Surveying the animation boom and its effects on the creative industry
“We’re seeing animation go into spaces that it’s not been in before” – leading studios shed light on a transforming industry and what it means for our screens.
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Robots exploring life after the fall of humanity, a depressed humanoid horse, a singing pubic hair* – these are just a few examples of the variety of content emerging in the animation boom that’s dominating our screens (*Love, Death + Robots, BoJack Horseman and an advert for shaving brand Venus). As restrictions on filming during the pandemic impacted live-action productions, animation industries have seen a huge surge in demand for content – the market is expected to grow from $354.7bn in 2020 to $642.7bn by 2030 – and it’s being met in exciting ways.
One sector has charged ahead: television entertainment led by streaming giants such as Netflix and Disney+. London and LA-based animation studio Nexus anticipated this shift, says co-founder Chris O’Reilly. “The biggest change for us was the growth of the streamers, which opened up new ways to get animation to audiences. The effect of that has been really profound – it’s changed the economy of animation; it’s made new types of shows possible and reaching different types of audiences plausible.”
While kids’ animation remains popular – India-based children’s studio Toonz saw increased demand not only for feature films but “edutainment”, especially “social and emotional learning, an area kids missed out on when schools were shut,” says CEO P. Jayakumar – adult long-form animation has flourished. Such shows have evolved beyond slapstick humour to meet contemporary audiences’ interests, exploring serious issues such as mental health.
"We’re seeing animation go into spaces that it’s not been in before, especially at scale."Chris O’Reilly
Nexus has tapped into this market with a stop-frame dark comedy called The House about the surreal stories of people who live there, which airs on Netflix this month. “It’s hitting a different kind of audience to the animation you’d normally see,” says Chris. “We’re seeing animation go into spaces that it’s not been in before, especially at scale.” Bart Yates, executive producer at London studio Blinkink says the uptick in “edgy, weird, cool adult animation” is influencing sectors such as advertising. “We’re starting to receive advert briefs that are more like Rick and Morty than like a Pixar movie.”
While television and gaming are kings of the animation boom, for Blinkink unexpected initial demand came from record labels, which embraced the medium when their shoots were cancelled. “We got busy doing lots of animated music videos, which was unusual,” says Bart. Blinkink has produced videos for Tinie Tempah, Gorillaz and Drake, among others. Perhaps the biggest is Raman Djafari’s mixed-media video for Dua Lipa and Elton John’s Cold Heart (PNAU Remix), which he directed and designed. A hefty budget and superstar names afforded him the creative freedom to seek out an array of top animators internationally who were uninhibited by the dream world they could create, despite working in lockdown. “I was a bit like a kid in a candy store, I thought I would try to be as bold with what I asked for as possible,” he says. “[The label] pretty much let me do my thing.”
He and his team created a psychedelic world starring 3D characters in flamboyant costumes who summon fantastical 2D creatures through dancing. Not allowing lockdown to hinder his creative imagination, Raman recorded all the dance moves in his bedroom using a motion capture suit. Record labels “took a leap of faith”, he says, “because they were incentivised to do [animation] and now pop stars are super into it. I think this really benefited people like me who have made their own path away from traditional animation routes.”
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Raman Djafari / Blinkink: Dua Lipa and Elton John, Cold Heart video (Copyright © UMG, 2021)
“Animation has mostly been pandemic proof, thriving where other industries have struggled.”Dalia Dawood
Advertising agencies also jumped aboard the animation ship as their live-action options sank in the pandemic. “We had a massive influx of commercial enquiries, specifically from adverts that were previously live-action jobs,” says Sam Gray, head of business development at Strange Beast. “Companies wanted to directly translate those scripts into animation, which didn’t work. We helped them understand how animation can work for them.” Interest from advertisers has sustained and they have a better grasp of animation’s potential, he adds. “We’re seeing bolder scripts and there seems to be an understanding that animation isn’t just something you use when you can’t do live action; it’s an exciting creative sector in itself.”
He shares an example of a Venus shaving advert starring an animated singing pubic hair. “It’s the most bonkers film we’ve made!” says Sam. “You couldn’t do that with live action, it would be horrendous – but you get away with a wink of humour in animation. It opens up a world of possibilities for brands to have a bit more fun.”
Animation has mostly been pandemic proof, thriving where other industries have struggled – but even as challenges arose, Strange Beast overcame them with clever use of technology. “Things like stop-motion animation couldn’t happen so easily [without access to a studio], but over lockdown we finessed a way to create a CG film that looked like stop-motion, using digital techniques to create a super analogue-feeling thing,” explains Sam.
Another innovator is Nexus, which has experimented with real-time animation that uses game engines to make flat films. Using Unreal Engine, animators can connect a motion capture system to it and puppet a 3D character in real time. The potential, according to Chris, is huge, allowing people to interact live with 3D characters. “If the streamers have changed how we can reach an audience [through animation], the technology is changing how we can make it,” he says. “This will change the types of shows we see, things that animation can’t do very well right now like talk shows and topical comedy.”
For the industry to continue its ascension, it needs to diversify not just its content and processes, but its people, argues Sam, who admits that “animation has a diversity issue”. “We want to make sure we’re bringing in talent that represents the world we live in.” Diverse voices telling unique stories in pioneering ways: that’s the future of animation, concludes Chris – and it’s already heading there. “We’re going to see those voices having more avenues to share their stories, which is hugely positive.
“I’m more excited about animation than ever,” he says. “It’s an amazing time.”
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Emma de Swaef and Marc Roels / Nexus Studios: The House, Netflix (Copyright © Netflix, 2022)
About the Author
Dalia is a London-based freelance arts and culture writer and lecturer. She draws on her Middle Eastern background to tell stories of its creative and cultural richness, and is also editor of a zine about the impact of gentrification. She has written for publications including Gal-dem, Vice and the Financial Times.