The creator of childrens’ classics from SuperTed to the Bratz TV show talks to Digital Arts about the state of the UK and international animation industry.
Emmy and BAFTA-award winning animator Mike Young’s career began in Wales 30 years when he invented a crime-fighting teddy bear named SuperTed as a fictional hero for his then four-year-old son.
Produced by Siriol Animation – the company founded by Young and his wife Liz – SuperTed went on to become a hit animated TV series and was later broadcast in the US on the Disney Channel.
In 1989, Young moved to Los Angeles and founded Mike Young Productions (MYP), which is now the largest independent animation studio in the US.
Creating both 2D and 3D animated TV series for clients around the world, its production studio remains in Wales, in Merthyr Mawr.
Current Mike Young Productions series on air include ToddWorld; Growing Up Creepie; Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks; Clifford the Big Red Dog and Clifford’s Puppy Days; Pet Alien and Dive Olly Dive!. Digital Arts caught up with Mike during his recent trip to the UK as a guest speaker at Cardiff University on the subject of how Wales and Ireland can compete in the international animation trade.
DA: What first made you aware of the power of animation?
When I laughed from my very stomach while sitting in a small movie theatre in a Welsh mining community watching Popeye the Sailor.
DA: Which animation work are you most proud of and why?
Both SuperTed, which won a British Academy Award and was my first ever production and Jakers: The Adventures of Piggley Winks, which has won seven Emmys, three Humanitas Awards, the Prix Jeunesse and a BAFTA. The show is loved by adults and children alike.
DA: What motivates you creatively?
Whether my grandchildren would love and enjoy my shows. They are my completely honest focus group – all six of them.
DA: What’s the most important advice you’ve ever been given?
“Be an enabler, because that’s what you are” – from Welsh actor Victor Spinetti.
DA: Why did you move to Hollywood?
Back in the late 1980s, the prospect of a US network commissioning shows from a studio in Wales was virtually nonexistent.
My shows like SuperTed, Fantastic Max and the movie Once Upon A Forest all had to be produced or re-produced by Hanna Barbera.
The world has changed dramatically during the past 20 years and now in both creative and financial terms, animation has to work all over the world and not just the US. There are also vague signs that the US market is becoming less insular.
DA: What does independence mean for an animation studio such as yours?
We’re not quite the last independent, but some household names such as Hanna Barbera, Filmation, Ruby Spears, DIC, Fred Wolfe Films, Marvel Animation and many others have disappeared during the time we’ve been in business.
Even some of the studios, including Warner Bros, Universal and Dreamworks, have closed down TV production. For Moonscoop [which acquired Mike Young Productions in 2005] and ourselves, we have to be quick on our feet, and develop and produce in the time it takes some of the larger entities to get out of bed. We were the first producer in India – now Disney and Dreamworks produce there.
We were the first with digital production, the first to produce in high definition, the first to co-produce with other countries in a true collaborative way, not just dumping American culture on them as others do. Some of the bigger studios still produce in regular definition and 4-x-3 even today, which always amazes me.
DA: How has the UK animation industry changed since you first started out?
The UK animation industry rules in the area of pre-school production. They are the best. We produce Dive Olly Dive! and now Chloe’s Closet in our UK studio because the writing and the pace of the shows made there work so well for pre-school.
Sometimes we struggle in the older demographics, but you can’t have it all. The UK industry has to fight to survive as, similarly to in the US, there is little or no public funding for filmmakers of all types – including animation.
Children’s production is always the first to be cut when the chips are down and has the most legislation to contend with. France, Canada and Australia especially have massive support for children’s programming.
British ‘animators’ (and I use the term to cover everything from producers to artists to writers to software users) are rather like British actors – chameleon-esque. In America, you can be a star and make movies all your life.
In the UK, you make ads, read radio plays, act on stage and screen, and play bad guys that others spurn. The British animator works at anything, anywhere. They have passports.
DA: What are the biggest challenges for the UK animation industry now?
Some of the above. Too many broadcasters with too little money to invest in kids’ television. Too many imports (including some of ours) and not enough local content. The taking away of income streams (some for good health and other reasons) with nothing to replace them. Perhaps a big chunk of Lottery money should be allocated to kid’s programming.
DA: What can the government do to help the animation industry in the UK?
Tax write-offs like Ireland’s plans would be a great place to start.
DA: What impact has digital animation had on animators’ skills?
The days of the computer nerd in animation have largely passed. Now the people who formerly worked with a pencil and brush have learned the software, thus the art direction is going through the roof. It’s the difference between A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille.
DA: SuperTed or Bratz: what’s the biggest difference?
Love versus commerciality.
Characters from Hero: 108, a forthcoming co-production between Mike Young Productions, Gamania Digital Entertainment and Cartoon Network. The series tells the story of a brave band of friends aiming to end the war between animals and humans in the Hidden Kingdom.
Dive Olly Dive!, a Mike Young Productions educational animation, aims to teach kids basic scientific processes.
The Mike Young Productions cartoon Jakers: The Adventures of Piggley Winks has picked up a string of awards for the studio. Mike Young says that his favourite recent piece of animation is the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille. Spending half a lifetime working in animation has not dimmed his passion for the discipline. “I like it all, from anime to claymation,” he says.
Chloe’s Closet, about a little girl and her dressing-up adventures, is currently in production.