Featured Article 16 May 2012

The Irish Times
May 16th 2012

DEREK SCALLY in Berlin

Interesting things are starting to happen for Ireland’s animation companies. After establishing themselves in the US and Canada, the next big push is on – into Europe

BAGPUSS IS A long way from home. The candy-striped children’s television star of yesteryear is sitting by a window overlooking Berlin’s River Spree.

Plastering the walls are posters of the cartoon inheritors of the stuffed cat’s mantle: animated characters with names such as “the Little Big Panda”.

This is the office of The Big B, an animation and multimedia production studio set up four years in the German capital by Blackrock native Jody Gannon and Londoner Jonathan Webber. The pair employ 26 people in an animation and a computer games company in Berlin’s Josetti Höfe media hub, a white-tiled industrial complex that was once a cigarette factory.

The company has a dizzying list of projects already under its belt and many more in development. From children’s series such as Dinosorts to the documentary Liebe ohne Grenzen (Love beyond Borders) – nominated for Germany’s Emmy equivalent, the Grimme Prize.

But Gannon has another string to his bow: connecting Ireland’s booming animation companies with German partners. “Irish creative talent is valued very highly here in Germany; there’s a special regard for us,” says Gannon, who started work in 1988 in London for Disney and Bob Godfrey, best known for the long-running BBC cartoon Roobarb and Custard.

He returned to Ireland to teach animation at Ballyfermot Senior College before starting work at Hahn Film in Germany 14 years ago. He’s been in Germany on and off ever since.

With The Big B, Gannon helped broker a deal between Liberties-based Magpie 6 Media and Germanys Mediaworks to produce The Travels of the Young Marco Polo, a 26-episode animated feature. A proposal to the Irish Film Board was approved last month, giving the Liberties-based Magpie 6 a foot in the German market and work for its Dublin staff.

“On Marco Polo, the Germans came to me and said they had a 10 per cent funding gap that they’d love to fill in Ireland,” said Gannon. “They could have gone anywhere but said specifically they were anxious to work with Irish companies.”

German companies have watched with interest the rise of Ireland’s animation sector. Interesting things are starting to happen for Ireland’s animation companies. After establishing themselves in the US and Canada, the next big push is on – into Europe.

Already Dublin’s Treehouse Republic animation company is working on its first European collaboration, the pilot for a children’s series entitled What will Katy be?

Stephen Fagan of Treehouse says the European market is “different, not more difficult” to the US. European projects, he says, give independent companies a chance to develop their own ideas – particularly content with indigenous elements. Irish and German animation companies, though well-rounded, bring complementary, culturally-dependent, skills to the table.

“The Irish are good at developing creative ideas, the Germans are good at getting them done technically; it’s a good balance between both,” says Fagan.

Gerhard Hahn agrees. The head of Germany’s leading animation studio Hahn Film – a German industry legend – has employed many Irish artists over the years.

The good reputation of Irish artists has made its way to Germany, and at present I think Ireland, along with France, has the best situation for animation at present in Europe,” said Hahn. “Irish script authors are very good: they have the language advantage – series are always produced in English – plus they have a sense of humour not as widespread here. That’s an important gain for us.”

But good humour and a good reputation alone won’t pay the bills: German partners such as Hahn want reliable partners who can bring at least €1 million to the production table.

Germany’s animation market – like the wider media scene – suffered a drastic slowdown a decade ago but things are beginning to pick up. German animation companies face additional difficulties with funding from their public broadcasters, making them particularly dependent on finding European partners.

Hahn travelled to Ireland recently to agree a long-term partnership with Spiddal-based animation company Telegael. In his luggage, a high-quality animated series 1001 Arabian Nights in search of a partner. “We would like to set up Irish partnerships and are open for further talks,” says Hahn.

Irish animation companies now have enough international credits – and prizes – under their collective belt to present their wares in Europe. Like others in the industry, Irish animators stress the post-national nature of their business. “If you’re good, people want to work with you; it isn’t about stealing work,” said Stephen Fagan of Treehouse Republic. “Because we’re small, we get to work with bigger German companies. We learn and get stronger because of it.”

Its a challenging era in animation: companies have already shifted away from the centralised production model of old to a more atomised approach, with individuals and companies working co-operatively to realise projects.

Cartoon giants Hanna-Barbera, fathers of The Flintstones and Top Cat, were globalisation pioneers by shifting animation production to Asia half a century ago. Competitors followed, then the rest of the industrialised world. In a further sign of what’s to come, animators no longer collaborate under one roof but send in their work from around the world.

Like few other sectors, animation companies have understood that cross-border partnerships in Europe are a ship that can lift all boats.

“Animation is a litmus test for the wider economy,” says Gannon. “What happens here in animation ends up affecting all others in the future.”

And what does the future bring for The Big B? The company is working on several new children’s animated series, as well as an animated feature called Clash about the 2010 riots of African immigrants in Italy.

The company also has a top-secret interactive animated series-computer game project.

“The series-game project is backed by a major broadcaster; it’s being funded by a major European fund so it’s on the go,” says Jonathan Webber, Gannon’s partner.

“It will happen; it’s a question of when rather than if.”

The same can be said for Ireland’s animation industry. European partnerships are the next chapter being written in the sector’s success story. It’s certainly a long way from Bagpuss.

Content supplied with the permission of The Irish Times Ltd.
For more see www.irishtimes.com

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