This month, we talk to Mark Taylor, Co-Director of Bristol-based A Productions, the animation studio internationally recognised for producing high quality, award winning, creative, and innovative work.
A Productions is a multi-award-winning, creative led, independent production studio, working in traditional & digital 2D, CGI & live action. Can you give us a little backstory about when and how it was founded?
Trying to condense 35 years is tough!
We set up in 1985 as A for Animation. I had been working as a rostrum cameraman and with Nigel Davies (animator) and Theresa Whatley (artist), bought a second-hand rostrum camera and an ex-BBC Steenbeck. We produced old school, hand drawn Cel animation – titles, commercials and really anything animated for lots of different broadcasters. So, the studio was born.
Some of our early work included titles for Playbus, Antiques Roadshow and for David Attenborough’s First Eden. We did a lot of work with other studios like Aardman, Cosgrove Hall, Animation City & King Rollo across a range of projects and styles.
Our first series commission came in 1989 with Rubbish! King of the Jumble for CiTV. This marked a change for us, and we now did longer form work alongside our other work.
We became digital with the arrival of ANIMO in the early 90’s, which changed our workflows considerably. With Derek Hayes at Animation City, we worked on Prince Cinders for C4 and on promos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, and Elton John.
In 2000, Nigel & Theresa left to go to Aardman. We moved studios and changed the name to A Productions. We got involved in a lot of live action and other types of production, adding CGI to our traditional and digital 2D work. We also started working with the wonderful folks at Tell-tale, providing all the animation for 300+ eps of The Tweenies, then moving on to produce 104 episodes of Boo for CBeebies and lots more.
We followed this with 104 x 11 of Driver Dan’s Story Train, a show we originated with Estelle Hughes and Teresa Reed, and other series work that followed included Frankenstein’s Cat (for Mackinnon & Saunders) Numtums S2 for CBeebies, & working with the lovely Driana Jones on Mister Maker and Let’s Play.
Most recently we produced JoJo and Gran Gran as well as Love Monster (with Karrot) both for CBeebies plus an animated Sesame Street Special and loads of short form content.
That’s only a small selection!
What would you say is A Productions’ personality as a company?
Friendly, collaborative & creative. We are proud that our clients come back to work with us again and again. We work hard to create a sincerity and thoughtfulness about the work we produce and try hard to share those values with everyone who works with us here at A Prods. It really helps to get everyone pointing in the same direction, understanding what we want to achieve as a team and helping us deliver the level of creative output we have built our reputation on.
If that sounds a bit of a warm & fluffy ethos, I would add that it’s underpinned by our experience and ability to deliver on budget and to schedule.
The studio has been running for over 35 years – Congratulations! Has the structure of A Productions as a company seen any changes recently?
Yes, we recently made changes to strengthen and define the leadership team at A Productions. After 18 years across a number of senior roles, Katherine McQueen has been made MD and is now also major shareholder in the company.
Katherine will help shape the company strategy alongside myself, and I remain joint MD. (I’m also directing on a new show slated for 2021.) Amelia Berry has joined as senior producer, Duncan Fraser has been made Head of Production across all productions, and Paul Hill now heads up Post and VFX work.
Despite the difficulties of COVID, we are grateful to have experienced a really positive period of growth and development these last few years and as we consolidate that growth we will continue to look to hire remotely and in-studio into the next year across a range of productions.
This year has seen a lot of social and cultural shifts in terms of representation and providing a voice for marginalised communities – What would you say are A Productions’ core-values in connecting with audiences?
We have always been really aware of the way we need to connect to our audience to make our story telling and our content authentic and sincere. JoJo and Gran Gran for CBeebies is the first UK preschool show to feature a black British family, and has challenged us in a really positive way. We’ve had to re-address and improve the way we tell those stories, on both sides of the screen.
From the outset we knew such an important show had to have a voice that was authentic and truly told the stories and reflected the experiences of the communities and characters it was portraying. We benefit from being based in a multi-cultural city like Bristol, so we went out and undertook extensive research and interviews. We created a panel made up of a broad range of voices from these communities who could share their direct experiences and perspectives. This panel then worked directly with our creative teams to educate and focus the look, tone, and heart of the show.
It can get easy to keep doing business in the same way over many years. We have always been proud of the gender split of our teams, but we knew we could and should do more on the diversity within the company. Working with Jo Sunderland at Diverse Insights, we undertook a complete diversity audit and established a number of initiatives to broaden our hiring and skills training.
This had tangible results in the make-up of the production crew on the show, and it has been brilliant to see the initiative coming to fruition. This isn’t a one-off and we need to keep looking at how we operate and challenging ourselves to do better.
Despite the global impact of the pandemic, the UK Animation industry has remained ever-more open for business – Do you feel that there has been/will be a shift in the landscape of how industry operates moving forward?
Without doubt. Like many studios we were in full flow on several long form productions. First, we had to make a rapid transition to entirely remote working, and now we’re finding a balance between remote and in-house output.
Remote working offered a different way of working for a lot of staff, and many took to it entirely positively. But childcare issues, solitary conditions, and more mundane issues (erratic internet connections for example) definitely tested this.
I definitely think there is still a place for secure and managed studio spaces. The need for social interaction is pretty important creatively and personally. After talking to all our team, we think the way we work as a creative company cannot be done entirely remotely.
On a good note, it has widened the talent pool, effectively globalising our hiring. But we definitely are looking to maintain an important, albeit reduced, studio presence.
Do you have any favourite projects/milestones that A Productions Animations has worked on/achieved over the years?
There have been many, many highlights along the way. Where do we begin?
Making a Mr Lift commercial for £50! (it was rather simple). The excitement of getting our very first series commission back in 1989 for Rubbish! King of the Jumble (partly as we got to work with Alexei Sayle!). Producing content for Prince Charles’ Rain Forest project, a genuinely interesting and educating experience. Working with the lovely John Leagas, who happily let us make a radio series on poetry with Michael Rosen.
Working on the Tweenies, where we had to come up with so many utterly different bits of content for a show that became so successful. Working on Spitting Image, with Aardman, with Mackinnon & Saunders, and in fact working with so many brilliant studios and people right around the world on projects too numerous to mention.
More recently we were so proud, and honestly humbled, to take on production of Laura Henry’s JoJo and Gran Gran for CBeebies. And also to have produced Sesame Street’s first ever animated special The Monster at the end of this Story for HBO Max. Being trusted to work with such truly iconic characters was amazing.
35 years of brilliant moments and we are still having fun, enjoying what we do and looking forward to what comes next.
Can you tell us anything about what may be in coming up in the near future for A Productions?
As I said, we have a really full slate for the upcoming period. We are currently starting out on another Sesame Street special and short series. We have a new CG series for the States starting in 2021 and we are in the final stages of prepping 2 other 2D shows ready for production start in 2021.
It’s safe to say, we are hiring.
Sounds fantastic – thank you for your time Mark!