Animation as a storytelling medium has hit a new height thanks to the success of Pixar’s CGI extravaganzas. Traditional two-dimensional animation (say in the mould of Disney) is currently out of favour but generally now, more than ever, the colour of cartoons is enjoying something of a story renaissance in terms of audience awareness and demand.
But that’s pretty much in the USA. What’s it like here?
The animation industry is divided into two camps: pre-school animation up to 12 years old and more adult experimental fare that you can expect to see only on Channel 4. There is the beginnings of an animation studio being attempted with Vanguard Films (through Ealing Studios), producers of Valiant, and of course, there’s the growing success of Aardman Animation and Nick Park’s glorious plastercine inventions of Wallace & Gromit. But that’s pretty much all we’ve got in terms of features.
Writing opportunites are fairly limited as penning an animation spec is nigh on impossible to get off the ground and the main place to get an animation gig will be for TV. Ah yes, TV, lots of kids’ shows, great! However, if you don’t write for children, is there anything else you can do? Occasionally, you will get adult animation comedy on TV - Stressed Eric, 2DTV - but the writing will usually be led by known or up-and-coming comedy writers so that usually leaves you, the humble jobbing writer, by the wayside. But hold on, remember what I said about Channel 4 - more adult experimental fare - what’s all that about?
Channel 4 used to have an animation department that gave UK animators their first break and encouraged them to make bold, exciting and entertaining films. Everything from Christmas classic The Snowman right through to Oscar winning short films. However, the actual appetite for animation at the channel was fairly slim and in 2000, the department was disbanded (just when they were about to commission an animation short I had written, goddamit). Nevertheless, the channel thankfully continues to support the three main animation schemes that give new and experienced UK animators a chance to make their films:-
A.I.R (Animator-in-Residence): This is a scheme for new animators to cut their teeth on their first animation short. What’s unique about the scheme is that the animator has to develop and produce the film in a transparent booth that can be viewed by the public. For years, this was located in London’s IMAX Cinema but now the scheme has moved to the slightly less glamorous climbs of Bradford (the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Leeds). The scheme encourages understanding and appreciation of the craft of animation and storytelling, and should be the first port of call for all graduate animators.
animate! is the more experimental scheme where animators get a chance to be more bold and adventurous, to push the boundary and form of animation to the limit. These tend to be more artistic and sometimes esoteric films but are still often a delight with their distinctive imagery and style.
Mesh is the channel’s digital animation scheme where you can embrace the modern techniques of the medium through narrative and experimental form. Cutting edge, interactive, digital; now in its sixth successful year. Today, I was part of the panel that got to choose the likely candidates from this year’s shortlist.
If you’re reading this and thinking what’s all this animation lark got to do with me, the jobbing writer? Well there are a lot of writing and script editing opportunities within these schemes because of the various projects that they commission. I got involved with animation through my work at Channel 4 back in 1999 and over the years, the one thing I’ve noticed is that animators are great animators but they usually don’t make very good writers. That’s where you come in.
Fed up with the Film Council’s short film schemes and the apparent closed shop all around town? Then why not think of cracking an animation short? Animators are just like directors, they need writers to help them realise their vision so if you’ve even got the slightest interest in the medium, why not check out the recent spate of animation graduates at the various universities around the country (showreels will be available, you better believe it) and see if you can develop a project together for one of the schemes. They’re funded, they’re broadcast on Channel 4 and they typically go on to win awards at festivals around the world, and are known to triumph (or get nominated) at the Baftas and Oscars.
It’s just an added consideration really to the already limited screenwriting opportunities that are available in this country but you never know, you just might find you have a particular talent for the art form and go on to emulate the success of our American cousins who do it so well at Pixar and DreamWorks.