There’s often a risk that the world of animation can be undervalued, pigeon-holed as the preserve of children’s films and not much more. In fact, day-to-day life in the modern world is brimming with animation of all kinds and Manchester is one of the industry’s great wellsprings.

Here to celebrate these facts is Manchester Animation Festival (MAF), back for a sixth run in November. “Animation is all around us,” says MAF director Steve Henderson. “We can’t pick up our phones or open an app without a short animation being played. It’s the world’s greatest communicator. We can use symbols and colour and language and story to tell any story we wish. The real raw power of animation comes through at events like this. That’s why we like to welcome as many people as possible, to change their minds on what they think animation is.”

MAF is usually hosted at HOME in the city centre but, like so many other established festivals, this year they faced tricky choices about how to adapt to life under COVID-19. Various options were weighed up, but in the event, it’s moved entirely online. There are upsides to hosting a digital festival, though. For one thing, it broadens the potential audience to include anyone in the world with internet access.

“Exactly. Accessibility is such a big thing this year,” Henderson says. “Usually people would have to get hotels and travel and transport to the festival, but this means that we can open ourselves up to a much wider audience.”

In the space of just five years, MAP has managed to establish itself as a key fixture in the UK animation calendar with much to offer everyone from industry professionals to eager fans. This year’s line-up has plenty to please both camps. There’s an online masterclass with Sam Gray of the Oscar-winning Passion Animation Studios, plus the festival’s first ever Work-in-Progress masterclass with writer-director Jim Capobianco.

“Jim will be giving us a glimpse of his upcoming feature film The Inventor, which stars Stephen Fry and Daisy Ridley. It’s about Leonardo da Vinci and has done incredibly well on Kickstarter. In a couple of years’ time that’s going to be a major hit, but people who come to the festival this year can say they were first to see a sneak peek.”

Steve Henderson, director of Manchester Animation FestivalEvery year, the festival presents an industry day for those who work in animation and those who wish to, and it’s hoped that 2020’s digital equivalent will be just as lively. Another annual fixture is the In the Frame panel discussion around a current topic, which Henderson describes as “our provocation to the animation industry”.

He continues: “In previous years, we’ve asked how Brexit will shape the animation industry. We asked about the skills gap, how are students getting into the industry. Last year, we covered diversity in animation, how to make sure that everyone’s getting fair representation on screen and behind the scenes. This year we’re calling it Green for the Screen, and we’re looking at the environment and sustainability.”

There’s also the festival’s annual presentation of a Fellowship Award. Previous recipients include Aardman Animations and legendary stop-motion specialist Barry Purves. This year, it’s going to Academy Award-winning husband and wife team Alison Snowden and David Fine.

“They’ve been creating work for years,” Henderson says. “Everyone probably remembers the series of TV advertisements about Hector the Tax Inspector or the Smarties advert with the policeman who ends up going into the tube. As well as that, they won an Oscar for Bob’s Birthday, one of the best animated short films I’ve ever seen. They went on to have huge success creating TV series such as Bob and Margaret and Ricky Sprocket. They’ve got such a rich history. They met at the National Film & Television School where they studied with Nick Park and several others who have gone on to amazing things.”

Bob's BirthdayAs well as these events, and a host of other workshops, quizzes and Q&As, Henderson is particularly proud of the festival’s vibrant short film programme. “We wouldn’t have an animation festival were it not for the short film-makers. There’s an incredible range of films from around the world. This year we’re showing 98 short films from 30 different countries, work that you can’t see anywhere else.”

If the strong links between Manchester and the animation industry aren’t immediately obvious, the festival is here to enlighten you.

“Manchester is one of the animation hotspots in the UK, if not Europe, and that’s one of the major things that we want to do as a festival, not only welcome the world of animation to Manchester, but also showcase Manchester to the world of animation. Manchester has a rich and vibrant history of animation starting in the 1970s with Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall when they established Cosgrove Hall Films.”

Creator of many children’s TV hits including Chorlton and the Wheelies, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula and Wind in the Willows, Cosgrove Hall isn’t around anymore. Its headquarters in Chorlton-cum-Hardy closed down in 2008 and Mark Hall passed away three years later, but its influence certainly lives on. Animators who learned their craft at Cosgrove Hall have gone on to form their own locally-based companies, such as Mackinnon & Saunders who build bespoke stop-motion puppets for film-makers including Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, plus HOT Animation, the company behind Bob the Builder. In turn, they’ve helped to inspire new companies – Brown Bag Films, Hoopla Animation, FLOW Creative, Kilogramme – to set up shop around Manchester and make it a go-to hub for animation.

Sculpt with Jim ParkynArguably, then, the likes of Brian Cosgrove, recipient of MAF’s first Fellowship Award, lit a spark that’s burning still. Henderson says: “We were delighted to be able to interview Brian Cosgrove in our first year of the festival, and what I got a sense of more than anything else was that Cosgrove Hall had fun – and that fun has spawned into countless companies throughout Manchester, making fun work. The animation industry wouldn’t be where it is today without Manchester.”

By Andy Murray

All images courtesy of Manchester Animation Festival. 


Manchester Animation Festival, November 15-30, 2020. For more information, or to book tickets, click here