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In the land of Equestria, a unicorn pony named Twilight Sparkle is sent to study the magic of friendship. There, she combats Nightmare Moon to restore equilibrium in Ponyville. That story line, which debuted on The Hub television network in October 2010, is at the heart of the animated kids’ show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. As the Vancouver-produced Hasbro spinoff unfolds, Twilight Sparkle gains her heart’s desire—just as, in the real world, do many who’ve been touched by the magic of MLP.
Among that group are some unlikely beneficiaries. When the show debuted, super-fan Shaun Scotellaro, 23, launched Equestriadaily.com, where “Bronies” (20-something tech-savvy devotees, mainly male—hence the “bro”) post appreciative art and fiction. Like their sainted unicorn pony, Bronies did not find peace and friendship immediately. “There is always an initial stigma that pretty much every male fan of the show has to go through before they get into it,” says Scotellaro from his home in Arizona. Then the love hits them hard; he’s had to cut back on college classes to run Equestria Daily, which sees up to 700,000 unique visits a month.
“People want to know why guys like it. Why is that weird? It’s a good show,” says supervising director Jayson Thiessen, 34, one of two My Little Pony directors at Gastown studio DHX Media. He credits fellow director James “Wootie” Wootton and original executive producer Lauren Faust (known for successes like Powerpuff Girls) for MLP ’s success.Thiessen is a rock star in the Brony world. Last September, he spoke at BroNYCon, the pinnacle of conventions held in “Manehattan.” Audience members grilled him on the finer points of the show. Scotellaro speaks for many when he says, “I was sort of in awe of him the entire time.”
For Thiessen, BroNYCon was the culmination of many years’ work. Growing up in Langley, he was introduced to cartoons by his father, who entertained young Jayson during church by drawing characters like the Road Runner. Thiessen attended Vancouver Film School in the mid ’90s, then found work drawing frames for Nelvana’s Stickin’ Around, one of the few then being animated in North America.
Vancouver used to be known for independent projects by animators who’d come to the West Coast to find freedom from what they felt was restrictive, saccharine children’s content. American studios had outsourced material overseas for years, but quality suffered, and they turned to Canada—Disney in particular set up a studio to produce direct-to-video projects. But after several years, blaming accelerated production schedules, the Disney studio closed its doors and was rumoured to be focusing on digital animation, seen as the medium of the future.
Local studios have adapted. Adobe Flash, developed to animate simple low-bandwidth internet graphics, lets artists create in a single day complex animation that previously would have taken a week. The city became a major hub for TV animation, producing popular shows like Atomic Betty, Pucca, and Martha Speaks. At its height, 10 Flash shows were coming out of Vancouver ateliers, some airing in dozens of countries. Success has come with an unexpected cost: in recent years, DHX Media has attracted so much work that it’s had to revert to outsourcing. Without enough artists or room to house them, the second season of MLP has seen the more laborious elements of animation head overseas.
Such backroom concerns are worlds away from the innocence and magic of My Little Pony, which Scotellaro believes has won its success at least in part from the Brony army: “Without such a strong community, the show as a whole wouldn’t be anywhere near as huge as it is now.” His own heart’s desire is for Equestria Daily to survive, and to see more spinoff series. And if Twilight Sparkle and her friends are taken off the air? “The internet spawns fandoms all the time. I’ll just expand into whatever’s next.”