Although Jeremy Dimmock, creative director at Toronto-based animation house Polyester Studio, was a child of the 1980s, the TV he gravitated to and grew up on was from the 1970s: Schoolhouse Rock!. The Muppets. M*A*S*H. Sesame Street. When the Toronto native became a student at the Ontario College of Art & Design (now OCAD University), he would browse secondhand and vintage clothing shops along Queen Street West’s stretch of trendy hip retail stores for disco-era polyester shirts. “I love [their] patterns and boldness,” explains Dimmock.
Never wavering in his nostalgia for all things ’70s, he even named the creative studio he cofounded thirteen years ago after the synthetic fabric. “I really wanted the studio to pay homage to that time,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean Polyester Studio is defined by retro creative stylings. In fact, clients in the United States and Canada rave that the animation studio has no house style at all.
Nuno Ferreira, senior vice president, head of brand and executive creative director at realtor.com, says the studio’s visual exploration has lots of depth and sources of influence. “What makes Polyester special is that these ‘investigations’ are done from the point of view of the brand versus a trusted ‘house style,’” he says.
In fact, Ferreira calls Dimmock and the largely young Polyester crew of producers, cel animators, 3-D animators and illustrators—who number more than a dozen—“obsessive chameleons.” As he says: “They will drill down and do the most extreme version of the thing you’re trying to do, iterating over and over again until only the right thing becomes obvious and totally irresistible.”
One example: the animated world Polyester invented for the US real estate listing website’s annual housing forecast in 2023 called Where Goes the Neighborhood. The animation draws the eye in with its captivating, childlike simplicity to what can be a complex topic.
“They’ll never just do the brief, which is what I love about them,” adds Paul Riss, partner and creative director at Hamilton, Ontario–based ad agency Round. “They’ll say, ‘We could also do it this way or that way, too. Which one do you like more?’ [The Polyester team] does a good job of pushing something to a better place than when the brief was brought to them.” A recent collection of watercolor animations Polyester created for publishing company Harlequin, Round’s client, showcases women reading the brand’s romance novels in a way “much more subtle, evocative and well-executed than I imagined it could be,” Riss says.
From Harlequin to realtor.com to the Globe and Mail newspaper to Nickelodeon, the brands Polyester has animated for—either directly or when the studio is brought onto a project by an ad agency—are incredibly varied.
However, if the studio has a callback to the ’70s beyond the name, it’s in creating memorable characters and the belief that they can move and connect with people emotionally as Kermit the Frog did on The Muppets or Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. “Characters light the way forward,” a section on Polyester’s website reads. “Characters rise above, reigniting curiosity, empathy, and the hopes and dreams of humanity in all of us.”
Characters just don’t help with mobile communication. Digital media has paved a runway for richly imagined avatars to entertain, like the Gorillaz—a personal fave musical artist of Dimmock’s as evidenced by action figures of the fictional animated band members on shelves in the agency’s office. In particular, he loves the potential and is excited by what’s still to come from the virtual band created by music artist Damon Albarn and comic book artist and designer Jamie Hewlett.
“That is going to be so powerful in the future, especially when you consider the success of the VR/AR shows that the Gorillaz have done in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus,” says Dimmock.
He sees evidence of a mascot culture, long prevalent in countries like Japan, taking hold in North America, too. “I’m a huge fan of Gritty, the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, in terms of character design,” says Dimmock. “He has put that city on the map in some circles.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, brought an increase in animated productions; Polyester, for instance, animated real-life characters from the Syfy series Deadly Class for an acid trip scene. Brands also looked to animation as live-action productions were shuttered or difficult to pull off amid pandemic restrictions. The studio created memorable, relatable characters for the likes of Mozilla for a film in which a student of color who wonders why facial detection testing software used by schools is failing to recognize her. And for Meals on Wheels America, an elderly woman living with a cat who lights up when a Meals on Wheels volunteer visits.
But the short film character-work Polyester worked on during lockdown—which saved the studio in more ways than one—is “Passage.” An “official selection” at the 2023 Pictoplasma Festival of Contemporary Character Design and Art in Berlin, the film honors Bob Zagorskis, the studio’s other cofounder who passed under tragic circumstances.
The cofounders met in 2008 while working in the same Toronto building, Dimmock as a one-man studio and Zagorskis in the tape room at a VFX post-production house. “We became friends, and when the [post-production house] asked me to become a creative director at a new motion design studio it was launching, Bob was one of the first animators I hired,” says Dimmock. “But the studio was just launched to be sold a year later.” He vowed never again to work 80-hour work weeks for someone else to get rich on his sweat equity. So, in 2010, he started Polyester with Zagorskis.
Struck, a Utah-based ad agency founded by executive creative director and partner Brent Watts, was the studio’s first client.
Watts had hired Dimmock in 2004 at Axiom, a Hollywood design agency that cut its teeth on studio projects like Columbia Pictures’s Men in Black and Universal Pictures’s Jurassic Park in Los Angeles, where the young Canadian talent had spent the early years of his career after attending Otis College of Art and Design as part of a student exchange program with OCAD.
“He was this amazing rising star from the day he came into the studio,” recalls Watts, who folded Axiom into Struck in 2009. “While Jeremy is kind of a quiet guy, he gave the energy our studio needed in the work we delivered. He always provided three to five other options on branding, design and packaging, pushing how we were trying to communicate visually.”
Dimmock imbued that philosophy into Polyester, with Zagorskis taking that same approach with his design and illustration expertise.
With steady year-over-year growth, by 2015, the duo realized, says Dimmock, “that we had enough clients that we were going to make Polyester work.” That is, until its annus horribilis in 2019 when Zagorskis didn’t turn up to work and was found lifeless at home. Tragically, Zagorskis had never been diagnosed with diabetes; if he had, he probably wouldn’t have fallen into a diabetic coma that took his life.
“Telling the staff was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” Dimmock recalls. “The loss was so out of the blue; I was in shock. And then I had to go onto his computer to deliver client work while trying to process losing my best friend.”
Isolation from one another was the last thing the team needed to grieve, but then came the pandemic. Dimmock wanted to shut the studio down. “I couldn’t because the firm had to be appraised so I could pay out half to the estate,” he says.
“Passage” saved Polyester. The animated thriller is about a man in the final moments of death who is plunged into a dreamlike world based off his existence. A dark creature, representing the man’s fears, regrets and shortcomings, pursues him, but the hero escapes an eternity of purgatory as he makes peace with his unexpected death.
“Working on an animated film about Bob gave us some direction during COVID and a common goal for the team to come together and work toward,” says Dimmock. “It really helped us push through and close a chapter of the agency in a very cathartic way.”
Ultimately, it also helped Dimmock realize he didn’t want to lose the studio and the team he had put so much passion and purpose into building with Zagorskis. “The entire team ended up fighting a lot harder when we realized we could save it,” he says. “And we started producing better work than we thought we ever could.”
In fighting for the business, Dimmock invested more time into the client process, understanding that its role is massive to success. “We want to make sure that the experience clients have is the best it can be because they will actually remember the experience more than the final spot,” says Dimmock. “We talk to the client every step of the way because then everyone is part of the process. There’s no big reveal—nothing should be a surprise to a client.”
At its three-story studio in Kensington Market, a wall near the entrance has been painted into a mural of whimsical pink characters. By the time this profile publishes, the main floor will also have transformed into a storefront, selling stationery, posters and prints, as well as unique character-oriented products from a massive library of art the studio has created and collected but never brought to the light of day.
“The store will be called Weekend Characters because it’ll only be open on weekends and be all about characters,” says Dimmock.
Toronto’s Kensington Market is undergoing a post-pandemic revitalization, including streets getting repaved to be pedestrian-only. Weekend Characters ties into the on-going revitalization. It’s a fitting development for Polyester, too; after all, the studio has found new life. ca