The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The State of Animation Production in the UK

Phil Dobree wrote this article originally for the Children's Media Yearbook 2018

Phil is  is the founder of Jellyfish Pictures. He has worked in all genres of content creation including film, commercials, animation, games and broadcast TV, winning multiple BAFTA, VES, RTS and EMMY awards. He has overseen work from leading studios and broadcasters including Star Wars: Rogue One and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in film; to Outlander, Black Mirror, Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed, Bitz and Bob and Floogals for TV. Phil is a member of the VFX/digital effects and animation chapter of BAFTA. He sits on the board of UK Screen Alliance, Animation UK, and the council of the Creative Industries Federation

In the UK, we have always been known for our creative excellence. In the last 15 years we have become global leaders in the rapidly growing field of visual effects (VFX) and animation production. We’re great at marrying technology and creativity. Many companies, including Jellyfish, have flourished on the back of work flooding in to the UK with the help of tax credits. Although these financial incentives have, in many cases, proved critical in securing the work, it is our ability to excel at delivering work of a consistently high standard that has helped the UK emerge as a global leader. We have assembled the very best artists and technicians, mixing UK talent with the best from the EU/EEA and the rest of the world. Like any business where skills are at a premium, the ability and requirement to access this talent quickly and easily is critical in helping us maintain our enviable position. The cultural diversity which different nationalities and life experiences bring to any creative workplace enhances our ability to find truly innovative approaches to everything we do. This diversity of talent creates a hive of ideas, skills and solutions that makes working in this business so special. Jellyfish is typical of most UK animation businesses in terms of the proportions of nationalities we hire. With a staff approaching 200, 50% of our artists are from the UK, 40% from the EU or EEA and 10% from the RoW.

Bitz and Bob

Last year, Jellyfish worked on three of the twelve children’s animation series being produced in the UK. To continue to produce top-rated shows like Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed, Bitz and Boband Floogals, we need to be able to access talent fast, easily and cost-effectively. We worked extremely hard to find the best animators and technicians globally to deliver our ambition on these shows. This meant utilizing all our recruitment channels across the EU and UK, using our relationships with colleges and communities in Spain, Italy, Germany and France amongst others. At its height we needed to recruit more than 100 artists in under 6 months. This would have been impossible without access to this EU talent pool and we would have been forced to set up studios in territories where we could recruit the required teams easily.

Brexit is clearly a threat to our business in the UK, and not just because there is a shortage of homegrown talent. We rely on the very best talent from all corners of the globe, particularly the EU, because of the diversity, creative talent and knowledge this brings us. If this easy access to talent is switched off, the industry is in danger of shrinking very fast. Not only will it take a generation to improve and grow our domestic talent base, but the gap left by the diversity, experience and knowledge a truly global workforce brings would adversely affect our competitiveness and excellence. At Animation UK, the UK Screen Association and The Creative Industries Federation, we’ve been working hard to try to ensure that this cliff edge doesn’t happen. These organizations have emphasized the need for rapid and inexpensive visa access, particularly for freelancers on whom the industry relies. For some time we’ve focused on training and education for young people in specific skill areas where we know there are shortages. There is no lack of courses or graduates from colleges and universities in the UK; the issue has predominantly been one of quality not quantity.

In my opinion, it is imperative that companies continue to engage as much as possible with our educational institutions in the UK to help them understand what the industry needs. This means establishing centres of excellence where courses are not under pressure to recruit students to fulfil quotas and secure funding, often at the expense of ability and dedication or commitment from students. Alumni from institutions such as Animation Workshop (Denmark), Filmakadamie (Germany), Gobelins and ESMA (France) are highly rated globally and most of their graduates gain employment with relative ease. Filling quotas to gain funding makes this aspiration difficult to achieve in the UK. These courses in the EU attract undergraduates from around the world, which again adds to the cultural and creative diversity this brings to the courses.

With the advent of Brexit, we need to ensure that courses in the UK continue to attract the very best students both locally and further afield. However, there is a concern that universities will be under even more pressure if this pool of potential students shrinks dramatically because of visa restrictions.

It is only relatively recently that we fought hard to bring animation production back to the UK by the introduction of tax incentives. This made a significant difference to many companies making animation in the UK, and the industry has picked up significantly as a result. Whilst we now have another threat to contend with, I believe that with the strong base we have rebuilt in the UK, we’re in a good position to protect what the industry has worked so hard to achieve. We don’t want to go back to the position of creating ideas in the UK only to get them executed elsewhere. We need to provide employment to future generations of talented animators and artists, and to do this we need to remain leaders in animation production, not just creative ideas.

To maintain our access to the very best talent, Jellyfish has made strides to allow artists to work for us wherever they are located by creating a secure cloud-based network. Our studios at the Oval in South London are virtual, which means all our computers are in an offsite colocation. This demonstrates the ease with which we can set up a “virtual studio”, wherever the talent resides.

Although we have embraced these innovations in technology, I still believe that to achieve the best work it is important to have people in one location, not split across territories or continents. I want Jellyfish to be part of a thriving UK animation business and this means conversely engaging with the very best talent across the world and bringing them to the UK because this is where the best work is made. It is economically damaging to prevent talent coming here and having to move production to where we can access talent. My fear is, should we have to resort to such measures, the industry will once again shrink. In the same way we shouldn’t have to chase tax incentives in other territories to build our studios, nor should we have to do this to access talent.

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