This was not always the case as Ward recalls when they were working on the Mr Men series ten years ago, “We financed the Mr Men ourselves, we went to the bank and borrowed the money. It took off and we have sold it around the world. In those days “The Wombles” was about the only thing that had successfully merchandised.”
Ward blames the importance placed on ratings and the ability to buy in foreign product at even lower prices. The children’s market does not rate very high so the programme buyers do not have a lot of money to spend on them. American cartoons have earned their production costs on the home market so that producers can afford to offer them to other countries at a low price. It took the Mr Men series ten years to earn its money back after sales to 40 countries. They have sold both their series to cable TV in America. Ward predicts a rising demand for programme material including animation although he is not sure we could compete with the Americans; “Hanna-Barbera have talked to us about doing overflow work for them but we can’t possibly turn out the quality of material they want in the time they require. They are sending it to Japan and Taiwan.
With one group Hanna-Barbera are turning out 13 half-hours in eight months which makes our 40 five minute episodes of Bananaman in two years look tame. Certainly Cosgrove Hall have seriously set up to do it properly but other producers like myself produce commercials and make series on the side. So you are financing one with the other. The majority of people that you use in the industry are freelance and they also subsidise the series work. The majority of commercials are wanted in a hurry so when you produce a commercial you work through the nights and weekends. If studios have series work ticking over on a daily basis, between commercials, it makes them worth while. The erratic nature of commercials means that studios like Flicks Films Ltd can not afford to carry a large full time staff. There are large gaps in between when they are doing pre-production and they would have the staff sitting around. Terry Ward recalls; “When I started there were studios around with assistants and trainees but you can’t afford to do that anymore.
Terry Ward got into the animation business by accident. He had left school and was waiting to take up a place on a graphics design course at Goldsmiths College. A summer holiday job with a film company in Soho, washing out paint pots, running messages and sticking down wet Lettraset gave him a taste of the industry:
“It was the early sixties. Not only was London buzzing but the film industry was buzzing. Commercials were really taking off and animated film titles were a big thing. People like Bob Godfrey were popping in and out all the time, it was all a crazy atmosphere. I decided this was better than college and you get paid for it too, so I stayed on.”
The company was Dart Films, which no longer exists, a total production house with live action as well as animation, rostrum and editing. Terry Ward spent 5 years there learning all the elements. Then he moved around. He joined Trevor Bond and they set up a partnership in Flicks Films Ltd to make commercials. One of their advertising agency contacts was Roger Hargreaves who had created six little characters called Mr Bump, Mr Tickle etc. Ward recalls, “We thought they were great. At that time we were recording some commercials with Arthur Lowe and at the end we asked him to narrate one of the Mr Men stories. We expected him to do it straight but he put all those funny little voices on and made it come to life”.
They made an animated pilot and sold it to the BBC TV who asked for thirteen episodes. “That’s impossible”, said Roger Hargreaves, “I can’t think of more than six”. He has now written over fifty. They formed Mr Men Films Ltd and spent two years churning out Mr Men cartoons. Then Bond and Ward split up. They still have the partnership in Mr Films.
While 101 Productions make series work Flicks Films make commercials with a bias towards graphics animation. Says Ward, “For quite a few years I did medical films with graphics, animating hearts and that kind of thing. Now I do a lot of work with a slit scan rostrum camera. This year I have been transferring the slit scan film and graphics onto video with Mirage and Quantel. The mixture of both works really well. The nice thing about video graphics is that it is instant, where as with animation you have to animate it and line test it to see if it works. Graphics can be very intricate, turning lettering into some other form, making it 3-dimensional or zooming it away in another direction, on video you can do this almost instantly.”