When it comes to traditional stop-motion animation, you could say that Manchester is the center of the universe. This region has spawned such extraordinary companies as Mackinnon and Saunders (“Corpse Bride,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), Cosgrove Hall (“Little Robots,” “Engie Benjy”) and HOT Animation (“Bob the Builder,” “Thomas the Tank Engine”). The talent base here is, quite simply, the best in the world. So I was thrilled to get on a plane with Tom Brown, Little Airplane’s Head of Production, and fly to Manchester to have a look around the animation scene and get a tour of the incredible new development known as MediaCity UK, future home to our friends and colleagues at BBC Children’s.
On our first evening in Manchester, Tim Newns, our host from the Manchester Investment and Development Agency Service (MIDAS), took us down an icy alleyway to sample the local cuisine: tapas. We were greeted outside the restaurant by an elderly woman in a cowboy Santa hat smoking a cigarette. She spoke to us like our long lost British grandmother and, before we knew it, we had all become fast friends. As I soon learned, such experiences are not uncommon in the warm, quirky and creative culture that is Manchester.
During dinner, we somehow got to know George from the next table over who runs Circus, best known for being “the smallest pub in Manchester.” (George produced a well-worn newspaper article to prove this claim.) George was having his annual post-Christmas party for his colorful staff (which explained the cowboy Santa hat). By the time coffee was served, George was standing by our table with one of his colleagues who performed slight-of-hand magic for us with cards, coins and odd bits of red foam rubber.
I could see the worried look on Tim Newn’s face. He was thinking, “Josh is going to think that Manchester is completely nuts.” But I didn’t think it was nuts. I thought it was wonderful. And I knew that such an evening could never have happened in New York or London where George and his staff (who were right out of “The Iceman Cometh”), might have been thrown out of a tapas restaurant.
Over the next two days, I came to understand that these sorts of eccentric, welcoming personalities are exactly what this region of Great Britain is known for. Manchester is “Coronation Street,” the popular long-running ITV series and I completely enjoyed every minute of it.
Tom and I spent our first full day touring a variety of Manchester-based studios and meeting some of the local indies including RedVision, Startdotstar and The Neighbourhood. What impressed me most was not only the very high quality of the work they were producing but the fact that they all seemed to get along with one another. Ben Davies, Managing Director of The Neighbourhood, even named his company “The Neighbourhood” because he said he viewed it as part of a community of local creative companies all striving to make the best work possible.
I also got the opportunity to spend some time over lunch with Ian Mackinnon of Mackinnon and Saunders. If you do not yet know about Ian’s company, I’d encourage you to Google them. Ian and his business partner, Peter Saunders, design and build the very best stop-motion characters on the planet. They are now working on their own preschool show, “Rah Rah the Noisy Lion” with my dear friend Keith Chapman.
Tom and I explored a variety of really amazing building sites in Manchester including “The Hive,” a brand new complex of offices and studios designed specifically for digital media companies. We got to suit up like the Village People (which I found a little more exciting than I probably should have) and we stomped around the site in hardhats.
The highlight of this tour was when our burly guide, Oliver Butler, began singing the “Baby Jordan Song,” from “3rd & Bird!” Apparently his son Fred (pictured below) is a very big fan of this show, which we make for CBeebies in New York and London. I can’t begin to tell you how good it feels to have a stranger in a new country sing a song from one of your shows. It just makes all the hard work worthwhile.
The really big news in this region is the development of MediaCity UK, a small city comprised of offices, production facilities, apartments and retail stores just across the canal from Manchester in Salford Quays. As many of you know, I am a very big fan of being by the water, so I just loved this location. Imagine if you will the Sydney Harbor but, in exactly the place where the Sydney Opera House is, there stands the gorgeous new building that will soon be home to the team from BBC Children’s. That’s what MediaCity looks like: A pearl on the canal’s rugged coastline.
Tom and I got to suit up like construction workers for the second day in a row (no less thrilling) and we were given a complete tour of MediaCity by Jason Legget of the Peel Media Group, who own and run the entire development.
Peel is a commercial organization that builds and operates airports and shopping malls throughout the world, so they are no strangers to designing for large groups of people. From what we saw, Peel is sparing no expense to insure that this will be an irresistible hub for a wide variety of media companies who are currently considering MediaCity UK for their new global headquarters. The BBC, in fact, is expected to lease only 20-30% of the space at MediaCity. The rest will be for local and international companies.
I suspect this all sounds very corporate to many of you and you’re probably wondering why a small indie with a penchant for old red brick buildings like Little Airplane would even consider having offices in a new complex like MediaCity UK. I wondered the same thing. But Jason explained to us that several of the buildings in MediaCity have been earmarked for indies and one of Peel’s goals is to insure that indies are an integral part of MediaCity UK.
As proof of this commitment, Peel has a wide variety of flexible, low cost spaces that can be built out as needed for either animation or live-action production. One of these buildings, The Pie Factory, was once the home to a big bakery that produced little meat pies for Tesco, a UK supermarket. Tom and I saw firsthand that this building is already being used by an array of small and mid-sized media companies that are currently in production on both commercials and original series.
When Tom and I returned to London, everyone seemed puzzled by the fact that we were actively considering a move to Manchester. But our reasons are simple. Though we have studios in London and New York, we believe that having an additional studio in Manchester that is staffed by the very best storyboard artists, designers and animators in the UK will be a very valuable (and fun) new asset for our company. (Not to mention that rent is way cheaper in the north.)
But, perhaps even more importantly, we like to be where the action is. And I believe that the action in the kids’ TV business in the next ten years will be in MediaCity and the Greater Manchester area. In fact, I’m willing to bet on it. So Tom and I will be back very soon. If everything goes as planned, we hope to have a small outpost here before the year’s end. Is it a gamble? Certainly. But no more so than opening up in New York or London. And, as they say in the Lotto commercials, “You gotta be in it to win it!”
If anyone has questions about our trip or would like more information, please feel free to write a comment or question below or e-mail me at email@example.com. If you’d like to take your own tour of Greater Manchester, I suggest contacting the following individuals. They are wonderful guys and I suspect they’ll be happy to hear from you.
Tim Newns of MIDAS Manchester: Tim.Newns@Midas.org.uk
Jason Legget of MediaCity UK: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also check out this great blog to follow all of the happenings in and around MediaCity UK: www.mediacityblog.com
If you do make it up to Manchester, please be sure to stop by Circus and tell George that Josh and Tom say “hello.”
The first pint is on us.
Looking forward to seeing all of you at KidScreen!