Not far from the shadow of the East Van cross, a menagerie of fantastical creatures is being conjured into existence by hundreds of modern-day Dr. Frankensteins.
The creations are a diverse and spooky lot. They're pouty high school students sporting stylish hairdos and grotesque neck bolts; they're teen spies and high-tech super-baddies; they're slimy subterranean slugs and blaster-wielding cave trolls — and they're all beloved by millions of children all over the world, thanks to the far-reaching powers of television, tablets, and merchandising.
And the Dr. Frankensteins? They're the digital creators animators, compositors, editors, storyboard artists at Nerd Corps, the Vancouver-based animation studio that's carved out an industry niche with a one-stop-shop approach to episodic animation creation.
The bulk of Nerds are Vancouver Film School graduates, with an average age of 25. They wield their digital trades in two non-descript buildings; in the past year, their numbers have swelled from 225 to nearly 350.
Nerd Corps is the brainchild of animation veterans Asaph "Ace" Fipke and Chuck Johnson. Their mission: to produce all aspects of animated shows under one roof. "It was very foreign at the time," says Johnson, a character animator who used to head VFS's 3D and visual effects division.
Their first project as Nerd Corps was 2002's Dragon Booster, for which the corps produced 39 episodes; more recently, they've produced entire series for Mattel, including the mega-popular Monster High and Max Steel, while also finding success with their own creative properties.
"As we've evolved over the years, our focus is on creating global kids brands," says Johnson. "It means creating a great show that, in the case of preschoolers, resonates and inspires and educates, and with the six to 11 demographic, excites with action and comedy."
Nerd Corps' shows include Storm Hawks, Rated A for Awesome, League of Super Evil and 2013's Slugterra. The latter — about the adventures of a 15-year-old boy in an underground world populated by critters that transform into ammo when shot out of a blaster — broadcasts 10 times a week on Disney XD US and is the number four action show for boys ages six to 11.
Each series has its own dedicated floor with upwards of 60 artists; the bulk of the creative team is within arms reach. An episode can take nine months to nurture from premise to completion, and numerous episodes are in production at any one time.
There's also an interactivity department where games are developed for web and iPhones, and a burgeoning merchandising wing (the Slugterra line features action figures, blasters, plush toys, and collectible slugs).
It's not all work and no play at Nerd Corps; the culture is geared towards high-quality output, but without the long hours associated with the animation industry. "What we heard early on from people is, 'I don't really feel like 'Im necessarily working less, because I'm working hard, but I like getting to go home and do something else.'"
It's important to keep the talent happy in a city where the digital media industry is thriving. "When we started up, we were in the mix with monstrous video game companies that were throwing around very big money and had very big incentives," Johnson says. "We said, 'Okay, you can go and get big money there, or you can come here and get okay money and were going to appreciate you as an artist and let you be effective,' which probably doesn't sound that glamorous, but is one of the core things that people feel good about at a job."
Although they have offices elsewhere (merchandising in LA and distribution in Toronto), the company is committed to remaining in the 604. "We grew up in BC. We started here. We're going to stay here." They're also out in the community: donating computers to schools; sitting on the Vancouver Art Gallery board; providing animation workshops to at-risk Eastside youth.
Another thing they're unlikely to change? The company name, which was born during an alcohol-laced brainstorming session in 2002. "We were drinking beer and saying, 'We're a group of nerds, like a marine corps full of nerds — Let's call it Nerd Corps!'" Johnson says, laughing.
And to paraphrase army recruiting posters: Nerd Corps wants you (especially if you're an animator). Nerd Interview Day is Oct. 26 at the Nerd Corps headquarters. Pre-registration is required. NerdCorps.com
November 4 update from Nerd Corps: "The Vancouver Economic Commission and City of Vancouver are on a trade mission to China right now and Nerd Corps Entertainment, one of the 18 companies on the mission, has just announced a major partnership deal with Ciwen Media in Beijing," a press release from the company says. "Ciwen has picked up all rights necessary to manage Nerd Corps latest boys action property Slugterra in China, including merchandise, consumer products, TV rights and non-exclusive digital media. The partnership will also see new content co-developed for the brand in 2014."
Ken Faier, president of Nerd Corps Entertainment says, This partnership with Ciwen offers us an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese storytelling traditions, evaluate childrens media consumption habits, explore new platforms for content distribution, and gain valuable insights for developing and co-developing new content to build truly global kids properties that also work on a local level. We see this as a true partnership with opportunities not only for Slugterra, but potentially future properties as well.