Rene Kotlarz puts the status of animation at Channel 4 in perspective by insightfully looking to the Channel's origins and the current animation market in the UK.
Channel 4 Television has a world-wide reputation as the powerhouse of British animation. Clare Kitson, its Commissioning Editor for Animation for the last ten years, recently resigned however, and the tributes to her have become mixed with profound anxieties about the future of animation at Channel 4.
There is much misinformation. For instance a recent prominent article in the British trade magazine Televisual, while showering accolades on Clare, completely writes out of history her predecessor Paul Madden, who commissioned some of the Channel's greatest successes including Nick Park's Creature Comforts. Depicting history as the story of the Great Individual, while it may make for an easy journalistic angle, is neither the entire picture nor even, I believe, helpful to the current situation. It ignores any other influences, which in the case of Channel 4 is ironic since the Channel itself and its progressive support of animation resulted from many combined efforts and force of circumstances.
Change is in the Air
To try to understand the future prospects for animation at Channel 4, it helps to appreciate that its history has been an evolutionary process. It definitely looks like the Channel's policy toward animation will change, since Clare is not being replaced with another full-time specialist. It may also be worth mentioning that animation is not alone; there is right now major concern and debate about the direction Channel 4 is taking generally, as it seems to be steering a course firmly toward more populism and light entertainment at the expense of the arts, innovation and its original public service remit to address minority interests not represented by other channels.The way Channel 4's publicity has handled Clare's departure has moreover been exceptionally offhand. Clare, who was very well-known and highly-regarded in the animation world even before her appointment to Channel 4 ten years ago, resigned from her job in March. The Channel's public relations department decided not to make any announcement at that time. Although there was no strategy ready for replacing Clare, they did not feel the news of her resignation needed to be kept secret. Since her contract was not actually up until September, Clare began telling people informally, by agreement with the Channel, that she was leaving.There was rumour, compounded by Channel 4's silence, that Clare was not going to be replaced at all. Given Channel 4's prominence in animation, ripples of alarm quickly turned to shock waves which reached as far away as Los Angeles. Pretty soon it was too late for the Channel's publicity to act.No official statement was made about plans for replacement until early July, four months after Clare's resignation, when an undated circular letter was sent around the British animation community from Clare's boss, Kevin Lygo, Head of Arts, Entertainment and Animation. In the meantime, not surprisingly, speculation and panic had gripped the independent animation world.What Kevin Lygo's letter said essentially was that Channel 4 had made an internal appointment by adding animation to the job description of the Deputy Commissioning Editor for Arts and Music, Camilla Deakin. Deakin is a recent arrival in television, having joined the Channel in February from her job as a producer at a live-action company. There was also going to be some other reshuffling, with Cheryl Taylor, Deputy Commissioning Editor for Entertainment, who specialises in comedy, helping to develop new series. Clare's former assistant Ruth Fielding is being upgraded, and Clare will stay on as consultant for Christmas specials.The fragmentation of responsibility for animation, and failure to appoint a senior full-time commissioning editor, plus the casual way this decision was relayed, seems a bit of a smack in the teeth to a genre in which the Channel has traditionally excelled.The awards to Channel 4's animation over the years listed in their catalogue include two Oscars (plus several more nominations), two Cartoon d'Or (meant to be the European Oscar equivalent), three British Academy Awards, two Prix Jeunesse, fourteen British Animation Awards, two Dick Awards for the most controversial, innovative and subversive film of the year; fourteen Grand Prix at major festivals around the world, as well as over one hundred and fifty other festival awards -- the list goes on and on, and that's just up until the catalogue was printed last year. Channel 4 itself was also awarded a special Cartoon d'Or for its contribution to European animation. The catalogue is also effectively a "Who's Who" of British animation (with a fair smattering of international auteurs like Jan Svankmajer, Raoul Servais, and Paul Driessen as well). Given all this success, it does seem odd that the Channel should seemingly be whipping the rug out from under its own achievements.
The Creation of Channel 4
History might provide some answers. Change is not new to the Channel, which has gone through a number of profound changes in its seventeen year life. It even came into being at a moment -- under the new Thatcher Conservative government and in the wake of the political dissent of the 1970s -- which shaped its identity, and which helps explain why it got involved in animation at all.For those who don't know, Channel 4, which began broadcasting in November 1982, is one of the five national terrestrial broadcasters in the UK (although the fifth Channel only arrived very recently, a couple of years ago). Of the others, two are the non-commercial British Broadcasting Corporation channels (BBC1 and 2) financed through licence fees all TV owners in the UK have to pay. The other three channels are funded by advertising. However, Channel 4 is unique amongst these three in that it is non-profit, and was created by an Act of Parliament with various missions or remits governing the nature of its programming.For Britain, the 1970s was a decade of change and unrest, with many challenges to the social and political status quo from both left and right, from feminism and ethnic power movements, from subcultures like Punk as well as ultra-nationalist and neo-nazi groups. First the conservative government of Edward Heath, and then a Labour government under James Callaghan, were destabilised and toppled by economic instability, galloping inflation, and labour unrest which included major confrontations in industries like coal-mining and the press.
When a fourth channel was first mooted in the early 1970s, the then Conservative government wanted to make it simply another commercial station. Then in 1974, the Conservatives lost the general election to a Labour government. It also happened to be a time of great political and cultural ferment in British film and television, with a politically active independent sector, as well as much pent-up frustration among film-makers inside the existing channels, who could not make the kinds of programmes they wanted. The Labour government, in view of this, questioned whether the fourth TV channel should indeed be like the other three, and set up a committee of inquiry. One of its members, Anthony Smith, in a newspaper article coined the memorable phrase that the new channel should, by encouraging independents, 'allow a thousand flowers to bloom.' Independent film-making in Britain is a tradition which goes back to the 1930s and John Grierson's documentary film movement. The underlying politics of Grierson's thinking was its concept of state funding as a benign alternative to the vested interests of monopoly capital, especially that of Hollywood. Popular cultural traditions, documentary 'realism,' and experimentation were all seen as alternatives to the domination of the American film industry. Interestingly, animation had an important place in Grierson's concept of independent cinema, and he fostered such talents as Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger in Britain in the 1930s, before transferring his energies to Canada, where he founded the National Film Board on similar principles, and included an animation unit there, too. Grierson's own career waned in the conservative political climate of the 1950s, but the 1960s and '70s in Britain saw a major revival of the idea of independence in cinema. There were diverse groupings of interests, such as the avant-garde sector crystallised around the London Film-makers' Co-op, various left-wing agit-prop groups like Berwick Street Collective and Cinema Action, and a collection of broad-based individuals who formed the Independent Film-makers' Association (IFA). One thing which characterised the idea of independence, inherited from Grierson, was it more or less included some concept of the state or public sector as a benign alternative to funding from capitalist or big business sources. This idea of the State as a benevolent force is, I'd suggest, different from the way the state is viewed in not only former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries, but also the USA, where it tends to be regarded with suspicion. In Britain, this idea of independence in cinema was innately political, and lobbying government was therefore a natural thing to do. While Grierson's critique was mainly aimed at the Hollywood Film Industry, the criticism in the '70s was directed at the way British television was run. In this film-makers were joined by various left-wing radicals and journalists. After 1974 under a sympathetic Labour government pressure groups formed, including the IFA, the Free Communications Group, and the Channel Four Group, which lobbied the government for the fourth channel to be different. In 1979 the Labour government fell and the Tories came in again, this time under Margaret Thatcher. Thanks to support from one of her more liberal ministers, Home Secretary William Whitelaw, however, the fourth channel when finally incorporated did embrace many of the values the lobby groups had fought for, and was to operate on a different basis from the other channels. The government charter determined that Channel 4 would commission its programmes from independent production companies; it must encourage experiment and innovation, include educational programming, and address the interests of minorities not represented within the schedules of other broadcasters. It also, incidentally, in its first decade was subsidised by the profit-based Independent television channel, which had to sell Channel 4's advertising and make up any shortfall from its own revenues. This background is important to the understanding of Channel 4's interest in independent animation.
A Fresh Beginning
The channel was very free-form and radical to begin with, and its founding Chief Executive, Jeremy Isaacs, who himself had been Director of Programmes at the Independent TV station, Thames, decided not to hire people from the old boys network which controlled the other channels.Isaacs was well-known for his open-mindedness, accessibility, and preference for film-makers over bureaucrats. On a model adopted from publishing, programming was to be handled by Commissioning Editors, who would deal with contractual and budgetary as well as creative matters. Among the first four of those he hired was Paul Madden, who had originally worked in the TV archive of the British Film Institute and had been a member of the Fourth Television Group. He was hired as a generalist Commissioning Editor, responsible for one-off programmes. Soon Isaacs also asked him to take on animation, an affirmation of the significant role it was to have in the new channel.The independent film organisations and pressure groups came from the live-action sector, but as plans for the new channel got under way, the British animation community, then fairly tiny, did not waste time. A small group of people came together in 1979 to revive the Cambridge Animation Festival, which had been a successful event in the 1960s then had disappeared. This group of enthusiasts represented the areas which at that time were the emergent independent sector.
Art and film schools were encouraging innovative work and creating alternatives to mainstream cartoon practices. There was support for independent and experimental animation from the British Film Institute's Production Board (which funded films in the 1970s by among others the Brothers Quay, and the feminist animator Vera Neubauer), and the Arts Council's Film Department (which gave grants for example to films by Geoff Dunbar and Paul Vester). There were also Regional Arts Associations which gave small grants throughout the country and were themselves funded by the BFI and Arts Council. There were one or two film workshops and collectives which specialised in animation, such as the feminist Leeds Animation Workshop. The idea to revive the festival came from John Cannon, film officer for the Regional Arts Association for Cambridge. The group included the original festival's director Dick Arnall; Richard Evans, who acquired and programmed animation for the BBC; veteran animator Bob Godfrey; West Surrey College's Roger Noake; Mary-Jane Walsh from the BFI Production Board; and Clare Kitson, who at that time was programmer at the BFI's National Film Theatre. The director they hired for the first three festivals was Cambridge local, Antoinette Moses. Others joined the group to organise the 1981 festival, including the Arts Council's David Curtis. Writing about education and contemporary animation in Art and Animation, Andy Darley describes the importance of the festival for the new independent animation: "Eschewing the competition format of other festivals, it adopted a bold new strategy which was entirely consonant with new developments in the rest of the sector. Its approach was to be educational. It encouraged (re)discovery and reassessment, historical contextualisation, diversity, and the new practices and styles emerging from the resurgent independents....It was particularly sympathetic to indigenous young animators and students; exposing them not only to a range of old, new, commercial and non-commercial films, but, through shrewd programming, helping them to new ways of understanding and appreciation." The Cambridge festival became a major British event, moving to Bristol and then Cardiff. The steering group were quick to approach Jeremy Isaacs some time early in 1981; he gave them a small amount of sponsorship and most importantly, came to the Festival himself in September of that year. It was the start of a long and happy relationship, with the Channel becoming a major sponsor of subsequent festivals. Isaacs maintained the personal contact, coming to the 1985 Cambridge festival where he hosted a panel discussion fielding questions from the now swelling ranks of British animators. He came to the 1981 festival wanting to meet film-makers. At a reception hosted by Cambridge millionaire inventor Clive Sinclair, he met Peter Lord and David Sproxton, and invited them to a meeting with the new Commissioning Editor, Paul Madden. They saw a couple of films Peter and David (otherwise known as Aardman Animations) had made for the BBC general programmes unit in Bristol. Down and Out and Confessions of a Foyer Girl were plasticine animations to real, documentary-style sound recordings, one in a Salvation Army hostel, the other in a cinema foyer. They were part of a series of five Animated Conversations, by different directors and including cel as well as model animated films, commissioned by BBC Producer Colin Thomas.
This idea of animating to soundtracks recorded in real live situations had its genesis in a trip Thomas had taken with his next-door neighbour Bill Mather, of the BBC graphics department, to the 1968 Cambridge Animation Festival. There they were impressed by John and Faith Hubley's Windy Day, which has a sound-track of their children playing. Mather and Thomas made a couple of animations together (one a Magic Roundabout spoof, a political allegory about a chess game). They decided to develop the documentary sound idea, given that BBC Bristol had a strong documentary tradition. Mather directed a pilot in 1975, Audition, with a soundtrack of his eight-year-old son auditioning for a church choir in Bristol. The film was shown by the BBC on Christmas Day, and again in the holiday season the following year. Thomas was able to secure budgets for a further five films, of which Mather made one, the hilarious Hangover, recorded in a pub. The budgets were tiny, but Animated Conversations and the earlier BBC films were, I believe, the first ever independent animation aimed at adult audiences commissioned by a British broadcaster. They were also the direct ancestors of Creature Comforts.
Channel 4's Early Commissions
Isaacs and Madden loved the two films Aardman showed them, and commissioned five more to be ready for Channel 4's opening week in November 1982 -- by that time less than a year away. Aardman, up 'til then a two-person show, had to put together a production team to handle the volume -- five films of five minutes each. This proved difficult, and they missed the deadline by a year. The films, under the series title Conversation Pieces, were instead transmitted in triumph during the Channel's first anniversary celebrations in 1983, stripped across the week in competition with the BBC's Nine O'Clock News -- a piece of scheduling of which Paul Madden is particularly proud. Aardman's phone began ringing off the hook with ad agencies, and the studio was launched as a commercial success.Madden went on to commission several more Aardman films, including 1984's hauntingly powerful Babylon (part of a series Sweet Disaster, conceived by producer David Hopkins which also included David Anderson's equally haunting Dreamless Sleep), and the 1989 series Lip Synch which included their first Oscar triumph Creature Comforts. Other films in the series of five films included David Sproxton's Going Equipped, an animated monologue by an ex-prisoner. Like Babylon, it shows a thoughtful, darker side of Aardman's sensibility, as does the poignant Creature Comforts. Aardman agree this edgy element has been missing from their work in the 1990s, perhaps a sign of the times.Isaacs and Madden were also approached early on by TV Cartoons' John Coates. He was looking for a new direction for his company following the 1979 death of its co-founder and star director, George Dunning. Sick of making commercials, in 1981 John Coates read the government White Paper on the fourth channel and its remit for independent producers and thought, 'That's me!' He had an idea for a film based on the best-selling author and illustrator, Raymond Briggs' book The Snowman, and pitched it, in animatic form, to Jeremy Isaacs and Paul Madden, who went for it immediately.They put up £100,000, which Coates thought was untold riches, and although probably less than a quarter of the half-hour film's final budget, it was nevertheless a huge sum compared to the kindof money television previously put into animation, which were usually low-budget children's series. Coates managed to scrape together the rest of the money from sources including Hamish Hamilton, the book's publisher, and eventually mortgaged his house to make up the shortfall. The Snowman (directed by the late Dianne Jackson) was a gamble which richly paid off as the film was broadcast to great acclaim during Channel 4's first Christmas. It has been a holiday classic for British audiences ever since and is apparently still making money.
The Snowman carved out a niche for TVC, which went on to make a succession of classy half-hour family specialsbased on books, the most recent being The Bear (directed by Hilary Audus). The studio also made one of only two animated features the Channel has commissioned until recently.Also based on Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows (1985, directed by Jimmy Murakami) is the story of an elderly couple coping with a nuclear holocaust. It was a brave venture into a dark subject, and was theatrically successful in Britain, Germany and Japan, but despite a long run in New York, was not picked up in the USA.
The other Channel 4 animated feature from this time was Czech directorJan Svankmajer'sAlice, (1989), based on Lewis Carroll, and designed to work both as a theatrical feature and as fifteen-minute episodes for television. Producer Keith Griffiths says the film came from direct interventionfrom the top; Jeremy Isaacs, who leapt at an opportunity to nurturenew talent, considered Svankmajer a genius and that was enough to greenlight the film. (Svankmajer is currently in production on a new film for Channel 4's feature division, Film on Four.)
Keith Griffiths is also producer for the Brothers Quay, and securedmany commissions for them in the 1980s. Their first two Channel 4 short films, Leos Janacek - Intimate Excursions, and Igor - the Paris Years Chez Pleyell (both completed in 1983), were inspired by the Czech composer Janacek and Stravinsky respectively,and commissioned by the features division Film Four. Their highly successful Street of Crocodiles (1987) was commissioned by the Drama department, while Paul Madden commissioned Rehearsalsfor Extinct Anatomies (1988).
The Quay Brothers' unique vision in these and other animations they made for Channel 4 up to The Comb (1991) was undoubtedly challenging to audiences. Keith Griffiths believes such experimental films were balanced out by the more popular strand represented in The Snowman. The two elements were opposite sides of the coin of a new genre which conformed to Channel 4's remit for innovation and exploring new areas of programming.In those heady days a number of different departments took an interest. The Scottish-based Lesley Keen made Taking a Line for a Walk (1983), a computer animated work inspired by the work of Paul Klee, for Education Editor Naomi Sargeant. Vera Neubauer's feminist mixed-media Midair (1986) about witches was made for Commissioning Editor for Experimental and Independent Films Alan Fountain. National Film and TV School graduates Derek Hayes and Phil Austin made the science-fiction Skywhales (1983) for the Drama department, while Candy Guard got her first commission from Current Affairs with her animated vignettes including Fatty Issues and Alternative Fringe which were part of a documentary series Woman in View (1988).
Jeremy Isaacs believed no-one should stay in a job at the Channel for more than five years and, true to his principles, he left in 1987. He was replaced by Michael Grade, a professional TV executive from the BBC, whose job it was to steer the Channel into its next phase when it would no longer be supported by the other ITV station, but would have to sell its own advertising.Paul Madden, who had been freelance and part-time for some years, left in 1989 on a high note, since it was a vintage year for animation, producing not only the Lip Synch series, but David Anderson's Deadsy, and Erica Russell's Feet of Song. They premiered at that year's Bristol Animation Festival (which had moved by then from Cambridge) to packed houses. Channel 4 was a big sponsor and a major presence at the festival, and it was there that Paul Madden's successor, Clare Kitson, introduced herself to the animation community in her new capacity. She had been appointed to a new full-time postfor animation, which Paul Madden and others had lobbied for to consolidate the Channel's animation strands by combining commissioning, acquisitions and programming. In her presentation at Bristol, Clare said -- with some prescience as it turned out -- that one of the major problems as she saw it was finding a place for animation -- typically one-off short films of all sorts of lengths and subject matter -- in the schedules.
Programming had been what she did in her previous job at the National Film Theatre in London. Before that she had spent a couple of years from 1970 to '71 programming animation for the Los Angeles County Museum. Clare's shows at the NFT offered the chance -- all too rare outside of festivals -- to see a range of world animation on a big screen, and were often informal get-togethers for the animation business. She also sometimes offered free tickets to students -- always a good way to become popular.
Clare's strategy for programming at Channel 4 was to introduce a kind of umbrella packaging that she called Fourmations. It was a flexibleway of showcasing commissioned and bought-in shorts, and sometimeseven documentaries about animation, in packages which fit the programme schedules, usually half-hours. They were programmed thematically,and they included tributes to international animation artists like Yuri Norstein and Norman McLaren, as well as to British animation. Gradually Clare also moved toward asking film-makers to make new films to lengths which conformed to the schedules, typically eleven minutes. She also introduced two schemes to encourage new talent and experimentation, both essentially low-budget. Both were conceived as collaborations with outside organisations and both, in fact, were the idea of theArts Council of England's David Curtis, who proposed them to Clare when she arrived at Channel 4.
One is a co-production scheme with the Arts Council itself, to encourage experimentation, and is called Animate!. David Curtis, who has remained involved, has long been a champion of avant-garde and experimental film (on which he is a considerable authority and author of a book, Experimental Cinema). The annual budget for Animate! allowsfor between four and six films to be commissioned from entries selected by a panel of artists and producers which changes each year. The parameters are open as to running time, subject and technique, so long as the films are experimental, and the scheme attracts directors from all sectors, so far including at least one non-British. It has been spectacularlysuccessful, having produced a wide range of award-winning films including Phil Mulloy's Cowboys, Tim Webb's 15th February and Karen Kelly's Stressed.
The other scheme, which creates a link between the many talented graduates of animation courses and the world of professional film-making, is a collaboration with the BFI's Museum of the Moving Image. MOMI was opened in 1988, and David Curtis was an adviser for the animation as well as avant-garde sections of the museum. A little glass-fronted booth containing a video rostrum camera and other production equipment is part of the animation exhibit, with the idea that selected young animators could work there as part of the show. The scheme, which also attracts help in kind from animation professionals, funds four animation graduates a year to spend three months each in the booth, developing a proposal for a film with the help of professional advisors. If Clare likes the proposal (which she usually does) she commissions the finished film.
Lofty Goals vs. Hard Reality
Clare says one of her main intentions during her time at Channel 4 has been to preserve auteur films, the kind that are expensive, one-off, short, and hard to fund elsewhere. These films, commissioned direct by Clare, have budgets which are generally higher than on the Animate! and MOMI schemes, and she has maintained a hands-off policy toward their production because of the personal nature of the projects. They are the films Channel 4 is perhaps best known for on the festival circuit, and British animators are much envied by their colleagues abroad, not only for the financing, but also for the access to TV.These films, however successful at festivals, have been dogged by scheduling problems, and there is apparently quite a backlog still waiting to be screened. Given their relatively high budgets (they are cheaper than high-budget drama and comedy, but dearer than documentaries), and lack of a clear target audience, Clare has felt for some time their days were numbered, and it seems now she is right.Clare has been trying to deal with scheduling problems for animation by commissioning fewer one-offs and more bulk, or films for specific places in the schedule. One such is known inside Channel 4 as 'The Slot' at 7:55 pm right after the main evening news, and is apparently hotly contested by commissioning editors eager to get their hands on it. Clare commissioned Barry Purves' Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation, The Very Models, as five three-minute episodes for this slot, unlike the form in which it appears at festivals as a continuous, incomprehensible fifteen minute piece.
Clare has also commissioned several series of thirteen eleven-minute episodes from directors like Candy Guard (Pond Life), Sarah Ann Kennedy (Crapston Villas), and Alison Snowden and David Fine (Bob and Margaret). The series have tended to be spin-offs from short films they had already made presumably aiming for the best of both worlds. It hasn't quite worked out that way unfortunately, and both Bob and Margaret and Pond Life have been beset by scheduling problems evidently in search of the right audience. Clare also said she had great difficulty raising the large sums of money needed, and it took a long time. In the end Bob and Margaret has been dropped by the Channel, although it will continue on Comedy Central in the US where it has been popular. Crapston Villas on the other hand was considered a success in the Channel, having been aimed at the 'youth' audience Clare has been encouraged to court.It may be that the concept of the auteur film, if it means films made by an artist/director mainly as a means of personal expression, is at odds with the current programming needs of television. Producer Dick Arnall pointed out that in earlier days there used to be a context in the schedules for short experimental films, with Alan Fountain's Eleventh Hour slot and the highly successful strand The Dazzling Image, which no longer exists.It may also be time to reevaluate the concept of the auteur and all it implies. Originating in French film criticism of the late 1940s and '50s, it was a critique of French film-making at the time, which was considered too self-consciously arty, tasteful and non-cinematic, too much based on other forms like literature.As John Caughie explains in Theories of Authorship (Routledge/BFI, 1981): "Art was simply a value term, and the theoretical terms which it begged went largely unanswered. Auteur criticism, on the other hand, proposed as artists...directors whose work, viewed over a number of films, displayed a consistency of underlying theme and style which was surprising in the industrial and commercial system in which they worked, and which therefore, it seemed, could be ascribed to the force of the director's personality and unique obsessions expressing themselves through film despite the constraints. In fact, the struggle between the desire for self-expression and the constraints of the industry could produce a tension in the films of the commercial cinema which was lacking...in the 'art' cinema, encouraging auteurist critics to valorize Hollywood cinema above all else."In other words the way it is now commonly used is exactly the opposite of its original meaning, as a term of critical appreciation for directors working in an entertainment medium. By contrast, it is now used approvingly to describe just what it originally held in contempt.
One criticism which could be levelled at Channel 4 is that it has helped create an animation community almost exclusively of artist directors, often young and inexperienced, whose career expectations beyond the inevitably short-term patronage of the Channel are unrealistic.Many animation college graduates think they will become directors and be able to pursue a career making their own films. There are also expectations the advertising industry will provide their bread and butter. It is, however, a demanding business and animation's fortuneswithin it fluctuate, as anyone who has made commercials knows. In many ways it feeds off the research and development which goes into personal films, and is far from being the benefactor of independent animation that it is sometimes portrayed as. A Shift in Needs A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian elaborated on the present situation. Now that the emphasis is shifting to larger-scale and longer-form production at Channel 4 and at the BBC, while Britain is knee-deep in directors, it is seriously lacking in quantity most other levels of skills needed in large-scale production, from storyboard artists to production managers. In British animation for the last thirty years small has been beautiful, with artist-led boutique companies doing intensive, original work on a small scale. There were exceptions, notably Cosgrove Hall in Manchester (where Barry Purves, Mario Cavalli and Paul Berry cut their teeth), whichhas long been a successful producer of high-quality children's series.
What has exacerbated the problem is that in the last decade there has been a major exodus of British animation skill to the USA. Not only are wages much better, but the opportunities to work on longer form and especially feature production are much greater, so many of the precise people the British industry now needs are gone. Aardman Animations, currently producing their first feature Chicken Run, have had to engage in training programmes for the extra skills theyneed, and have had to borrow talent including storyboard artists from their US backer, DreamWorks (some of whom turned out to be British). One logical conclusion of all the build-up of talent and energy in British animation in the last twenty years is to move into longer-form and features. Short films are great for festivals, for personal satisfaction, as R and D, and for those who want to careers in the experimental sector. For all these reasons, it is important they be made. For many directors though, a move into longer forms would be the natural and desirable progression, as well as the only viable way to create a more secure economic base for the British industry. But the fundingin Britain, as well as the volume of skilled workforce, is not really there. The BBC's Colin Rose, who founded their animation unit in Bristolin 1990, is trying to address the problems. Amid shrinking budgets at the BBC, he has to find at least 75% of his funding elsewhere, often from other broadcasters like Arte and Canal Plus in France, and from publishing. BBC Worldwide is set up to distribute and exploit marketing potential. If necessary he will provide a BBC producer toassist and train small animation companies to handle large volume production. He considers what he is doing an intervention to encourage a more viable longer-form industry.
Rose also places great emphasis on scriptwriting, and considers the role of professional script editors an important part of his department. Asked whether the success of Channel 4's animation helped him make a case for setting up an animation unit at the BBC, Rose says not at all. While he personally admired what was going on at Channel 4, he had to use the more commercially-recognisable successes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the popularity of animated TV commercials in his arguments to the BBC bosses. This stress on the entertainment value of what he does has led someto dismiss Colin Rose's approach as 'thinking all animation has to be funny.' While it is true he is currently looking for proposals to develop into animated sit-coms, he feels it is otherwise a gross simplification of his department's oeuvre -- although he also thinks that 'making people laugh isn't a crime.' His roster of productions does include many darker, more more experimental films including Svankmajer's feature Faust, Dave Borthwick's hour-long Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, and more recently Paul Bush's The Albatross and Emma Calder's The Queen's Monastery. Some of his most successful productions, though, have been funny -- like Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave.
Like Channel 4 animation, Colin Rose is under imperatives to produce marketable series, but thinks this can be done retaining British quality and without trying to imitate the US. Currently in production is Mark Baker and Neville Astley's thirteen-part series The Big Knights, with a second series of Aardman Animations' Richard Goliszowski's Rex the Runt. Goliszowski is also currently making a half-hour Christmas special, Hooves of Fire, in collaboration with the charity Comic Relief. The BBC have set up their own studio in Bristol for this, something which has raised eyebrows as a potential returnto broadcast in-house production. Rose counters this concern by insisting it is for this production only, to reduce overheads since it is a production for charity.
New Funding Methods
With shrinking budgets and audience shares, it will take more than TV sponsorship for British animation to shift gear and channel more of its talent and originality into major productions for the world market. The Independent Producers' Association (P.A.C.T.) is addressing some of the issues.
In recent years and especially since the new Labour government came to office in 1997, important strides have been made to assist live-action feature production and the results are already visible in an increased number of successful British films. The Conservative government introduced a National Lottery four years ago, and some of the profits are channelled into a fund for film co-production. Live-action features which have received Lottery assistance include Hilary and Jackie and An Ideal Husband. More recently, the new Labour government's newly-created Department of Media, Culture, and Sport persuaded the Treasury to grant tax-breaks for investors in feature film production. These steps are not enough to help the specific needs of animation, however, argues P.A.C.T.'s Diane Freeman. To qualify for a tax break, British films must meet stringent definitions, which need to be adapted to include animation; also, the tax break (up to £15 million) must be spent in the first year of production, which does not reflect the longer production schedules and cashflow for animation. Britain needs to introduce special tax breaks for animation, such as already exist in other countries like France and Canada. Freeman also says the shorter runs of animated series -- usually thirteen episodes -- which British broadcasters tend to commission disadvantages UK productions in an international market which prefers twenty-six.The Lottery fund aims to assist the theatrical film industry. It provides only up to 50% match-funding, and it has assisted a number of animated shorts. Applications have to fulfill certain seemingly arcane criteria, however, such as that the film must benefit the public in some way. Projects applying for Lottery funding must also have letters of support from theatrical distributors.
One independent animation producer I spoke to said the promise of support from distributors was a bit of a scam and at the end of the day he had been unable to find any real interest. He also said another of the Lottery's conditions -- under which if a film goes into profit they are first in line to recoup their input -- could be problematic with other financiers including broadcasters, who are unlikely to be content to wait in the queue behind the Lottery before they see any returns.
On the other hand Emma Calder, whose film The Queen's Monastery received a Lottery grant, was very pleased with the theatrical release of her film with the live-action feature Love is the Devil, through the south London-based independent distributor Oasis. She feels the Lottery is encouraging the cinema sector to take an interest and her film had been very well received. She was originally given a fairly small amount from Colin Rose left over from his 10 x 10 short film series, but he suggested she also approach the Lottery. She also had a grant from the London Production Fund.With the shrinking of financing from broadcasting, this kind of funding package may well point the way forward for independent animated shorts, and the Lottery's emphasis on theatrical distribution may be a move in the right direction. Clare Kitson has apparently also had success in getting Lottery co-funding for projects, including the international co-production T.R.A.N.S.I.T. by Piet Kroon (1997).The Rough Road Ahead Meanwhile, some of the concern about the way things are going at Channel 4 are focused on new interpretations of its remit to innovate, educate and serve minority audiences. P.A.C.T. is concerned about recent sleights of hand, whereby, for example, cricket matches are considered part of the Channel's provision for ethnic minorities, and the soap opera Brookside is meant to count as educational because it sometimes addresses social issues.It has been assumed all these years that animation was covered under the remit. Clare Kitson says, however, that the remit has been rewritten several times spelling out in ever greater detail which ethnic minorities it should serve, and no mention has been made of animation.In a recent speech to the Broadcasting Press Guild, Channel 4's Chief Executive since 1997, Michael Jackson, said that good minority programming should also appeal to the majority. This apparent tautology has been widely interpreted as a head-on threat to the original spirit of the remit fought for so hard in the '70s. It also seems ironic given Jackson's own history, as he was originally organiser of the Channel 4 lobby group. Another producer I spoke to said it was contradictory in terms of Jackson's history but not to his ambitions, which now are to turn Channel 4 into a modern multi-media channel.
Times have of course changed considerably in tele-communications, or in TV jargon, 'the new multi-channel environment' and this is affecting broadcasters everywhere. As to the immediate future for animation, many I spoke to have the impression Channel 4 is looking for a new Simpsons, or another Nick Park. This is ironic since, when the Simpsons were the latest thing and was on offer to British broadcasters in the early '90s, Channel 4 passed on it. Plus as several people I spoke to were quick to point out, Channel 4 had Nick Park first, but let him go to the BBC when they were unwilling to back Clare up and find the budget for the Wallace and Gromit sequel, The Wrong Trousers.So it seems Channel 4's policies toward animation, while in some ways visionary, have in other respects been rather short-termist and blind to the way things have been going in the 1990s. By stressing the individual artist they have failed to invest in the infrastructure of the indigenous animation industry, or foresee global developments in media in the way, say, the BBC or MTV have.By all accounts Clare has had to fight very hard in recent years to defend her patch, and many animators feel very moved and emotional about her struggles on their behalf. Lacking her own department, for instance, Clare has been shunted around the Channel from Programme Acquisitions, to Drama, to Arts and Entertainment.I spoke to Clare's replacement Camilla Deakin, who is by contrast clearly excited about her new role and upbeat about the future. Asked if she is daunted by her complete lack of knowledge, she said she felt she had youth and enthusiasm on her side. She confirmed she will be looking for series ideas with the help of Entertainment's Cheryl Taylor. Ruth Fielding will help in reading scripts.As for the future of one-off films, she confirms that the MOMI and Animate! schemes will continue. MOMI itself will be closing shortly for at least five years while London's Southbank Centre where it lives is being redeveloped. Meanwhile, the animation booth has been relocated to the nearby newly-opened IMAX theatre. It sounds as though the MOMI scheme is being curtailed in that under a new rule films will be kept to a running time of three minutes. Animate! supervising producer Maggie Ellis presently has funds for one more year. As one producer put it, the Animate! and MOMI schemes being essentially low budget and aimed at young animators are philanthropy and will probably continue.Serious budgets for short films by professional animators outside of the schemes will be fewer and farther between. As far as one-off shorts go, Camilla will be looking for pieces for the 7:55 pm slot. She hopes to commission animation to fit into forthcoming thematic seasons planned for the schedules. As far as acquisitions go, Camilla said that the shelves of Channel 4 are for the moment very well stocked.Meanwhile, not only is Clare going, but David Curtis is leaving the Arts Council next year. This, in addition to last year's demise of the Cardiff animation festival, makes it truly feel like we are seeing the end of an era. Let's hope that the new generation of animators who have been nurtured by the tender loving care of Channel 4 et. al. are ready to seize the day and make the future their own.Channel 4 can be reached at 124 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 2TX, England.Telephone: (0)171 396 4444Irene Kotlarz is a Los Angeles-based freelance producer and animation consultant. Kotlarz was the director of the Cardiff/Bristol/Cambridge festival from 1985 to 1992. She has taught animation history and theory at West Surrey College, Royal College of Arts and the National Film and Television School in the U.K. and was a producer at Speedy Films from 1993 to 1997.