Words and interview by Simon Bland
When it first reared its ugly head, the pandemic was swiftly labelled ‘The Great Leveller’ but that wasn’t strictly true, especially when it came to animation. As thousands were forced to work from home, this particular industry adapted better than most – and with in-real-life production taken off the table, commissions for work that could be completed safely at home flew in. For the UK’s animation sector, it’s been a time of great change but also great success. Just ask Ben Smith, Creative Director of Sheffield animation studio Red Star 3D, a company he founded with business partner Jan Rogowski around 15 years ago.
Starting life by creating short, animated 3D films for visitor attractions like museums and theme parks, the organisation soon mastered its niche and pushed it as far as it could go. Replete with immersive elements like water splashes and moving seats, Red Star’s work ultimately made its way onto screens all around the world, earning many film festival accolades in the process. However after spying a glass ceiling that would limit the company’s growth, they decided to roll the dice and pivot. What followed was a new goal that would see them create a fully fledged feature film – and they haven’t looked back since.
“We put together a film called Star Dog and Turbo Cat about superhero pets. That came out at the end of 2019 and had the voices of Luke Evans, Nick Frost, Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy,” says Smith of Red Star’s star-studded feature debut signalling their change of niche. “It was released in around 400 UK cinemas, which is about half the cinemas in the UK.” For Smith and Rogowski, the decision to jump from B2B to B2C filmmaking was one that made perfect sense yet required a lot of self belief. “We literally just had to do it,” chuckles Smith. “We spent a long time running around trying to see if people would invest in us or buy into it and, at the end of the day, we just had to make that jump ourselves to prove it was going to work.”
It was a gamble that paid off – and one that led them to more work within the same creative field. Despite the ongoing covid-19 chaos, Smith and his team are already hard at work on another feature – an animated adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s fantasy tale The Amazing Maurice. As a co-production between Red Star, Cantilever Media, Sky Cinema, Studio Rakete and Ulysses Filmproduktion, the film invites Red Star to create animation for a movie with a bigger scope and star appeal, with names like Hugh Laurie, David Thewlis and Game of Thrones’ actor Emilia Clarke already confirmed to lend their voices to the project.
“We’re making half of the film alongside a studio in Germany,” explains Smith on Red Star’s involvement, going on to mention that the movie’s script and character design are being handled by external teams. “That being said, we’re at the frontlines of implementing this and making it happen. The way the production has set it up is very good and the designs are excellent. The world of Terry Pratchett is just so visual and established in everyone’s minds, it was great to have this canvas to put that on to the screen,” he smiles. “I think this is the first time that Pratchett has been done in animation without the constraints of live-action – and it’s coming out great. Everybody is really pleased with it.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s team have been able to swiftly adapt to the ‘new normal’ or remote working. It’s something Red Star’s Creative Director was sure was going to happen sooner or later and frankly, he embraced it. “We could all go and work from home because of what we do, so we were extremely lucky and persevered,” says Smith, sympathising with those in other sectors who were hit harder by the pandemic. “Everyone’s still working from home – and certainly going forward, we’re going to have a much more hybrid model with people physically and virtually present. Honestly, I’m not sure it really matters,” he reasons. “It just enables us to be more flexible.”
What’s more, our heightened reliance on streaming media has made Red Star’s expertise more valuable than ever: “We were making content aimed at video on demand and streaming and that market has expanded,” says Smith. “That was happening anyway but the pandemic threw fuel on the fire.”
While production on The Amazing Maurice continues towards its 2022 Sky Cinema debut, Smith is already actively planning for the company’s future. As a member of 2021’s Creative Enterprise Evolve cohort, he’s been partnered with industry expert mentor Travis Baxter to help his company level-up when it comes to meeting potential investors and securing future funding. “We want to grow and make more films and neither me nor my business partner have a background or experience in raising finance,” admits Smith, detailing his decision to join the programme. “So far, it has been really useful,” he continues. “They’ve given us a mentor who is genuinely interested in what we’re talking about so it’s a win-win, to be honest.”
In addition to expert advice, Smith is also grateful for the introductions Creative UK has been able to facilitate when it comes to meeting the people who can help catalyse growth. “It can be difficult to be taken seriously,” he says of the issues that come with carving out your own path. “When we were trying to get our first feature film off the ground, we went around and pitched it for years and nobody really took us seriously because we hadn’t made a feature film. We were kind of outside the industry. I’ve been really impressed with the calibre of speakers and people involved in this scheme,” admits Smith. “It’s been very constructive.”
Whilst still only part way through the programme, Smith already knows where he’d like to end up: “I want to be able to go to the market for investment. I come from a creative filmmaking and computer-based background – and this is something I just don’t get,” he tells us, highlighting the tricky differences that often exist among those with a strong creative brain but a lack of practical insight when it comes to growing their company. “Creative Enterprise Evolve is teaching me and I’m beginning to understand it.”
With the company already well on its way to future success beyond their trip to Terry Pratchett’s illustrious fantasy world, Smith hopes Red Star can create more big screen adventures in the years to come with the help of advice gleaned from Creative Enterprise Evolve. “We’d like to be making films on a regular basis and putting new content out there,” he smiles, sharing visions of a five year plan. “I’d love to continue making fun, entertaining films that audiences enjoy and the market appreciates around the world.”