How to find the right trousers

November 7, 1997

Animation is booming but if Britain is to keep winning the Oscars there needs to be greater collaboration between film-makers and academics. Norman Taylor and Roger Noake explain.

Should another British animator collect yet another Hollywood Oscar next year we will be seeing the tip of the great success story of the British film industry. The achievement of such individuals as Nick Park, Daniel Greaves and Alison Snowdon has been matched by a massive swing towards animation in the audio-visual market. If it were just a matter of British animators collecting another gleaming golden doorstop - seven in ten years - that would be an achievement. But it is much more: we have a booming economy and a cutting-edge technology.

A recent study commissioned by MIFED (Market International Film and Documentary) in Milan revealed that the volume of animation production worldwide increased by 300 per cent in one year, and animation now accounts for 25 per cent of the audiovisual market. More significant is the report that 75 per cent of the United States video market comprises animation programmes.

In Britain there are 379 animation studios, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises. These include numerous "facilities" houses engaged in a range of activities which make use of the form, from special effects to computer games. Although the number of hours of production is dominated by the US and Japan, Britain is seen as representing a peak in both quality and skills.

The story of the animation industry is one of collaboration between individual technical and creative talent, industry, education, and the arts. Like so many other success stories in the art, design and communications sector there is both consistency and depth combined with the strange and unique ability of the "art schools" to mostly get it right.

But it was not a good start. Audio-visual production (film, animation and video) was not established in institutions in the UK until 60 years after the first cinema show. Both the US and the USSR set up schools in the 1930s and the strength of animation in these countries reflects this.

At that time film in the UK was firmly categorised as an industry and placed within the Board of Trade. The damage the audio-visual industry sustained due to this categorisation was highlighted by French arguments in the recent Gatt negotiations. The success of the French lobby in insisting that media, particularly broadcasting, was included in the Gatt trade agreement was an important moment for the audio-visual media and for animation in particular. By insisting that the EU treated media as a cultural and an industrial activity, new opportunities and challenges were opened up.

Broadcasters' demands for the product, especially cheap and in bulk, are intensifying as competition increases between terrestrial and nonterrestrial TV channels. The New York Times has put forward a figure of $100 billion a year potential revenue from new thematic channels for children, inevitably reliant on animation. The resulting rush to production has not always been edifying.

The European Union, however, through its Media programme has established a framework for European coproduction - including training - which is encouraging. The strategy through which the industry will survive and grow is by no means resolved and the impact of the debate permeates education and the perception of the need for skills. The issue is simply one of quantity or quality. Quantity in animation can be achieved only by training large numbers of very specialised staff and by applying new technology. France has invested heavily in both with some success. In Britain there has been a vigorous defence of quality from all areas of the industry through the Arts Council, Channel 4, BBC2 and the Museum of the Moving Image, from manufacturers of equipment to the education institutions. One factor explains the shared commitment; all these institutions came into being within a few years of each other. The strong links established between institutions, technology and commerce have been fundamental to success.

The first animation programmes in academic institutions grew out of, or were linked to, other disciplines - graphic design, fine art or film. A desire to innovate and an understanding of the traditions of animation motivated these programmes. Both Liverpool Polytechnic in the early years, and Guildford/Farnham, now the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, shared these concerns. There was another unifying theme, and that was documentary.Two of the films from these institutions - Liverpool's The Thin Blue Line and Farnham's Daddies Little Piece of Dresden China - dealt respectively with the Toxteth riots and child abuse in a powerful manner, using animation to intensify and dissect the subject. What subjects animation could address became important to the newly created Channel 4 and to the embryonic Aardman Studio and once again it was documentary subject matter that provided a link. Animation and documentary were under the same commissioning editor in the first years of Channel 4, while Aardman made the groundbreaking Animated Conversation series for BBC2, based on vox-pop interviews.

Colleges had initial difficulties with animation; it was a very time-consuming process with much repetitive activity - far from a valuable learning experience. It was the development and adoption of new techniques that favoured simplicity and directness. The application of computer and video technology enabled many colleges to introduce animation into the curriculum.

There are now more than 300 colleges and universities world-wide with programmes in animation from Venezuela to Australia. Some, like VIGC in Moscow and the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, have a long and distinguished history, with programmes that have contributed to the animation curriculum globally. Others such as Ecole des metiers d'image in Paris and Sheridan College, Toronto, promote classical animation. All are faced with a decade of the most radical changes in the media.

The empowerment of the audience is perhaps most significant. Disney has always seen that animation can be a part of a massive marketing and merchandising package. The film itself becomes virtually the point of sale.The Lion King animated feature film has grossed more than $300 million and retail sales of licensed goods over $2 billion. An exciting, even great, artform could become part of the home shopping experience. So far this is not how our broadcasters have acted; MTV and Nickelodeon have commissioned experimental and challenging work. Michael Jackson at Channel 4 has moved animation from light entertainment to drama, a shift that suggests a sharpening up rather than a dumbing down of the audience. Once again it seems quality has been put first in the UK.

The audience revolution is being made possible by technology. The development of digital technology is already having an impact on the production of animation. Toy Story, the first fully computer-generated animation feature, broke through the credibility barrier, both technically and financially. John Lasseter, who conceived and directed the film, was trained in the character animation department of the California Institute of the Arts. There are a further five computer features planned in the next ten years. The combination of animation and storytelling skills with computer expertise was seen as the winning formula.

In the US, with the resources of Pixar and Disney, anything is possible. But where does that leave the UK? There are two major problems: new technology investment and brain drain. Talented and well-trained computer animators are attracted by offers from US companies. Fortunately, through schemes like the Arts Council/Channel 4 Animate initiative there are some inducements for the creative animator to resist palm trees and pools.

The Surrey Institute has been able to respond positively, despite the enormous investments required in technology. The National Film School and the Surrey Institute are implementing computer animation on a large scale, making use of new developments in technology. Hardware alone, of course, will not produce results; these will depend on the way in which it is used.Computer animation, despite the efforts of Middlesex Polytechnic and Bournemouth which kept the UK industry in touch in the 1980s, is an area in which Japan and the US dominate. How Europe addresses this growing gap in the digital audio-visual industry is vital to the survival of the sector culturally and commercially.

As the marketplace grows and the industry matures, it is hard to see how the informal links between education, cultural institutions and industry, so productive in the past, can be maintained without positive intervention.Some new models have developed: Aardman with the University of the West of England has established training schemes and Warner Brothers Features has run training weeks with the Surrey Institute. The British Animation Training Scheme is run jointly with studios and the Museum of the Moving Image. All of these excellent programmes are focused on the specific needs of a well-defined industry. Increasingly this industry is changing; new approaches and technologies are demanding new skills. There is a call for animation from a wider range of disciplines from performance art to games designers, from cartographers to virtual reality developers.

A major report is being prepared by Skillset - the film industry training body - on employment in the animation industry. This will be presented at the International Animation Festival in Cardiff in June 1998. The festival identifies its task as providing a forum for debate on industrial issues. It is an industry that can no longer be seen as a "poor cousin" to other forms. Rather, it is at the most exciting frontiers of many new forms.

The US entertainment industry overtook car manufacturing in terms of export revenue some time ago. This is indeed a very serious business; communication and information are already the currency of the next decade. Wallace, the single-minded creative inventor, and Gromit, the imaginative, sensible hound who sees the potential for the application of his master's gadgets, provide us with a metaphor for the new audiovisual world. We must get this balance between innovation and tradition right, otherwise we will find ourselves wearing the wrong trousers.

Norman Taylor is director of the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and Roger Noake is leader of the institute's animation programme.

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