Big in Belgium

on 15 January 2013. Posted in TV

Rachel Murrell on the opportunities for children's animation writers overseas
What's the big idea

Photo: What's The Big Idea? by Planet Nemo Animation

It happened again this morning. The postman delivered a DVD of a new pre-school animation I’ve written. I ripped open the envelope, put the disc in the DVD player, hit ‘play’ – and couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying.

It’s not the result of early-onset senility – not yet, anyway – but of a sustained campaign of pitching producers outside the UK. And while I’ve been able to get work from France, Spain, Belgium, Norway and Germany, sadly, I don’t have the language skills to match.

It all started in 2006 when I was un-agented and short of work, and I emailed dozens of companies in the UK and abroad offering my services as a scriptwriter. Most ignored me, but one or two of the Europeans wrote back politely asking for a CV. Producer Frederic Puech of Planet Nemo Animation in Paris was one, and he suggested we meet when he was next in London.

We met for tea in the British Library – I like to set the right tone! – and soon afterwards, he hired me to write 10 episodes of his new show Silly Bitty Bunny. My schoolgirl French, while embarrassing, turned out to be no barrier to me working with Fred, or his then script editor Diane Morel. Both speak excellent English, and got every joke.

As time went on, I found more doors open to me than I’d expected. Of course I wasn’t the first to knock on them: several of my fellow British animation writers work for producers in France, Germany and elsewhere in Northern Europe. The reason is simple. Many European territories have subsidies available that see a lot of shows go into development. But that’s not enough to make them work internationally. Animation is a global business. Shows have to sell. And many European producers are open to hiring British writers because we’re seen as good at the character, tone and humour that will make a show a global success.

If you don’t have an agent to promote you, you need to set aside your natural modesty (ahem) and do it yourself. For me that meant sending a lot of emails, combing the websites of Cartoon Forum and Kidscreen each year in search of projects I like, and researching producers online using their websites, Google, and illicit clips on Youtube.

I back this up with a bit of a Web presence, but only on a modest scale. I admire a good Facebooker or Tweeter, but I’m not one of them. However, I do post profiles on industry websites like LinkedIn and IMDb, both of which have generated work. And I taught myself to use Blogger too. Not because I’m deluded enough to think anyone wants to read my inane musings, but because it’s a free online CV – with video clips – that I can update myself. There’s a link to that blog on the bottom of every email I send.

I also persuaded my long-suffering partner, an editor, to make me a showreel. I put my photo on the front. Sounds self-important, but not when I tell you that I put the shot through the Mac’s Photobooth Special Effects-erizer first. I put the same image on some business cards I made on Okay, so the results make me look like a frankfurter with glasses, but it breaks the ice at meetings.

Meeting people face to face helps a lot. I’ve been lucky enough to attend MIP and MIPCOM for several years as a journalist, and last year I went to Cartoon Forum for the first time. They’re all prime hunting grounds. As is the Children’s Media Conference (CMC) in Sheffield in July. CMC works with the government’s UK Trade & Investment to bring delegations of Korean and Chinese producers to the UK who are keen to meet British writers and producers. I haven’t got a gig in either territory yet, but I’m trying. Be there, or be spare.

I’ve also used holidays to meet potential clients. Going to Paris on a city break? Set up a few meetings beforehand. Heading to Sydney to see the in-laws? Look up the local kids’ producers before you go. You might get a job, you might not. At least you’ll be able to set some of your costs against tax.

Cold-calling producers is not for the faint-hearted. You need persistence, a genuine interest in other people’s work, and a tolerance for industrial quantities of coffee. The other thing you need is a thick skin. I reckon that 50% of my first 100 emails fell on deaf ears, and another 40% got a polite ‘no thanks’. But 10% of them lead to conversations, and if even some of those turn into jobs, that’s a start.

And if you can do some good work, and build up some relationships, more work will follow. My work with Planet Nemo has led to introductions in Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. I’m now helping Skyline Animation develop a series called Ziggy & the Zoo Tram created by award-winning author and illustrator Leo Timmers.

I’d like to say that working with Europeans means an endless round of first class travel and foreign hotels. It doesn’t. More often than not it involves a lot of early morning Skype conversations. But hey, if you have one decent shirt for the camera, you can go commando below. They’ll never know.

Once you’ve got an overseas gig, it’s much like a UK-based one, but without the script meetings. Not all European script editors speak English as well Diane and Fred, and I’ve had notes from some that looked like they came via Google Translate. But then I’ve had notes from English script editors that weren’t much better.

The point is that if you’re an animation writer, the work is there, and if you have access to the Web and one clean shirt, you have the tools to find it.

Just remember to put your pyjama trousers on when the postman delivers your next DVD.