Wallace and Gromit maker warns UK animators may have to move abroad
The head of Aardman, the Oscar-winning British studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, has warned that the nation’s animation productions for children’s television will have to be made overseas because acute challenges are taking their toll on the UK sector.
Sean Clarke, Aardman’s managing director, said the company is struggling with everything from serious competition from other countries on tax relief to a dire skills shortage.
“Children’s television is suffering and what’s produced in this country will go off the edge of a cliff in the next couple of years, unless something is done,” he said. “The ideas will still be conceived here, but they’ll be made elsewhere.”
Animation tax relief has become less competitive in the UK. Ireland, France, Canada and Spain’s Canary Islands are offering relief ranging between 37% and 50%, compared with only 25% in Britain.
Clarke said: “I have the Spanish calling me all the time, saying: ‘Why don’t you come to the Canaries, where it’s up to 50%?’ We have to consider it.”
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Aardman could not have made its television classics if it had faced today’s acute challenges, he said: “We created Shaun the Sheep 15 years ago and made 150 episodes. The landscape is now very different and if Aardman were starting today, it would be incredibly hard to produce Shaun the Sheep in this country.
“It’s a constant battle of how you raise money. It’s amplified at the moment because a lot of countries are more competitive with tax credits and they’re building infrastructure, both in terms of studios and training. Training is broken in this country. There is no infrastructure to train and nurture the next generation of talent for film and television generally.
“We’ve had to set up our own academy over the last 10 years to train people because graduates from colleges and universities are not production-ready.”
He spoke out as the government was conducting a consultation on audio-visual tax reliefs, due to close on 9 February.
Aardman was founded on a kitchen table in Bristol more than 40 years ago by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who discovered Nick Park while he was a student. Their collaborations, which include A Grand Day Out, the first of their Wallace and Gromit hits using stop-motion plasticine, as well as CGI productions, have won more than 100 awards, including four Oscars.
Forthcoming releases include the Chicken Run sequel and the first Wallace and Gromit immersive experience, enabling digital characters to appear in front of viewers wearing headsets.
While Aardman’s name opens doors and it has financial reserves, it fears that other companies will have to move productions overseas, leading to a dwindling pool of UK animators.
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Clarke blamed Brexit for making it harder to bring over European animators and for the loss of access to vital European media funding. He also lamented the UK government’s decision to stop the Young Audiences Content Fund, despite its success in stimulating homegrown production.
He said: “If you don’t have access to funding, then you have to make your budgets smaller or you sell rights in your project. What you’d probably lose is that real innovation of someone like Aardman that said: ‘We’re going to make a children’s TV series around Shaun the Sheep and we’re going to push the barriers about doing a series where no one talks.’ When we did that, we were told ‘You can’t do that’, but we did, and it’s become incredibly successful.”
Recalling a rambling 2021 speech in which Boris Johnson, the then prime minister, spoke of Peppa Pig, Clarke said: “Look at the animation characters that we’ve created in this country – Peppa Pig, Teletubbies, Bob the Builder. None of them are owned by British companies now. Peppa Pig is owned by [US toy company] Hasbro. It is one of the most successful preschool characters of all time. So you have tens of millions of pounds of value leaving the UK.”
Acknowledging that hospitals and schools are among obvious priorities for the nation, he added: “I’m talking about investment that has a clear, tangible return on it. The Young Audience Fund was £40m over three years and, in terms of the economic value to the UK, it is forecast to create £320m by 2027, not to mention jobs and the cultural benefit of UK-produced shows.”
Kate O’Connor, the head of Animation UK, which represents the industry, said: “Business challenges affecting the animation sector have changed dramatically. Other countries have put some eye-catching tax reliefs in place. We’re not asking for handouts, but to be competitive in the global marketplace.
“Tax relief is a fantastically useful fiscal lever, but the UK rate is wrong for animation. There’s huge investment going into animation globally, while there’s been declining investment in UK-originated content and diminishing programme hours on public service broadcasting channels … we’re just going to lose out.”