Animators look beyond Wales to build on strong production base
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Jon Rennie, who heads Cloth Cat, the biggest animation production company in Wales, believes Cardiff is poised to become a hub of creative industry.
The 40-year-old entrepreneur worked in computer games before training as a film-maker. He now employs around 70 people in a Welsh-government-owned building that overlooks the old docks in Cardiff Bay.
Cloth Cat was co-producer on Boj, a children’s series starring a rare Australian marsupial called a bilby, which first aired on the BBC’s CBeebies in 2014. It is also behind Ethel & Ernest, the animated feature film based on a Raymond Briggs book that ran on the BBC last Christmas.
Cardiff has a history of creating popular animation characters — from SuperTed, the teddy bear with special powers, to Fireman Sam, hero of the fictional Welsh town of Pontypandy, who first appeared in 1987 as Sam Tân (“Sam Fire” in Welsh).
The city’s film and television industry is already strong. The BBC has a significant operation there: Doctor Who is made at studios next to Mr Rennie’s offices and Casualty, the BBC hospital drama, is produced nearby.
Pinewood, the film studio behind the James Bond franchise, set up a Cardiff operation in 2015 and S4C, the Welsh-language public-service television channel, which first aired SuperTed and Fireman Sam, is also based in the city.
“The skills are here,” says Mr Rennie. “The challenge is to get companies to commit to using outside sources like us. It’s a chicken and egg [situation]. Until you’ve done the work, you don’t win the business.”
Mr Rennie began as an animation compositor — combining special effects and other graphics at the end of the animation process to create the illusion that the different elements are part of the same scene. “I started as a compositor because I didn’t know how to draw,” he says.
His company now operates under three brands: Cloth Cat, the animation unit; Bait, a special effects arm; and Thud, which does post-production. Bait, for example, does special effects work on Casualty, adding digital blood and gore to make scenes look more graphic. “We have different brands because each industry is very different,” he says. “We can’t have exploding heads next to children’s content. It doesn’t really work.”
His company has benefited from the animation film tax credits that were introduced in 2013 by then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne — largely at the behest of the UK’s best-known animation studios Aardman Animations, the Bristol-based creators of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. The Welsh government has been supportive, too. Mr Rennie’s subsidised offices help keep overheads down.
Still, he says, the finances of a typical animation company are precarious. Mr Rennie retains his staff on short-term contracts. “We can’t always guarantee we have work,” he says, pointing out that animation and film companies have always sought cheap office space — the reason that many in the 1970s ended up in Soho, an area that was then known as London’s red light district.
Cloth Cat likes to be a co-investor in most productions with which it is involved. There will typically be a single broadcaster acting as anchor investor, but several backers are often needed to finance an animation feature. “Long gone are the days when Thames Television used to fund Danger Mouse [alone]” he says, referring to a popular cartoon, first aired on the BBC in 1981.
In some ways, the children’s industry has had to be far more commercially savvy than even the “live action” sector, Mr Rennie says. “A company like HBO will pay for the whole of Game of Thrones, whereas, for animation, because we can dub what we do into different languages, broadcasters will assume we can get backing from all over the world.”
While the UK has a strong heritage in animation, Mr Rennie believes it has fallen behind other countries. “In France and Japan they don’t see animation as just a children’s medium,” he says. “In this country we’ve lost the ability to see animation as a storytelling medium [for adults].”
On the other hand, international collaborations are becoming more commonplace. Cloth Cat, for example, is currently working with a Chinese company called Magic Mall to create an animated pre-school series based on the Chinese character Luo Bao Bei, a spirited seven-year-old.
One of the editors working on the Luo Bao Bei series is Nia James, a 29-year-old originally from Carmarthen in south west Wales. “Animation was never a plan but I wouldn’t change it now,” she says. “I started off in 2009 in Cardiff. Then I went on to Aardman [in Bristol]. I did a bit of Shaun the Sheep.”
Ms James returned to Cardiff last year to join Cloth Cat, confident there was a future in the animation industry in the Welsh capital.
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The Welsh capital has transformed itself from an industrial city fuelled by coal, into a centre for financial services and science, technology and creative sector companies. The next question for Cardiff’s companies is what the impact of Brexit will be