain company. We have a lot of very creative people working around the world, not only in content production, but also in broadcasting, distribution, licensing and brand management.
Who are some of your all-time animation idols?
Chris Meledandri, whom I’ve had the fortune of working alongside, is someone at the executive level that I’ve admired in terms of his ability to balance storytelling with commercial appeal.
But my fondest memories of truly appreciating animation as a unique craft and artform was in my earlier days at Disney – watching the pencil tests and in-progress animation scenes of famed classical animators such as Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Nik Ranieri, Dale Baer and Ruben Aquino. Those days seem like yesterday to me…
For more info about the studio, visit www.wildbrain.com