independent

Friday 25 July 2014

Simplicity the key to animator John Rice's success

Published 13/03/2013|05:36

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TAKING a look at the impressive CV of Abbeydorney animator John Rice, it's clear to see that hard work, dedication and sheer determination really does pay off - no matter what the obstacles may be.

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In addition to three hugely popular TV series that are currently showing in the UK, the north Kerry man's trophy cabinet is filling up fast, with an IFTA, BAFTA and highly coveted Royal TV Society Award already to his credit.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise then that the father of three was kicked out of animation college before qualifying because he was caught up with too many other projects; or that his first job never materialised because the studio that hired him went bust on his very first day.

Looking back, John laughs and says he pinches himself every now and again when he thinks of how things have panned out, in spite of the setbacks.

"I studied animation at Ballyfermot Senior College for three years but I got kicked out because I was too distracted by other businesses I had on the go. I was only 18 but I was also running a night club, a graphic design company and a window painting business. If I'm honest I was enjoying myself too much so I never got to finish (college)," he said. "Funnily enough, I never worried about it because I had a portfolio so you really didn't need a degree to get work back then."

A huge fan of cartoons growing up, and Warner Brothers classics in particular, John's ability to animate was one of his strong points, he says, and one that was very much supported by his parents David and Treasa. With no art classes available to him in Tralee CBS, his parents paid for private art classes in Tralee as a teenager.

After his premature departure from Ballyfermot Senior College, John landed what should have been his a dream job with animated film production company, Sullivan Bluth, in Dublin - but undortunately it was never to be.

"This was the second largest animation studio in the world at the time and had created classics like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail, so I was delighted to get a job there. Unfortunately the day I started, the company went into liquidation, so that was the end of that," John recalled.

Luckily for him though, some of the company's crew moved on to 20th Century Fox in Arizona, and after securing a 'green card', the then 20-year-old was among them.

"That was really exciting and I couldn't wait to get there. I was there for a couple of years and got to work in some great projects such as Anastasia and Titan AE," he said.

From there he moved to New York - where he met his wife Sarah - and worked with MTV, first as an animator and then in the area of character design. It wasn't long, however, before John realised that the industry was becoming more and more technological, and he knew he needed to upskill.

"Technology was breaking into the industry in a big, big way so I knew I needed to update my skills. If I had opted to stay in New York, a course would have taken years and cost me tens of thousands so I came home and did a post grad in Multimedia in Trinity," he explained. "It was something that had to be done to move with the industry, and meant that we were no longer drawing by hand but creating characters digitally. It meant that we could create characters a lot quicker and be more organic."

In 2002, John and two college friends Alan Shannon and Mark Cumberton toyed with the idea of setting up their own animation company, and shortly afterwards JAM (John, Alan, Mark) Media was born. Initially creating broadcast-quality animation for the internet, their big break came a year later when John's creation 'PicMe' was commissioned by RTE, before children's TV station Nickelodeon snapped it up for 180 territories.

The idea behind the innovative show - which allows viewers to star by superimposing their photograph on a cartoon body - came about somewhat by accident, however.

"I made an e-invite for my daughter's second birthday and it got a huge reaction because I personalised it for her," he said. "From there PicMe came about and established JAM as a studio that was different to others," he said.

Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength, creating the BAFTA and IFTA winning animation Roy, which is one of the most watched children's series in the UK with an audience of seven million viewers. Last October, Roy was recomissioned for a third and fourth series by the BBC, representing an investment of €8.8 million. Just weeks earlier, two other productions 'Tilly & Friends' and 'Baby Jake' - debuted on BBC children's channel, CBeebies.

But for all the success John and his partners continue to enjoy, he knows only too well how competitive the animation market can be and has an interesting philosophy on how to succeed within it. With massive competition from worldwide shows like Peppa Pig and Dora the Explorer, trying to directly compete isn't always the key.

"I'm a big believer in surrounding yourself with the best in the business rather than always trying to be the best. Children's animation is one of the most competitive industries out there so I don't try to compete with Peppa Pig, I just make the best shows I can make and hope children love them."

And with three children - Rebecca, Sophie and Dave - all aged under 12, he probably has the best advice in the world.

"They don't necessarily tell me if they don't like something, but they tell me what they would like to see, so I suppose you could say I've gotten a lot of my inspiration from them," he said. His wife Sarah also runs a creche from their Dublin home, so no prizes for guessing what's on their telly every day.

Although John now takes a more managerial role within JAM rather than hands on animation, he says there are still plenty more exciting projects in the pipeline including a 'Little Roy' series, a short film and lots of pre-school shows.

"It's exciting times and we're enjoying every minute of it and long may it continue," he said.

Kerryman

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