Think of modern animation and you think of Pixar or Dreamworks. Think of British animation and it’s Aardman all the way. But could Doncaster one day become the UK’s ‘second city’ when it comes to this art form? Given that two of the most recognisable animators of recent years have hailed from our town, that might not seem such a ridiculous premise.
You’ll know Jonti Picking, for example, as soon as you see his instantly recognisable style. He uses Flash animation to create surreal characters such as the egg-shaped creatures ‘Weebl and Bob’ and advertisements for Anchor butter and Yell.com. Most recently he has worked with Queen guitarist Brian May and Doncaster stalwart Brian Blessed, popularising his viral hit ‘Badger badger badger’ in protest to the badger cull.
And then, of course, there’s David Firth, who I first met at in the late 90s. Now I am a primary school teacher, albeit one that dabbles in illustration and animation, but back then both me and David were at the same half-term cartooning course run by Keith Reynolds, a Doncaster-based artist for The Beano. Fast-forward a decade or so and David is now an internationally renowned animator, famous for cult hits such as ‘Salad Fingers’. I got in touch to find out how it all happened...
“When I was a kid I didn't have a computer or a phone or anything that offered any kind of technology for animation. I copied some flickbook techniques I saw on Rolf's Cartoon Club, drawing usually quite gory, disgusting stuff on pages of notebooks and stacks of post-it notes. It was very basic. I was always looking for a possibility to take it to the next level. Eventually I got a camcorder and recorded them, then a PC and began drawing them with the mouse. Making do with what I had at each stage was important. I learnt so much from each stage, I gathered a lot of skills without realising it. I think it's overwhelming to just have all the most advanced tools in front of you.”
What are your thoughts on Doncaster and the opportunities here for artists? Have you noticed any changes since you were based here?
“Doncaster Art College was important for me because A-Level art had really knocked me down, set me back and had me doubting if I was still interested in art. Then Art College put all the fun back into it - they encouraged me to make films if I wanted, they didn't just focus on drawing, and most of all they were supportive rather than intimidating. I don't know how much has changed since I was there but they have a much bigger building now.”
You and another animator from Doncaster, Jonti Picking, both have quite a surreal style. Do you think this is a coincidence or might it have something to do with where you're both from?
“Doncaster is a funny place. Some of the funniest people I know are from Doncaster. I came back for a few months a while back and spent a few hours every day writing in a coffee shop in the middle of town. I always find watching people inspirational and must have written a whole book's worth of ideas in that time. There are some odd folk about. There used to be a rumour when I was at school that a mental institution nearby closed down and they just set all the patients free to roam Doncaster town centre. It was very believable at the time.”
The children in my class love making animations - and they’re good at it too (check out the Hexthorpe Primary website). Already this year, they have been twice nominated in the Bradford Animation Festival awards and won the UK’s first ‘World Book Day Award’, bagging the school £10,000 worth of books. Ask any of them what they want to be when they grow up, and “famous animator” comes right up there with “footballer” and “pop star”. And this may not be such an unrealistic goal, given the success of Donny’s home-grown talent in this area. I asked David what advice he would give to any up-and-coming animators out there...
“My advice would be start small. Do lots of little things. Always look at one area you can improve each time. Don't expect a solo project to ever look like Pixar or something like that - they have teams of hundreds. And probably my biggest bit of advice would be don't worry about it looking or being wrong, it might just be different and your eyes need to adjust to it. Faults make things more interesting.”
What are you working on at the moment?
“My first attempt at a feature length animation. Also writing a book. It won't be about animation. It will be fiction.”
So with David Firth working on an animated feature, the success of a new generation of animators, and the animation course at Doncaster College becoming one of its most popular, it seems that perhaps Doncaster does have the makings of a new home for British animation.
Last year the streets of Bristol, home of Aardman Animations, were adorned with an arts trail of giant ‘Gromit’ sculptures, each one individually decorated by famous names from the worlds of art, film and music. Could Doncaster one day become the new Bristol? Who knows what weird and wonderful characters our future generations of animators will create. We could even have our own arts trail one day, celebrating our somewhat darker, more surreal take on the animation world. Just imagine it, a giant Weebl bobbing about in front of the Frenchgate or a life-size Salad Fingers lurking around the Tut n Shive.