Short, British and animated: how funding has supported a new wave of UK animation

With Annecy International Animation Festival in full swing, and with just under a month before the deadline for applications to the BFI National Lottery Short Form Animation Fund, animation curator Jez Stewart looks back on some of the fund’s successes to date.

Beware of Trains (2022)

Back in the 1990s, British animation was on a roll. Wallace and Gromit and the cast of Creature Comforts (1989) had broken through a pop culture barrier as animated characters who were cherished outside the confines of children’s television. The name of the studio behind them, Aardman, was an increasingly recognised brand, built around a distinctive look, an unpretentious humour, and a whole lot of graft and talent. 

But Aardman was only the most public face of a thriving industry that had been buoyed by investment in that most fragile of creatures: the animated short film. The “licence to be different” handed to Channel 4 from its screen debut in 1982 had provided funding and a platform for a range of marginalised voices. But it also proved an unexpected patron for British animation. With wider support from the BBC, S4C and the Arts Council, the distinctive talents of Barry Purves, Joanna Quinn, Daniel Greaves, Candy Guard and Erica Russell were able to flourish in a series of independent and distinctive short films that starred at animation festivals, dominated awards categories and were screened on television (if you liked late nights…). 

While Aardman’s star continued to rise in the 2000s as they made the leap into animated feature films, the rest of the industry began to fall back to Earth. Programming at Channel 4 was changing and the commercial industry struggled to compete with favourable tax breaks for animation in other countries. It was on this somewhat bum note that I ended my book The Story of British Animation, a brisk meander through the ups-and-downs of 11 decades of animation history in the UK. However, even at that time there were a few promising signs on the horizon, and the 2019 announcement of the new BFI Short Form Animation Fund was one of them – an intervention specifically designed to help foster a new wave of groundbreaking, higher budget films, and support the talents behind them. So as the third round of the scheme gets underway, it’s high time to look back on some of the achievements to date. 

How do you judge success for a scheme like this? We can look at awards, with three BAFTA nominations for best British short animation over the last two years. At the 2024 British Animation Awards BFI-supported films won best short film, the audience award and a cutting edge award. But this was never about gathering gongs. Much more important is the stories behind the films, and the impact of watching them. 

One of this year’s BAFTA nominees was Karni & Saul’s Wild Summon (2023), which draws drama from nature by anthropomorphising a female salmon on her treacherous journey back to her birthplace to spawn. The perfect melding of real landscapes, filmed in Iceland, with first-rate animation and VFX give this “natural history fantasy” an extraordinarily powerful punch for audiences. 

Wild Summon (2023)

Ainslie Henderson drew on nature in a different way, spending months in the woods of Northumberland filming stop-motion animation frame-by-frame outdoors, come rain or shine, for his film Shackle (2022). His handcrafted puppets feel as organic as the leaves, twigs and seed pods with which they interact. Perhaps most extraordinary is that the pains of working in such difficult conditions never come across on screen, and it is filled with often joyful sequences.

Shackle (2022)

One of my favourite aspects about the scheme is that it has been able to support new films from different generations of animators, from established names to emerging talents. Candy Guard’s She’s My Best Friend (And I Hate Her) (2023) is her first film for two decades, following her popular Channel 4 animated sitcom series Pond Life (1996 to 2000), and the hilarious shorts that led up to it. Her new film is recognisably her visual style and distinctive humour, and yet a fascinating evolution of both. The comments under the film’s YouTube posting offer a rare corner of the internet filled with positivity, recognition and appreciation: both for the comic truths of the film, and for Candy’s much-missed talents. 

She’s My Best Friend (And I Hate Her) (2023)

Towards the other end of the spectrum Diyala Muir graduated the RCA’s animation course with her film The Day After the Party (2016), followed by the festival favourite Blue Hands (2017). Though working successfully as an animation director, the commissioning of her new film Red Shoes (2022) for the scheme has allowed us another fascinating glimpse at her independent vision. Imagine that transmissions of Powell and Pressburger’s classic 1948 feature inspired by the same fairytale had been picked up by distant life in space, but somehow contorted with a medley of Saturday morning cartoons, inspiring a new creation story that was faxed back to animation festivals on Earth. Heady, delightful stuff. 

Red Shoes (2022)

Recognition has gone beyond the UK. Joseph Pierce’s Scale (2022), based on a Will Self novella, debuted at Critics Week in Cannes, and Wild Summon was nominated for the festival’s Palme d’Or for best short film in 2023. Emma Calder’s Beware of Trains (2022) won her the top prize at Austria’s Tricky Women festival, but just as importantly helped trigger a retrospective of her work in their programme. Emma began making animated short films while studying graphic design at the Royal College of Art in the 1980s, before it had its own animation course. Her work has long mixed 2D and 3D collage with printed textures and found objects to create sharp character stories with rich social and psychological themes. Beware of Trains is a darker work of astonishing depth and meaning, carried by a driving narrative and uncanny visuals. 

Beware of Trains (2022)

Another couple of favourites. Lizzy Hobbs is a national treasure, an ‘old school’ animator who has produced an extraordinary sequence of films in recent years, including I’m OK (2019) and The Flounder (2019), often drawing upon stories and characters from history. Her BFI-backed The Debutante (2023) is an adaptation of a short story by Leonora Carrington, bringing a new level of narrative to her work. But like all her films there is a rich seam of experiment, and her art explodes onto the screen with creative force and immediacy. Touch it and you might find the ink still wet. 

The Debutante (2023)

Samantha Moore is another invaluable figure in the animation scene, with a fascinating and eclectic trail of animated documentary shorts. To date her work has generally been 2D drawing (even if it was then printed onto fabric like her 2019 film Bloomers about a lingerie factory in Manchester). Visible Mending (2023) saw Sam work with stop-motion for the first time to document how knitting has helped a variety of individuals deal with challenging life situations – or “emotional repair through wool” as the film’s tagline puts it more neatly. 

Visible Mending (2023)

In my role as the BFI’s curator of animation, I was fortunate to be part of the application and interview process so I have some insight on the highlights yet to come. Anna Ginsburg’s Hag, Ellie Land’s Plunge and Baz Sells’ Two Black Boys In Paradise all have the potential to knock my socks off, and as the third round of funding begins I can’t wait to see what’s in store.