Monday, 18 September 2017

Picture Books and Animation • An Vrombaut

This week we have a guest blog from multi-talented author-illustrator-animator An Vrombaut exploring the differences between working in picture books and animation.

I trained as an animator and now work as a creator and writer of animated programmes for pre-school television. I have also written and illustrated fifteen picture books. One of my picture books has been adapted for animation (Dear Dragon / Florrie’s Dragons) and one of my animated stories have been adapted as picture books (64 Zoo Lane). All this means I’ve done a fair bit of hopping back and forth between the worlds of publishing and animation, and I’m often asked what the differences are between working in these different fields.

64 Zoo Lane - The Story of the Whale Trip

The thing about animation is … it’s expensive to produce and it takes time – considerably more time than the making of a picture book! It is not unusual for the development and finance of an animated project to go on for three, five or even seven years… Initially, a production company will option a book for a fee (usually a modest one) which gives the company the right to develop the project during an agreed time period - perhaps one to two years. A pilot episode may be made as a tool to develop and refine the look and content of the animation. It’s also used to show at test screenings to get audience feedback, to establish a production pipeline for the animation, and of course to help raise finance. When the project has been green-lit, the creator should receive a larger rights fee. From this moment, it can take another one to two years to complete the programme depending on the length and on the animation technique used.

64 Zoo Lane – early development drawing

The level of involvement of the picture book author or illustrator in the making of an animated adaptation can vary greatly, from simple approvals at key stages to consultancy work on design and/or content, to co-writing and co-producing. Contracts tend to be more complex than publishing contracts, so it’s advisable to work with an agent. Alternatively you could get a media lawyer to look at contracts, but this can work out costly!

Another key difference between publishing and animation is that writing and illustrating picture books tends to be a solitary profession whereas animation is team work. This can take a little time getting used to - yes, it’s likely you will be asked to make changes! However, most picture book authors/illustrators find working with other creatives stimulating.


It’s exciting for any author/illustrator to receive news of a picture book being adapted for animation, and exhilarating to see characters come to life on a screen. However, the process is not without its pitfalls. There are the legal complexities, the agonising waits during the development and financing phase, the politics and the conflicting demands of having to work with so many different parties… ‘We need you to add a vehicle to this show’ is a phrase often heard from those selling toy merchandising rights. But perhaps the hardest thing from the creator’s point of view is the emotional intensity of seeing your ‘baby’ reborn in a new medium. I have met creators of animated TV programmes who felt utterly drained after the last episode was delivered to the broadcaster. It’s important to keep perspective – and there’s always a little letting go to be done, even on projects where the creator has been closely involved during all stages of the production.

One thing that has changed for the better over the last decade is a decrease in snobbery on both sides: publishing and animation. Early on in my career I met a literary agent who was happy to represent me as an author but not as an illustrator because she considered my character’s eyes to be ‘too cartoony’. She said picture book characters ought to have simple dot eyes! I’ve also met independent book sellers reluctant to stock a picture book simply because it existed as an animated programme first. I’ve come across snobbery in the world of animation too: animators who look down on TV adaptations of books because - unlike the ‘full animation’ of feature films which requires between 12 and 24 drawings per second - TV animation is more ‘limited’. These days the offering of pre-school animation is much more varied and most of it is of high quality. As a result, working in TV animation is now held in much higher regard by animators. To get an idea of what’s being produced, take a look at Sarah & Duck, Hey Duggee or Lily’s Driftwood Bay - all original creations for TV which use 2D animation to great effect. For a very different look, check out Bing (based on the books by Ted Dewan) which uses photo-realistic 3D CGI animation. And Miffy (based on the work of Dick Bruna) - also made using 3D CGI, but in a minimalist pop-art style true to its book origins.

Miffy’s Adventures Big and Small

Thankfully those small snobberies I came across in the past have all but disappeared. There is much more cross-fertilisation between publishing and animation these days, with people such as Benji Davies, Steven Lenton and Leigh Hodgkinson (creator of the new CBeebies series Olobob Top) working in both media. With the advent of apps, the boundaries between publishing, TV animation and gaming are bound to blur even further.

For anyone interested in animation I would recommend attending the Childrens Media Conference. Held in Sheffield every year during the first week of July, it’s a great opportunity to hook up with producers, directors, script writers, broadcasters etc. Maybe see you there?

You can find out more about An’s books and films at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @anvrombaut.



Lucy Rowland said...

Thank you An for a really informative post. I've not got much experience of animation so this was really interesting. I like the idea of being part of a creative team- you're right that working in picture books can sometimes feel a bit lonely! I have noticed quite a rise in animated book trailers. I'm always quite amazed by what the illustrators and animators can do with these!

Jane Clarke said...

Thank you An, for an interesting read, sounds like fun to work as a team (and lots of the animated series you mention are favourites with my granddaughters!).

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great guest post, An. I'm all for more "cross-fertilisation" between picture books and other media. A great storyteller is a great storyteller, whatever medium they are working in.

An Vrombaut said...

Yes, there has been a big rise in animated book trailers in the last few years. Some are quite sophisticated.

Paeony Lewis said...

So interesting - thanks An. I never realised it took such a long time. Do you think you can be more absurd and over-the-top in animation?

Pippa Goodhart said...

A fascinating post. Thank you so much, An.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A really great post where you have shared so much. Never realised quite how long the development stage was for animation. But I suppose it works the same way as in film. First the option and then all the layers that have to come together. Finance of course with a capital F too!