The growing ambition of Europe’s animation industry and an increase in national production incentives means a one-way ticket to California is not always the most desirable career move for the continent’s animators.

The Annecy International Animation Film Festival (June 6-11) is not only a major industry hub but is also a magnet for Europe’s animation students and emerging film-makers. Descending en masse to the French event they are of course serious about and committed to animation, but also enjoy its lighter side — witness the traditional barrage of paper planes ahead of screenings at the Bonlieu theatre.

Their presence is not lost on the animation industry’s major players and Annecy — alongside other European events such as FMX in Germany — has become a real hunting ground for new talent. This year, representatives from major players including Pixar, Sony Pictures Animation, DreamWorks, Walt Disney Feature Animation, Ankama and TeamTo will be recruiting during Annecy’s Creative Focus.

Europe, with its cultural history of animation and design, its artistic approach to the form and its network of well-regarded training courses creates a wealth of sought-after talent.

“The thing that’s going on in Europe is that there’s a kind of auteur-driven way of approaching animation,” says director Tomm Moore, whose hand-drawn The Secret Of Kells received a best animated feature Oscar nomination in 2009.

‘France really trains animators seriously and well’

Janet Healy, Illumination Entertainment

Producer Nik Powell, director of the UK’s National Film and Television School — which offers a directing animation MA — says European animators are “trained to realise their own voices, to innovate, to find different ways of telling stories. And that does produce a different kind of student who then become interesting to Hollywood.”

Among the large-scale animations on the drawing board in Europe are Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou And Men And Women to be shot in 3D, produced by Paris animation outfit les Armateurs and backed by Studio Canal, and Rainbow’s $57m Italian animation Not Born To Be Gladiators to which Paramount has North American rights.

Janet Healy, the US producer of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me, which was largely made in Paris at Mac Guff, puts the high standard of talent down to film schools, and also the fact France’s education system foregrounds skills in areas such as engineering and mathematics. “My sense is that France really trains animators seriously and well,” she says.

For those graduating from Europe’s leading animation courses, the attractions of working for an industry trailblazer such as Pixar in California are obvious. “The studios can definitely offer more stability, maybe better salaries and stuff like that,” says Moore, who is co-founder of Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. “You will find a lot of talented people with a certain vision will end up there, at least for a while.”

However, those in the European industry say there is no talent drain. “We don’t struggle as such for the bulk of the people we need,” says David Sproxton, executive chairman of the UK’s Aardman Animation. “The hard bit is obviously directorial talent and creative producers.” Aardman is in production on two pictures: the stop-motion The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists in the UK and the CGI Arthur Christmas, being made at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles.

Incredible experience

Producers point out that while young talents might head to work in the US many end up coming back to Europe bringing with them invaluable Hollywood experience.

“The concept of the mass migration of European talent to the US is no longer an accurate perception,” says Mickael Marin, Annecy’s head of economic development and its MIFA market. “We are seeing more and more European talent working within the European industry. However, those who leave for the US tend to come back having gained incredible experience with major studios, and contribute these new skills to European cinema, which can only be a good thing.”

Europe’s growth as a centre for ambitious, high-quality animation means the pull of Hollywood may not be as strong as in the past. “We’re finding that people aren’t leaving because there is high-quality, high-paying work they can rely on in Paris, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Healy explains. “We’ve found that recruiting hasn’t been an issue, and retention has been fantastic.”

Indeed, producer Gilles Podesta points out: “We have no problem getting talent. The problem we have is booking them. There are so many films now you have to book very far ahead.”

Podesta is producing Patrice Leconte’s The Suicide Shop, an innovative 2D hand-drawn stereoscopic project being made in France, Belgium and Montreal as a France-Belgium-Canada co-production.

‘We don’t struggle for the bulk of the people we need’

David Sproxton, Aardman Animations

The fact many European animation features are set up as co-productions means films are often made across various territories. Tomm Moore’s Kells follow-up, Song Of The Sea, is in the latter stages of financing and is being set up as an Ireland-Belgium-Denmark-Luxembourg co-production. When it goes into production later this year, work will be conducted in Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium and France.

Indeed, European animation is peripatetic by its very nature, with talent moving from project to project as live-action crews do. Aardman’s Sproxton estimates that in certain CG departments in the UK, up to 40% of those working are from territories such as Germany, France and Poland.

Some skills are in particular demand in the animation sector. For example, stop-motion is back in the ascendancy with current projects including Laika’s 3D ParaNorman, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Aardman’s Pirates!.

The expansion of production incentives that also cover animated features is helping European growth. Projects can tap schemes in territories such as France and the UK (however, Sproxton points out the UK incentive does not cover TV, which means projects can be lost to overseas production companies).

“There is considerable government support across Europe for film-making and also specifically for animation,” says the UK’s Nik Powell. “Also, ordinary film funds [are] looking to do animation where maybe they hadn’t in the past because they hadn’t been successful. And that creates more work and more interesting projects… Things are certainly a lot more positive now than 10 years ago.”

Indeed, Healy points out that although Illumination initially came to France for the artistry, the animation and the relationship Illumination principal Chris Meledandri had with Mac Guff, the introduction of the French tax incentive in 2009 has meant the company ultimately remained in France — where it is now making Dr Seuss adaptation The Lorax. “That new economic climate meant we could stay,” Healy says.