European animation is on the move -- though whether the confidence ofproducers and studios is fully justified remains to be seen. Iain Harvey,an independent producer who has worked with such studios as TV Cartoons,Hibbert Ralph and Animation City, as well as his own production company,The Illuminated Film Company, discusses the progress of European animationover the last decade.
European animation is on the move -- though whether the confidence of producers and studios is fully justified remains to be seen. Iain Harvey, an independent producer who has worked with such studios as TV Cartoons, Hibbert Ralph and Animation City, as well as his own production company, The Illuminated Film Company, discusses the progress of European animation over the last decade. Though his article is written from a European perspective, Harvey believes that, "European animation producers still have a great deal to learn from American producers. The American emphasis on script and story telling is one element, but other factors also distinguish the differing approaches of studios on both sides of the ocean."
As Vice President of CARTOON, Iain is very aware of the limited resources within Europe, but believes that there are still grounds for hope that recent progress can and will be sustained.
Just over 12 years ago a leading British animation studio -- world famous for its commercials and such feature films as The Yellow Submarine -- had never received, in its first 25 year's existence, a single commission from British television, In the last year (1995), it had three separate premieres, two on ITV (The Story Store, a children's series, and The Wind in the Willows, a 90 minute TV movie, with a sequel scheduled for Christmas 1996), and one with the BBC (The Further Adventures of Peter Rabbit, part of a 9 x 30 minute series of high quality animation), as well as repeat screenings of three other of its productions: The Snowman, Father Christmas and Grandpa (all on Channel 4). Total audience for these broadcasts-20 million, in the UK alone. Total video sales, worldwide, of all these productions (not all yet released) -- nearly 10 million units and still rising!
In France, there were virtually no animation studios of any substance as recently as 5-7 years ago. Now many children's animated television series broadcast in Europe are either produced or co-produced with French studios such as Praxinos (including The Animals of Farthing Wood, an European Broadcasting Union co-production), La Fabrique (best known for titles such as Souri-Souri), France Animation (Arsene Lupin), Ellipse Animation (Tintin, in co-production with Nelvana of Toronto), etc. Distributors such as Saban and Gaumont are also prominent. French policy has also been to place great emphasis on computerized methods of production, with Insektors being the recent winner of an International Emmy Award.
Production of animation in Germany is also booming, with major studios centered in Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere, often working in association with studios and support services in the former East Germany and other Eastern European states.
With large investments from such major players as Bertlesmann, the Kirch Group and Ravensburger, German producers are well positioned to play an increasingly dominant role. Elsewhere in Europe the growth of and interest in animation has seen dramatic increases throughout the last decade. One to watch out for, though only in its very early stages of development and unlikely to be available before 1997-98, is Lupo Alberto, an anarchic comedy featuring a wolf suffering from being in love with a chicken. He is a major character featured daily in Italian newspapers. Its development is a sign that, at long last, Italian broadcasters and especially RAI are beginning to take animation seriously.
Part of a Worldwide Boom
The development of and interest in animation across Europe is part of a worldwide boom. To date, the strong European growth has been in television (although there have been some lamentable attempts at feature films). I do not think it is too parochial to suggest that one body more responsible than most for helping animation break out of its ghetto-like existence is the UK's Channel 4, which commissioned TVC's The Snowman --- the production responsible for that studio's development as a major producer for television. For those not aware of the fact, though this broadcaster is financed from advertising-and therefore has to follow a commercial policy to survive -- its legal brief, on being set up, was to cater particularly for "minority" audiences.
That animation was selected as one such minority suggests clearly the status with which it was regarded. But such has been Channel 4's achievement that the BBC, over the last three years, has also targeted animation as a key area -- and is now basking in the success of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit series. These two channels, with some support from other progressive broadcasters; such as Canal + (France) and Premier (Germany), provide showcases for new animation talent in particular.
Britain is also blessed with strong support from broadcasters for children's programming (the BBC, again, and Carlton in particular, leading the field), as well as imaginative and often well financed distributors (of which HIT is probably the best known).
For feature films, the main success stories are American, with many studios desperate to imitate the continuing achievements of Disney. The dramatic returns obtained by the high profile animated features of recent years have not been experienced by European producers, except in isolated examples. Werner, a uniquely German animated feature, was a major box office hit in its own country, but failed in the rest of the world. A superficial conclusion therefore might be-as in live action-that Europeans can hold their own with animated production aimed at television, whereas the real money and dominance is retained by the major American studios in features.
Unfortunately, at least from a European perspective, that conclusion is correct -- for the present.
CARTOON and Other Factors
A number of factors might just change the picture. First, there has been a growing recognition within Europe that animation and the art of animation is very much a part of the European heritage. A key body that has helped this fact to be realized is the European Association of Animated Film, better known as CARTOON. This body was created under the original MEDIA program, a pan-European initiative set up in 1989 to try and add financial and marketing weight to the highly divided audiovisual media industries scattered around Europe. Within MEDIA there were many separate initiatives to cover the spectrum of the film and television worlds (from script development to video distributors to documentaries, etc.), but it has generally been accepted that CARTOON, administered from Brussels by a small team, has proved one of the most successful.
CARTOON isolated the key points in trying to develop a substantial European animation industry: development, transnational cooperation and training, but it also highlighted the talent working within Europe with such headline grabbers as the Cartoon D'Or, the "Oscar" of European animation. The success of its policies is visibly demonstrated in such initiatives as The Cartoon Forum, an exclusive meeting of animation buyers (from television and video) and financiers with European animation producers. At the last Forum, held in Finland, there were over 500 participants -- of which one third were prospective financiers. Some of the rewards of CARTOON's investment over the last 5 years are only now being realized, but if there is one fact connected with animation, it is that returns do not come fast. As Disney and other studios such as Warner Bros. and MGM discovered, once they do flow, they can, if properly managed, prove consistent and highly lucrative. Within Europe therefore, animation is now seen as financially respectable-a dramatic change of perspective still not fully realized by all producers.
This, alone, would not change the picture, especially given the extreme caution with which financiers regard the European film industry. But another factor in the increasing confidence of European animation is the brilliance of some of its originators. That this is recognized in America is evidenced by the increasingly large colony of European talent working there. Of course, there is also one name, not yet rumored to be departing from his Bristol base, that stands out -- that of Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit. His originality alone, though, would not be sufficient to increase one's confidence in the growing strength of European animation.
However, coupled with the wonderful inventiveness of the actual productions, involving of course a growing team of motivated creatives, as well as highly supportive commissioning editors, is the astuteness of the studio management at Aardman Animations, where he works. This has seemingly prevented over-hasty exploitation of material and helped ensure an increasingly strong build-up of demand for the output of the studio. The result is, eventually, a quicker pay-back period and, even more importantly, sufficient marketing clout to launch their new productions, a virtuous circle long desired by many studios.
Marketing power is only one of the key requirements in developing a successful feature film industry (and must also explain the tentative nature of my observations and conclusions, as the longest production Aardman has yet been responsible for is 28 minutes). No European based film player can hope, at least in the foreseeable future, to develop -- or afford -- the long term strategy and dominating marketing power of the major American studios, and in particular Disney. The simple fact is that Disney took many decades to build up this position of strength and though it nearly let it go in the seventies, it is understandably determined not to let this dominance slip. Such is the way of capitalism.
Equally, however, capitalism teaches us that following alternative strategies can enable initially weaker competitors to move into a position of relative strength. And this hope, is the long term strategy of a number of European based animation groups. The results will not be seen for up to another 5-7 years, but it is just possible to predict that, for once, the talk will not just be about Toy Story III.
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