Channel 4: commissioning and purchasing animation

Since Channel 4 started seven years ago it has funded many outstanding animated films from the popular Snowman to the work of independents such as The Quays and Leeds Animation Workshop. The Bristol Animation Festival held a seminar to look at some of the problems associated with programming short animation films within schedules geared to standard running times, and to outline the kind of animation the Channel would consider for purchase and for production aid.

The speakers at this seminar were Channel 4’s recently appointed Assistant Editor Animation, Clare Kitson (N.B. there is no Editor, Animation), together with Rod Stoneman from The Independent Film And Video Department.

CLARE KITSON: When I joined Channel 4 m June this year, I was replacing two part-time consultants. One was buying-in animation largely intended as filler material and the other, Paul Madden, was commissioning animation. I have also been given the responsibility for live-action shorts and an advisory capacity for some features.

The fillers were bought with a strict eye on the IBA Guidelines. These include rules about what you can show before 7.30 and before 9.00. As most of the gaps occur in the early part of the day the easy way would be to buy bland material that will not offend anyone. However, I think it is important that these fillers should be good animation, because if a viewer catches one by chance when it follows a programme they were watching, it may convert them to the cause.

Paul Madden was commissioning a marvellous variety of films which were more difficult to place in the schedules. Although we commission or buy the material it is the schedulers who decide when, or even if, a particular film is to be shown. No matter how much of our budget we spend commissioning animation, it does not guarantee it a showing. Until the arrival of a full- time animation person at Channel 4, the schedulers used to look at what we had available and then choose films which would fit the slots they needed to fill. They tended to regard the rather bland animation as being for children and think of the very difficult subjects as being for eggheads and put them out late. This meant we weren’t getting any reasonable slots at all for animation. So since I arrived I have been trying to reconcile these two areas, trying in a way, to bring them together. What I am not going to do, and thank goodness there is no pressure on me to do so, is compromise the commissioning policy as regards the ‘difficulty’ of films.

However, there are two areas where I cannot help but be influenced by the planners: unfortunately I haven’t been able to get any regular starting times, so series are not really any use unless they are of a general nature and can go in at different times of the day. Likewise children’s films are not very good for me as we have very little air-time for children due to the policy of not competing with the ITV companies. They have the traditional afternoon slots while we have 6.30 to 7.30 on a Saturday morning and 8.00 to 9.30 on a Sunday morning. That being the case it is not really worth commissioning expensive films for those time slots. The people who programme them, and it is not actually me, prefer to buy films.
What I am trying very hard to do is raise the level of the daytime fillers. It is a slow process because I have to use the films that are already in stock. My ideal is to buy really good films which would get a first showing in a prestigious evening slot and then use them for second and subsequent transmissions in the daytime filler spots.

However, not all the films I like very much, and buy, are suitable for daytime viewing. The main way the IBA standards affect animation is with respect to violence. The problem is that although the day-time programmes are not aimed at children we have to assume that children might be watching. It is not so much that we are going to offend children, they seem to love the most violent films you can find, but their parents worry, so undue violence is not acceptable. Hangings are not acceptable and ‘bodily functions’ are also out. I used to wonder who on earth would make a film about bodily functions, but now I notice almost every other cartoon I see has got someone peeing. You can’t seem to escape it.

The IBA are also very worried about bad language. And strangely enough I find that if we put out a film with bad language or violence we get calls from viewers but if we put out something that is maybe a little too sexy for the time slot you don’t get the calls now, so that doesn’t seem to be so much of a problem.

What I would like to do is have a regular 15 minute animation slot, not all the time, but maybe five days a week for a run of six weeks or so. Unfortunately the schedulers have so far said no. I also have plans that will involve finding extra finance to have a regular series of some kind. If I can get six half-hours together then they will give me a slot because it is no problem to fit into the schedule.

What we may agree on is an occasional animation week like the one prior to the Bristol Festival, which was very successful. The other Commissioning Editors were very generous in moving their programmes back or forward to give me substantial slots. I had a marvellous half-hour slot taken away because of a Eurythmics concert and everybody rallied round to give me little bits here and there. The figure for the short documentary about the Bristol Festival, that opened the week, was 1.58 million viewers, which is very good. I am sure, the more we can show that people want to see animation, the more slots we are going to get. But, having said that, the predominance of the slots I am going to get are going to be daytimes, weekends and early evening, much more than prime-time slots, and in view of the Guidelines I am short of suitable material to show at those times.

When I am looking for films to buy, and indeed to commission, there are certain things I am seeking which are worth mentioning. Originality in any sphere is a top priority. I would also look for a certain clarity. I don’t mean it has to be a pedestrian, narrative film in which everything is spelled out but I think it should be clear what the animator is trying to say, why he or she made a particular film. Quite often young animators who live in an artistic and creative atmosphere at a film school, produce work their fellow students and their teacher understand, but they do not appreciate that the majority of the viewing public do not understand it. And when our schedulers look at such a film and they don’t understand it, they quite rightly assume that a lot of other people won’t.

It is not my intention to lower the standard of people’s work or make people compromise. If you don’t want to make a film that is somewhat easier then that is fine, and it could still be commissioned, but it makes it much more difficult to get it out on air.
When I am buying films, if there is a film which I like very much indeed, but it might be difficult to programme, I will buy it anyway, and possibly have to fight for airtime. But if there is a film I also like, and it happens to be between four and eleven minutes, with no peeings and hangings, then it does not have to be quite so marvellous to persuade me to buy it.

There are certain other things people who are thinking of submitting proposals for commissions might find useful to bear in mind. We are looking for the following things: they should have some sort of track record. It can be just student work, but as quite large sums of money are involved, one has to be assured that there is a great deal of competence behind the proposal.

We also like there to be a reliable producer attached to the project, although if there isn’t we can put you in touch with somebody. That is an especially important element if we are talking about a young filmmaker.

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