Anime opens door to entrepreneurship for NAIT alumna

Chelsea Dela Merced is building a business by tapping into a growing subculture

anime art by cwilocky, nait grad chelsea dela mercedFull disclosure: before talking to Chelsea Dela Merced (Digital Media and IT ’18) my knowledge of anime was capped at what I gleaned from watching family-friendly Netflix with the kids. My understanding was informed by little more than awkwardly dubbed dialogue, gigantic eyes, and hairstyles as elaborate as the storylines. At the same time, something about it pulls you in.

“It’s very eye-catching,” says Dela Merced.

That may be an understatement. Arguably, the anime uninitiated are becoming a minority. 2017 was a record year for the industry in Japan, where the genre originated. Revenues approached $18 billion across animation, licensing, merchandise and more; about a third of that came from overseas markets. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Japanese animation studios are booked for years.

That leaves plenty of room for artists like Dela Merced to produce fan art – images and collectibles modelled on favourite characters – for online audiences and conference attendees. In the U.S., the latter includes hundreds of thousands annually, with 100,000 alone turning up at the Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

Here in Edmonton, that audience is also growing. This year’s Animethon, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, will likely see nearly 10,000 fans. That growing popularity is just part of the reason why Dela Merced, who will sell her work at the event just like she does at conferences throughout Western Canada, has become a full-time anime entrepreneur.

Growing up with anime

anime acrylic stands by cwilocky, nait grad chelsea dela mercedNow 24 years old and based in Edmonton, Dela Merced grew up watching anime in the Philippines, where it was dubbed into Tagalog. She got hooked on Ouran High School Host Club and Sailor Moon – “the classics,” she says.

She was inspired. “I wanted to draw it, so I did. That’s pretty much it.”

After teaching herself traditional techniques with paint and paper, Dela Merced transitioned to digital using a mouse, then to a tablet-and-stylus setup called a Cintiq. At NAIT, she learned to bring figures to life through 3D animation.

These days, she’ll spend from four to 10 hours a day (“or more, depending on my mood”) at work in her basement.

Her anime art focuses on “idols,” Japanese celebrity role models. “People throw a lot of money at them,” says Dela Merced. “They have official merch, and it can be expensive.”

Hers isn’t. Dela Merced’s online store sells prints, buttons and pins, charms, acrylic figures and other items that feature familiar anime personalities for a few bucks each. She shares her creations with a Twitter audience of more than 4,000 followers @cwilocky. Between the store and the conference appearances, her business is “very sustainable,” she says.

Anime and beyond

As much as her success can be credited to anime, the genre may be a launching point for Dela Merced’s burgeoning career. One of her most notable creations has nothing to do with it. Instead, the idea for it came to her during a bus ride.

It was a simple pin featuring two speech bubbles: “Can you draw me for free?” with “No” as a response. It “blew up” on Twitter, recalls Dela Merced.

While the pin and others she has made have emboldened her plans to expand into more original material, it hasn’t turned her attention completely away from the genre she loves for its “stretch of the imagination.”

She’ll no doubt continue to devote many hours each day to anime. One reason is that Dela Merced feels she has much to learn about cracking the merch market in the U.S., where she says fans' tastes differ in a way she’s yet to pin down. Another reason is that she feels she has more to learn about her craft.

Participating as an artist vendor at the Anirevo convention in Vancouver this summer was as “intimidating” experience for Dela Merced, almost as if she too were still trying to get a handle on the intricacies of the genre. For the self-described perfectionist, the B.C. event evoked a sense of humility – which, as an entrepreneur and artist, may serve her well.

“There were so many good artists there,” she says. “It inspired me to do better.”

Anime in Edmonton

Animethon – For 25 years, this annual summer festival has been at the centre of celebrating Japanese animation in Edmonton. Events include dance performances, fan panels, improv, music and more, including Artist Alley, where NAIT grad Chelsea Dela Merced (a.k.a. cwilocky) is selling her work. Based on recent attendence records, the festival is on track to see 10,000 attendees descend upon the Shaw Conference Centre.

A Taste of Animethon – As Animethon's winter cousin, ATOA is a scaled-back event for those needing another anime fix. It's been held since 2010, when it was first stages at MacEwan University. This January, catch it at Shaw as well.

Edmonton Expo – As one of Canada's major pop-culture conventions, the Expo includes an anime component along with its focus on sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comics and more. Watch for it in September at the Edmonton Expo Centre.

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