The staff of London-based animation studio Trunk seem to be busy as bees: I asked to visit them after their freshest release at the time, an advertisement for Land Rover, had caught my eye; the day before my visit, a new short, “Gelato Go Home”, had just been aired on the short film slot on Channel 4; and by the time I got around to transcribing my tapes and committing this article to virtual paper, another short film, “Back in the Day”, was ready to be shared with the world. Their work spans a variety of styles and techniques, reflecting the different artistic sensibilities of the Trunk directors, but it’s always visually exciting and fun. I arrived at their office one afternoon to chat to over a cup of tea about animation, the universe and everything with resident producer Richard, director and animator Layla and Pip, who is in charge of promoting all these awesome cartoons.
The nuts and bolts of Trunk
I explained to my hosts that my homeland had little to no animation industry, so I was very interested to know more about the workings of making animation in a professional environment. The governing principle of Trunk is simple: a commercial production company that supports all its directors in doing their own work (short films, music videos with small budgets) with the money it gets from corporate clients. Commercials are, then, the main source of income, though not the main source of fun.
(Richard: “But if you get a good team that’s got good money, it’s amazing”. Layla: “A bad team that’s got good money is also amazing!”) Though most of the Trunk people are based in London, some of the directors collaborating with the studio live abroad-there’s even a Bucharest-based collective, Weareom, on their list– but they work as independent groups for which Trunk acts as an executive producers; otherwise, coordinating the working process would be very difficult. It’s especially hard to direct animators outside the studio, “unless it’s a miracle and they get it right the first time”, Layla says. “You can’t just go over the phone: can you make it more like this?” and she acts out some movements and sounds that I can’t describe accurately in writing, thus proving her point. Trunk works with freelancers, which allows them flexibility in the scope of their projects: on the larger ones, they’ve pulled in up to twenty people and required extra space; on others, it’s just 2-3 people working together.
These days, the commissions come directly from companies in about half of the jobs, the rest need to be pitched for. Layla describes the usual workflow: “Richard will decide which director is appropriate for the job, and then there are a couple of weeks of designing and working on an animatic, and going back with it to the client- once the client’s ok with it we just go into production, which is normally quite quick, 2-3 weeks. Then we’ll do sound design; we normally work with a composer based in Slovenia.” Do the companies know what they want from the beginning? “Sometimes they’ll know which director they want, but they won’t have a script, sometimes they’ll have a script, but they don’t know what style they want, so we’ll come up with visual references…It’s never twice the same”. One of their recent clients, the antivirus software manufacturer Kaspersky, for example, knew that they wanted an entire campaign, but the concept for the 9 spots came from Trunk – a lighthearted and fun approach, as opposed to the usual ominous tone of Internet security advertisements.
Is there such thing as a Trunk style, or trademark? Richard, Layla and Pip don’t think it’s a visual one, and can’t quite agree on its definition (Pip: “Brilliance”. Richard: “It’s an ethos”. Layla: “It’s an aroma. A studio smell. Spicy and sweet.”), but they do agree on humor, and mixed media as recurring ingredients. Their recent “Gelato Go Home” short, a story of flying ice cream vans featuring both 2d and 3d animation, is a good example of the above, and I had the opportunity to watch it in the Trunk office in a “world press exclusive” screening. (Alas, the Trunk people were disappointed to hear of yet another thing that the UK and Romania don’t have in common: ubiquituous ice-cream vans.)
Animation as a business
So how does one set up an animation studio? The key concept is division of labor- you need a group of people to begin with, and one of them has to be a producer. Layla, who is one of the founders of Trunk, explains the difficulties of starting without a producer: “It was me, and two other people, and we were all directors. We did that for four years, but it was very tough because we were producing stuff ourselves, and we weren’t very good at it, so we got Richard, and suddenly it just made everything run much smoother. A producer can sell you much better than you can sell yourself, I think. ” The business side of things, which can sometimes be the boring side of things, needs to be handled by a dedicated person.
Ok, so you’ve got your crew together- then what? Well, you work for free and try to get some nice projects that you can show off. It’s better to have another job to support yourself (Richard: “If you don’t need to rely on your animation as your main income, then it takes the pressure off”). Music videos are a good gateway; they’re almost never well paid, but that can be an advantage: the record company can take a risk with the pitch of an unknown director. Above all, it’s about working continuously, without thinking of money and prestige- because work leads to more work, and it also creates opportunities for other artists who can join your project . Richard: “There are a lot of people who are sitting around and just waiting, whether for the right story, or for funding …no, if you want to make it, let’s get on it, just start making your way slowly and doing it. You don’t just sit there and say, oh, I’ve been thinking about doing stuff, oh, I’m still writing my script”. Layla: “Just do something. Because you’re never going to make something brilliant unless you make lots of things that are rubbish. You need to start somewhere”.
Of course, you’ll still need to acquire a certain degree of skill. Understanding the basic principles of timing, movement, volume etc. is essential, especially since the widespread accessibility of technology has the downside of resulting in a huge amount of animation coming from people who can use tools like After Effects, but don’t know how to draw. (“Sometimes you see stuff on TV, and you think: that dinosaur weighs nothing”, Pip sighs.) You have to know the rules before you can break them, whether you learn them in an animation school, or in some other kind of art school, or by yourself. If you’re stranded somewhere without an academic pathway to animation – let’s say, absolutely at random, Romania-, get your hands on Flash and Richard Williams’ “The Animator’s Survival Kit” and find out if you’ve got what it takes to be an animator: “You have to be able to sit in the dark for six months pressing a button, and not break”.
Whatever happened to 2D animation?
Trunk was one of the many British studios that contributed to “A Liar’s Autobiography”- the animated story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (which was reviewed for Animation Magazine not long ago). They were responsible for the pink-tinted “Holiday in Spain” segment, which they produced over six months under the coordination of four of their directors. Their impression of the finished feature seems to match mine: a visually interesting film that didn’t quite come together as it should have, story-wise.
Why is it so rare to see quality 2D animation getting a cinema release these days? The Trunk people don’t really know either. Layla is hopeful that good things are going to make their way to the top one way or another- so can this mean that currently, there just aren’t any good scripts for 2d features? Then again, many of the current CGI productions that make millions in theaters don’t have good scripts either. (“But they rely on big companies that can force people to watch them by promoting them down your throat”, she says). Animation has the potential of displaying a tremendous amount of freedom and innovation in both content and form, and yet what we see in theaters is becoming more and more conservative. It’s understandable, if we think of the large sums of money that big studios have to generate continuously: “I would say that when a company gets so big, you’re forced to make bad decisions”, Richard opines. “And you have to maintain theme parks”, adds Layla. Moral of the story: don’t wish for your animation studio to achieve theme park levels of fame! Still, Richard, Pip and Layla are confident that a company with an unique vision behind it, an interesting visual style and confident storytelling could do for 2D what Pixar and Aardman did for CGI and stop motion, respectively.
Is animation the best job in the world? I ask, although I’m quite convinced of the affirmative answer already. “Yes it is!” Layla says. “Most of the time, it’s drawing pictures of cats”. Richard tries to temper the enthusiasm a bit: “Sometimes it is. I work with lovely people. It’s not coal mining”. (But then again, he doesn’t get to draw pictures of cats.) “I don’t think it’s the easiest business model”, he adds. “It’s a fairly high-skilled industry, more and more companies are starting up, it’s expensive to start up and get to a certain point, to spend tens of thousands of pounds on computers and software, and you need to do that every year to keep developing and make sure you’re giving everyone the best opportunity to make whatever comes into their imagination, as good as possible. It’s fairly difficult. But the rewards are there.”
I left Trunk with an invitation to an ice cream and cocktails party at the studio a couple of weeks later (which I attended, and thoroughly enjoyed- especially the ice cream part of it) and with significantly more knowledge on the workings of an animation studio as a business model. On the computer screens in the studio, some drawings of cats were coming to life.
Photo: Nadia Barbu