Clare Kitson, a programme commissioner for Channel 4 television, was also optimistic. She maintained the future of personal animated films depended on three factors; whether there is public demand; whether there are animators who are up to it; and whether there is money. “Up to now we have not been sure about the public demand, the public did not get much chance to see this kind of animation,” suggested Kitson. “They saw a lot of good animation on television in the commercials but that was really all they got to see.” Clare Kitson used to work for the British Film Institute, which has always shown animation in their film theatres. They are increasing the amount of animation but they serve only a few of the potential audience, the largest audience is reached by television.
“When I came to Channel 4 two years ago I discovered an extraordinary situation whereby my predecessor had been very imaginatively commissioning animation on a small budget,” revealed Kitson. “It was winning festival prizes but it was not getting seen.” She explained that ten-minute films are difficult to programme because television works in units of half-an-hour. Some of the animation was not seen at all on television and some of it was being shown at the end of the evening. It was a tribute to the channel that they kept putting money into production without getting very much out of it.
Kitson has been trying to find ways of presenting more animation on Channel 4. She has had two substantial seasons a year on a specific theme and some other special events in between. The ratings were excellent, to the great surprise and delight of the programme planners. “They offered me some outstanding slots for my next animation season,” said Kitson. “However, when they saw the films I was going to put into them they took them away again. I am continuing to negotiate with them and it should be OK but obviously it is going to be a struggle for quite some time.”
The BBC is also beginning to programme more and more animation and they have very ambitious plans. Given the growing market for animation on British television the next question is whether we have enough high quality animators and whether we will have them in the future. Britain has an outstanding commercials industry and the animators who make a living on commercials are very anxious to make their own personal films. This has become a tradition and it is the mainstay of personal animation. “Another British tradition is the very high standards we find in our film schools,” said Kitson. “People are always surprised to hear that international prize winners such as Susan Young’s Carnival, Mark Baker’s The Hill Farm, David Anderson’s Dreamland Express, Joanna Quinn’s Girls’ Night Out and Nick Park’s Grand Day Out were all student films.”
Figures from the teaching profession show the amount of students enrolling on animation courses has been increasing by 10% a year over the past eight years. There is also a great deal more interest in animation from students in other branches of the arts. There has been discussion in Britain about the actual calibre of the education the students are getting. This takes two levels; one is they are not very good on the technical aspects because most of the animation courses are based in art schools rather than film schools. The students are encouraged to be creative and it is a shock when professionals employ them and find they do not know how the camera works. “We were surprised and embarrassed when we selected the winning students for the residencies at MOMI; we discovered not one of them was an animation student. They were studying either illustration, graphic design or something else,” disclosed Kitson. “I asked a teacher from an animation course why this was. In his opinion the students from these other disciplines applied for a residency to learn about animation, the ones on an animation course think they know it all. We discussed this with the local branch of ASIFA and the general verdict was there was no problem. If the student cannot be wild and crazy as a student he is not going to be able to do it at any other time of his life. He is always going to be dependent on financing and he is not going to get financing unless the film has something to say to an audience. I think it is correct and even good for them to be self-indulgent as students.”
After students leave college most of the finance for personal films comes from television in one way or another. This may be by commissions or people who finance themselves by using profits from commercials. The bad news about television is there is an advertising recession and it is affecting programme budgets. The good news is that S4C, the Welsh station is beginning to specialise in animation in a big way. “There is a colony of very interesting film makers in Wales,” reported Kitson. “54C do not have a large amount of money but they make it work for them. A lot of the product is series and half-hour specials. Also the BBC is starting to put money into animation films.”
Channel 4 probably commissions most of the personal films in Britain at the moment. “The budget has always been, and still remains somewhere around a million pounds a year which is totally inadequate,” declared Kitson. “If we had a country full of Bill Plympton’s then I would be able to do very well on a million.” Kitson would like to use the budget for personal films on subjects that no one else would put money into. When she is sent projects that should be more popular and easy to finance she attempts to either make them into co-productions or get pre-purchases from overseas broadcasters. By these means she can make her own budget go further. Unfortunately, any money from sales made after the film is complete does not return to her department. “I have had a lack of success with co-productions so we have the strange situation that the more difficult films are in production and the obvious ones are still waiting,” remarked Kitson.
“Cartoon has not been helpful on this level, they do not touch anything that is short,” observed Kitson. “At the meeting I went to I was the only broadcaster interested in this type of film.”
Clare Kitson’s department is entirely proposal led in their commissioning policy. She looks for good quality projects that are original, to give a range of films across all the different segments of the animation community. “If it comes into this category and I can afford it then I will commission it,” explained Kitson. “As well as the budgetary restrictions I am not interested in films aimed at children, with the exception of the occasional family half-hour we can use for Bank Holidays.”
Channel 4 has two schemes to help personal film making and they are low budget so other broadcasters could afford to develop similar schemes. One is in conjunction with the Arts Council of Great Britain. They administer it and put in one third of the budget and Channel 4 put in two thirds of the budget. “That scheme enables us to produce four low budget but highly experimental films per year,” said Kitson.
There is also a scheme with the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in London. It has a small glass fronted animation studio where they always had young animators working. They were able to work but they were not able to eat because there was no way of paying them. “Our scheme pays them a living wage, ‘declared Kitson. “We have had a great deal of help from the British animation industry in terms of advice, equipment, stock, we have all been working together on this.”