Jayne Pilling explains why she’s spent 18 years nurturing the British Animation Awards.
BAA by David Hayes for the 2002 British Animation Awards
There are too many award shows. And maybe quite a few of them are superfluous – the sort of opulent cash splurges that make outsiders resent people in advertising and the media. But a few of them that are justified. They’re the payoff for the long hours and sleepless nights people endure (not to mention the resentment from the outside world).
This Friday the BFI Southbank will be overflowing with British animation talent as it hosts the tenth biennial British Animation Awards – one of the most worthwhile of them all. Since 1996, Jayne Pilling has directed the event, and in that time she’s grown it into a force for good, flying a bright banner for animators on these sceptred isles.
18 years ago Jayne set out to create an award ceremony with clear goals – not just an excuse to make money throwing another pointless party. Inspired by the golden era of British animation in the 80s, she wanted the BAAs to be more than just a pat on the back for those who work in animation. She planned to build a community and a platform to support the craft she was so proud of.
One of the main aims of the awards is to bring people together, or, as Jayne puts it, “to enable a celebratory event that would span British animation talent across the board.” She emphasises that no other event brings together so many people from different sectors of animation – it’s as inclusive as it gets. The idea is that if you put the right ingredients into the mixing bowl, the chaotic churn of an award show might create something new. The best people in animation get together, new relationships are forged and even better animation comes out of them.
Jayne contrasts the BAAs to a ‘normal’ award show. “Half the time people are still talking while it’s going on or the people who work together spend the night together and only at one in the morning might they do a bit of table hopping,” she says. “But it’s not the same here. You might end up with some terribly important TV executive sitting next to a student. For me it’s quite important that you don’t have VIP section and it really is somewhere you can meet people in a very informal way.”
BAA by Les Gibbard for the 2004 British Animation Awards
Raising the public profile of the work done in British animation has always been one of the main aims too; so one thing the BAAs have always aimed for is media coverage that showcases the excellent animation being made in the UK. And it does work. Jayne’s highlights over the years include a segment on The Culture Show, where she remembers their conclusion that some of the most exciting things happening in contemporary British art are happening in British animation, but nobody knows about it. “It was fantastic for filmmakers,” she says.
Another time where the BAAs managed to get the public’s attention was a slot they won on breakfast television by getting actor and writer Colin Welland on the jury. “It’s about trying to get people on juries who are influential in their field and might have some helpful knock-on effect on British animation,” she says. She remembers the proud moment when Colin said he’d seen things in the judging process he didn’t know existed and that animation like this ought to be on prime-time television.
Jayne admits it’s challenging to stand out from the morass of award shows. One of the ways the BAAs has succeeded though is by making its prizes something more than you’re average mantelpiece filler. BAAs each take the form of a unique work of art, in some way sheep-related (geddit?), and filled with all the wit and wry humour that British animation has mastered over the years. It’s testament to the esteem animators hold the BAAs in that all of these awards are lovingly crafted by fellow artists and animators from Tim Burton to Chick Jones and Nick Park.
The awards’ mission remains the same as ever, but how has it changed over 18 years? The main thing Jayne points out is how categories have fluctuated as various pressures have reshaped the animation landscape. For example, they used to have a category for the TV special – the sort of animated film you’d see at Christmas, like Wallace and Gromit. Now they can’t do that because there aren’t enough of them to make a strong enough field. Jayne says there was nearly no music video category this time round thanks to lacking budgets.
BAA by Michael Schlingmann for the 2014 British Animation Awards
These category changes have served as a barometer for the industry. There were once three separate categories for short film, says Jayne. “There were a lot of ten, 15-, 20-minute films being made. Not there are fewer because Channel 4 have pretty much stopped funding them. Things have changed a lot. You see the rise, fall, disappearance and rise again of animation studios, which is fairly natural. [But] maybe it happens a bit quicker now.”
The changes Jayne’s witnessed certainly aren’t all good. She notes that with TV programming becoming more rigid, short animations are rarely needed as filler as they once were and of course there’s always the universal trouble of shrinking budgets.
“In advertising everything’s got so much tougher,” she says, but in other fields she’s watched the institutional support dry up and the Arts Council has become more devolved. “Film funding for British films has always been a little bit difficult. And let’s face it, animation suffers from a lot of people thinking it’s purely kids’ entertainment. More money will go into live-action short films because people see it as a more obvious route to making feature films.”
She also cites the advance of technology as a double-edged sword. While it’s provided many tools to help animators, it has also changed people’s perceptions for the worse. “I think in some people’s minds the idea is that CGI [means] you tell the computer what you want and it just generates it,” she says. “It doesn’t. It often takes just as bloody long! It has led to the mentality that animation might be cheap to produce or any changes are easy – you just press a button.”
These challenges motivate Jayne to make the BAAs the best they can be, but she has faced many demons on the way. “The last BAA we did , half the people I would speak to would say ‘animation is dead here. It’s finished,’” she says. “It’s very tough. And it’s crazy when there’s so much talent here. If it’s not going to get employment then it with either go into other fields or abroad.”
BAA by Simon Tofield for the 2014 British Animation Awards
“Sometimes I think I just can’t do it again,” she admits, “because raising the money can be so difficult. We have to say we’re doing it before we’ve even raised the money so it’s really scary.”
But there is always hope, and it’s clear that the BAAs are still beloved. Jayne received an email recently from a studio saying it’s the only really great award show, asking her to do one every year. “At a time when I’d been thinking I don’t know if I can face going to hustle money,” she says, “it actually made me think people do care. It really came at a moment that made a difference.” That said, a biennial event is quite enough stress for now.
Thanks to bodies like the BAAs keeping the community strong, there’s reason to be optimistic for British animation. For the first time ever, the British Film Institute is giving money to studios through its Vision Awards. It’s a welcome new initiative. “If you haven’t got the money to develop something, how the hell are you going to get enough material to pitch it?” asks Jayne. “I think it’s quite a big change.”
Along with Film London coming up with a new animation policy and tax credits returning for animation, there’s more institutional support for animation that seems promising and alongside that, maybe advertising budgets will begin to make more room for animation too.
BAA by Angela Palethorpe for the 2014 British Animation Awards
Jayne realises that no award – unique work of art or not – is guaranteed to change a director’s life. “I think we’d be ludicrous to make claims like that,” she says. “It’s wonderful, but it’s not going to transform things overnight.”
That said, winning a BAA can certainly open doors. Jayne gets approached a lot by festival programmers looking to exhibit BAA-winning work, TV executives scouting talent and ad agencies looking for directors for their commercials. “I had an advertising agency senior producer on the jury this time,” she says, “who said they want to ask that filmmaker if they can show her piece to their entire creative team because they’d never seen anything like it.”
As Jayne knows only too well, British animation’s been through the mill, but with the British Animation Awards fighting its corner, it will never crumble. And who knows? With a bit of serendipity, the craft might have a renaissance just around the corner.