Industry insights: Interview with Kieran Argo, Animation Consultant to Encounters festival

Features  |  23 September 2018

Kieran Argo has been working in animation for over 25 years. In recent years Kieran has been responsible for delivering a number of professional development events including the Encounters Producers Courses and a number of training events for the Random Acts (Channel Four/Arts Council England) film-makers in the South West of England.

Kieran Argo
Pictured: Kieran Argo

You’ve been involved with Encounters since the very beginning, what was your original intention?

Encounters began as ‘Brief Encounters’ – a weekend celebration of film and animation as part of the centenary of cinema in 1995. It was an initiative of the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and brought together people from the BBC, Aardman and other organisations. It was a great success and, as a result, soon became an annual established festival in November. After a few years Encounters introduced competitive strands and set up a sister festival in the Spring of 2000 called ‘Animated Encounters’. This was also a huge success and due to the burgeoning workload for the delivery team led to the merging of the two festivals into the singular ‘Encounters’.

In the early 2000’s Encounters became an Academy (AMPAS) and European Film Academy (EFA) qualifying festival and has, over the years, become a firm fixture in the international short and animation festival circuit.

Last year Encounters with Rich Warren at the helm introduced an exciting third Grand Prix for 360-degree filmmaking. ‘Immersive Encounters’ is a new strand aimed at innovation and future visions.

How has the festival grown and what are you proudest of?

The festival has developed over the years into an internationally recognised and respected short film and animation festival. Encounters has continually paid close attention to supporting new and established talent. Film-makers, animators, producers, distributors and all technical crafts are encouraged to attend and I’m particularly proud of these creative people being placed at the heart of the festival. The festival exists to support creative talent and helping people develop in their careers. To play a small part in helping the careers of people in film and animation is, for me, one of the greatest achievements of Encounters. We strive to help talent to become better known (and better skilled) both within the industry and the wider public.

Is there a big difference between the large, international festivals that you’ve worked on and Encounters?

Encounters is certainly an international festival and, importantly, it is manageable in size and still offers a personal touch. I have attended a number of larger festivals where the experience can be a bit flat and overwhelming. Encounters tries to make people as welcome as possible which is down to the wonderful friendly volunteers and staff. Rapid expansion and being bigger for the sake of it has never been an ambition of the festival, rather it has been the quality of the festival experience and striving to get that right for the attendees which is always the main concern of the festival team.

Lost & found dir Andrew goldsmith
Above: Lost & Found, dir. Andrew Goldsmith

What event or panel are you most looking forward to this year?

It’s been 25 years since the bolexbrothers produced ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ (Dir. Dave Borthwick 1993) – a dark dystopian mix of pixilation (animated humans) and stop-motion clay puppets. This film along with notable productions at the other end of the same road in Bristol at Aardman contributed to a golden era of British and Bristol short animation. I’m delighted that Alex Riddett (Senior Aardman Cinematographer and co-founder bolexbrothers) and Mike Gifford (Production Manager on Tom Thumb) will be on hand to introduce this special 35mm screening.

I’m also looking forward to a screening of Ghanaian animation this year. There’s also a couple of programmes of Latvian animation and a selection of Georgian animation celebrating Bristol’s twinning with Tblisi which should be interesting.

New for this year, instead of the usual ‘Meet the Filmmakers’ talk sessions we will be trying a new format running three talk events called ‘Animation Today’.  These will be an open forum and moderated sessions open to all delegates to discuss any issues or topics that they wish to raise. I can predict the issues of funding, talent sourcing and Brexit might be raised just once or twice!

Do you think your background working in animation was helpful in forming content for the festival?

When I realise I’ve been working in animation and festivals for 25 years I certainly feel my age but hope that my past experience has helped shaped the festival over the years in some small way. When it comes to ideas for the festival it’s pretty straightforward; one of the requirements of being a freelance programmer is to keep my eyes open and remain keen to see new productions and developments and to keep friends and industry contacts up to date. This, in turn informs some of the decisions and options when each new festival begins to form. I’m also hugely indebted to pre-selectors as they contribute greatly to what ends up on screen.

Via dir Izzy burton
Above: Via, dir. Izzy Burton 

You work on a lot of the training events – how do you think training across the industry is, quality-wise?

This is a thorny issue and many people have differing and strong opinions. For me there are industry-ready skills being nurtured through many of the good animation schools in the UK.
It’s always intriguing to view the submissions from established UK schools alongside other schools in Denmark, France and Germany and beyond. UK talent frequently matches the output from elsewhere but, without wishing to sound pessimistic, could fall behind very easily. There is no shortage of good ideas…it’s the infrastructure that often hinders the realisation.
The most perennial training comment I have heard over the years from small to relatively big animation companies is that there are certain core skills that remain stubbornly scarce.
It is plain to see that in order to remain globally competitive and able to expand rapidly the animation industry in the UK requires more frequent auditing of skills. In an ideal world more significant funds for training would be made available to ensure the industry has the right skills at the right time to allow productions and studios to expand and to foster a flexible and active workforce. If the skills cannot be sourced quickly locally or nationally then the creative workforce must continue to be welcome from overseas with as few barriers (preferably none!) as possible. We shall see how much of a mess the UK will make of this over the forthcoming months and years.

Many similar concerns and issues relating to funding, skills and training are in the crosshairs of both Animation UK and Animation Alliance UK. These organisations are commendable and should be supported and advocated as widely as possible.

Find out more about Encounters 2018 

Kieran worked at Aardman for fifteen years where he promoted a number of favourites including Wallace & Gromit and managed their international Events and Exhibitions Department. A career highlight was working with Studio Ghibli in Japan on a year-long special exhibition at the famous Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. He also served on many international film festival juries including BAFTA.

He helped establish the Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol and served as a Board Director for twelve years. He has been the Animation Programmer since 2010.

Argo productions