Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of meeting Simon Parsons, Head of BBC Children’s, Scotland. We’ve been corresponding ever since about topics ranging from the wonderful talent in the Scottish Animation industry to his goals for BBC Children’s. The one word that kept coming up in our conversations was “quality” which is a word I like very much. So I asked Simon if he would agree to be interviewed for the blog and he has graciously agreed. Below is my interview with Simon. A big thank you to Sara Harkins for helping us get this together during summertime!
JOSH: When we met at MIPTV, I was impressed by your passion for animation. Has this always been an interest of yours?
SIMON: To be honest, I loved animation as a boy but drifted away from it as I grew up. I was always more of a Warner Brothers kid than a Disney kid. I guess the mayhem and stupendous music did it for me! But by the time I started making short films back in Manchester, the impatience of Yosemite Sam had definitely taken over from Bugs’ easygoing, take it as it comes, attitude. I wanted everything to happen “now!” and I couldn’t do that with animation. But some things just keep on coming back and eventually nag you into submission. I’ve always loved how the limitlessness of the animated universe frees up the imagination to make it work overtime. Once bitten you’re caught forever. When I’d just started at my first job as assistant film editor, I worked alongside a rostrum camera operator who used to beg short ends of 16mm film from the camera ops as they came back from location. He’d stay every night to shoot cells to develop the character of an ethically challenged family of meerkats. We’d sit and talk about whether a particular twitch of the whiskers told of worldly wisdom or curmudgeonly grumpiness. I love that about animation. It’s acting in fine detail. It took him weeks to get the rushes back and although he’d have been fired if he got caught, he just couldn’t stop. So last year when a couple of guys in our development team said they wanted to pitch an animated comedy sketch show, based on vegetables, how could I say no? We got the commission and OOglies was born. There’s a deep curiosity and mischief amongst animators. It’s their passion that you see.
JOSH: I’ve been watching quite a bit of Scottish animation lately and the work is really excellent. From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge facing the animation industry in Scotland at the moment?
SIMON: I’ve been saying this for quite a while to anyone who would listen: There is a world of animation talent in this small country, brewing up and concocting all sorts of ideas with a constant flow of new people coming out of the universities. They’re turning out artists and animators who are – to unashamedly use an overused term – world class. We have a video gaming industry that is a massive, unsung Scottish success. It’s bizarre to think that one of the biggest titles in video gaming, “Grand Theft Auto” comes from a corridor of activity between Dundee and Edinburgh. The energy the gaming industry has injected into animation has gone far wider than games and web apps. The challenge is for the talent to make its presence felt in film and TV. The opportunity lies in the fact that the reputation of this place in no way matches its current success, let alone its potential. Scottish animation is successful but these days anyone can buy a Mac and make a movie and even being talented isn’t enough. You just get lost in the noise. To get to the next stage it needs to make a giant splash, to get renowned for something.
JOSH: And what are some of the advantages that the Scottish animation industry has in this ever-changing market?
SIMON: Well, it’s two things. There are a lot of small animation companies who are all run by people who have a determination to do something new and a zeal for quality. At the same time, the magnet of successful video game companies is pulling brilliant people from around the globe into our universities. It’s a wonderful cocktail of creativity. All the raw materials are here.
JOSH: Let’s talk preschool. Are there preschool shows coming out of Scotland these days? If so, please tell us about them.
SIMON: Preschool is a really important part of the TV sector here. Although it’s not all animation, over the last few years we’ve been moving further and further down that track. One title that is animation and has been hugely successful is 64 Zoo Lane. It’s made by one of the most established companies in Scotland, Red Kite. Ken Anderson is probably one of the most irrepressible advocates for animation here. He’s got an immense track record but is just as at home in the web as with traditional linear animation. Waybuloo is a new landmark series from The Foundation (part live action, part CG animation – although the animation was made by Decode in Canada). In-house we’ve just had another re-commission for “Nina and the Neurons,” a science show blending live action with animation. And for the future we have Same Smile (live action) plus a collaboration with Sixteen South in Belfast who are best known here for Sesame Tree. And I can’t forget LazyTown Extra. Although our initial input was all live action we learned a lot working with Magnus Scheving and his team. We went on to build a sumptuous online board game. It’s highly sociable. You have to roll dice and move counters round a 3-D landscape but there’s a host of pop up videos that lead you to talk and take on fun physical challenges as you move through a virtual LazyTown.
JOSH: When it comes to commissioning new children’s series, what is the relationship between BBC Scotland, CBeebies and CBBC?
SIMON: Our relationship with the commissioners in London is similar to, but not the same as, if we were an indie. We live or die by our commissions and although there is an in-house guarantee, we wouldn’t last long if we relied on it to get business. We have to compete on quality, pure and simple. It’s our job to make the commissioners forget about quotas. If you start focusing on things like that you might as well run the planning department in a cardboard box factory. No. We stand or fall by our ideas and our ability to deliver. The other side of it is that indies can use us to approach the commissioners if they wish. It’s something you wouldn’t entertain in the commercial sector but being inside the BBC enables me to take a broader view. I want there to be a strong indie sector in Scotland. There are millions of stories out there and while some of them can capture the imagination of a global audience there are others that have a much narrower but deeper resonance for their smaller audience. I don’t think anyone wants to end up with a monoculture of global success stories but nothing else. We’d all be the poorer for that. Broadcasters need to be perpetually challenged to find the best stories for their audience. We need a strong and diverse indie sector and helping that happen is part of my job.
JOSH: Little Airplane UK has been thinking about a move from London to Manchester to stay close to BBC Children’s and to support this bold new initiative to create a media center in the north. What are your thoughts on the BBC’s move?
SIMON: Manchester is a thriving, bustling creative place but it has a different rhythm from London. London can be quite polished and a bit brash whereas Manchester has the mentality of an upstart who doesn’t know where all the boundaries lie. I think that’s a good thing, by the way. They’re both wonderful places but there will be a difference and I think when people look back in ten years time, they’ll see it on screen.
JOSH: What are some of your goals for the coming two years in regards to the children’s television industry in Scotland?
SIMON: The industry here needs to produce a world-renowned brand; one that’s recognized creatively and commercially successful in the major territories. We need “cut through.” In the past, we’ve come close but the goal has to be to make that happen. It’s about building that reputation I was talking about earlier and making it match the reality.
JOSH: What is your favorite part of your job?
SIMON: Can I have two? Seeing an audience go wide-eyed. Jumping in to direct when the director goes sick.
JOSH: And, just to be fair, what is your least favorite part?
SIMON: Time lost in airports.
JOSH: Yes, I can sympathize with that. Thank you, Simon!
As always, I invite you to leave any questions or comments below. I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks.