With a record number of European features headed to the Annecy International Animation Film Festival (June 4-9), Leon Forde reports on the growing ambition of the European animation sector.

Once seen as a children’s genre, animation has grown up in recent years to become a commercial and artistic powerhouse on the world stage, with audiences receptive to a new brand of animated features - among them Waltz With Bashir, Persepolis, Chico & Rita and Alois Nebel - that explore decidedly adult worlds.

“There is an appetite for animation worldwide,” says Janet Healy, producer at Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, whose credits include the 2010 hit Despicable Me and this year’s Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. “As audiences see a lot of animation, they want more and it opens up the possibilities for different kinds of animation.”

In a crowded marketplace which requires major spending to compete with studio-released family fare, animation’s widening scope is resulting in a boom in European production - a record 34 European features were submitted to this year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, up from 15 in 2005. “There has always been a terrific amount of talent in Europe and more and more producers are seeing animation as a way to make films,” says Michael Rose of Magic Light Pictures, the UK-based producer on this year’s Oscar-nominated Chico & Rita, which was financed out of Spain and the Isle of Man.

‘More and more producers are seeing animation as a way to make films’

Michael Rose, Magic Light Pictures

As the possibilities widen for animation, so does the range of talent. A number of established feature directors are making the move into animation, including Patrice Leconte with The Suicide Shop, which opens Annecy this year; The Secret In Their Eyes director Juan Jose Campanella, who is in production on Foosball 3D (Futbolin), a stereoscopic 3D animated adventure set up as an Argentina-Spain co-production; Jonathan Demme with MK2’s Zeitoun; and Incendies director Denis Villeneuve, who is developing graphic novel Footnotes In Gaza with France’s Tu Vas Voir.

“Animation has been thought of as a genre exclusively for children for too long,” says Mickael Marin, head of economic development and Mifa at Citia, the company behind the Annecy festival. “Films like the Shrek series, which have an appeal and a writing style that can be understood on different levels, or others like The Rabbi¹s Cat or more recently Alois Nebel, clearly show that animation is a language like any other used to serve the narrative.”

The financing puzzle

Despite increasing interest, financing can be as complex as ever. “It is a kind of a paradox,” says Alain Gagnol, writer and co-director of this year’s Oscar-nominated A Cat In Paris, who is currently developing Phantom Boy, an animated thriller set in New York. “Many animated films are very successful, so there are more producers than ever who want to make these kinds of films. But in the meantime, the amount of money available for the film industry is no higher.”

The UK was boosted recently by the announcement that tax relief for high-end TV, video games and animation would be introduced from 2013.

David Sproxton, co-founder and executive chairman of Bristol-based Aardman Animations, hopes the new credit will resemble the existing film tax relief, which Aardman has utilised for its features, but which does not currently extend to TV animation despite the big budgets involved. “The numbers are about right, the caveats work, producers understand it, Europe understands it, the taxman understands it… It’s a pretty clear and clean system,” he says.

Co-producing remains vital in Europe and unlike live action shooting, animation work can be divided between territories. There is also a growing interest in co-producing with partners from other parts of the world.

Meledandri’s Universal-backed Illumination was attracted to France because of the territory’s animation talent and splits production work between its Paris base at Illumination Mac Guff - where CG and other work is done - and its Los Angeles base and elsewhere. The company is in production on Despicable Me 2 for a July 2013 release.

‘The thing the American studios will pay for is a lot of time spent on development’

David Sproxton, Aardman Animations

Europe is increasingly a producer of ambitious, commercial family fare. The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists - made by the UK’s Aardman Animations, which has a rolling development and production deal with Sony Pictures Animation - has taken more than $23m in the UK and opened in the US on April 27 to $11.1m), while Aardman’s Arthur Christmas took more than $147m worldwide. A Monster In Paris, produced by France’s EuropaCorp, has taken almost $25m (more than $15m of that figure in France), while Illumination Entertainment has scored hits with Despicable Me and Dr Seuss’ The Lorax (which has taken more than $208m to date in the US, and $88.2m internationally to April 29). Another recent hit was Gnomeo & Juliet, produced by the UK’s Rocket Pictures, which took $194m worldwide.

For European projects, matching the kind of lengthy story development process that can go into very high-end animation can be a challenge. “The thing the American studios will pay for is a lot of time spent on development,” says Aardman’s Sproxton. While a typical feature story reel might have 6,000-8,000 frames, Aardman drew around 25,000 storyboard frames for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, and about 50,000 for Pirates. “Every scene is redone and redone and redone to get the story right, get it to play better, get it to be funnier,” Sproxton explains. “There is a huge amount of rewriting done the whole time and that’s what takes the time.”

Creating quality

Some European producers utilise studio methods but are savvy about the cost. Producer Steve Hamilton-Shaw of Rocket Pictures, which produced Gnomeo & Juliet on a budget of $80m-$100m, says: “What we did with Gnomeo is something in the middle, where you take the Disney/DreamWorks model of production and shrink it a bit in terms of schedule and make certain efficiencies within it in order to create a piece of work of the same story quality as you would get in extremely high-end animation production. But you’re a little bit more aggressive about how you’re approaching it from a production and decision-making point of view so that it fits into a smaller number.”

Rocket is developing a number of animated features aimed at the family market, including Gnomeo & Juliet sequel G&J 2: Sherlock Gnomes, being written by Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil; an adaptation of the first in Michael Buckley’s N.E.R.D.S. series of books, which the author is adapting; and an adaptation of The Pig Who Saved The World by Paul Shipton, being scripted by Geoff Deane.

Other family films in the works include such projects as Postman Pat: The Movie, a 3D CG feature adaptation of the UK children’s TV series produced by Rubicon Group Holding (RGH) Entertainment and Classic Media. The film is being sold by Timeless Films, which is also handling Justin And The Knights Of Valour, a 3D CG animation produced by Kandor Graphics in Spain.

Other forthcoming titles include Ernest And Celestine, which features in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and screens at Annecy; and EuropaCorp’s The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart.

SPOTLIGHT ON Annecy International Animation Film Festival

The Annecy International Animation Film Festival (June 4-9), has played a major role in the development of the European animation sector since its first edition in 1960, providing a meeting place for both creatives and executives.

“The only way in Europe is to find partners, to co-produce and to make [projects] in different countries to make it less expensive,” says Tiziana Loschi, managing director of Annecy and parent company Citia. “Annecy is the only place where all the people come, both the artistic side and the business side.”

The 2012 official selection includes 49 shorts and 10 features: Wrinkles (Spain); Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Japan); Crulic - The Path To Beyond (Romania-Poland); Zarafa (France-Belgium); Le Tableau (Belgium-France); Asura (Japan); The Dearest (South Korea); Approved For Adoption (France-Belgium); Tad, The Lost Explorer (Spain); and Ronal The Barbarian (Denmark).

The festival opens with Patrice Leconte’s The Suicide Shop - which was presented as a Work In Progress at Annecy in 2010 - with other out of competition feature screenings including Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, The Day Of The Crows and Dr Seuss’ The Lorax.

There will be a focus on Ireland, while Work In Progress sessions will feature Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania and Raul Garcia’s Extraordinary Tales.

Annecy’s market, MIFA (June 6-8), is set to match or better 2011’s record-breaking attendance of 2,300 delegates. Europe’s animation talent attracts US and European companies to recruit during MIFA’s Creative Focus, while there will be pavilions dedicated to companies from Taiwan and Russia. MIFA will also host delegations from Brazil and South Africa.