One of the most difficult challenges for animation studios in "old Europe" at the moment is trying to compete with low labour cost countries and territories that are implementing ever more attractive tax incentives.
According to a recent study carried out by the American magazine AWN, there are some 5,000 animation studios around the world, including 2,754 in Europe. These are (loosely) divided up into the following techniques: 2,113 in traditional 2D animation, 2,696 digital 2D animation, 3,878 in 3D and 1,109 in object animation (cut-out, puppets etc.).
On the basis of this survey, Bruno Gaumétou, co-founder of Neomis Animation, voices the obvious conclusion that "we are not alone", and competition is obviously international and tough. For this former animator at Disney Montreuil, and his partners, the question that needs asking is: what could be the ambition of such a studio? "We should be responding to the demands of mastering skills, innovation, know-how, and meeting the needs of clients." Between 2004, when the studio was created, and 2010, Neomis has worked on 6 feature films, as well as the kinematics for video games and commercials and visual development for TV series, including La Rubrique à brac, adapted from a Gotlib comic strip. It is clear that this diversity is as much the result of wanting to open new horizons as an obligation to survive. He then goes on to talk about how they have created a sort of competitiveness survival kit.
Co-organised of editorial content for the Annecy 2010 conferences, consultant
According to Bruno Gaumétou, the six points to highlight are the following:
As far as a variety of services is concerned, Bruno Gaumétou underlines "that you mustn’t lose sight of the studio’s main activity. Diversity is all very well but you need to maintain what the studio is all about and makes it unique." This also goes for technique: you run the risk of getting lost if you diversify into an area where there is constant development. The notion of a network of artists is an attractive point, but there is not much choice on offer. "You therefore need to know how to keep your writers and artists by not imposing projects that they don’t feel comfortable with." The point about manufacturing processes correlates with the variety of techniques: you need to update but also, and more importantly, be on the lookout for new solutions such as HoBSoft or Damas, in asset management for example.
Although the cornerstone of the competitive structure of a studio is the stability of its workforce, a service company should also "learn to stabilise its workload. Just working on feature films is not the answer; you need to diversify." Lastly, stable and long-lasting relations are intrinsically linked to a time period as you need time to build up staff trust, over and above the skill element. "You need to unite resources and work in a European network or, failing that, at least a national one," confirms Bruno Gaumétou.
He believes that one way for a studio to remain competitive is to become a producer. Producer of projects – Neomis is currently developing a series and a feature – but also producer of technology. As such, Neomis has opened an R&D department and is offering two software programmes. The first, called Cheveux, was developed by Basile Audoly and Florence Bertails as part of the national research programme and is a plug-in for Maya. It is based on new algorithms, and is set to be presented at Siggraph later in July. "The idea is to create a tool not for in-house use but for commercialisation," explains Bruno Gaumétou. The second is Anipev1, backed by Feder, which is a tool for automatically generating character animation.
This is unconsciously the shortcut solution when it comes to animation at low cost. However, Petter Lindblad, at Copenhagen Bombay Productions, doesn't see things in the same way. The studio was established in 2006, at the same time as the release of its first feature, Princess (budget 1.6 M€), which was widely acclaimed at the Cannes festival. The studio is currently working on a variety of projects using a number of different techniques, including the two examples presented: Tigers and Tatoos and The Pandas – as well as cross-media from original and external licenses. "Cross-media creates synergies, lowers costs and can finally generate revenue."
Petter Lindblad goes on to explain why he works this way: "financing happens quicker. In addition, we keep our hands on the rights, as we use very little outside funding when it comes to producing our own projects. The fact that we work in our own studio, without delegating, also means that the different departments can work easily together; they are more reactive and decisions are made faster."
He adds that to make these significant savings, the crews begin by carrying out tests that serve as pilots, "in the same quality as the finished feature. This way, we can mathematically predict not only the final quality but also the related budget. We create very specific animatics that serve as guidelines for the different production departments. Finally, the key words of this strategy are flexibility, production optimisation, continuity in the crews and greater synergy between the directors and producers." And when asked about collaboration with other studios, Petter Lindblad talks about the constraints of time zones and language differences, which are conditions that he finds hamper a smooth collaborative experience.
However, he is well aware of the limitations of this self-sufficient approach: "there is never enough time or money to counter the inevitable production errors and, since everything is calculated, there is less room for creativity." And to conclude on a possible relay, or a more competitive approach: "include the creative department at the early stages of cross-media projects."
This is exactly what Jean-Louis Rizet has set up with ToonAlliance, which sees itself as: "an answer to the market in both terms of co-production and regrouping the workforce, as well as an answer to ever developing technologies." He goes on to explain that before finally settling on the idea of a cluster of companies, ToonAlliance could well have been a consortium of related businesses forming a sort of Economic Interest Group, a commercial label or even a club. The associated service providers, who have no wish to become producers – in contrast to the approach set up by Neomis –, are complementary and have extensive experience in their fields. They have also all known each other for years and share the same philosophy.
This mutual alliance also gives a wider range of funding possibilities, with regions like Île-de-France, Poitou-Charentes and Rhône-Alpes, the French departments of Charente and Haute-Savoie and the Magelis cluster. Jean-Louis Rizet explains that on an international scale, "we can also apply for funding in Canada and Los Angeles, and as we are soon setting up in Belgium we should be able to benefit from the national tax shelter there too."
Today, ToonAlliance represents a turnover of 40 M€, with 400 employees in seven companies. "This provides us financial independence, complementarity of expertise, a unified production pipeline, shared costs, the capacity to handle larger projects and visibility." And to conclude, the CEO talks about the competitiveness of a possible future creation of a similar alliance of producers.
Ross Murray, producer at Cartoon Saloon, has carried out a comparative study on the different ways of working on an animation project; from subcontracting and 100 % production on site to an association of skills. He believes that this last point is particularly relevant insofar as it can bring together technical expertise in complementary areas like TV series, features or video games etc., as well as creating a virtuous circle: diversification creating diversification.
However, strict attention should be paid "to having the best possible production pipeline or, at least, having the right person in the right place." This is why he remains sceptical about the concept of outsourcing, because even if it respects a continuity of production, a very strict framework "is not always easy to share across different studios' manufacturing hierarchies that, if not well defined, can be a source for disaster." He goes on to add that the previous proposals, from Bruno Gaumétou and Jean-Louis Rizet, offer a credible alternative to current competition.
Like Ross Murray, Éric Jacquot, CEO at Blue Spirit Animation, presents a comparative study between 100 % national production under one "head" and different subcontractors at lower costs. He believes that "the two alternatives need further reflection."
The positive points:
The downside: salaries and high charges, the shortage of skills, very substantial investments (both in hardware and software), high development costs (to remain competitive) and accelerated technical developments forcing studios to bear costs, even if the market does not exist. Finally, in an international context, there is also the cost of preserving rights.
Blue Spirit Animation is a studio on "a human scale", with 150 staff (including a hundred or so in Angoulême), which divides its time between animation production and services. Éric Jacquot agrees with Bruno Gaumétou and believes that the two go hand in hand for a better balance.
He then provides a few figures. "Over the period 2004-2009, the average service budget at Blue Spirit was 800 K€ with a gross margin of 44 %; since 2009, the budget goes from 1,700 to 3,500 K€ for a gross margin of only 32 %… At the same time, formats are constantly increasing and can go from 52 x 7 min to 78 x 7 min, and now even 52 x 13 min!" There are also two other aggravating factors: "development charges have increased sharply and the transition to HD has lost us our 30 % margin on the competition in compositing alone. These are loses that we are unable to absorb."
With this in mind, Blue Spirit has recently opened SineMatik, a service studio, in Brussels, "at the request of French producers who have seen a way of getting additional funding, which has now become a sort of security in animation." The producer also underlines that this gives more opportunities for recruitment, for salaries that are equivalent to those in France.
Teaming up or expanding into new territories? The choice is already made for ToonAlliance and Neomis Animation; Ross Murray recognises the need to consider territorial aid, which can be additional funding as well as an effective mutualisation strategy. "Improving productivity and financing are therefore the two objectives for greater competitiveness," concludes René Broca.