Magnetic Dreams 

The Animators

The Animators
click to enlarge From left: Mike Halsey, Lisa Halsey and Don Culwell at Magnetic Dreams.

Michael W. Bunch

From left: Mike Halsey, Lisa Halsey and Don Culwell at Magnetic Dreams.

In an aging office park on Lebanon Road, Elmo sings and dances, and Iron Man leaps off the page.

In darkened rooms, skeletons are built, painted with fantastic digital skin and set into motion, the strictures of earth’s physics no concern. An ancient cat, which 13 years ago was the model for the Nashville Predators’ leaping saber-tooth tiger, slinks around.

At Magnetic Dreams, magic happens every day.

The busy computer animation studio is one of the few not headquartered in New York or Los Angeles. Heck, it’s not even in the downtown of the new It City. It’s in Hip Donelson.

In the ’80s, Mike Halsey was an organ transplant coordinator of all things. He helped craft the National Transplant Act, but he spent his off-time tinkering on what must have been a truly massive computer, embracing the nascent art of computer animation. He would get small jobs here and there — most of them related to science — and eventually he decided to make his side job his day job.

“It seems like a massive leap, but it wasn’t,” he says.

His wife Lisa was supportive — she’s still the HR director and accountant for the company — and they opened Magnetic Dreams in 1992.

And while Pixar and its ilk have grown the demand for computer animation, and the coasts are still the hot spots, the Halseys and their partner Don Culwell are more than happy to stay in Middle Tennessee.

Don says that in its way, their location has helped. Personnel costs are lower. They can be a little more nimble. They’ve had to try harder, which raises their game. And when they had a chance to bring on former Muppeteer Rickey Boyd as creative director, they did it.

“It created a nice synergy for [Sesame Street], it was someone who understood their world. We started with very small projects, but it’s grown,” Mike says.

The latest collaboration was Elmo: The Musical, a miniseries of sorts about the fuzzy red monster getting into all kinds of expected mischief.

Mike doesn’t use the word “pressure” when he talks of animating Sesame Street characters or Marvel’s heroes — he taught himself to read with comic books, so he has a strong connection with Stan Lee’s world.

“There’s a sense it’s iconic characters and there’s a legacy you don’t want to disrupt,” he says. “You have to live up to that.”

And they’ve been living up to it for two decades. While other studios have come and gone, have gone boom and bust and boom again, Magnetic Dreams, in its little Donelson office, keeps making magic, quietly cool and “It City” before the rest of us.


The People:

The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Busker: Mike Slusser
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Mobilizer: Remziya Suleyman
The Believer: Theron Denson
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Singer: Ruby Amanfu
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder

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