East Van’s Atomic Cartoons has grown to 450 staff from 20 since 2016
Jennifer Twiner McCarron remembers when daycare staff took bets on when her daughter would finally stop wearing sparkly princess dresses.
So the CEO of Vancouver’s Thunderbird Entertainment and its Atomic Cartoons subsidiary could definitely relate to the co-authors of Princesses Wear Pants — NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie and parent educator Allison Oppenheim.
Both had young daughters who also went through a princess phase. While they worried about their girls aspiring to be princesses, they also wanted to let them embrace what they enjoyed, Twiner McCarron said.
“The moral for the book for them started from: It’s OK to embrace your pink and sparkly side and be feminine, but it’s also more important what you do than what you look like,” she said.
“That’s the part about wearing your pants. It’s OK to be a princess, but sometimes you’ve got to put your pants on and get things done.”
Atomic Cartoons is now producing a Princesses Wear Pants animated series that follows the adventures of courageous go-getter — and occasional trouser-wearer — Princess Penelope Pineapple. Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films is among the executive producers.
It’s the latest achievement for Atomic Cartoons, which Twiner McCarron has helmed since 2016 and helped grow to 450 staff from 20. She recently also became CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment, which produced Blade Runner 2049 and Kim’s Convenience.
The theme of Princesses Wear Pants resonated with her as a female leader in an industry where men still dominate in top positions. She’s an active member of Women in Animation, which aims to increase female representation in the business.
She advises young women: “If a new door of responsibility opens, just try to walk through it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? It doesn’t work out? That’s OK, you pick yourself up and you do something else.”
‘Hotspot’ for animation
Atomic Cartoons is based in a sprawling mural-covered building in East Vancouver. The city is a “hotspot” for visual effects and animation, said Twiner McCarron, sitting in her tiny office adorned with Halloween decorations.
Vancouver is a world leader with about 60 visual effects and animation studios. And Netflix and other streaming services have boosted demand for content, helping British Columbia become Canada’s top spot for film and TV production last year, according to figures from the Canadian Media Producers Association.
“There’s so much of a need for content because people also consume it so quickly,” said Twiner McCarron. “Before, as it applies to animation, you were vying for those five primetime spots on Saturday morning, so it was much more competitive.”
Now, she said, children’s programming has not only become more ubiquitous, it’s also gotten faster-paced. Disney’s Bambi, a favourite of hers when she was growing up, nearly put her kids to sleep, she said.
“The cutting is a lot faster. We used to do a 22-minute show and 325 shots seemed like a lot. Now we’ll do a 22-minute show with 500 shots,” she said, adding that episodes lasting seven or 11 minutes are becoming common too.
‘Vancouver’s hard, as we all know’
While Vancouver’s industry is booming, the city has a well-documented downside: wildly unaffordable housing. Atomic Cartoons is set to open its next office in Ottawa, a more attractive locale to young employees who want to lay down roots and start families.
“Where do young people want to be and thrive? Vancouver’s hard, as we all know,” Twiner McCarron said. “It’s an expensive city. Ottawa has art, culture, politics, it’s the capital of Canada, great schools and it’s affordable still.”
Looking ahead, the CEO plans to continue to find great books to transform into shows. She often chats with librarians to find out what kids are reading, and recently inked a deal to turn Max Brallier’s Eerie Elementary into a live-action show.
She aims to create content that makes the world a better place — even in small ways.
“What’s the value of my work? We are essentially helping parents cook dinner quietly,” she said with a laugh. “But at least they can put some stuff on that’s quality and … has good values and messaging.”