Keeping Toons Alive in Old Blighty

timmy-time-150

Although many U.K. TV animation producers are disheartened about the bleak economic climate and lack of government support, they continue to follow the country’s much-admired tradition of excellence.

To the casual observer of the TV animation scene in the U.K., the climate may seem quite healthy. With beautifully produced series such as Raa Raa the Noisy Lion, The Octonauts, Horrid Henry, Baby Jake, Timmy Time and Jungle Junction ruling the small screen, there seems to be a sense of revival in the air. However, upon closer inspection, the picture isn’t as bright as it seems.

Miles Bullough

Head of broadcast at Bristol’s animation powerhouse Aardman

Miles Bullough, head of broadcast at Bristol’s animation powerhouse Aardman, who has been with the studio since the days of Creature Comforts (2003) can give a clearer picture of the business. While Aardman continues to captivate audiences with shows such as Timmy Time and Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention as well as two upcoming features for Sony—Arthur Christmas (Nov. 2011) and Pirates! Band of Misfits (March 2012)—Bullough admits that these are trying times for animators in his country.

Timmy Time

Timmy Time

“The BBC has cut 20 percent of its budget, and economic difficulties are affecting retail and consumer spending and the industry is having a hard time,” he notes. “Chorion and Chapman have had their well-publicized issues and HIT Entertainment continues to search for a buyer for its business. Where the U.K. once dominated in preschool programming, we are now in danger of dropping far behind.”

Bullough says it’s tough to see their colleagues in Ireland, France, Canada, Singapore and other countries that offer government subsidies attracting more work and getting access to stronger talent and making life harder for British producers. However he sees some silver linings. “Despite the financial pressures it’s under, the BCC continues to give great support to U.K. animation producers and CITV is also doing well,” he mentions. “Disney’s commitment to European production is very encouraging and there are opportunities at Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, too. Buyers are still very interested in U.K. production because of our track record of producing quality shows.”

Keeping It All Together

Beth Gardiner, VP of original programming for Disney Junior, who is working on the second season of the acclaimed CG-animated show Jungle Junction with U.K. studio Spider-Eye, believes that things have improved a bit since a few years ago. However, she notes that series production isn’t as “full on” as it once was.

Jungle Junction

Jungle Junction

“The challenges are industry-wide,” she believes. “It’s rare to have the animation take place in the same country where the scripts, voice records and boards are done. With Jungle Junction, we’re very lucky to have the animation being done at Spider-Eye. We get great timing and physical acting, and changes also take less time. It makes for a better series. That said, broadcasters, creators and production companies everywhere have become very savvy at piecing together a production based on where the best talent is and where the funding is coming from.”

Bob Higgins

Senior VP of kids and family entertainment at FremantleMedia

Bob Higgins, senior VP of kids and family entertainment at FremantleMedia, is bringing the dynamic new CG-animated preschool show Tree Fu Tom, which is animated by Blue-Zoo Animation and will premiere on CBeebies in early 2012. “We’re part of a big German company, but we’re London-based and work with several U.K. animation studios,” he explains. “The CG animation that Blue-Zoo is creating for the show is incredibly lush and cinematic. It’s as if they’re creating mini-Narnia-type worlds in a 22-minute format.”

Tree Fu Tom

Tree Fu Tom

Experimenting with New Innovations

Higgins and his team are also producing Strange Hell High, a 13 x half-hour CBBC co-production about three students investigating strange, otherworldly phenomena in a mysterious inner-city school. The comedy uses a combination of puppetry, stop-motion and CG animation—a technique dubbed “hypervynorama”—and produced at Manchester-based Chapman Entertainment. “Everyone we’ve been working with here in the U.K. has been creative, collaborative and an absolute pleasure to deal with,” says Higgins. “Right now, we’re doing two shows here without issues and we continue to look at U.K.-based studios, especially for U.K.-based networks. It’s really good for everyone involved.”

In July, Chapman Entertainment was in the news because it had to restructure and witness the departure of its managing director and co-founder Greg Lynn. As Keith Chapman, co-founder of the studio, who produces acclaimed series such as Roary the Racing Car, Fifi and the Flowertots and Raa Raa the Noisy Lion, points out, “The U.K. continues to produce innovative, top-class animation, which is admired the world over. Some studios are busy, while others are not. Some of the broadcasters have cut back, others, like the BBC, are still buying. But for production companies there is no doubt things are much tougher. It’s harder to raise the money, and it’s harder to make the money back.”

RaaRaa The Noisy Lion

Raa Raa The Noisy Lion

Like many of his peers, Chapman laments the lack of a tax break initiative in the U.K. to make funding easier for producers and to help create jobs for college graduates.

“It’s challenging to deliver the highest quality animation when continually asked to cut back on costs,” he shares. “We have to keep finding the right talent to work on those shows and somehow keep them from drifting off to countries offering more work and better money.”

This is a point also brought up by Alison Rayson, CEO of Target Entertainment, which is bringing Monster Animation’s Punky and Dinamo’s The Abadas series to the MIPCOM market. “There are still great properties generated in the U.K, but just imagine what could be achieved for the sector if the funding issues were corrected,” she asks. “The impact on both export income and domestic employment would be immediate and significant.”

Punky

Punky

Michael Dee

Director of content at Coolabi

Michael Dee, director of content at Coolabi, believes that there are pockets of production financing for the right creative project with the right business model. “Our latest show Poppy Cat came to fruition and completed production in 2011, and it has been made entirely in the U.K., with a U.K. production company—King Rollo Films—and a commission from Nick U.K. Broadcasters such as BBC, CITV, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney are still commissioning and have a desire to work with producers on new creative ideas. It’s really not an entirely bleak picture.”

Poppy Cat

Poppy Cat

Mike Watts

Managing director of Novel Entertainment

For Mike Watts, managing director of Novel Entertainment, who has had a huge global hit with Horrid Henry (both in animated TV series format and a big live-action feature film), the silver lining is the continuing ability and inventiveness of producers to find ways to get their programs made.

“License fees from broadcasters have remained static and the opportunities for funding from other quarters haven’t changed. Children’s DVD sales are in decline and licensing opportunities are harder to find. Despite all that, British producers continue to find ways to produce excellent programs, which travel the world, win awards and delight audiences.”

Horrid Henry

Horrid Henry

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