Manchester Animation Festival (MAF) is the UK’s biggest festival dedicated to animation and this year will see its ninth edition and most ambitious yet. We sat down with festival director Steve Henderson to find out what goes into programming MAF, the challenges of film distribution and the current state of animation in an ever-changing film landscape.
Whilst MAF is now the UK’s biggest animation festival, before it, Bradford had been the unlikely home for UK animation. Henderson begins by explaining how the festival grew out of what was the Bradford Animation Festival (BAF) which ended in 2014 after a 20-year run, “This crowd of people, ourselves included, were going to be effectively homeless in terms of their little animation home every year.” A clear fondness is heard in Henderson’s voice as he recites warm memories he had of BAF, from his Aunty introducing him to the festival to meeting his wife and co-founder of MAF Jen Hall. Suddenly, there was a need for something new and MAF was born the following year in 2015.
HOME cinema (then known as the Cornerhouse) provided its base, having just recently opened, “Before long we had a line-up, people from Aardman were getting in touch, people from Cartoon Saloon, you know, Tomm Moore gets in touch and says ‘Can I screen my new film and do a masterclass?’ You don’t say no to something like that.” So, within its first year, MAF found itself not only continuing the legacy of BAF but building upon it.
Fast-forward to 2023 and whilst MAF is still going strong, many regional independent cinemas are struggling and UK film culture continues to be painfully London-centric. When prompted about this, Henderson appears to share this sentiment, “I often gripe about having to pay like a ‘northerner’s tax’ when I need to travel to London for an event or a screening. It’s really expensive and time-consuming to have to go down there for all these events. But it’s where everything kind of gravitates towards.”
However, he goes on to stress that this is not the case for animation production. “If you look at film, you have to be in a place, and that place is usually London. But with animation, you have to create a place.” Within animation, as opposed to the wider film world, “each region has something to be proud of.”
Henderson’s immense knowledge of the medium starts to come through as he begins listing off animation studios in each area of the UK. His passion is clear when it comes to Manchester: “It’s an important part of this puzzle piece because it’s got that ground-breaking legacy with Cosgrove Hall… and the companies that spun off from that.” In particular, he highlights the Altrincham-based company Mackinnon & Saunders, which has made “Raa Raa the Noisy Lion as well as puppets for Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro.”
It is no mistake that Henderson mentions children’s TV in the same breath as auteur cinema. Throughout its programme MAF attempts to strike a balance between all spheres of animation, “we want to showcase the wealth of animation” and “look beyond the multiplexes.” Each year, MAF shows many international features and shorts alongside bigger name releases, letting all films “share the same spotlight.”
However, the same vision cannot be said to be spread throughout the UK cinema landscape, as Henderson explains: “It’s shocking to think that a third of the films that we will show at the Manchester Animation Festival if you follow the numbers, will disappear after their initial screenings. And some of these films, well, most of these films, don’t get a UK theatrical release at all, which is a shame. It’s a sad fate for indie features, international indie features, you know, distributors don’t know what to do with them, you know, how to advertise them, how to sell them… We need distributors to be bolder and take risks.”
So, if you want to watch the latest international animation, the sad fact is that MAF will perhaps be your only chance. Amongst the festival programme, Henderson says “There a lot of hidden gems,” and goes on to highlight, amongst others, their strand showcasing Croatian animation as well as a curated shorts screening based around highlighting trans voices.
After having heard this somewhat damning indictment of the state of animation distribution, I wondered about the other possible threats animation may be facing and noticed a festival talk about the use of AI in the industry. Henderson is quick to downplay this as a threat, “I think maybe we aggrandize it by calling it AI because that gives us the impression that there’s an intelligence behind it, there is not an intelligence behind it, it is simply hoovering up material and then spitting out an approximation as to what it thinks you want.”
Nevertheless, he also acknowledges that AI can be “an extremely useful tool to kind of help you with the kind of labour-intensive ridiculous stuff that isn’t really where an artist’s heart lies.” Henderson is clear that AI cannot replace the craft in animation, “you can make things look like Wallace and Gromit but you can’t make, you can’t imbue the heart and soul that goes into it.”
Unfortunately, this does not stop companies from abusing their power, a fact that Henderson seems all too aware of. “The conversation needs to be about what companies intend to do with this new emerging tech. It just needs to be embraced ethically and responsibly. And one which protects the creativity of the animation industry.”
Finally, our conversation trailed back to MAF and Henderson’s ambitions for the festival going forward, “Our aim is to bring the world of animation to Manchester and share Manchester animation with the world.”
Henderson only sees the festival growing, stressing the need for more physical space and lamenting the things they can’t show due to lack of it. Still, even without this extra space, it is easy to recognise his pride in this year’s programme.
Their motto is “animation for all” and Henderson emphasises this by putting out a final call to action: “I think the average film lover probably thinks that they’re waiting for permission to get into animation. You don’t need permission, you can just enjoy it, just pick something, enjoy it, have fun.”