Cuppa Coffee’s Brave New World

11 mins read

Once upon a time, Toronto’s animation scene was dominated by two grand forces, Sheridan College and Nelvana studios. Together, they reinforced a cookie cutter approach to animation. No longer. Welcome to the future of animation.

Behold the Anti-Sheridan, the Not-Nelvana! Black and white photo montages; crudely drawn and animated cycles rendered in a wild range of colours; intricate puppet animation; retro 2D characters interacting with 3D elements; dancing condoms, and I mean real dancing condoms… What else could this be but Cuppa Coffee?

Since it first popped up in Toronto in the early ’90s, Cuppa has consistently taken a wide ranging approach to animation, on the one hand freely throwing the most unlikely things under the camera, on the other hand becoming our national Stop Motion Central. In both cases, they’ve challenged the 2D cartoon aesthetic, upheld by such schools and studios as Sheridan and Nelvana, which have dominated commercial animation in Canada for the last 40 years.

Wait a minute, you say, impeccable stop motion, of course, but dancing condoms? Rude and crude? Even edgy? This is like finding out that your rather proper Aunt Betty was once one of those gals who used to dance on the wings of airplanes. Or that maybe she even invented that crazy stunt…

In this case, there’s also the fact that she’s still dancing though perhaps not quite so publicly. For though Cuppa is far better known today for such high quality but essentially mainstream family TV fare as Jojo’s Circus, about the adventures of a 6 year old clown girl and her pet lion Goliath, or A Very Barry Christmas, a holiday special which sends Santa and company to Australia, the studio’s current demo reels also reveal a mastery of inventive mixed media applied to various commercial outlets. Take the fanciful Mini Ritz Scuba which features animated characters with real kid faces behind cartoon Scuba masks swimming in a cartoon sea full of fish-shaped crackers. The multi media work has clear connections to the studio’s history but even Cuppa’s signature puppet work has its genesis in an earlier, wilder period.

Right from the start this was a studio such as Toronto had never seen. Other locals had their strengths. Even Nelvana had been pretty bold in its early days, with a strong interest in experimental filmmaking. But nobody had ever combined commercial enterprise with such risk taking on the animation stand as Cuppa Coffee.

Heading up the mayhem since the beginning is Executive Producer Adam Shaheen working first in partnership with Bruce Alcock (now of Global Mechanic) and later on his own. And the vision of this studio, just as clearly now as then, can be traced back to the man even long before he imagined himself as the head of an animation production company.

Growing up in England, in a family of doctors, Shaheen planned to join the medical profession. By his mid teens, though, an interest in the arts began to claim him. His choice of curriculum was eclectic, including photography, painting, sculpture and classical illustration. Then he made what was, in retrospect, a trademark move: he began to experiment with combining these elements, creating a fresh form of illustrative photo-collage.

With schooling over, Shaheen was eager to establish himself as an illustrator but found that London in the mid ’80s was a closed shop. He set his sights on Canada instead, but “was concerned,” he recalls, “that my work would be too out there for Toronto.” Shaheen quickly discovered otherwise. His unique approach was well received in Toronto and soon he was busy with illustration work. Before too long, in another emblematic move, Shaheen grew restless and started looking for new adventures.

Enter Much Music, which initially employed Shaheen for his illustrative skills, and then, quite unexpectedly, commissioned him to create a series of animated station ID’s. Now here was a challenge, with only the tiniest glitch: Shaheen didn’t actually know very much about animation. Under other circumstances, this might have been a fatal problem. But his lack of conventional training and consequent openness to rethinking what animation could be actually made Shaheen a perfect match with the young and restless Much Music.

It’s odd to think of this talented but inexperienced guy landing such a plum opportunity in a town which was swarming with under-employed animators, graduates of Sheridan College with nowhere to go in a pre-animation boom world. And to top it off, Shaheen didn’t even hire any local animators to work on the project. Instead, he took the same mix and match approach that had worked so well with his illustrative style and applied it to his hiring practices. The team he and his associates assembled included theatre designers, painters and photographers, with nary an animator in sight.

The idea was to allow all the influences of this diverse team to infuse the work. As for the animation, what they didn’t know, they figured out from reference books or by trial and error. What it really came down to is that they were making stuff up, “looking for happy accidents,” as Shaheen says.

Shaheen knew that his team’s strengths were more in concept and design and that the animation was pretty raw. “But then again,” says Shaheen, “A raw and crazy look was exactly what Much Music wanted.” One memorable ID featured globby red finger paint like tomato paste right out of the can being roughly pixilated into the MM logo.

Happy with their new ID’s, Much offered Shaheen and company more work. Other clients such as MTV soon followed. Shaheen hadn’t planned on making animation his main focus and was, in fact, still doing other kinds of work. But slowly the animation took on a life of its own, focusing primarily on broadcast design for an increasing roster of clients including TVO and Bell Canada. Without really trying, Shaheen had fallen into a new career and by virtue of his personal style, had played a key role in the formation of a new kind of animation studio.

From the vantage point of 2006, it’s hard to grasp just how monoculture animation was in the ’80s. These days, cut out, photomontage, and 3D digital animation etc. can be found at any time of day with just a little channel surfing. But less than 20 years ago, cel animation ruled. Yes, there were those claymation California Raisins commercials but they were aberrations. In Canada in general, and Toronto in particular, commercial studios set up for anything other than hand drawn, inked and painted work were few and far between.

Cuppa’s anti-cel animation approach was a much-needed breath of fresh air in a field stuck in a stale formula. Right from the start, Shaheen’s mix and match of graphics, photographs and stop motion gave the work a distinctive look. The early work was indeed raw and a bit unfocused but what it lacked in polish it made up for in sheer energy.

It wasn’t long, though, before the work became not just focused but hyper-focused. Cuppa Coffee quickly began playing with layers of imagery, 3D constructions with multiple nooks and crannies, each filled with moving images. There could be literally hundreds of moving elements on the screen in a given moment, an effect which was nothing short of baroque. Yet in their next piece, they could come up with a dark, stripped to the bone look which would have made William Burroughs feel right at home.

Success in short format work brought an itch to do something longer. By this time, Shaheen had seen lots of commercial narrative animation at festivals but it all seemed to have the same Saturday morning look. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he thought, “if we could create a narrative with different tools and design.” From that thought came the multi-media film, The Adventures of Sam Digital, the tale of a future where computers do everything for us, including brushing our hair and flossing our teeth. Produced for Nickelodeon and written by a school age author, this animated short was a multiple award-winner.

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