Over the past 18 months, animation has proved to be one of the most adaptable and dynamic corners of the media and entertainment industry. Already geared up for remote working, animation studios barely flinched when lockdowns flipped traditional work patterns upside down.
With live-action projects on ice, there’s been a boom in animation. Katy Perry and Dua Lipa released music videos that played with classic 2D animation styles. Public health messaging went animated, too, when the World Health Organisation used cartoons to communicate coronavirus safety tips. Brands ranging from Lidl to McDonald’s heralded Christmas 2020 with animated adverts. Earlier this year, the international NGO WaterAid produced its first-ever animated TV advert, about a girl who builds a homemade rocket.
It drew attention to the animation hubs around the world. Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, London and Paris are home to both major studios and a vast ecosystem of smaller independent ones. In Ireland, the animation scene has been booming for some years – in 2019, spending on animation overtook live-action film and TV combined, according to development agency Screen Ireland.
In Spain, Barcelona has a buzz, while generous tax breaks have turned the Canary Islands into an animation and visual effects (VFX) hotspot. In Lagos, Nigeria, local animators are making a mark and South Africa is home to a number of major studios and a growing number of small ones. The animation and VFX industry in India also doubled in size between 2016 and 2020, according to consultancy firm KPMG. In the UK, spend on animated programmes was £61 million in 2020, 55% higher than in 2019, according to the British Film Institute.
The sector involves a vast network of technical expertise that spans CGI and 3D animation to VFX and gaming – it touches far more than just the feature films and TV shows most of us know. As we keep consuming a broader and broader range of digital media than ever before – from apps to Instagram clips – animators have a lot on their plate. But the truth is more complicated: lockdown may have caused a short-term uptick for some studios, but the industry still had ups and downs to deal with. We speak to four independent studios about animating through uncertain times.
Snyder Studio, New York
A full-package operation with an ethos of equality
Kristina Snyder sensed a move towards animation when she founded Snyder Studio in 2018. She already ran an agency for illustrators, designers, animators and directors that took off as Gif animation was on the rise. ‘We surfed on that wave,’ she says. Having an in-house production unit meant the agency could take any artist from the illustration side and team them up with its animators – it created a huge choice for clients.
Still, 2020 was a roller-coaster year. ‘We were lucky,’ Kristina says. ‘If we didn’t have animation to offer a year ago, it would have been a different story.’ When the pandemic hit, there was an impetus for the studio to turn to animation, but by August that surge had settled. It knocked the company’s budgets slightly, but what made the past year so unique was the number of events that prompted a response from brands – the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the US election, vaccines. The agency, which donates to various causes, is known for having an ethos that supports equal rights, feminism and economic equality. ‘For us, it was a very important year to be able to amplify messages,’ says Kristina.
‘Animation is universal. It’s more democratic and approachable than live action.’
Animation proved to be a valuable medium for uncertain times. ‘There was so much information to be shared in a kind, inviting way,’ she says. One of the studio’s projects, illustrated by artist Laurène Boglio, was for Citizens Bank and addressed how the bank was responding to Covid-19. ‘Animation is universal. It’s more democratic and approachable than live action,’ Kristina says. ‘I wouldn’t say that 2020 was the year that animation was discovered, but it increased in interest and its use as a tool to talk about things. I think it’s going to grow. I’m super excited about the next five years.’
BWA Studios, New York City
Making space for people of colour in the industry
Taylor K Shaw, the founder of production company Black Women Animate, took the leap and launched her own studio at the end of 2017. She was developing an adult animated series and couldn’t find a black female animator. ‘The biggest obstacle was and continues to be creating something that does not exist,’ she says. ‘When there is no blueprint you have to operate solely from intuition and love.’
Now the company is gaining more and more traction – it has run projects with six-figure budgets and teams of more than 20, working on projects for cable network Adult Swim, Foot Locker and sexual health platform The Sex Ed. The past year has accelerated the impact the company is making.
Before the pandemic, the company was ‘in early startup mode’, but during 2020 its work and visibility skyrocketed, says Taylor. ‘All the entertainment industry could really do was animation,’ she says. ‘As a black female-owned and led studio, all eyes were on us with the Black Lives Matter movement.’ She is particularly proud that the studio’s mission ‘breathes deeply’ into its work both creative and commercial. She points to work BWA has done on Hulu’s series about black creators, Your Attention Please, and an International Women’s Day campaign for multinational media and entertainment conglomerate WarnerMedia, which brought to light women’s issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The series of five films was voiced by TV personalities including comedian Samantha Bee and activist Jameela Jamil.
The studio works on a number of projects in tandem with productions. Like the BWA Boot Camp, in partnership with Cartoon Network Studios, which provides expertise and resources to support newcomers to the industry and, more recently, the Black in Animation Awards, which celebrates existing talent and aims to inspire the next generation.
BWA is currently launching a TV production with a streaming platform as well as gearing up for a number of digital campaigns and film productions. It has a first-look deal with WarnerMedia to develop kids’ and adult shows and is always ready to take on commercial projects. ‘As a self-funded studio, we’re very proud of our fast growth and reputation,’ says Taylor. ‘Our goal always is to lead by example and show the industry what’s possible when we make space for black women and those with marginalised identities to create the narrative.’
Andy Baker Studio, London
A small creative outfit gone global
With a reputation for wild, effervescent 2D animations and a client list that spans music broadcasting platform Boiler Room, Asos, Microsoft and Mountain Dew, Andy Baker Studio has made a global impression from its small office tucked in a corner of Dalston, east London. Even before the pandemic hit, Andy, who founded the studio with his partner Lucia Davies in 2017, was coordinating talent around the world. ‘We’ve been quite used to remote working and we directed a lot of jobs remotely anyway,’ he says. ‘So, for us, that side of stuff really wasn’t a big shock.’
For a period, the studio was being contacted about four or five jobs a day, including an ad for jewellery company Pandora, which had to scrap a live-action concept. ‘We were like: can we manage this? Is it the end of the world? Do we just take the work because we might not work after this?’ says Andy.
The short-term spike soon settled down, but shouldn’t distract from an underlying trend. ‘It was an anomaly,’ says Andy. ‘But I don’t think it’s an anomaly in terms of people’s growing awareness of animation. I think a lot of people that were toying with it were like: now’s the time to try it. If it didn’t work out, they could almost put it down to the pandemic.’
Animation had been gaining traction thanks to the expanding space for varied online content and a growing appreciation of the format as an adult medium – not something that was exclusively for children. For the past two or three years, Andy has directed adverts for mortgage broker Habito. ‘[The company] has been really smart in seeing how it’s aligned with something that will cut through to younger people.’
Andy says the shake-up caused by the pandemic has exposed some challenges that the animation industry needs to address: remote working can create access barriers at a time when the industry needs new voices more than ever. It’s particularly tough for those starting out. ‘You need the internet, all this equipment, computers,’ he says. ‘When you go into a studio, it’s not about whether you have the equipment or not. They provide it.’
Creatively, something can be lost, too. ‘I do miss being in the studio and that interaction, that vibe that everyone can bring to a project,’ he says. Running an animation studio is a fluid operation. Andy and Lucia are full time and built a team for each project. Smaller ones could be four or five, and the biggest has consisted of 20 people, but not at once: ‘It goes through phases,’ Andy explains. ‘You have the designers, then the animators, then the clean up… Then it’s done and it’s back to just the two of us again.’
Polycat, Cape Town
A commercial studio that’s branching out on its own
When Gottfried Roodt founded Polycat Visual Effects in 2015, it was based out of his parents’ living room. Now the studio, which he runs with Lloyd Wilgen, a friend from animation school, has expanded to a team of 23 and is well-established in Cape Town – and it’s no longer based in Gottfried’s parents’ house, either.
With a focus on technical work and 3D animation, the studio has crafted CGI turtles for the charity WildAid and conjured fantasy landscapes for Kiwi fruit brand Zespri, but always had an eye on creative projects of its own. ‘The animation scene is very alive and well here,’ says Gottfried. ‘There are more small studios popping up, but work for animators can depend on whether the big [South African] studios, like Triggerfish or Sunrise Productions, have films in production. It definitely has its ups and downs.’
While the animation industry proved its resilience during the hectic events of 2020, the pandemic startled investors, which, in turn, had a knock-on effect for commercial work. It was a challenging time for Polycat. ‘When Covid hit, every advertising job dried up almost immediately,’ he says. ‘We had a dry spell that went on for months.’
Left with time on their hands, the duo took the opportunity to pursue a passion project. Enter Noodle and Bun, an 3D animated series about a floppy cat. The series found a natural home on TikTok, a platform that proved to be a non-stop carnival during the pandemic – and fertile ground for creators. The series was a viral hit – Noodle and Bun now has 4 million followers and almost 40 million likes – and a silver lining for a tough year. ‘TikTok got a surge of viewers during the pandemic,’ he says. ‘People were bored at home. We were bored at work.’
On the back of that, work is picking up. Polycat has also received indie funding to produce a feature film. The hope is that the film – and the Noodle and Bun series – will become its core income. Their TikTok videos are not monetised, but the pair plan to expand the series and create revenue streams from the characters with the help of merchandise and cross-posting on YouTube. Key to the success of the series is the way it crosses boundaries, whether they be language, countries or age. As Gottfried points out: ‘The cat doesn’t talk, so we see it going quite big. This is not just a fun side project any more.’