By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
U.K & EUROPE
Following behind America and Japan as the third-largest animation producer is France, which is home to the Annecy International Animation Festival and public broadcaster France Télévisions, the biggest commissioner of animated content in France and Europe. Amongst this thriving industry that employs 7,790 people and generates over 500 graduates and six features annually is Blue Spirit Studio, which has studios in Paris, Angoulême and Montreal, and is responsible for My Life as a Zucchini and Arthur and the Children of the Round Table. “We have a lot of schools, producers and studios in a small country because the animation industry is under the Ministry of Culture,” remarks Olivier Lelardoux, CEO of Blue Spirit. “It’s not considered to be a pure private industry.”
Not everything is Euro-centric when it comes to clients and partnerships, as Blue Spirit was responsible for animating Gremlins: Secrets of Mogwai for Max and Blue Eye Samurai for Netflix. “The big U.S. platforms are clearly leading the way of a new type of content, especially for adults. It will be interesting to see directors starting in the animation industry, directors from live action and directors from live events working with studios in order to invent new types of storytelling for adult content.” Game engines and AI are going to have a dramatic impact on the animation pipeline and workflow, Lelardoux says. “Soon you will have the possibility to keyframe directly in the game engines. It means that the animators will be in a totally immersive way to do animation in the future. Maybe AI will be the solution for the studio and producers to create content faster and cheaper. Artists and creators have to be able to trust studios, so that’s why we have to be careful with AI.”
Also located in Paris is the production company Folivari, which is known for the Ernest and Célestine movies and television series as well as The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and The Summit of the Gods. “When talking about French animation, it is important to talk about co-productions, as it’s an ecosystem that goes beyond France,” states Thibaut Ruby, Managing Director of Fost Studio and Executive Producer for Folivari. “Co-productions make financing easier even though it takes longer because you need to make things in the right order and apply as a specific date. It also requires coordination across different studios; sometimes that is not easy because you have a director who needs to see people, so we have to have him traveling a bit.” Adult animation remains a niche market. Explains Ruby, “That’s why it’s so hard to raise a lot of money to make an [adult animated] movie the traditional way. It’s great that the streamers with their global audience can amalgamate all of those niche markets and hopefully make them profitable, as we’re pushing that animation not as a genre but a technique.” Technology is not static, nor are viewing habits. “Real-time CG is going to be the main game-changer for producing animation, and it seems to be improving in quality and cost. How it’s going to evolve is the blending of traditional narrative in feature film, with the viewer having the ability to change the story without making it like a video game,” Ruby states.
Situated in Copenhagen, Sun Creature partnered with Monica Hellström at Final Cut for Real and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen to create the multi-Oscar-nominated Flee, which documents the struggles of a gay Afghan refugee on the verge of getting married in Denmark. “It took us five years to put the financing together and about two years to produce the film,” states Charlotte de La Gournerie, Co-Founder and Executive Producer at Sun Creature. “It has been an amazing experience at so many levels. We never thought that the film would be so successful.” Denmark is home to six million people, and the small population size is reflected in the Danish Film Institute supporting one feature film per year. “We don’t have a tax rebate compared to all the other countries in Europe. That is one of the reasons why we opened a second studio in France in 2020. It allowed us to strengthen our collaboration with French talents and to seek other sources of financing to stay competitive.” Animation provides a vast canvas for storytelling. Says de La Gournerie, “We really love that the medium allows us to explore different art directions and are keen on creating stories and worlds that appeal to an adult audience. But I also want to produce films that propose a point of view or tell a story that we don’t hear often. At the moment I am co-producing Julián [based on the book Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love] with Cartoon Saloon and Aircraft Pictures. It tells the story of a little boy who wants to be a mermaid and is a new take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.”
Cartoon Saloon has distinguished itself for producing hand-drawn features and has received Academy Award nominations for The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, Wolfwalkers and the short, Late Afternoon. “The design identity that is so strong, that you see in all of the films, is tied to Ireland and our mythology here,” states Fergal Brennan, Technical Director of Cartoon Saloon. “It’s good to have an identity, but an identity that allows you to progress, express, experiment and do new things, and not trap you in doing the same thing over and over again.” The remote workflow caused by the pandemic has not entirely provided open access to talent from around the world. Explains Brennan, “Potentially, but it’s not necessarily that straightforward that you can now pick everyone from wherever. Often funding structures would be related to people having to be in the country or potentially be in-house.” Cartoon Saloon set up shop in Kilkenny instead of Dublin where most of the animated studios are located. He adds, “That allowed them to differentiate themselves, become more independent and take these risks like creating a hand-drawn feature film. At the time, The Secret of Kells was a big mountain to climb. They had to FedEx animation paper over from Brazil to their co-production partners.” Brennan loves the idea of mixing 2D and 3D techniques. “Certainly, a lot of possibilities are opening up, particularly because of how good Blender has gotten for 2D animation. Blender is free, open source, and has these grease pencil tools that are good for 2D as well as 3D.”
Matchbox Mountain, which collaborated on the “wolfvision” sequences in Wolfwalkers, is based in the Irish town of Athlone. “It’s never been easier to find work by international teams,” notes Eimhin McNamara, Co-Founder/Director of Matchbox Mountain. “You can see how larger companies like Disney have capitalized on an interest in diverse styles and types of storytelling with their Star Wars: Visions series, casting numerous smaller independent studios to do their interpretations within that world.” Technology and remote workflows have lowered the point of entry for productions, McNamara says, “but there are still issues of resourcing and costs, which are more biased towards American-centric productions, especially when it comes to outsourced animation work to sub-contractor companies.” Ireland is in the midst of a housing shortage and cost-of-living crisis, he says. “As animation wages have yet to reflect the labor and value contributed, there is a huge issue of retention within the industry.” There is no in-house style, just a willingness to experiment. “We have produced black-and-white period horror, cartoony animal fables and a whole mix of other stories using stop-motion methods, like oil paint on glass animation, cutout, sand animation and 3D puppetry, alongside 2D and 3D digital pipelines, as in my work with Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers and my recent collaboration with Dreamfeel on their next 3D video game.”
Across the Irish Sea in Bristol, England, Aardman has excelled in stop-motion animation with the Wallace and Gromit franchise while branching into the realm of CG to create Lloyd of the Flies. “The underlying theme of anything with our name attached is that it should have a strong emotional story that has all the comedy and British quirkiness that you would expect from the studio,” remarks Sean Clarke, Managing Director at Aardman. “The U.K. continues to be a strong player in the European animation industry, with a recent BFI report in 2019 estimating a value of £1.6 billion generated and approximately 20,000 jobs. This is primarily down to a number of reasons around a rich, successful heritage in telling stories in the medium and strong infrastructure and expertise. There is an increasing challenge for the U.K. to remain on a par with other European countries with more competitive local tax incentives, and Brexit has meant that the European Media funding is no longer available to U.K. producers, which historically has been a key form of development and production financing.” The impact of streamers has been huge over the past five years. Notes Clarke, “The expansion of digital platforms and streaming services that look to acquire global rights has driven a more diverse global audience with a growing demand for different types of stories that can reflect different cultures, perspectives and experiences. Interestingly, our biggest global brand is Shaun the Sheep, which has been sold to over 170 territories worldwide, with two of our biggest markets being in China and Japan where we even have a theme-park experience and café.”
A newcomer is two-year-old El Guiri Studios in Madrid, which was established during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was almost like this mirage feeling of creating the short film [Sith for Star Wars: Visions Volume 2] and a studio at the same time, but not have everyone in the same location,” states Rodrigo Blaas, Co-Founder/Creative Director at El Guiri Studios. “What I learned from working at Pixar and DreamWorks is how important it is to bring to life an inanimate object or even a character that actually looks more human-like. The performance and the way that thought process and behavior changes are at the core of everything that I’m interested in animation.” Technology is not the critical aspect, say Blaas. “Being clear, having a strong script from the beginning and a core idea that is strong are more important than how to make it. Animation is consolidating in Spain. “The industry growth is staggering,” he says. “The talent in Spain is resourceful because they always have to work with so little, but have ways to find the solution or a least have some initiative. The environment is growing in terms of what is happening in many areas of the country, Madrid, Canary Island, Valencia, but also the tax rebates are now working better than ever and are really competitive.”
Interesting technological developments have occurred in Europe, in particular when The Pack Studio in Belgium partnered with Plutoon in Slovakia and Bfilm in Czech Republic to make the family animated adventure Journey to Yourland, and in process created a real-time pipeline for animation, XR and video games. “We had a script, but it became clear that it was over the budget that we could put together,” explains Tom Verbeek, Business Developer for SYNK and Content & Marketing Manager for The Pack Studio. “For example, there is a 15-minute water sequence, which usually becomes expensive. We decided to make the film in a game engine, and as we began to use Unity we realized this technology allows us to do a lot more within our budget. But there is not a playbook on how to make a feature animated film in a game engine. We started developing a workflow, made the film and were happy with the end result. That’s how we developed the SYNK product.”
In Africa, one finds Triggerfish Animation, which was founded in 1996 in Cape Town, South Africa. “It’s still a very young industry [in Africa] but growing very quickly,” remarks Stuart Forrest, CEO of Triggerfish. “By 2050 it’s estimated that there will be two billion people on the continent, of which the majority will be young and tech-savvy – and perfectly positioned to take advantage of the democratization of technology-driven animation. Triggerfish has enjoyed a great run as the leading platform for developing, producing, and bringing to market animated storytelling from African creators, and we’ll be continuing to search for fresh emerging talent from the continent, supporting their creative vision and packaging them for the global market. We’ve evolved from producing our own stories to becoming a company that supports other creators to tell their stories.” Projects include Disney+ anthologies Star Wars: Visions and Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, as well as Disney Junior television series Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes and feature film Seal Team. “We work across kids and family and are agnostic to style or format. We tend to find a creator with a strong vision and then back that vision, whether it’s 2D, CG or any other medium. Our in-house specialty is currently CG, but we’re looking at ramping up 2D shortly.”
In India, 88 Pictures has studios in Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, and most recently expanded into Canada to establish operations in Toronto. “The talent in India comes to us with below-average ability, and we train them and make them average creatively and technically,” states Milind D. Shinde, Founder/CEO of 88 Pictures. “For people like me who have worked at a big studio on $100 million-plus movies, the question is how do we make them feature-ready? That talent gap exists in North America and certain parts of Europe. What we decided as a studio is to be in Toronto to fill that 20% gap of creative and technical expertise, which will help to develop and empower Indian talent.” A readjustment is occurring in the marketplace, Shinde observes. “A year ago, things were booming with Netflix spending $10 billion [on content] while last week Disney laid off 600 people and MPC laid off 800 people, 400 in India and 300 in Montreal. The demand is not shrinking, but everybody is pulling back and thinking, ‘What exactly do we want?’ This is because when I’m on Netflix my eyes don’t get stuck onto anything.
There’s a lot of content that is not being watched.” 88 Pictures focuses on computer animation and has worked on Star Wars: Visions, Fast & Furious Spy Racers and Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia. “I don’t have any experience in 2D, so I stick to creating a business that I know the best. 3D animation can have different styles for every project that we do.”
In East Asia, one country that has emerged from the shadow of Japan to become an animation powerhouse is South Korea. A major reason for this is the acclaimed work by Studio Mir, located in Seoul, on The Legend of Korra and Big Fish & Begonia. “When the streaming services came to the scene, it drastically changed the animation landscape,” remarks Studio Mir in a joint statement from the directors and vice president. “For Japan, their anime was able to reach broader audiences with improved budgets. Korean animation also saw opportunities and expanded its market worldwide.” A major struggle was transitioning from pencil and paper to a fully digital pipeline. The statement continues, “Until mid-2010, most artists drew on paper by hand. We were one of the first studios in Korea that went fully digital. There were a lot of learning curves. It was most challenging for the veteran artists, so as a studio we invested in the training system to help their transition.” Interestingly, a current trend is retro-style animation. Explains Studio Mir, “Traditional hand-drawn aesthetics are getting the limelight again because they represent the fundamental skills and values, while the visualization techniques are reaching their peak, with CGI creating almost any requested image. But we are not sure how long this trend will last. Ironically, the studios are leaning more toward technical developments with the limited pool of experienced artists. Speaking of technological trends, we should mention AI. It is a groundbreaking tool for visualization work, and we are also investing resources to experiment with the tool. However, we only see AI as a tool to assist with the needs of artists and retro aesthetics. It will not replace humans.”
“The Oscar for Bear Story [for Best Animated Short Film, 2016] was a great thing not just for me but for the whole Latin American animation community, as we realized that it was possible to create animation that can go outside of Latin America,” observes Gabriel Osorio Vargas, Co-Founder, Director and CG Supervisor of Punkrobot Animation Studio in Santiago, Chile. “We have our own way, but at the same time influenced by Hollywood, and we were colonized by Europeans, so we have that culture too. It’s an interesting mix and that’s one of the things that makes our identity. I try to embrace that.” Punkrobot is a family-oriented animation studio responsible for Wow Lisa, which is about a curious little mouse that believes that everything can be a treasure when you look close enough. “We always try to give something back to society with our stories; that’s something which defines us.” Government funding is critical, Vargas says. “It’s the main or maybe the only way you have to create your own content, because it’s difficult to tell your stories through advertising, as you have to manage what the client wants to do. Also, private investors in Chile are more interested in copper and wine, industries that are more established. I hope this will change as they realize there are good studios making animation; that is what makes us happy about the Star Wars: Visions experience, because we were asked to do good animation and we delivered.”
The largest producer of animation in Latin America is Brazil, and situated in São Paulo is Split Studio, which created the feature Tito and the Birds and TV series WeeBoom. “In 2011, Brazil developed a quota for independent Brazilian content in cable TV and the means to get them financed, which allowed a substantial amount of original Brazilian content to see the light of day,” states Jonas Brandão, Co-Founder and Business Development for Split Studio. “Therefore, that also promoted a boom in the local industry, with the sector’s rise in employment and analog ecosystems [such as schools]. The high demand also brought many studios to the market, and some of them became known globally, including Split Studio. We started in 2009 with four people and nowadays we’re one of the leading studios in the country, in operation with about 150 people currently, and with productions nominated to awards such as the Annies, Annecy and the Oscars in our portfolio.” Brazilian culture is seen as an aspect of the storytelling. States Brandão, “Split Studio, as a Brazilian-originated studio, has a set of upcoming projects with a Brazilian feel. However, that’s all in the background, as the core of these stories relies on stories with relatable universal human conflicts. An example of this is Among the Stars, an original IP we’re developing in video game and feature film formats. It tells the story of two young indigenous sisters who get separated from each other after a violent attack by land grabbers on their village. While one sister ends up in the spiritual world and is trying to return to the human world, the other fights the land grabbers on her own, as she thinks the criminals have her sister. It’s a very exciting journey, set in Brazil, with many native Brazilian cultural layers. Still, in the end, it comes down to a beautiful journey of two sisters trying to find each other, which many people can relate to.”
What has become clear by talking to animation studios from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America is that while streamers have had a huge impact on the increased demand for animated content, government grants and tax incentives remain critical in supporting the industry domestically and internationally. Co-productions have become a necessary practice to be able to pool together the required financial and artistic resources and have made Europe a cultural mosaic of storytelling. The technological future will see the proliferation of real-time animation and the adoption of AI and machine learning to fill in the efficiency gaps. This will lay the foundation for the next platform that enables individuals to be participants rather than viewers in an organic manner. Something that will remain constant is the desire to communicate with each other, tap into universal emotions and explore the vastness of the human imagination.