House of Cool: How a Toronto animation studio found its niche
8 minutes read
After a decade working as a story artist and animator for big studios like Pixar and DreamWorks, Ricardo Curtis was ready to do something new. He moved back to his hometown of Toronto and found a business partner in his childhood friend, Wesley Lui. The two started House of Cool in 2004.
Casting around for a niche in the animation market, Curtis and Lui decided to target one specific part of the complex and expensive filmmaking process: the storyboards. Making storyboards in pre-production requires a lot of creativity but comparatively fewer resources than production—much more manageable for a small, bootstrapped studio.
"Wes and I built a business plan that we thought was genius," Curtis says. "But we found out that the model was broken, because, first of all—no one was doing it."
House of Cool broke new ground in many ways: In 2004, the industry had never heard of a pre-production storyboarding studio. Also, Curtis and Lui are Jamaican-Chinese and Chinese, respectively. Two decades later, there are still few other animation studios founded and run by two people of colour.
"The history of House of Cool is that not only are we boutique, we're the only ones that do what we do," Curtis says.
Playing to their strengths
Animated films are expensive to make. The type of high-end, big-budget films that Curtis was used to making start at $100 million minimum—way beyond the budgets of small studios. However, before that movie goes through the animation process, it must first go through pre-production.
Pre-production is the planning period before any real animating takes place, where the characters and the story get fully fleshed out by the artists through storyboards—the visual representations of the script. The storyboards become the blueprint for the animators to follow as the project moves through production.
Curtis had the artistic vision and the industry knowledge to start a storyboarding pre-production studio, but he needed someone who understood the financial side of starting a business. That's where Lui came in. The two have known each other since Lui was seven.
"We go way back, so the trust was already there," says Curtis.
What we wanted to do is have clients outsource creative notes: coming up with the story line, the fresh ideas, the character, the designs.
The partners spent their first few years working on smaller projects, such as television series. It took them years to win big-name clients, because movie executives were reluctant to release their scripts to an unproven team.
"People are used to outsourcing animation to India, to China, to Canada," says Lui. "But what we wanted to do is have clients outsource creative notes: coming up with the story line, the fresh ideas, the character, the designs."
Their first few years were tough: House of Cool bled money while it was trying to establish its place as an outlier in the industry.
"The one place that did trust us was BDC, because they're the only ones that were willing to give us a loan at that time," says Lui. "They believed in the process before our clients believed in the process."
The studio's breakthrough came from the film Horton Hears a Who, released in 2008. Curtis was approached to head the story department. He agreed—on the condition that House of Cool be brought on as a pre-production partner. With that project in their portfolio, the dam broke for them. House of Cool has gone on to work on storyboards for films such as Spies in Disguise, Rio and Rio 2, The Peanuts Movie, as well as subsequent Ice Age franchise films.
By 2018, House of Cool had reached a comfortable place. It had grown to 30 employees and purchased new office space on Toronto's waterfront with the help of BDC. Trying to figure out its next steps, House of Cool also worked with a BDC advisor to create a five-year strategic plan.
Curtis and Lui say the consultant helped them realize they would never reach their goals based on their current trajectory. By taking on too many responsibilities, the two of them became the bottlenecks of the company.
"We took that seriously and then we decided, OK, we do have to change," Curtis says.
Working with their BDC advisor, the partners made several changes to professionalize their business; they changed their accounting provider, set up monthly meetings to better track KPIs and hired a salesperson in Los Angeles to serve major clients in the same time zone. Curtis also traded in his daily operational responsibilities to focus on creating original intellectual property, while Lui gave up some of his responsibilities to focus on growing their commercial services.
The risk is definitely there, but the rewards are also there if you do it right.
Beyond just making storyboards, Curtis and Lui expanded House of Cool into a full pre-production service. They began offering more directorial and editorial services, including management, and developed an art department. Moving forward, House of Cool would now be able to shoulder some of the producer's responsibilities.
The expansion in services paid off. Since then, House of Cool has doubled its staff and tripled its revenue.
"From an artistic standpoint, it allows us to have more control over the content we're making," says Lui. "From a production standpoint, there's also much more risk because we're responsible for what comes out. The risk is definitely there, but the rewards are also there if you do it right."
Diversity, on and off the screen
In recent years, diversity has become a serious topic of conversation for Curtis and Lui. Engaging more women to work on the artistic side of animation has been a particular concern. While female production managers and coordinators are common in the industry, female artists and directors are rarer.
"This industry has been a boys' club for a long, long time," Curtis says, adding that although they didn't originally set out to hire a diverse group, they're pleased it turned out that way.
There are about an equal number of men and women working at House of Cool, and based on current trends, Curtis predicts gender parity for artistic roles in the industry could be reached in the next decade.
People are recognizing that there are diverse voices out there that need to be heard.
However, Curtis notes that Black people are still underrepresented in the industry. He has often been one of the few Black people in the room when working at other studios. And although his experience as a business owner has been positive overall, it has been far from perfect. He recounts that Lui once introduced him to bankers as his business partner, only for the bankers to shake the hand of a white man standing next to Curtis.
He remains optimistic about the future. Streaming services have changed what kind of content gets made by tapping into niche markets that broadcasters couldn't reach before. Audiences are also demanding more media that highlights different voices and represents more segments of the population. The result: more Black and Latino stories, as well as many other stories by and about people outside the white mainstream.
"People are recognizing that there are diverse voices out there that need to be heard," Curtis says. "I've been pushing for these things for years and years and years and kind of running into brick walls constantly, because I think the people who disagree with these projects didn't really understand the power of diversity."
With the new strategic plan in place, Curtis was able to use the time he had freed to develop a House of Cool original project: a show based on Caribbean folklore with Latin and African influences, inspired by his own family roots.
"Whatever story we come up with, we try to see if it hits these three categories," Lui says. "Authentic, diverse and aspirational."
Speeding up in lockdown
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, House of Cool has seen a rise in demand for its services. Studios are concentrating more on animated features as in-person moviemaking slows down.
"When recessions come, people tend to consume more entertainment," says Curtis.
During lockdown, House of Cool employees shifted to remote work. Their brand-new waterfront office sits mostly empty, which isn't all bad, as the company has already outgrown the space: Curtis and Lui have hired more than 30 employees in the past year to keep up with demand, many of whom they have never met in person.
Keeping the office culture going was hard under lockdown, Curtis says. With employees scattered all over Canada, as well as in the United States and Europe, maintaining communication and keeping track of people's mental health become a challenge. The company has a tradition of Pie Times: an all-studio meeting on Friday afternoons at 12:00 p.m. where people can come together to socialize and connect, get studio updates and ask questions. Last December, Curtis and Lui also delivered holiday presents to every employee within driving distance of the Greater Toronto Area.
The two founders have big plans for House of Cool's next steps. On top of developing its independent productions, House of Cool is partnering up with animation schools in Toronto and Europe to train storyboard artists.
Storyboarding, according to Curtis and Lui, requires a unique level of creativity that's in high demand. They need to train brilliant artists now if they want to keep hiring down the road.
"Our goals have always been the same. We always want to work with the coolest people on the coolest projects. We're the House of Cool."