Movers and shakers from the international animation industry are converging on Toulouse in southwest France for the start tomorrow of the European industry’s big annual market, the 27th Cartoon Forum.
Organisers expect about 850 industry professionals to take part this year, with producers, financiers and broadcasters all looking out for the next Peppa Pig or Dora the Explorer in an international business which has been on an upward curve for more than two decades.
With animated feature films commanding a larger slice of the global box office than ever before, animated television series forming the cornerstone of family-orientated TV schedules on platforms across the planet, and digital animation skills in demand for everything from gaming and app design to the new frontiers of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), it’s a good time to be an animator.
Delegates at this year’s event will see proposals for 80 new TV series from 22 countries across Europe. Ideas will be pitched, deals will be made and financing will be agreed. And this year, the forum’s inaugural national “Spotlight” will showcase Irish animation, reflecting the rude good health of a sector which now accounts for a substantial slice of this country’s film and television industry.
Irish animation is on a roll, as local studios agree production deals with some of the world’s biggest broadcasters on projects using a range of techniques and formats.
In recent years, Irish animation has figured prominently at the Oscars, Baftas, Emmys and Annies, but the nominations and awards are only one part of a business which sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With a strong skills base, and Section 481 tax credits delivering up to 32 per cent of eligible Irish spend for investors, employment has increased to an all-time high of 1,600 full-time jobs.
You can tell Ireland is punching above its weight by the number of projects from each country at this year's forum. France leads the pack, with 26 projects. The UK and Ireland follow with nine and eight projects. Belgium, Spain and Germany are represented by four projects each, while the Scandinavian region has five (three from Finland).
So what are the reasons for Ireland's success? "The main one is that we have the talent available to create internationally recognised content, and that talent is now supported by professional businesses," says John Phelan, independent chair of the newly formed Animation Ireland (AI), the trade association representing Ireland's animation studios which was formally launched last Thursday by RTÉ director general Dee Forbes. AI's stated objective is "to establish Ireland as a creative centre for content and technology by focusing on growth, developing an innovation culture and creating competitive advantage for members".
One of those members is Gary Timpson, managing director of Kavaleer Productions, an awarding-winning, Dublin-based animation studio in business since 2001. He points out that it has taken a long time to get to this point. For Timpson and many others, the idea of a career in animation arose because of the arrival of American companies such as Sullivan Bluth in the mid-1980s, attracted by financial incentives and the setting up of new courses in the art at Ballyfermot College and other institutions.
When Bluth and the others wound down their Irish operations 10 years later, Timpson and many of his contemporaries decamped to Los Angeles and Europe in search of opportunities.
“We were going to college in the early Nineties with the idea that we were going to finish the course and head off to the US,” recalls Timpson. “In first and second year a lot of people were applying for green cards.” Irish animation slumped to a point where, according to Phelan, a 1998 report revealed it employed only 70 people in Ireland. But, in the years that followed, many emigrants returned to set up their own businesses here.
Mark Cumberton is another veteran of the Sullivan Bluth years. Now he's chief operating officer of JAM Media, which produces multi-award-winning animated and live action content for the children's and preschool audience.
“Ireland was changing in 1989 and Don Bluth was part of that,” says Cumberton. “He showed us new horizons and the potential that was there. I think we’ve now fulfilled that potential. We’ve been through rough and smooth along the way.”
Timpson says the experience of working with big studios such as Disney and Warner in the US gave him a sense of how to operate when he returned to Ireland 13 years ago. “When I came back I brought that experience and wanted to replicate it in Kavaleer,” he says. “And lots of other people had that same experience.”
The returned emigrants found themselves working in a very different environment. Technology was transforming the animation industry. Where Sullivan Bluth productions had been based on the classic Disney model of carefully hand-painted cells being painstakingly shot on 35mm film, digital visionaries such as John Lasseter at Pixar were demonstrating the extraordinary effects they could achieve in feature films such as Toy Story.
But the market was also changing. The international satellite and cable TV revolution led to a huge increase in the demand for content to fill new children’s channels. Animation, which translates better than live action across different countries and cultures, benefited enormously.
Cumberton agrees that the technological shift from analogue to digital represented a significant move up the value chain, from the 1980s model of skilled craftspeople providing a service to a much more creative and modern business. “The old system was a factory process,” he says. “Technology has allowed the artist to step to the fore again.”
And, as Timpson, points out, technology has also changed the costs of production, benefiting smaller companies. “Bluth had to hire hundreds of people,” he says. Now we can do a full children’s series with 12 or 15 people.”
The result, says, Phelan, is a far more dynamic and sustainable industry. “The old 2D animation was probably pretty easy to displace and move across the world. Now it takes years to build the technical skills and the business relationships, the respect and the trust.”
For younger producers starting up in the last few years, the landscape offers a lot of promise. "These guys coming back and setting up gave us the opportunity," says Niamh Herrity, who set up Pink Kong Studios with creative director Aoife Doyle in 2014. The studio develops stories and characters with multi-platform interactivity.
“Aoife worked in all the studios across Dublin and then we decided we wanted to set up a company ourselves,” says Herrity. “My background is in business, and the word start-up is very much part of my generation. A lot of my friends in other industries are doing their own thing.”
Herrity is particularly interested in the new directions animation is now taking. “There’s a massive crossover between all the digital platforms,” she says. “Does the show have a VR or AR element? Is there an app to be developed with it? Nobody knows how it’s going to go. How does storytelling work in VR? How do you storyboard it?”
Phelan believes the industry badly needs some qualitative research and analysis done, but he estimates animation currently accounts for about 25 per cent of the overall audiovisual industry in Ireland.
“The Irish Film Board and Broadcasting Authority of Ireland each allocate about 10 per cent of their funding to animation, which we think is acceptable,” he says. “But RTÉ only give us 2 per cent of their independent commissions budget, which is a tiny percentage of their overall spend.”
“I am very aware that the sector would like RTÉ to do more,” Forbes acknowledged at the AI launch. “In late 2015 RTÉ announced a new three-year strategy for animation which included initiatives for developing companies, increased investment in content and support for international co-productions. This strategy runs until the end of 2018.”
Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon added that her organisation had been partnering with Irish animation SMEs since 2005. "The number of companies in the sector has more than tripled and is expanding with the emergence of new high-potential start-ups," she said. "We look forward to working with Animation Ireland companies as they scale internationally."
Phelan also says the Section 481 tax credit is working well at its current level, although there is a significant problem with understaffing at Revenue. “They’re swamped, which is causing delays and backlogs in getting projects through,” he says.
The majority of the financing for Irish companies comes from overseas, and that will always be the case. Cumberton believes it’s because Ireland is such a small country that “we have to compete internationally to pay the rent”. As the international market continues to evolve, with traditional linear broadcasters are joined by new entrants such as Netflix and Amazon, Irish animation studios will continue to pursue new opportunities.
“We don’t have the level of local funding there is in other countries,” says Timpson. “The reason we’ve stayed in the game is because we’re natural storytellers, and that’s what people are looking for.”