How has Bristol managed to establish itself as an internationally recognised centre for both the production of and training in animation? By Michael Burns.
How has Bristol managed to establish itself as an internationally recognised centre for both the production of and training in animation? By Michael Burns.

Bristol is literally stuffed with animators with 10 major animation companies and four smaller animation outfits in the city and surrounding area. This makes it an excellent place to hold an international animation festival, as the recent Animated Encounters shindig showed off to great success, but apart from being a rather nice port in the Westcountry, what has made this area such a draw for 2D 'toon artists, stop-motion modellers and CGI junkies?

An obvious place to look for this answer is the presence of the extraordinarily successful Aardman Animations.

Aardman, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1976, started off in Bristol creating stop-frame animations for BBC children's programmes, including the Plasticine character Morph. Commissions for BBC and Channel 4 followed, including animated shorts based on real-life conversation pieces.

"With C4, there was a massive explosion of commissioning for animation, especially commercials," says Kieran Argo, events and exhibitions officer and occasional voice actor for Aardman, who adds that this allowed the company to invest in people and equipment and therefore expand rapidly.

The other big change in Aardman's fortunes arrived with Nick Park in 1985 whose work with the studio included the Oscar-winning Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousersand A Close Shave. As well as making up to 30 commercials each year, the studio signed a five-picture deal with Dreamworks, the first of which was the popular Chicken Run. Its latest, Curse of the Were-Rabbitis in production while TV output includes Angry Kid, Shaun the Sheepand Chop Socky Chooks.

Another factor in the creation of Bristol's animation hub was the BBC Animation department. In 1991 the BBC formed the Animation Initiative in Bristol under the corporation's then animation chief Colin Rose. Its aim was to commission and produce/co-produce high-quality animated films for adult and family audiences, working with independent animation companies. The first results of this were Aardman's The Wrong Trousersand Dave Borthwick's The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. Borthwick, another native of Bristol, had formed the bolexbrothers collective in 1983 with Dave Riddett and Nick Upton, which has since become another notably successful Bristol-based animation outfit. Responsible for this year's film version of TheMagic Roundabout, the company is now concentrating its efforts in film production, partly a result of a recent downturn in commercials work. Its latest project is Grass Rootsstarring the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

As a standalone entity from 1994, BBC animation moved on to develop TV series as well as specials. The BBC presence in animation - and in Bristol - then led to numerous collaborations and co-productions with local companies and individuals, and also many animators who were beginning to set up or move to the region.

"Without Morph and the BBC I doubt if there would have been an Aardman or a bolexbrothers or a Bristol animation industry," says Andy Leighton, producer at bolexbrothers. "Nowadays, Aardman is obviously the queen bee around which most of the Bristol animation industry congregates, but there are other Bristol animation companies all happily co-existing and independent. Bristol is a natural cluster of media companies covering all aspects of film and TV production and post-production. You don't have to leave town except for film labs to produce world-class films or commercials."

"Colin Rose did so much for the industry," adds Sarah Muller, managing director of Elephant Productions. "Once you have the BBC and the likes of an Aardman in an area, then it just follows on from there. Rates and costs in London also make it very difficult for animators to either start up on their own or take any creative risks, as the money has to keep coming in to cover these huge overheads. There's also more regional development and start up funding in the South West, and it's certainly something to do with the more laid-back lifestyle too."

Key animation companies now thriving in Bristol include A Productions, Fictitious Egg, Collision Films, Harvest Films, Rubberductions and Big Squid - all contributing to a UK animation industry spanning film, TV and games, worth around $300bn last year, according to Optima research conducted for Pact. And new companies are always appearing on the scene. Star8 for example, is a recently formed division of post-house 4:2:2 with the main objective to develop intellectual properties within the children's and character animation market. "Both Cardiff and Bristol are certainly taking advantage of the exodus from London of a huge number of talented individuals moving out for an increased quality of life," says Pete Levy, the company's development director. "Emerging talent isn't now having to always look to London as a starting point to best use their skills. The move by Endemol to Bristol has also helped to highlight the wealth of production talent within the broadcast industry here in the region as well as raising the regional profile. Due to the size of the region and the ease with which we can all communicate it makes it easier to gain access to our regional development organisations. South West Screen and the newly emerging Bristol Media group are great ways to share intelligence and utilise the combined talent of the region."

A prime example of London incomers are Sarah Cox and Sally Arthur of Arthur Cox, who upped sticks from their Clerkenwell workshop studio a couple of years ago. Since coming to Bristol the team have worked with Pink House and Aardman and have also made use of the BBC production facilities. They are currently working on a pilot for a children's series for S4C.

"The Bristol attraction is partly but not entirely dependent on the lure of Wallace and Gromit," says Sarah Cox. "Other factors would be the presence of the BBC and all its attendant industries, including editors, sound designers, film crews and production staff. Many years back the Bristol Animation Festival and currently Animated Encounters have brought animators to the city and perhaps planted the germ of an idea that life can exist outside London."

"It seems to be a mutually co-operative environment as I think it is in all our interests to help establish Bristol as a viable production alternative to Soho," agrees Sally Arthur.

This co-operative working is widespread. Fictitious Egg is in collaboration with Elephant Productions on Johnny Casanova the Unstoppable Sex Machine. "We've worked with Aardman in many roles for the last 20 years," says Mark Taylor, head of A Productions. "I like the fact that Bristol encourages a pooling of labour and consequently studios try to help each other."

"We outsource a lot of our work to Cod Steaks, John Wright Modelmaking and Geoff Cliff Models," says Aardman's Argo. "All these local companies supply some of the core materials we use in production. They build a lot of the sets and the more specialist, mechanical props. They're designed in-house but we use specialist companies to build them."

One of these, Cod Steaks, is a particularly large design and construction company, with over 20 years experience in model-making and visual effects. However the company has had its resources fully concentrated on the latest Aardman film ( Curse of the Were-Rabbit) for the past two years with a constant crew of 50 model-makers on the project.

Crews for productions are mainly found through word of mouth. "It's not that everybody knows everybody, but more that people hear that there's a project and people will apply," says Helen Nabarro, producer at BBC Animation. "Bristol has a massive pool of very talented freelancers. Aardman, as one of the larger studios is an exception, but in general the studios can't afford to commit to staff because they don't have the guarantee of long-term work. Freelancers obviously move to where the work is, but most of the time they manage to stay in Bristol. On the Robbie the Reindeerproductions it wasn't an impossible task for us to crew up from scratch both times and get a really fantastic crew across the board - model-makers, animators, lighting crew and so on."

Freelancers also know that the varied work available demands a mix of skills, not just the stop-motion work for which the region is famous.

"It's absolutely vital to be diverse in animation, both in pure creative terms and also in production terms" says Mark Taylor. "We work across both drawn and digital 2D, CG, Flash and stop-frame animation and have been known to venture into live action where needed. Our main output is in broadcast work where we have produced a lot of different-looking work for a while." This includes pre-school series Boo!with Tell-Tale and Entertainment Rights and Dusty and Mustyfor Hit!

Aardman too, is open to alternatives to models and film. "We're employing CG more these days because it is cheaper," says Kieran Argo. "That's not to say we're going to do purely CG. We're just embracing new technology and are seeing it as a different way to achieve the same ends."

New technology is frequently showcased at Bristol's physical

creative hub - the Watershed media centre. The centre has recently hosted the Animated Encounters festival and provided a showcase for the local Hewlett Packard/Alias SE3D animation initiative (see box) and also holds the annual Brief Encounters short film festival.

Indeed, one of the SE3D animators, Claire Hickman, currently producer on a Rubberductions/Submerge/Fixel co-production, feels that the Watershed itself is a major contributor to the Bristol animation phenomenon. "Everything happens here at the Watershed," says Hickman. "It holds community events that companies like Aardman, Hewlett Packard, the BBC, Orange and others really support because they know it gives so much back to the community."

The Animated Encounters festival was an opportunity for these companies and their international counterparts to get together to showcase new work and discuss strategy. And yet, despite the community support and wealth of talent to draw on, Bristol animation is faced with the same challenges felt by the rest of the TV industry and these were much discussed by festival delegates.

"The big ones are to do with funding - more and more we are being asked to cut costs, defer fees, produce pitch materials on spec that are never paid for, and the shows never made," says Sarah Muller. "A big fuss is made about share of back-end profits and ownership of IPR [intellectual property rights], which are important, but won't pay the bills now."

There also remains a threat from overseas competition. "We have to prove to people that sending work abroad isn't the only solution," says Mark Taylor. "As much as possible, we'll try and make the whole thing here. Our main concern is really the shortage of available avenues for getting our own ideas commissioned. It's tougher than ever to get stuff away and get the financing together."

"We are always at the mercy of exchange rates as well as government incentives which seem to be enjoyed by companies in Canada and elsewhere, but these are beyond our control," agrees Pete Levy. "We are also at risk from some elements of the global community who offer reduced priced animation but which in reality can produce reduced quality work."

However Levy also feels UK animators should use this to their advantage, especially by making sure they are ahead of the game with new technological breakthroughs.

"We try and get involved in as much of the new technologies and platforms as possible," affirms Mark Taylor. "Currently we are developing material for 3G and I'm sure it will grow as a market. Ultimately it may mean doing things slightly cheaper, but we are always looking at new ways to produce animation for realistic budgets."

Local Initiatives

The Bristol School of Animation

In 1998, the Bristol School of Art, Media and Design (University of the West of England) was approached by Aardman Animations to set up a training programme for its employees to get the studio working at maximum capacity for the Chicken Run feature. "The training programme we put together is what is now our three-month professional training course open to all," says Louise Jennings, marketing officer. The training programme is now developed in consultation with representatives from Aardman, BBC Bristol, bolexbrothers, Fictitious Egg and 4:2:2 to ensure it is providing the skills training that is relevant to the industry. The school also runs computer animation software training, and short courses in storyboarding, model-making and other design subjects. Alongside this the University runs programmes in animation at undergraduate and postgraduate level and numbers enrolled on these are growing every year. "Students are attracted to Bristol and our courses partly thanks to the reputation of the professional training courses we run but also because of the reputation of Bristol as a centre of animation," adds Jennings.


Hewlett Packard has made a considerable investment in the area by siting its research labs in Bristol and is further exploring the talent base by running the SE3D (pronounced "seed") animation showcase. This is an experimental programme that has furnished 12 groups of filmmakers in the UK with access to a massive shared processing resource for CG rendering. As well as guidance from HP, an advisory board was drawn from Aardman Animations, BBC, 4:2:2, Dreamworks, Alias and Bristol's Watershed media centre. All 12 films will be showcased at this month's Cannes Film Festival. The animators receive the use of Maya licences, training and mentoring in advance of and during production, and take part in an eight-month educative programme of workshops and film festival events. There is sponsorship and funding for the scheme participants, some of whom have already secured commissions. Jaime Pardo and Tia Perkins have produced Ebeneezer Morgan's Photography Emporium (pictured above) which will be showcased in Cannes. Their next project is a short-form animated series for BBC3.