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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Feature | ‘This Is Canada NICE’ – A New Animated Song

By Paula Citron on January 8, 2021

This is Canada NICE

The first paragraph of this article is going to sound a bit dry, but bear with me. Probably very few Canadians have ever heard of Destination Canada, a crown corporation owned by the federal government and based in Vancouver.

Created in 1995, the organization uses our tax dollars to promote tourism in Canada, as well as providing intelligence, tools and resources that help the Canadian tourism industry reach international markets. And here’s where it starts to get interesting. Destination Canada also has major marketing smarts.

For its latest campaign, the crown corporation reached out to high-flyers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the husband and wife writing team who created the multi award-winning megahit musical Come From Away. The show is about the people of Gander, Newfoundland who opened their homes and their hearts to the 6,122 passengers and 473 crew from 38 airplanes who descended on the very surprised town during the 9/11 crisis.

Destination Canada tasked Sankoff and Hein with writing an original song on the theme of “This is Canada NICE”, which would be animated by Wonderlust Media based in Halifax.

Says Gloria Loree, Destination Canada’s vice president of marketing, “We knew Irene and David would be able to weave an inspiring, heartfelt and compelling story of Canada, just as they did in Come From Away.”

In other words, the couple had to come up with a television ad that would be an enticing picture of Canada, designed to attract tourists, and all in 90 seconds and both official languages!

David Hein & Irene Sankoff (Photo: Instagram)
David Hein & Irene Sankoff (Photo: Instagram)

Writing the Song

I reached Sankoff and Hein by Skype in their new home in Newmarket, north of Toronto. They had been living in New York for three years, but returned to Canada when the Prime Minister told our citizens abroad to come home as the pandemic struck.

The couple began the assignment by putting together a mosaic of the things that they loved about Canada, and that contributed to the country’s niceness, nice being the operative word.

“We had to determine who we were,” explains Sankoff.

Their far-ranging ideas included the concept of diversity, homegrown desserts like beaver tails and butter tarts, Muskoka chairs, tuques, the Indigenous heritage, and real-life figures like Klondike Kate and Viola Desmond, not to mention sports and scientific innovations. Says Hein, “The question became, how much could we fit in. We were writing ‘Canada, The Musical’.”

“It was everything we grew up with,” Sankoff adds.

As they wrote their verses, the couple worked with the animation studio, and so the pictures were developed concurrently. They also had to determine the various musical styles they would use, employing instruments as diverse as fiddles, acoustic guitar and bagpipes. They also had a parade of Zoom calls with Destination Canada, who would give notes on both the developing lyrics, music score and animation, which meant on-the-go revisions.

In all, there are 13 short stanzas to the song, two of which are in French, courtesy of translator Alexandre Desilets. Astonishingly, in the 90-second spot they included roots and country, electronica club music, rap and jig, to name but a few. To break things down, they used a spreadsheet which showed the lyrics and the musical style for that section. For example, the music under the science stanza had to have a more serious tone than the dance music underlying the Pride parade. In other words, there are 13 different musical approaches and interpretations within the 90-second track.

With musical styles changing almost every seven seconds, their major challenge was to ensure cohesiveness, coherence and momentum, with the help of orchestrator Lou Pomanti. “We didn’t want it to sound like someone changing radio stations,” says Hein.

And then there was the challenge of who would voice the lyrics which were both sung and spoken. The couple had a wish list, and they describe it as a treasure hunt reaching out to the talent through their producer, Hayward Parrott, and, apparently, no one said no. Featured in ‘This is Canada NICE’ are singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, former hockey player Angela James, author Saleema Nawaz, Indigenous singer/songwriter Iskwe, comedian Mark Critch, Mi’kmaq rapper Wolf Castle, astronaut Roberta Bondar and Québécois drag queen Ruta Baga, along with six members of the Toronto cast of Come From Away. And the laugh at the end? That is Peace by Chocolate’s Tareq Hadhad. He’s the well-known, Syrian-born chocolatier who re-established his business in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, when his factory was bombed to smithereens.

To get the tracks recorded with people scattered over the country and during a pandemic lockdown was a minor miracle. This was accomplished with Sankoff and Hein hooked up to various recording studies by headphones. Not surprisingly, the couple reports that everyone was “nice”.

As for the experience itself, Hein says, “It was like 13 different ads compiled together.”

Sankoff adds, “We’re both perfectionists, and we were determined to get things right.”

This is Canada NICE

The Animation

Wonderlust Media Inc. in Halifax is what is known as a boutique design and animation studio whose clientele consists of ad agencies. Christian Rankin was the executive producer for the visual component for “This is Canada NICE”, and I reached him by phone. Says Rankin, “We were excited by the project because of the different design possibilities for a bespoke song that covered Canadian history and diversity.”

A conversation with Rankin is like a crash course in Animation 101. The first step is a storyboard of art work to which they later add motion. The key is establishing a tone for each of the different stanzas. The images are married to the lyrics, or what Rankin calls the see/say — what you see is what is said.

In all, 11 different art styles were employed, each one drawn by a different artist. As Rankin explains, in the design and illustration world, artists become specialists of style. There are the storyboard artists that do the rough sketches, the designers/illustrators who create the full pictures, and the animators who connect the pictures with motion. There is even a cleanup artist who adds colour and cleans up lines, not to mention a compositor who puts everything together.

Apparently, studios get to know who the specialists are, and hire the ones they need for a project. “At various times, we needed someone who could render a realistic vibe, the cartoon world, real life portraits, 3D animation, character animation, whimsy, and a magical world which transcended limitations. It depended on what the song was saying that determined the visual language,” Rankin says.

The artists were scattered around Canada and there was also one from Argentina and another from Italy. According to Rankin, their overall visual picture was designed to be exciting, emotional and energetic. It is also the nature of the industry that deadlines are short and intense. “This is Canada NICE” was put together in under three months. Because of the work fragmentation, the various artists could work independently at the same time. Says Rankin, “This is one of our favourite projects and one of which we are the most proud.”

The result is a charming picture of Canada, a passing parade of colourful images that encapsulate who we are. It is immensely pleasing to the eye. The music is a delight, and the lyrics are clever. Take this line: “NICE as the Rock and the Rockies, wide as the prairie sky, as high as Niagara Falls — hey dude, check out OUR side!” It really is quite astonishing how much “nice” Sankoff and Hein were able, in their words, to pack in.

And clearly, “This is Canada NICE” has been very popular on social media with over twelve million hits on YouTube.

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Paula Citron
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