The exhibition of animation through screenings and festivals gives audiences the opportunity to enjoy and engage with the vibrant palate of ideas that animated film offers. They provide an essential platform that encourages debate, reviews progress and celebrates work both retrospectively and contemporaneously, profiling artists and boosting the animation industry. Furthermore, the animation festival space often facilitates crucial industry networking activity, which may take the form of, but not limited to, studio-to-sector, studio-to-studio, individual-to-studio, and individual-to-individual levels of interaction.
The United Kingdom boasts a rich history of exhibiting animated works and celebrating their creators through animation festivals. Though the community of animation festivals has always been aware of the work of one another, a recent alliance has been formed that will allow the conversation between these festivals to flow more freely. With the recent formation of the Alliance of British Animation Exhibitors (ABAE), this is the first time that UK-specific exhibitors have joined together to share ideas, work collectively on projects, and keep one another informed of current and future activity. More on that in a little while, but first we will reflect on the many winding roads that have led to the ABAE.
Looking Back. The first dedicated animation festival is often credited as being the Annecy Festival, which launched alongside ASIFA in 1960 in Annecy, France. However, animation was screened in live-action film festivals long before that, with events such as Cannes in 1946 screening what was billed as ‘The First International Festival of Animated Films’, and then in 1956 the same festival also screened what was billed as ‘The First International Animation Days’ (JICA), which constituted a screening of over 100 animated films. As a result of the success of JICA, the event took place again in 1958. The Annecy Festival was created as a result of the success of JICA to form an event that would be independent of Cannes. To date, Annecy is the world’s longest-running animation festival.
Often overlooked, the UK played home to a dedicated one-off animation festival before the debut of Annecy in 1960. Organized by John Halas in 1957, the International Animated Film Festival ran at the South Bank in London and screened 150 films and 12 features. However, longevity akin to the Annecy Festival is not something that the UK has benefitted from. Instead, there has been a semi-stable stream of festivals to attend since the 1960s’ starting with the Cambridge Animation Festival, established by Dick Arnall in 1966 and which ran for three editions under his Directorship, including a pilot he programmed as an undergraduate at Queens College in the city in 1965. The festival returned biannually between 1979 and 1985, first under the Directorship of Antoinette Moses (in 1979, 1981, and 1983) and then Irene Kotlarz (in 1985). Falling into a more nomadic existence, Cambridge Animation Festival decoupled itself from Cambridge in the late 1980s with the organizers seeking institutional or regional arts funding elsewhere, first moving to Bristol for two editions (1987, 1989) before moving again to Cardiff for four editions between 1992 and 1998. The current Cardiff Animation Festival shares no links with this final incarnation. Along the way, the UK has enjoyed other long-running animation-specific events such as Animated Exeter (1999 – 2016), Animex (2000-present), Bradford Animation Festival (1994 – 2014), and Flip (2004 – 2012).
Stronger Together. In recent years, the UK animation festival scene has gradually developed to the point where the mix of established festivals offers some form of regional opportunity to see the latest independent productions, hear – and sometimes network with – industry speakers, and to get a sense of what is happening in the wider world of animation. Offsetting the palpable loss of Bradford Animation Festival, the following annual events now constitute the established animation festival circuit in the UK: Canterbury Anifest (running since 2007), Cardiff Animation Festival (in various forms since 2014), Edinburgh International Festival (1947-present), Encounters (running in various forms in Bristol since 1995), Flatpack Festival (in Birmingham since 2006), Manchester Animation Festival (since 2015), and London International Animation Festival (since 2003). By virtue of its size and geographical location, Manchester Animation Festival has, in many ways, taken up the mantle of being the annual de facto meeting point for much of the UK animation community.
Recognising the benefits and opportunities that come through collaborative working, representatives from each of the festivals noted above met at the 2019 edition of Encounters to discuss ways of working in a more strategic way. The outcome of this was, as hinted at the start of this piece, the formation of the ABAE. The ABAE has the following mission statement:
The ABAE consists of representatives from UK animation exhibition organisations.
Our aim is to be the central exhibition hub for British animation, working with key partners to support, exhibit and promote British animation to the UK and the rest of the world. We exist as a collective group to support and promote animators and animation films made in the UK.
The ABAE recently discussed this mission via a Zoom conversation with Artist and Animator Jessica Ashman. You can watch this video in full here:
While we have written almost exclusively of the UK animation festival scene so far, it is critical not to overlook the fact that often the success of studios and filmmakers are linked with success found at festivals, as well as the connections or opportunities afforded to them by the festival environment. This is acutely demonstrated by the emergence of Aardman Animations who, having submitted their work to the Cambridge Animation Festival in 1981, caught the eye of Channel Four controller Paul Bonner and Chief Executive Jeremy Isaacs, which led them to meet David Sproxton, Co-Founder of the studio. As we know, Aardman went on to be one of many studios to produce films for the broadcaster.
In supporting filmmakers, studios and audiences, animation festivals sustain the national identity of our animated output and welcome international programming to enrich our cultural experience. As the challenges of the Covid pandemic and lockdown add further complications to the challenging and competitive nature of sustaining an animation festival online, an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration, through the coordinated thinking of the ABAE promise to create a bright future for the UK’s animation festivals.
Dr Steve Henderson is director of Manchester Animation Festival, co-owner, editor, writer and podcaster of Skwigly Online Animation Magazine and Senior lecturer at Manchester School of Art.
Dr Chris Pallant is the author of Demystifying Disney(Bloomsbury 2011), Storyboarding: A Critical History (Palgrave 2015), Animated Landscapes: History, Form and Function (Bloomsbury 2015), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: New Perspectives on Production, Reception, Legacy (Bloomsbury 2021). He is the Founding Series Editor of Bloomsbury’s Animation: Key Films/Filmmakers. He currently serves as President for the Society for Animation Studies and is Festival Director of Canterbury Anifest.
 Edera, B. (1997). “Animation Festivals: A Brief History”. [online] Awn.com. Available at: <https://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.10/articles/edera.eng1.10.html#> [Accessed 1 March 2021].
 Halas, J (1956). The Journal of the British Film Academy, Winter 1956-57 edition, p. 23
 Evans, G. (2007). “Obituary: Dick Arnall”. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/apr/18/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries> [Accessed 1 March 2021].
 Kitson, C. (2008). British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor. Parliament Hill Publishing.
 It is important to note that, before it ceased, Bradford Animation Festival quickly became the de facto event at which the UK animation community regularly gathered.
 Kitson (2008)