Sunday 19 August 2018

Sweet success with 'Mickey Mouse' job...Dublin-based animation studio makes its mark


John Rice of Jam Media. Photo: David Conachy
John Rice of Jam Media. Photo: David Conachy

Fearghal O'Connor

Becca and her two stuffed friends sit wide eyed and happy on a couch on a shelf in an office on Kevin Street.

There's a parade coming up, but Becca and her friends have a big problem: their car, according to a plot outline scribbled on a whiteboard at one end of Jam Media's boardroom, is a banger.

But for rapidly growing children's TV maker Jam, Becca's Bunch, as the new Nick Jr series is to be called, looks set to be a flier.

Jam's chief executive and co-founder John Rice gently takes the very cute - and likely very lucrative - production prototype puppet off the shelf, placing her on the boardroom table like a dad showing off his newborn.

Jam had worked on a series based on the adventures of a courageous little bird, but it was going nowhere. Then they saw a short film by young animator Conor Finnegan at the Galway Film Festival that used innovative live action puppets.

Finnegan was brought on board and special rigs were built in the company's Belfast studio, where Becca is now in the middle of a complex production process to deliver a 520-minute first series of Becca for Nickelodeon. Negotiations are also under way with toy manufacturers.

"If it ignites at all, and with subsequent seasons, something like this little guy could generate €15m over the course of its life on programme sales," says Rice. "Then with other stuff like toy deals or whatever... who knows?"

Jam's boardroom is a curious mix of business functionality and children's playroom.

Its colourful array of characters, usually aimed at younger children, adorn a room that otherwise could be the hub of a corporate solicitor's practice. Rice, too, dressed casual but smart, could just as easily be the creative head of an advertising firm. But his easy laugh betrays a predilection for fun.

If Becca's Bunch takes off, it will be just the latest hit for Jam, with shows like Picme and Roy playing to young audiences around the world.

And there's lots more to come. Rice points to a series of detailed timelines outlining production deadlines drawn neatly on one side of the big whiteboard: "This is Jessy & Nessy, which Amazon Prime has bought. This is a pilot for PBS in America. This is Tiara Jones, which is something we are doing with CBBC," he says.

With a growing number of series coming through production, turnover is expected to grow from €9m to €20m over the next three years.

"And then we have a couple of other options that have been taken out by a big US company, which I am not allowed talk to you about. I would love to ... ," he says with a big laugh, "next time."

"What I can say is that we are developing a series with a major US network. If it happens it will be fantastic."

The idea for that yet-to-be-revealed show came from a six-minute student pitch at last year's Jam-backed Animation Dingle festival, which runs again next weekend. The festival is expected to attract key decision-makers from Amazon, BBC, Disney, RTÉ, Cartoon Network, Apple and Nickelodeon to the Kerry town. Little wonder that the 350 student tickets sold out overnight.

Jam's expansion has happened alongside growth across the entire sector in Ireland. Animation now employs more than 2,000 people here, generating hundreds of millions from exports.

In recent times, Irish animation studios have bagged Baftas, Emmys and Academy Awards.

"It's fantastic," said Rice. "There was a time you would almost feel guilty if you were in production because so many weren't. Now there are a lot of great studios here."

"Ireland," he says, "is as synonymous with animation as the Nordics are with gritty crime dramas. We have a real brand as a country internationally. We have overtaken long-established countries like Canada, which for a long time was seen as a hotbed for animation companies. I think we are slowly eclipsing them."

Rice grew up in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry and was more interested in drawing on his school work than in the school work itself.

"Art was always my thing. I was always doodling and drawing and daydreaming. When I was growing up there wasn't too much to do in terms of creativity. It was kind of like 'Animation? What the hell is that? A Mickey Mouse job'."

That has all changed now, and he is a strong believer that young people should be encouraged to get into creative industries like animation, where there is a growing skills shortage.

"It has totally changed. Back then there was only one college in the whole of Ireland that you could go to if you were interested in animation - Ballyfermot College of Further Education, where I went in 1991. Now there are 23 colleges with courses."

The animation course in Ballyfermot in those days fed Sullivan Bluth, the studio established in Dublin in the mid-1980s by former Disney animator Don Bluth. But halfway through Rice's course, Sullivan Bluth closed down.

"There was nowhere to go for animators in Ireland. They were dishing out Morrison visas and if you got one you were pretty much guaranteed a job in America. Out of our class of 25 in Ballyfermot about 15 went to the States and the rest, I would imagine, did not keep it up."

An Oscar winner came out of the class - Richie Baneham for Avatar. There were also Emmy winners and the ones in the class who stayed with it have since gone on to achieve success, including the founders of other Irish animation companies like Brown Bag and Kavaleer.

"I don't know what made that class so successful but it felt exciting. We were doing something new. It felt vibrant and ... shiny. I think people do their best work when they are happy."

But, after graduating from a course that suddenly did not have any obvious outlet for employment in Ireland, Rice headed off, along with 250 relocated Sullivan Bluth staff, to take a job at the 20th Century Fox studio in Arizona, which Bluth himself was now heading up. There he worked on a number of animated films, including Anastasia, for three-and-a-half years.

"I learned my craft there, but I also could see the world changing around me. I was still using pencil and paper and animating by flipping sheets."

After a stint in New York doing character designs for MTV, Rice returned to Dublin to do a Masters in Multimedia in Trinity College in 1998 to open up the world of digital. He began using Adobe Flash as his animation tool and suddenly found himself with the ability to deliver broadcast quality content over the web. He had first met his two business partners, Mark Cumberton and Alan Shannon, in Ballyfermot. And now, with opportunities and possibilities opening up, the three decided to collaborate and set up Jam Media.

The original plan was to animate short adult-oriented jokes for the web: "We thought we would make loads of money from that. I have a cheque somewhere for $2.99 from six months of that business model."

The company's first big success came with the development of the children's programme Picme, an innovative kids show that made the viewers the stars. Jam had developed a software that allowed the superimposition of kids faces on to animated characters.

"It was like the launch of our first album. It was very innovative at the time and sold in 130 countries and is still available as an app. We are always looking to push out the boundaries of children's television. You can really push the boundaries with a younger audience more so than you can with an older one."

Currently, the company has about seven shows in development. Much of that initial work is done by the company's 30 staff at its headquarters in Dublin. In Belfast, the company has a studio with 75 people where, says Rice, "the heavy lifting is done" for the production of a series. The 30 staff in the Dublin head office are mainly focused on development.

"We have grown very organically over the years. We didn't take on any investment, apart from friends and family at the beginning. It has been nice steady growth.

"Two years ago, typically we would have been doing one series at any one time but now we have the facilities to do three, maybe four, and we will continue to do that."

To allow Jam's animators to focus on the most creative elements of their work, the company is developing its own artificial intelligence system that can do some of the more menial tasks.

For example, currently the mechanical rigs that transport Becca and her friends around their world must be laboriously covered over afterwards frame by frame by animators. Artificial intelligence will soon likely take care of that task.

"With the system we are developing, the machines will actually learn from the artists up in Belfast what their process is and be able to replicate that. We can then put those artists on less menial kinds of tasks," he says.

Rice is comfortable with Jam's rate of growth and believes it is very important to get the balance right between the creative spirit of the company and the desire for expansion.

"You can't really rush creativity too much. If we were to do five series a year is that going to make everything suffer? That's the ultimate challenge for us now that our profile is growing internationally and we are generating new relationships, with people coming to us rather than us coming to them. It's about having to say no sometimes. You are only as good as your last show. Every show has to be spectacular."

Rice says he enjoys the business side because he enjoys problem-solving. He still works on the early concept stages of story and character developments.

"It's all doodles on my desk, no notes," he says. "I don't see myself as particularly great at the production side of things and thankfully we have great people who do that."

He loves nothing more than to stick on his headphones and to start drawing: "It's creative, it's rewarding and you have this illusion of life at the end and a suspension of disbelief where people believe that what you just did is a living, breathing creature. That's quite cool."

Back on the shelf, there is good news for Becca from the whiteboard. She and her pal will successfully do up their banger car and it will be a big hit at the parade.

"Style and substance," is written next to the script outline, neatly summing up as well how Jam itself goes about its business.

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