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London Calling: How Sarah Smith Plans to Bring Animation Back to the UK

The ‘Arthur Christmas’ writer and director talks about her pioneering new studio looking to make world class CG features in London.

Sarah Smith, former creative director of Aardman Animation, has established a new animated film company in the UK, Locksmith Animation, with support from Elisabeth Murdoch and visual effects powerhouse Double Negative.  Locksmith is the UK’s first dedicated high-end feature animation studio, and will focus on creating CG animated films for the global marketplace.

Smith started out in television, producing and writing for landmark comedy shows with British comedy greats like Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and The League of Gentlemen.  In 2006, Aardman Animation brought Smith on board as creative director, a move which led to a three year deal with Sony Pictures.  In 2012, with long-time collaborator Peter Baynham, she co-wrote and directed the 3D feature Arthur Christmas earning much critical acclaim and BAFTA, Golden Globe and Annie nominations.

A London-based studio producing worldwide movies, much like the Illumination success story in Paris, is a significant step forward for the UK and European animation industry, and a hugely exciting prospect, not least for animation professionals who may no longer have to look stateside to pursue careers in features.  As a London university animation graduate and lifelong fan of the great British comedy scene from which Smith has graduated, it was my pleasure to sit down with the director and discuss her pioneering new venture.

Chris Colman: What inspired you to start Locksmith?

Sarah Smith: There was something about a lot of the American studios, with that big corporate culture, that didn’t feel at home to me, as opposed to the London filmmaking and creative community.  First of all I was thinking about just literally developing projects and setting up a development slate and selling the ideas, because I felt like I had something to bring to that and it’s an area that lots of studios struggle with.  But then I thought, “Who are we kidding?”  If we develop an idea we’ve got to make it.

Then you realize there’s a giant hole.  In London we should have that company and we don’t.  There’s a whole load of reasons right now that make it the absolutely obvious thing to do.  We have visual effects houses like DNeg who are massively successful.  We have tax credits.  We’ve got the talent and we’ve got the children’s stories.  We have the whole set.  I think what Illumination is doing in Paris, we can do in London, with more stories and children’s writers’ points of view.  It just felt like an unarguable case.

As I went out and talked to people about raising money and what that business would look like, Illumination was knocking it out of the park in Paris, so it was very helpful to point to them and say, “Look!”  It’s a bit like pitching a movie – you have to work on it for a year to have the perfect 5-minute pitch.  I’d thought about it and written a business plan with my partner, and we’d worked and worked and worked, so I was able to go out with a story that I knew was convincing because it was true.

If we didn’t do it, someone from the US would come into London and do it. So I thought, “We’re not going to be colonized!  You come in here, buy up our story ideas, make them here cheaply, take them back to America and sell them back to us.”  I just thought, “Let’s do it. We can do it.”

CC: Have people subsequently said ‘I thought someone should do that?’

SS:  Oh, everyone is saying that.  A lot of people in London have said it for a long time. Myself and DNeg, and everyone else involved, have been contacted endlessly by American producers asking, “Where can we make an animated film in London?”  A lot of people were looking at London, but there isn’t an obvious existing pipeline.  Someone else will come into one of the other facilities for sure – it will happen.  I really just wanted to put a flag on the moon before anyone else arrived, and try and generate it from here.  I found Despicable Me very inspiring, because I really thought some of that London comedy talent that we were talking about, they could be in that movie.  It felt so much to me like a sensibility that could have come from our comedy culture.

CC: Do you envision a new wave of filmmaking with Locksmith leading the way?

SS: That’s exactly what we want to see! That’s what we hope, of course.  But it’s not going to be just an out and out ‘Made-In-Britain’ kind of thing because, as you know, and as everyone will attest to, it requires a massive, very specialized, highly skilled, totally international workforce.   I was talking to Jacques Bled [CEO] from Illumination the other day – and he’s totally right.  He’s very humble about the extent to which they brought in European and American talent, production management and so on.  You have to go to people that have done the big high-end movies.  It’s a very specialized skillset and we need to bring in some of those people to help lead and train and mentor our own talent so that we can go in making movies with the right quality from day one.  We can’t learn on the job so we’ve got to bring in people who can lead.  That means an experienced international workforce.

CC: At what stage are you in the recruitment and building process?

SS: Because of the relationship with DNeg in particular, and because of the profile that Liz [Murdoch] brings us, we have spent some time in the first few months talking a lot about pipeline, about process, about people who want to work the way we want to work.  But really, our focus at this stage is on projects, so I’m just going to go and get buried.  We’re doing a creative brainstorm in London with a lot of talent over the next week or so.  And then we will be all about story development and really, really digging into building projects.  But I’m not going to do that from a development department point of view.  I want it to be more of a director-led process.  So I’m going to be talking to the people that I would like to lead those projects.

CC: What will be your own role in the filmmaking process?

SS:  I think what I can bring to the picture is that I have done a bit of everything. I’ve been a development person, I’ve held the pen and co-written a script, and I’ve directed, so I can help support whichever part of the process needs support.  I’d like to write another script with Pete at some point, but at the moment what I need to build is a really great key creative team that can drive and stand alone.

CC: At what stage is the studio’s physical setup?

SS: We are working really closely with DNeg and, in fact. we’re just negotiating a floor literally across the road from them.  We’ve been talking about having an animation building that’s close enough so we can dig under the road and put their pipe through, because it seems to make sense.  But in fact it may be that they reorganize themselves such that we will be able to do it within their building.  At the moment they’re amazingly busy so we’ll have our own management space but hopefully we’ll use their space for project work.  It’ll be very closely connected to their pipe if that’s the route we go down.

CC: How did the relationship with DNeg first come about? When did you know they were the right strategic partner?

SS: I talked to all of the London facilities but I think what was interesting to me about DNeg was that they hadn’t done animation before, they didn’t come at it with any legacy saying, “This is how it’s done.”  On the contrary, they said, “We do want to do it but we really know that we don’t know.” Therefore it just made sense on both sides to start developing a pipeline of projects.  It’s still a process that’s under negotiation and we have to make sure that we’re the right fit for each other.  We have to build budgets that work for both sides, and we have to work out our methodology and approach.  So where we are is a process of going, “We don’t know if we can get married but let’s shack up with each other and try and make it work [laughs]!”

CC: You’ve talked a lot recently about the importance of having belief in your project and genuine passion for your ideas.

SS: It’s so important.  What else is the point?  And actually, it’s so expensive and the process is so complicated. It’s as Kris Pearn says, you have to really love it for it to be worthwhile.  It’s like giving birth to a monster with 11 legs that takes two years of gestation [laughs].  You’ve got to really want that baby and love it and bring it into the world and nurture it and give it your life force until it can stand on its own two feet.  There’s no other reason for doing it. There’s no other reason for being in the business than making things that you absolutely love. They have to be owned, and they have to be personal and you have to love the thing and the person whose thing it is for it to work. 

Arthur Christmas was a lovely experience.  It was very traumatic in some ways but really amazing in other ways, because I did that with Pete who I’ve worked with for 20 years and who is one of my best friends.  That movie was filled with love, literally – our own affectation and our own enjoyment and our relationship and our writing and just so much pleasure.  I think that communicates itself to the audience and it has to come from that place.  You have to do it for love, for the audience to feel pleasure.

CC: Do you feel there is a British ‘stamp’ of sorts on the movie and the movies that you will continue to make?

SS: I’m really very proud of a lot of British talent and creation.  Look at our children’s stories – the world has been coming to us for the content of their animated movies and children’s stories forever.  So I have a huge belief and pride in that.

At the same time I would never want to be limited by the stamp of Britishness.  It can’t be the kind of Britishness that sets us apart.  One of the great things about London is that it’s like a hub of the world and, actually, we may have a better feeling for other communities and the rest of the world audience than California does.  America can be quite insular and inward looking while London is a very international place.  I wanted us to be a British studio to the extent that we’re sitting in the middle of the world.  We are the middle of the world, right? [laughs] Culturally we’re like Heathrow 2, we are the crossing point for many cultures.  One of the things I missed in America was that feeling of the rest of the world that you get in London.

CC: Hearing about a London studio opening up will be exciting news to a lot of students and professionals, knowing that they can study in London and stay in London and pursue an animation movie career there.

SS: Yes, we felt that reaction immediately.  People were saying, “Yes, we deserve this, we can do this, let us step up and take our place.”  I hope that we will be able to draw on a lot of pride and enthusiasm to go and compete on that stage, because we can.

Along the way, talking to people about what we needed to do, I found the film world in the UK divided itself.  There were a bunch of people whose automatic position would be, “Well, obviously we couldn’t do it on the scale that other people do it, but I’m sure we could do some version of that.” or “That’s a bit ambitious,” meaning, “I don’t think so…not where we live.”  Then there were other people, a much smaller group, who went, “God, it’s so good to hear a bold and big idea” and embraced the ambition of it.  Those people, and their belief, carried me through the skeptical ones.  It’s terrible the extent to which we think of ourselves as small and not competitive.  Some of the people that I went to talk to, really just for inspiration – David Hayman, Barbara Broccoli and people who use the UK but operate on the world stage - those people were the inspiration that kept us going.

CC: Describe your partnership and writing process with Pete Baynham.

SS:  Obviously Pete and I worked with people like Armando and Chris Morris and both of us have moved in a different direction and kind of graduated together from that comedy pool.  We love comedy and irony and we love what they do, but we also had a shared passion for story and emotion and character, which is not necessarily where Armando is.  That passion was the source of much of our bonding.  I think that we’ve been on a path of learning together, coming from a place of pure comedy. We’ve always loved that place, but we have continued to explore and learn.

Learning the craft of big story is the hardest thing of all of these insanely complicated processes. That’s why I love it.  Scripts are bloody, ridiculously hard, much harder than anything else in my opinion.  It is like learning complicated architecture.  You have to know the rules and ideas in order to have an instinct that makes it work.  There isn’t a simple formula. It’s everything you know, everything you feel, all the craft knowledge that you have, all your experience of every other script that you’ve ever worked on, and then you still have to figure out a whole load of new things that you’ve never addressed before.

I remember being on a trans-Atlantic flight with Pete one time, and we said, “We’ve got 9 hours on the plane, we’ll just talk it through and crack this thing.”   We went round and round asking, “Should it be this or that? Does it feel right? Does it make us laugh?” We got off the plane, and Pete went, “God, this is so hard!”  [laughs] And we’re both quite good at it!  But it’s fun because it’s challenging and that’s what keeps us interested.

CC: How are you feeling going into this endeavor?

SS: What we’re undertaking is a huge and long-term journey to which, of course, I’m going to give my 100% commitment.  It’s fascinating and complicated and continues to be a giant learning curve and will be for a long period of time.  It’s something everyone loves and it becomes very absorbing.  For now, I have 3-and-a-half platefuls on my plate of things to try and pull off over a really long time period.  It’s basically like the slug running incredibly fast in Monsters University, just killing himself, and managing to move about half a centimeter.  I feel that every day! Every day! And I will feel like that for seven years, and in seven year’s we’ll have made it up the road [laughs].

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Chris Colman is a writer and animator based in Shanghai, China, primarily focusing on Asian animation for AWN.com.  He is founder of the China Animation & Game Network (c-agn.com), a national community of industry professionals.  He also handles marketing for the Institute for Animation and Creative Content (iacc), the animation training and production studio of the DeTao Masters Academy in Shanghai.