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The big picture: How the success story for UK animation keeps growing

From anime series to blockbuster cinema releases and kids’ TV favourites, animation is big business. While US studios continue to dominate in the feature-length animation field, British production houses have carved out a substantial niche for themselves, drawing on a rich legacy of storytelling and humour to craft shows with global appeal. finds out more.

“There has been a great appetite for animated children’s shows in recent years and I think the UK has led the field with shows such as Shaun the Sheep, The Amazing World of Gumball and Peppa Pig,” says Sarah Cox, executive creative director at award-winning Bristol-based studio Aardman Animations. “People expect quality and humour from British animation and these shows really deliver. There is a great pool of talent working in and from the UK too, and our writers and directors are a huge part of the British success story.”

Aardman’s eagerly awaited feature film Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, which debuted on Netflix in December, evokes what the UK does best, Sarah says.

“We at Aardman love comedy and I think the British sense of humour is something that works well in animation. Well-observed characters have a global resonance, so the visual humour relates well with international audiences. We also operate from a slightly ‘fringe’ perspective so we can offer something slightly different from the major US studios.”

Animation4Jamie Badminton, creative director/producer at Karrot Animation, whose preschool favourite Sarah & Duck recently launched into licensing, believes a quirky approach to storytelling is one of the UK industry’s strongest suits.

“As a country, I think we have strong storytelling sensibilities that revel in eccentric characters, building on our deep publishing heritage. While we do keep global appeal firmly in our minds, we don’t try to play to the broadest audience at the expense of letting the characters’ personalities shine through.

“It’s very helpful that we speak the same language as key North American territories and Australia for getting initial momentum and audience buy-in for new shows. We value personality-filled voice direction and lively character dialogue that isn’t just expositional; I think the UK tries to project a charm and fallibility on our characters that makes them imperfect and real.”

Hey Duggee's The Music Video Badge episode features pastiches of well-known music videos.
Hey Duggee's The Music Video Badge episode features pastiches of well-known music videos.

In a fairly turbulent retail environment, preschool animation in particular has offered stability, with well-known shows continuing to drive impressive numbers.

“Preschool shows require strong platforms on which to drive awareness and over recent years it feels as though the broadcast and content platform landscape has settled down,” says Andrew Carley, global director of licensing at BBC Studios. “Traditional linear/SVOD and AVOD are coexisting on content more than ever before and many of those platforms are building audiences unthinkable five years ago.”

For Hey Duggee, produced by Studio AKA in association with BBC Studios, it’s the show’s co-viewing sweet spot of appealing to both kids and their parents and carers that helps to drive its success. It has topped the rankings on BBC iPlayer for three years in a row, and with the show reaching a milestone 10th birthday next year it is one of the few preschool shows to have achieved longevity across both TV content and licensing.

“UK studios and the BBC have a reputation for producing content with superb storytelling combined with high quality animation that goes back decades,” says Andrew. “There has traditionally been a very close partnership between the BBC and UK animation studios and I think this helped shape the highly creative industry we see today.”

Animation2January 2024 saw a net uplift to Animation Tax Relief of 4.25% – a welcome boost for an industry that punches well beyond its weight in terms of global output.

“It’s well known that we have world class animation talent and studios in the UK and this is showing no sign of changing,” says Aidan Taylor-Gooby, head of licensing at Magic Light Pictures – the company responsible for the latest Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler adaptation Tabby McTat which lit up our screens at Christmas. “To go along with this we have an abundance of resources to adapt. We aren’t short of great quality books to bring to screen, with wonderful characters, nor is there a shortage of original concepts and ideas. When these are developed carefully with a real understanding of the audience, then you get programmes with global appeal. Quality will always last, and a lot of British studios believe in this as a prime objective.”

Animation1Magic Light is currently building the licensing programme for its preschool series Pip and Posy, a show that debuted in 2021. “Timing is key,” advises Aidan. “If you go too early before a programme is properly established you risk brand awareness not being high enough. A certain period of time should be spent laying the foundations and building up brand love.”

Karrot’s Jamie Badminton agrees that when it comes to licensing, it pays to play the long game. “I think the fact that Sarah & Duck has reached a higher awareness level after 10 years on TV means brand buyers are fully open to welcoming the characters to their portfolios. We’re leaning into what makes the show unique, rather than trying to have it copy other licensing patterns. Its built-in calmness, striking graphic style and off-kilter humour needs to be at the centre of the products we create, so that we faithfully extend the viewing experience for fans of the show.”

This feature originally appeared in the spring 2024 edition of Licensing Source Book. To read the full publication, click on this link.

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