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28. Aug 2013

Fork Film: Animation makers who conquered the world

Founded in 2011, Fork Film is an animation studio that provides full solutions, and what it would like to specialise in is the development of manual animation techniques. The company mainly markets its services to advertising agencies and production companies. Helen Paat, the CEO and producer of Fork Film, and Marianne Ostrat, the company’s creative producer, talk about the daily delights of a creative company and the fruit they have born.

There are actually four founders of Fork Film: beside Marianne and Helen, there is also production designer Elo Soode and animator Märt Kivi. “I majored in film production. Before founding Fork Film I mainly earned my living as a freelance production manager in live-action advertising projects of various Estonian and Finnish production companies.  During the pre-production of these projects I met production designer Elo Soode; I learned that she also specialised in animation, but I had never engaged in it before and I must admit I was not exactly passionate about it when I started producing animation. When I was talking to Elo once, I learned that at the moment she was making a short independent puppet animation film together with Märt Kivi, an excellent animator recognised on the European scale. As we were scouting for locations for shooting with Elo one day, an idea occurred to us to start up a company that would mainly specialise in providing puppet animation, with its long-term traditions and the quality comparable to the global level in Estonia, for the production of advertising and other commercial videos,” Marianne relates.

Then Helen, who wanted, so to say, to start running her own thing, came back from Australia. “My dream was to work in the sphere of culture because culture was what I was missing a lot in Australia. I complained to Marianne about that when I met her,” Helen says. “Working in the film industry seems very cool and glamorous to an outsider, but it is actually a job as any other with probably even more headache and fuss. However, there is certainly more creativity, and as each project is unique, there is less routine,” Marianne adds. During that meeting Helen also joined the lot, and the idea to start up their own firm was worded for the first time. They started writing the business plan in the summer 2010 and also applied to Enterprise Estonia for support. The Creative Incubator provided invaluable advice and support in the process of writing the business plan and company foundation. Helen’s economic education and long-term experience as a project manager were also very helpful when the company was being established. The four of them put their heads together, and this is how Fork Film was born. By now operator Ragnar Neljandi has also joined the shareholders.

Today Marianne and Helen deal with the company’s daily management and development, Märt and Ragnar participate in projects as specialists and Elo is in London, studying for her master’s degree. The Fork Film team also includes Roland Seer, a versatile and very talented young animator, who lives in Denmark and does remote work for Fork Film, mainly specialising in animation in 2D and experimental techniques. Fork Film does not have a team in the classical sense of the word that would be together in one place from morning to evening. They rent a table in a major production company located in the same building as studio Nukufilm for office work. This is a very functional solution because Fork Film has established close cooperation with Nukufilm: the company partially rents the studio’s rooms and equipment to complete its projects.

Competition for studios operating on the global level

There are not many puppet animation studios in Europe: there is the Nukufilm in Estonia, several small-scale studious in Sweden, one very good studio in Poland, and the Aardman puppet animation studio, probably the most famous in the world, located in Bristol. It is of utmost importance for Fork Film that it can provide services of the quality comparable to other top European studios; however the fact that production is somewhat cheaper than in Western Europe and Scandinavia is not less significant although Fork Film refrains from using price as the first and main sales argument when it introduces itself.

What Fork Film has mainly specialised in are classical manual animation techniques, and the company tries to promote the use of these techniques for commercial purposes, focusing on creating videos and films in the stop-motion and cartoon film techniques. “We help companies and brands shape their personality by producing a mature concept as well as advertisement and corporate videos whose image language will be remembered. We also exploit our fantasy by making music videos and our original animated films and series in a variety of genres. In addition, we produce multimedia presentations and audio-visual content for cross-media and multi-platform projects. We offer animation with the use of the stop-motion, pixilation, 2D, cartoon film and mixed techniques, character design and consultations in the field of animation,” Marianne lists the company’s areas of activities.

Fork Film’s portfolio contains 11 major projects, including advertising and musical videos as well as sketches for Pärnu Konverentsid. The following can be listed as the most well-known advertisements: Tunnustatud Eesti Maitse [Approved Estonian Taste], Laima, Fazer, Nautimus, Rademar, and Tartu Mill.

“What we make is a niche product and we strive to ensure it is as genuine and handcrafted as possible. Even when we provide 2D solutions, characters are drawn by hand and we try to maintain and preserve individuality in the style. We also provide or services abroad: cooperation with Finnish customers has already been established, and we have been to Sweden and Great Britain to introduce our work. Our goal is to use agents to reach all over the world,” Marianne talks about the company’s future plans.

A dream of creating a list of animation film directors to be represented on the international level

Fork Film has its own production environment with two directors, and it is ready to provide full solutions from the idea to realisation. In addition, the animation studio also provides the production service as such. “For example, a British or Swedish company comes to us with its directors and creators and we implement their idea. Recently we have indeed been thinking that we should invest more in this direction to bring more work and money from other countries to this sphere, to create jobs and traineeship opportunities and to contribute to sustainability: focusing on providing services to other is a dangerous and slippery path, but we believe this is what would also boost and support the development and production of animation films meant for a wider audience,” Marianne explains.

It has become a tradition in Estonian advertising that the idea, the screenplay and even the storyboard are rather strictly set down by the advertising agency: the idea is provided, and its realisation is expected to be relatively precise. Unfortunately, this influences our directors’ international competitive position in the sphere of advertising: namely, in major countries it is usual for an agency to provide a very specific overview of the goal the video must achieve and the information and message it must put across, but how it should be done is not set in stone. Production companies are expected to participate in the thinking process, generate fresh ideas, and have an original vision and approach. Then the producers and the director who they would like to work with on a particular project or who they represent propose their creative solution, defend it before the customer and compete among themselves.

Marianne also dreams to gather a similar team of directors around Fork Film. “We would like to create a list of Estonian animation film directors to be represented by us and, on the international level, our agents. This is common practice on the international advertising arena. Fork Film’s works have brought us some recognition abroad, but cooperation with a larger number of motivated directors would allow us to offer much more to our customers,” Marianne believes. According to her, unfortunately, there are not many animation film directors in Estonia who would like to produce advertisements and possess the necessary communication and idea presentation skills. “The reputation of advertising video directors is unenviable; everyone would rather make auteur films. The environment is not exactly supportive either: most advertisements are thoroughly planned by the advertising agency and it is seldom that something unusual or bold is ordered or a competition of directors and visions is announced. Still, making advertising videos on the international level could provide opportunities for the director to practice and, as far as animation is concerned, to try a variety of techniques and methods of operation.”

The biggest achievement: the company’s international debut  

One of Fork Film’s largest projects so far has been the video featuring Swedbank’s mobile banking. So far Swedbank’s advertising videos with squirrels have been produced by the Bristol animation studio Aardman Animations, an Oscar winner that has created, for example,   “Wallace & Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep”. “An opportunity was offered to us to make an alternative proposal, a test job and a pilot clip on the level comparable to Aardman’s, which, according to the customer, we also managed. For the reasons beyond our control, Swedbank still decided to keep up the cooperation with Aardman. What we gained from that was testing the company in international projects and the fact that the result satisfied the Estonian marketing department of Swedbank and the headquarters in Sweden alike. Naturally, that is an excellent reference for us, which has helped us establish many interesting and useful relationships,” Helen and Marianne are content with the achievement. “On the Estonian market, the videos advertising Tartu Mill’s prefabricated products that we made in cooperation with DDB Eesti are of great importance,” Marianne praises Fork Film’s most loyal and long-term customer. Fork Film animation studio’s face also contributed to the creation of the video to Tenfold Rabbit’s song ‘Oblivion’ and the company’s first job for Finnish customers, a corporate video for Fonecta.

Positive thinking keeps us going: there is no reason for whining

The sphere of Fork Film’s activity is highly seasonal, and summers are relatively quiet in terms of work. One and a half project per month would suffice to keep the company permanently afloat. “Unfortunately, the way projects are ordered at the moment is too irregular for us to talk about consistent or systematic company development. We do constantly strive to it and stick to this direction, but many activities related specifically to company development are but occasional due to the lack of human and financial resources. This year we hope do develop so far as to recruit a production manager so that we can dedicate more time to sales and development activities alongside everyday work,” Marianne says.

There always could be more work, which would help the company develop faster. There is potential for that in the form of ideas and capability. Still, there are no reasons for whining: in 2012 Fork Film doubled the turnover of the previous year and a half.

The golden dream of the company leaders is to upgrade from merely making advertisements to making videos for conference speeches and e-books for children, for example. It is Marianne’s wish and goal to develop and produce independent animation films and an animation franchise: that would require major investments at first but will guarantee that the company will receive more consistent profit in the form of distribution revenue in the future.

“One thing that keeps us going is the pleasure of thinking and saying ‘I make animation!’ The activity alone is so positive. A creative company does have its charm,” Helen is convinced.