Search form

Staying Ahead of the Game

Jerry Hibbert, drawing from his own experience, provides some thoughts on the need for production companies to embrace change.

Jerry Hibbert.

Britain is now generally considered to be one of the countries at the forefront of the animation explosion. Our home grown talent is in great demand overseas, and our ability to keep one step ahead of the new technology boom is well known. Few animators now regard technological growth with suspicion, or as a threat to their traditional skills, but rather the complementary tool it actually is.

The most common mistake I see, is the use of computers in place of a good idea or as a substitute for poor draughtsmanship. The purest filmmaker's skills (be they for a 30 second TV commercial or a one-and-a-half-hour feature) will always be the most important. The ability to create images, the art of characterization, the scriptwriting, all of these skills come way ahead of technique. Yet computers, and the inevitable avalanche of new technology now available to studios, should be viewed with discerning enthusiasm!

In the 14 years Hibbert Ralph Animation (HRA) has been operating, I believe that the changes in the animation industry have been greater than at any other time. In order to maintain our position as one of London's leading studios, we have had to keep our eyes firmly on the horizon as well as on the job in hand.

Embracing New Ideas

As a studio, we made an early decision to try and embrace new ideas and explore new directions in an attempt to keep us on our toes, creatively, and to allow us to compete successfully in an ever changing market. I hope, that by taking you through our company history, I will be able to show how we have evolved, grown and branched out into new areas as and when the time seemed right. These changes have varied from hiring a new director, to exploiting the opportunities offered by the Internet.

Title sequence for South Bank Show No. 6 (London Weekend Television), directed by Pat Gavin.

We are, primarily, a commercials production company, having produced over 1300 spots for companies ranging from large multinationals to small specialized companies and charities. We have also directed music videos for artists like Queen and Fleetwood Mac, and television title sequences for the UK's Independent Network and the BBC.

My partner, Graham Ralph and I joined forces in 1983. In an early attempt to buck tradition, we invited maverick designer Pat Gavin to join us as third director. His inclusion was considered to be a radical step at the time, as Pat is not an animator in the purest sense, but his love of animation, combined with his formidable design and film skills meant that he was able to add a completely new dimension to our fledgling studio.

In the early years, we concentrated on commercials and TV title sequences, including many award-winners for London Weekend Television's arts flagship The South Bank Show.

As our reputation grew, naturally enough, our workload increased and by 1989 the need for another director became of paramount importance. Luckily we didn't have to look far, as one of our star animators, Kim Burdon, was the obvious choice. He has gone on to produce some of our most memorable commercials, adding to the awards cabinet in the process! The studio does not consider itself to have a house style--we have concentrated on being flexible and experimental and avoided the pigeonholing by clients that can so often hinder a studio's growth.

By this, stage, Graham was experiencing commercials overload! He had directed hundreds of commercials over the previous 6 years, won over 40 commendations from around the world, and had moved to our own large promises in London's Soho.

Dale Farms Bring Me Sunshine spot, directed by Graham Ralph.

Graham in particular felt the need for fresh challenges and an entertaininents division seemed to offer the opportunities that he felt would creatively refresh him. So in 1989, we launched Hibbert Ralph Entertainment (HRE) with Graham at the helm.

The new company's aim was to produce television programs with the same professional approach and adherence to quality already established within HRA. Placing the emphasis on strong narrative structure and designing simple, but charming characters and backgrounds, Graham managed to surmount the first and most pressing problem, that of having to adjust to the far smaller budgets of the entertainments world!

His first project, a charming children's series called Spider!, was snapped up by the BBC almost immediately. It aired in 1991 and has been sold throughout the world, winning prizes at The Chicago Children's Film Festival, as well as being in competition at festivals in Annecy, Berlin and Adelaide. Graham followed this with a complete change of style, producing a half-hour version of Wagner's Rhinegold, which was shown on BBC Television in 1994 as part of the Operavox series.

Toshiba Ni-Cam spot, directed by Jerry Hibbert.

Speeding Up the Production Process

By this stage, in an attempt to speed up the production process and to allow us greater flexibility before entering an edit suite, we became one of the first companies to invest in an Animo system. This is a software package tailored to the needs of animation studios. It runs on a network of high-performance PCs and, starting with layout designs, original animation drawings and backgrounds, the system provides numerous production tools to produce high quality digital animation direct to disc, videotape or 35mm film. In essence, we use it as a flexible paint, trace and compositing package, as it can scan drawings; create color character models; digitally paint and recolor sequences and combine all this with other media such as live-action or 3D animation sequences.

Graham gave it its first real test, employing it for the opening title sequence on Rhinegold and various short sequences within the film itself. It showed great potential from the outset, but was slower and less flexible than we had initially hoped. Now, three years on and several updates later, it has shed its teething troubles and has become fast and reliable. We now use it regularly for its paint, trace and inbetweening capabilities and, ultimately, it will be of enormous benefit to both HRA and HRE, but especially HRE, if the entertainments side take on more series work in the future.

After Rhinegold, HRE was commissioned by BBC to produce a series entitled William's Wish Wellingtons, which has become something of a children's classic in the UK. They are now at the planning stages for a third series. The second, meanwhile, has aired in the US, within Children Television Workshop's Big Bag program and is currently airing on BBC television in the UK.

Their most recent, and most ambitious project is a half hour special entitled The Forgotten Toys. Featuring the voices of Bob Hoskins and Joanna Lumley, it was shown on the UK's ITV (Independent) network on December 26, 1995. It was recently awarded the UNICEF Jury and Children's Jury prizes for Best Short Film at The Berlin Film Festival. It also went on to be honored at the Amalfi Animation Festival, the Chicago Children's Film Festival and the Zlin International Film Festival for Children and Youth in the Czech Republic.

A series of The Forgotten Toys is now in production and due to air in the autumn of this year. The team is also busy developing a new half-hour special entitled The First Snow of Winter, which they hope to have in production later this year.

The Forgotten Toys (Meridian Broadcasting), directed by Graham Ralph.

The Next Logical Step

One of the greatest changes we have chosen to undertake, has been the setting up of a 3D department. After the computerization of the 2D paint and trace process with Animo, the next logical step was to gear the studio up to tackle 3D work. We began researching this possibility 3 years ago and eventually, 18 months later, our New Technology Unit opened it's doors.

This was considered to be a radical step for a British studio, not least because in London, production companies and facility houses are generally regarded as two totally different organizations. Hibbert Ralph was seen to be redefining the accepted definition of a British production company. In reality, we saw it as a simple extension to the traditional drawn animation skills we already possess.

Most UK production companies are reliant on facility houses to supply 3D computer work, which is budgeted and subject to inevitable time constraints. Although we still have strong working relationships with most of London's facility houses, this new setup has enabled our traditionally trained artists, animators and directors, to have personal access to the equipment, which has allowed us all far greater freedom to experiment and break new ground.

To take control of the new department and help channel all this creative energy, we employed Natalie Zita, a former award-winner with London facility The FrameStore, to act as Head of 3D. Natalie was closely involved in setting up the unit and was attracted to the new department because she felt that it would encourage original work, particularly at the heart of the animator's craft: characterization.

Eighteen months later, and with a staff of 12, the New Technology Unit has certainly proved itself. As well as meeting all our creative expectations, it has enabled us when necessary to offer agency producers more flexibility with costs and scheduling, all of which adds up to quite an attractive prospect for our clients.

We have produced in-house some notable commercials, including two for Toshiba laptop computers entitled London/New York and Town and Country through Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters (London), and several US commercials, including Holiday Celebration for FTD through Grey (New York) and Maze and Open Door for American Airlines through DDB Needham (Dallas).

In 1995, we hired two new directors, bringing our total to six. Caron Creed and Andrew Painter had both worked at Richard Williams' studio, amongst others, and had been offered positions at three of the major US studios. We were extremely pleased that they chose to join us, and they have contributed hugely to our success over the last 18 months.

With so much new expertise in house and following on from our recent successes in the US, it seemed logical to investigate the opportunities offered to us by the Internet. We have Set up our web site and continually work to improve it.

Hershey's Sleigh Ride spot, directed by Jerry Hibbert.

Like everyone else, we intend to use it to advertise ourselves and to allow people to "visit" our studio to view some of our past work. Where we feel we can most benefit, is by utilizing a video web conference system made available to us by 2GL Systems Interactive. This package streams video animation--still in production--through a web conference page contained in the commissioning client's secure project folder. The client can view their commissioned animation stage-by-stage during it's development, and can view our comments at any time, anywhere, provided they have a Web browser, a Hibbert Ralph password and a connection to the Internet, and remain confident that their work cannot be seen by others.

This extraordinary leap forward for the communications industry will allow us to service clients on the other side of the world, as if they were a mere street away. Even the most hands-on creative will feel 100% involved at every stage of the decision making process.

Although technical changes have provided opportunities not previously considered possible, the traditional skills have never been more important than they are now. But with a little help from our digital friends, the sky is truly the limit. In the words of the immortal Buzz Lightyear, "To infinity and beyond!"

Jerry Hibbert is Director of Hibbert Ralph Animation and Chairman of The Guild of British Animation.

randomness