The Ode: Core Digital (1994–2010)

At its peak, it was the biggest effects shop in the country. But for the Ontario government, it wasn’t too big to fail.

CORE Digital was born in Toronto in March 1994, at a time when every Canadian animator or visual effects artist with big career ambitions moved south of the border. While Canadian studios offered work in television and commercials, feature films were the near-exclusive domain of the U.S.

But when William Shatner brought production north for the TV movie adaptations of his sci-fi TekWar novels, four effects specialists working on the productions made him a proposal. Bob Munroe, John Mariella, Kyle Menzies and Derek Grime were graduates of the animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., and none relished the prospect of living in the United States. They convinced Shatner to invest $100,000 in startup capital, and with the actor as CEO, CORE hung out its shingle.

Work came steadily from the first. CORE broke into feature films even before it had its own office space, winning visual-effects contracts for two Darkman films and for the 1995 Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic. Scaling up to 125 employees by 2001, CORE competed for contracts with larger, more established names like George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, landing dozens of feature film jobs, among them Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men and Doctor Doolittle.

Its biggest break came in 2003, when Disney signed Canadian effects whiz Steve (Spaz) Williams, to direct its animated feature The Wild. Williams had long wanted to bring a major animation project to Toronto, and his relationship with fellow Sheridan grad Munroe, and the firm’s burgeoning reputation as a world-class creature-effects shop, helped earn CORE the gig. Scaling up to a staff 400 strong, CORE began work on the film in 2003, and by the time it reached theatres in 2006, the studio had become the country’s largest. Where most effects firms specialized, it was equipped to offer digital effects for feature films and TV, cartoons, and animated feature films.

Its size was a problem, though, when The Wild stiffed critically and at the box office (by no account due to CORE’s animation). Though CORE stayed busy, doing effects for each season of The Tudors TV series and continuing its partnership with Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, The Wild‘s flop hurt its reputation. The next big animated feature project never materialized. Financial pressures mounted, worsened by the Writers Guild strike in 2007 and 2008 and the vagaries of Ontario’s studio tax-credit system, which put added strain on CORE’s cash flow.

The firm, its credit overextended, approached the Ontario government to guarantee some $1.8 million in unsecured credit. The Ministry of Finance assured CORE and creditor RBC that the province would guarantee the firm’s debt, and that all would be resolved in a matter of weeks. But discussions with the government dragged on for almost eight months.

On March 12, the Province of Ontario surprised CORE and RBC with the news that it was in fact not prepared to guarantee the firm’s debt. A spokesman claims the province decided that CORE failed to meet the criteria for any of its established funding programs. “Furthermore,” he added, “because of the province’s current fiscal situation, we are not in a position to provide the requested financial support at this time.” CORE Digital entered receivership on March 15, laying off its remaining 125 employees. It was at work on a handful of projects, and had contracts worth eight figures lined up for later in 2010. Just days before the firm died, Warner Bros. announced it would distribute Natali’s latest film, Splice. One of the hits of this year’s Sundance Festival, it showcases some of the work of which CORE was most proud. It hits screens in June.