Having played second fiddle to US and Asian imports for years, UK animation is back on track - with the help of advances in technology. Michael Burns reports.
Having played second fiddle to US and Asian imports for years, UK animation is back on track - with the help of advances in technology. Michael Burns reports.

You'd be forgiven for not noticing the resurgence in UK kids animation over the past 10 years. Swamped by imports from North America and Asia, faced with a lack of financing from UK TV companies, and having to scramble for foreign financing to even bring an idea close to production, it's a wonder the UK market exists at all. Yet there are more animation companies around now than in many previous years, while some sectors have seen nothing but success.

One company with a string of stop-frame success stories on its roster is Hot Animation. "I think when the franchises happened in 1992, there were a few dodgy moments all round," says Hot's managing director, Jackie Cockle. "I think since then it has got itself back together again. There's a lot of material out in the market. A lot of people have been making shows, and I think it's pretty healthy at the moment."

This is helped by the rise of digital channels and home entertainment - a lot of shows go straight to DVD or video, which means there is a lot more opportunity to get placed. Even faced with the overwhelming amount of imported animation on TV, Cockle is buoyant about Hot's success. "I don't think there is a 3D stop-frame industry abroad. It's totally different for drawn animation and I would guess for CGI as well, but speaking purely for stop-frame, I think the UK is the leader in that field."

Stop-frame, it appears, really does suit the children's market. "They seem to relate to it immediately, pre-school kids in particular," says Cockle. "They feel like they could reach into the television and touch the characters and pull them out. It has proved over the years to be a very immediate method of film-making for pre-school kids. And it also works well overseas."

Francis Vose, senior producer at Cosgrove Hall, another British success story, agrees: "I guess in this day and age it's a prerequisite for investors to know that their market can be expanded beyond just the programme being viewed - it's easier to sell toys when there is a 3D look on screen. Personally, I'm happy to do any form of movement whether model or cartoon - I think each individual project lends itself to the form of animation it will be made in. It's an integral but obvious part of the project's process. The costs actually all weigh up to be relatively similar, apart from Flash animation, which can be simpler and therefore cheaper. CGI and 3D puppet animation have very similar costs."

Of course, the industry has changed since the early days of Vose and Cockle - coming on by leaps and bounds, especially in terms of technology. "When I first started animating, I had a script, a stopwatch and a camera and that was it," Cockle says. "Now you can film on film, you can shoot on video. All the post-production side of things has changed completely. We don't edit film or tape - it's all digital. It's a lot quicker than it ever was, and you can do a lot more. It's just changed totally and yet the basics of it, I guess, are the same. You still need the best idea, the best script and the best craftspeople to make a good show. The technology side of it is your aid, but it's not the be all and end all, because you can have the greatest technology in the world, but if you've got a bum idea and a bum script, forget it."

The industry also employs more people working on a series these days, purely because of time pressures. The US in particular has a huge appetite for children's material, demanding series of 52 episodes and showing them five days a week, whereas UK channels show serials one day a week. "They gobble up material at a rate of knots," says Cockle. "So you have to think in terms of 52s for the States, and the big stations prefer half-hour formats. So, for instance, with Bob the Builder, to get it away in the States we had to make up a half hour, which includes two episodes, then we do two-minute interstitials, which are two-minute self-contained stories, and then we link them to form that half hour. It's a different ball game over there." It's also very time consuming and labour-intensive in editing and re-voicing, because US channels want American accents.

And meeting ever-more demanding schedules means the need for more people. "In order to produce programmes quicker you need to increase your crew, increase your studio space, increase your number of sets and your number of puppets," explains Cockle.

On the 2D side too, the UK is producing quality kids animation and UK companies are regarded across the world as top class. But is the view as rosy away from the lens of the stop-frame camera?

"It depends who you talk to," says Tony Collingwood, managing director of Collingwood O'Hare. "The glass is always either half full or half empty. I think it's much like any industry - if you've got a job, you think things are fine. If you haven't got a commission, you think things are crap. Personally speaking, I think things are great."

Drawn or 2D animation has certainly suffered some setbacks. "Around 1990 there was hardly any series animation happening in the UK," recalls Collingwood. " Danger Mousehad happened. Super Tedhad happened and that was it. Danger Mousewas animated in Spain and England. I started in 1991-92 and when I came onto the scene, having made TV series in America, there was hardly anybody apart from Martin Gates ( The Dreamstone) making 13 half-hours of animation in the UK. The British animation scene was all in advertising. Then the whole scene of animated adverts started to die a death."

Now, compared with the early 1990s, there are many more places in the UK making animation. "There will always be more stuff from America on TV, but there are actually more UK animation houses doing it than 10 years ago," says Collingwood. There's also a difference in the type of work being produced here. "I think the Brits are great at creating an atmosphere of 'sit down and I'll tell you a story', rather than starting on a run with people shouting and jumping and screaming," says Collingwood.

The new saviour of drawn animation seems to be CelAction2D, a suite of programs that allows animators to design 2D character models on computer as resolution-independent vector graphics or scanned bitmaps, animate them according to exposure sheets and add synched audio.

"Like anything, CelAction2D works for certain styles, such as our current production Gordon the Golden Gnome, which is very traditional, solid cartoon art," says Collingwood. The technology has had a big impact, especially in London. "It has meant that for most of the shows we've done, we designed them, we created them, we did the voices-records - we did every element of production in the UK," he continues. CelAction2D has allowed Collingwood O'Hare to make complete shows of 52 episodes completely within its Acton studios rather than farm the work out to overseas animators. The big difference is that the show remains malleable throughout the process. "With the animators in-house, we can be acting out scenes, trying them out and changing them. It allows you to change moments within the scene without having to redo the whole scene. It has made the creative process more versatile."

One company that crosses a few platforms is Red Kite Animations, which is in production with The Frightened Family, a 52 x 11 minute 3D CGI series for ages 8-12, about one family's frightened look at the hazards of the everyday world. "We don't have a house style as a company," says managing director Ken Anderson. "We're much more interested in whether something is original. If we design something that catches our eye or catches our attention, then we'll look at the best way of producing it. We wouldn't define it by any commercial way, not in any ruthless sense. We wouldn't make it in CGI just because everything at that minute was made in CGI. We think in terms of what will make it a great thing to look at. We wanted to do The Frightened Familyin model animation but, faced with the practicalities of it, we couldn't do it. We couldn't make such large 3D models move and skip. So CGI seemed the way to go forward there - it does give you that Plasticine look, but allows you much more freedom of movement. We've used both Maya and Lightwave for that. Another series, Impo de Negro, has a very black-and-white look and we animated it using a combination of 2D and 3D animation to give that visual style. It was using 2D drawn elements and then placing them in to a 3D environment and then having a 3D drawn character. Some shots will only be using 2D."

So what is it that the UK companies have that makes a good animation series? "Good writing - the character and stories are appealing," claims Anderson. "We do really well in the UK at pre-school, and we're head and shoulders above everybody else in stop-frame animation. You can put that down to Aardman and Cosgrove Hall and others. They've brought in that work and are world class. We keep making good programmes, but we're not competing on volume, mainstream or older kids stuff at all. It's difficult if your ambition is to produce quality. You can probably produce crap and survive. You could do low-end, high-volume and churn it out. But it's not defining the genre, it's not leaving your mark upon anything. The question is, should we bother? I think we should. I think we should try to leave something of substance which will define our children's memories."

A tale of two animations

"In the days of Cockleshell Bay, we got 100 per cent of the money for making the show from the broadcaster," says Bridget Appleby, creative director, stop-frame animation for Cosgrove Hall. "Nowadays, productions are deficit financed, and finance has to be found from different avenues - only a percentage of it comes from the broadcaster. The kind of investment needed naturally leads to merchandise awareness. Investors need to know there will be a wider result for the product than just viewing figures."

Cockleshell Baywas made for a UK audience (and first aired in 1980 on ITV) with no thought to worldwide sales. "Nowadays, we have to try to suit a worldwide market, particularly the American market," continues Appleby. " Engie Benjyseries three and four is a complete exercise in creating an international programme. Kids these days are far more 'animation savvy' - they have a shorter attention span and expect more from the programmes they watch. So, Engie Benjy has to have more action and be generally faster paced or more detailed. There has also been a huge development in stop-frame, technically and aesthetically. In Cockleshell Bay's day things were very limited - now anything's possible at a price."

"Technology has changed massively on all counts," says Francis Vose, senior producer at Cosgrove Hall. "On Cockleshell Baywe shot on to film and what you shot was irreversible due to massive limitations in post-production. The whole discipline was different. At the beginning there wasn't the technology to allow you to see your last frame - that became possible around 10 years ago with a mixer that let you grab your last frame and mix from that to the frame being shot. Now it's all digital, allowing us to immediately see everything we shoot and even cut the scenes in camera. This is a fantastic tool for the studio, allowing director and animator to work hand in hand."

It used to be that what you shot was what you got and all effects had to be done in camera. "For instance, falling snow was shot in camera first and the film rewound," says Vose. "We then had to animate the puppets over the rewound film. Nowadays, everything can be done in multi-layered animation and put together in post-production. You can layer shots, shoot against green and blue screen and add effects in multi-layered techniques. The advent of CGI means that with Engie Benjywe can expand stop-motion worlds inside a computer and mix in to CGI shots of a character driving around the countryside, rather than be limited to a six-foot set."

And it hasn't just changed visually. Cockleshell Baydidn't even have dialogue - it was all narrated, whereas Engie Benjyfeatures star actors for the voices and also interactivity such as the characters turning to camera and asking questions. "We also included children's responses, which was interesting," says Appleby. "Programme-making these days is very exciting and challenging."