By Rolf Giesen
The Cartoon Forum is a yearly event organized by Cartoon Brussels that brings together TV animation producers from all over Europe to Toulouse, France. Although you will see a variety of incredible work at the Cartoon Forum, the sad truth is that TV is no longer the partner for animation it once was in Europe. TV networks now spend less money on animation than before and are not willing to pay € 12,000 per minute for European animation when they can spend less on animation from Asia.
Animation producers in Europe are getting nervous. The situation for creatives in Europe has been changing for the worse. Of course, participants did not talk about these issues openly and officially in Toulouse. European animators are largely ignoring the developments in Asia and trying to preserve the status quo in Europe for as long as possible. They may have creative story ideas, but they do not have marketing ones, and what they sell has no signature or brand of its own. They can produce a lot of cheap 3D animations, but they rarely stand out aesthetically. The only great asset they can claim is that there is a lot of variety of animations, but besides the volume, what else can be attributed to European animation? One can easily identify American animation, Japanese anime, and others. But animation from Europe…well, what is it? How would you define it? There is some good animation from France, from Belgium, and from Spain—which for many years worked on outsourced cheap work from other countries, but are now market leaders—but there is no European animation that is notable as a brand name.
There is a reason for this: bureaucracy. Tony Loeser is one of the leading European animation producers. His company MotionWorks is based in Halle, Germany. According to him, the biggest barrier for all people in the creative industry is the increasing administration and bureaucracy in the media. It gets more and more complicated to raise funds because everything is being bureaucratized. The more money they spend on this bloated machinery of bureaucracy that has been built up, the less is available for the creative aspects of animation production. Unproductive administrative work soaks up parts of the budget that does not go into production. Decision-making processes are slowed down and delayed over periods of one year to a year and a half. This bureaucratic superstructure paralyzes creative animation production and results in unnecessary compromises.
At a Chinese Film Festival in Munich, Germany, Loeser and I watched a Chinese animated film entitled Big Fish & Begonia (2016). Both of us were amazed by this quantum jump in Chinese animation. The film may not represent the entire Chinese animation industry but, it demonstrates that there is enormous creative potential in China that we didn’t recognize ten years ago when we first went there.
With the rise of the animation industries in Asia, some European producers seem to recognize the fact although there is not a distinctive European style, something like a “Eurasian style” may be forming, with intercultural topics and new aesthetics that cross the boundaries between Asia and Europe. This “Eurasian style” will be different from Pixar/Disney and DreamWorks (including Oriental DreamWorks).
The animated feature film The Red Turtle (2016) was a co-production between Studio Ghibli in Japan and Wild Bunch AG, a German film distribution company . It shows that a partnership benefits both Europe and Asia. We have not seen anything like it since Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). And with the success of the Chinese animated feature film Big Fish & Begonia we might assume that there are other potential partners in Asia who have more to offer besides a large audience. The initiative for the co-production of The Red Turtle came from Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli. However, I speculate that the initiative for a possible co-production between China and Europe may have to come from Europe.
Manuel Cristóbal, a leading Spanish producer who produced the well-known animated feature film Wrinkles (2011), first went to China in 2011 to attend the Changchun Animation Forum and the opening of the Jilin Animation Museum. There, he immediately saw the opportunity for a co-production project between the China Film Group and Spain’s Dragoia Media, Movistar Plus and Atresmedia Cine in a children’s book set in China entitled Dragonkeeper (2003), by Australian writer Carole Wilkinson. In terms of design, Cristóbal and his team did the concept art with Sergio Pablos, but later it became clear to them that they needed a Chinese art director who could render the Chinese elements more accurately. They took BASE FX on board with a team led by Tony Zhang and the project took off. Their main challenge was to get the story right when dealing with Chinese elements and making them work for a Chinese audience while at the same time keeping it a great story for general audiences. The animated film is currently still in its pre-production stage and will be put into full production in 2018.
I hope that someday soon there will be a Eurasian, rathern than European, Cartoon Forum to discuss and negotiate such transnational ventures. It is difficult for European productions to enter the American market because of the US film industry policy on local productions outside of their territories. Such Eurasian collaboration is what we need to get out of the limitations of “local productions” that the big American distributors have us confined to.
Rolf Giesen is the co-author (with Anna Khan) of Acting and Character Animation: The Art of Animated Films, Acting and Visualizing (2017), recently published by CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group.