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Kong Animation Studio: Cultivating Brilliant Work and Happy People

Company Profiles 147 Add to collection

Kong Studio might be seen as the new kid on the block but they’ve been honing their craft for years

Kong Animation Studio: Cultivating Brilliant Work and Happy People

Kong Studio has been in the animation press quite a bit recently, from Eagle Eye announcing Kong as one of its partners to deliver character animation for the Quentin Blake BBC TV series, landing in 2023, to the studio’s nomination for Social Good in this year’s British Animation Awards for their film “You Being You”, commissioned by Mencap. 

“It’s definitely exciting times for us,” says Bill Elliott, Kong co-founder.

“You Being You” was commissioned by The Royal Mencap Society on the cusp of the first UK lockdown in 2020. The animation teaches people with learning disabilities about sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, and acceptance. The piece stands out for the ease in which it presents tricky topics, with 2D animation and a flip-book setting giving lightness to what can be difficult conversations. 

“With all the uncertainty and worry regarding the future, whether it be our families, our business or the world as a whole; it was a real ray of light to commit to a project that was positive, informative and above all, fun,” says Bill.

But studio success isn’t born overnight.

The Evolution of Kong

Kong Studio’s story began back in 2016, when co-founder Bill Elliott was working on projects for Thomas & Friends, where the budget and scale were increasing rapidly. 

“Ultimately, I knew I had to become a company and it had long been an ambition to set up a studio,” says Bill.

As a visionary, Bill has directed, designed and storyboarded throughout the computer games, advertising and TV industries. Starting his career at Disney Jetix, his credits include Lego, Mr Bean: The Animated Series and Black Mirror. 

Meanwhile character animator Tom Baker was getting frustrated with the freelance slog of series work: “Bill was always one of those super talents. I’d be instantly sick whenever I saw one of his amazing pieces of B/W graphic art and it was great when our paths frequently crossed as he’s a lovely bloke.” 

“When working together on Mr Bean, I realised he has a blind spot. He cannot see colours! I could basically colour in his storyboards under the fancy title of ‘art director’ and claim the credit. Not only that, I’m a character animator having worked on super tricky things like the ‘Amazing World of Gumball’, so between us we could do it all! When I heard he was going to set up a company I begged and begged to be part of it and camped out the front of his house. He eventually relented and we joined forces.”

“It’s true!” Bill reveals. “Tom and I had known each other for years and every time our paths crossed, we seemed to have different roles. He would be a character animator and I would be the compositor, or I would be the story artist and he would be the art director. Whatever we did, it felt like our trades complimented each other, like two renascence nomads, looking for a common home.” 

“And he has great hair,” Bill notes.

Completing Kong Studio’s triumvirate in 2018, award-winning animation producer Emma Burch was brought on as executive producer, who prior to joining Kong helped produce long running stop motion animation advertising campaigns in the US and UK for advertising agencies such as Leo Burnett, FCB NY and Abbott Mead Vickers.

Emma had also produced several short independent films, including over 55 episodes of the hugely popular online animation series – Simon’s Cat, for which she also managed the record-breaking crowdfunding campaign.

“There’s a lot more to running an animation studio than drawing pictures it turns out,” Tom comments, “and Emma was the final piece of the jigsaw we needed. The grown-up in the room who could manage clients and be over all the planning, budgets and details. Make no mistake though, Emma has won more awards as a director than either of us. She is integral to Kong’s creative process.”

Emma shares: “Throughout my career I’ve helped build things up from humble beginnings, but this time I was offered ownership of it. It’s exciting. Plus I get to walk to work. Bill and Tom are hugely talented. We have very different approaches to things, but our perspectives always complement each other.”

“We notice very different things and for all the potential personality clashes (it happens!) our constructive criticism of the creative process is very streamlined,” Bill says. “I have total trust in Tom and Emma.”

Together, Bill, Tom and Emma make up the core team, offering a range of services from animation and advertising to corporate comms, entertainment, and their own short films. 

Moving Stories Underpinned by Variety

Proudly different on every project, Kong Studio intentionally does not have a house style. 

"We like to experiment and try new techniques and software. Why try one program when you can try 10? ” says Tom.

“And new people!” Emma adds. “We get a kick out of putting together exactly the right talent for any given project.”

The scope of what the studio can offer is well demonstrated in its 'handy' explainer video.

Bill recounts that “one of the reasons we made the explainer was because my wife, who works in a completely different industry, pointed out that the sort of companies who might need animation have zero idea of our process. Being part of the creative industry, we can be guilty of assuming people understand how our work is created. But that’s often not the case. Our job is to hold their hands through the process, so why not give them a head start? For me, the answer was to make our own explainer packed full of our own personality.”

“The explainer has proved invaluable with client’s coming to animation for the first time,” says Emma. “Especially when explaining how long the animation process can take.”

Other great examples of Kong’s script to screen, hand crafted animation are the award-bagging films they made with IMAX for major cinema releases such as ‘Solo - A Star Wars Story’, that scooped up a Platinum Award at AVA Digital Awards 2021, ‘Star Wars Rise of Skywalker’ which won a Centauri Award for Online Video at 2020 Vega Awards, and ‘SHAZAM!’ which collected a Bronze at Summit Awards 2019.

On their IMAX projects, Bill says, “We’ve always been involved right from the concept stages. We were asked to pitch an idea, as opposed to taking on an existing concept, and this opened doors for us both creatively and narratively. We love opportunities to be involved from script to screen and I can confidently say that we have always over delivered on these.”

It’s this drive to go above and beyond that has seen the team garner success after success. While also giving them the confidence to develop their own content.

Bill is particularly proud of Kong’s humorous music video ‘A little Love’. A music video of the famous Bugsy Malone theme-tune as sung by some of the planet's most prominent leaders and despots. 

“It reflects mine and Tom’s humour and collaborative style,” says Bill. “It's rude, a bit juvenile and the animation is purposefully crude, but it is catchy, has a good heart and is funny. I’d love to develop a series in this style.”

More recently they have been working on a series of 60-second shorts that celebrate weird, wonderful, and eccentric characters – mostly from real life.

“I wrote and animated a song about a headless chicken!” declares Tom.

Nurturing Happy People

Kong Studio’s ability to achieve such diversity of styles, mediums and techniques is, in part, due to them tapping into their large network of freelancers who each bring their own approach to the table. 

“We use the same designers and animators as the large studios,” Emma reveals. “We aim to attract talent by being a great studio to work for. Regardless of your experience level, we pay promptly, offer flexible hours and pay overtime – that’s if overtime can’t be avoided in the first place.”

“Our impressive talent pool is a culmination of years of being in the industry,” states Bill. “Our freelancers are often our friends too, and we love working with them. The real excitement, though, is gained from finding new talent, whether that be juniors or experienced pros. We are lucky enough to be approached by a staggering amount of talented people. We love foraging around for artists working in all creative mediums.” 

And what Tom really loves is “when you discover someone can do something other than what you know them for, like an animator who’s also good at backgrounds or something. It feels like discovering a new talent like when Wenger moved Henry from midfield to striker, or when Phil Collins realised he could sing. It’s easy to get pigeonholed in this industry and so many people do.”

Bill sums up: “For us, quality of life is integral to our ethos. If we can understand your situation and what works for you, then you will want to make exciting work with us. “

This underlying belief that quality of life should not be at the detriment to quality of work leads to the ultimate respect between the team, their network and their clients. 

“I’m really proud of the relationships we’ve developed with both our crews and clients,” Emma comments. “It’s not always easy when you’re time poor, but our crew and clients keep coming back so we’re hopefully getting something right.”

“It’s simple really,” says Bill. “Treat people well and they will want to work with you. Many of the team have young families, including myself, so work life must always complement home life. That way you get brilliant work and happy people.” 

Kong Is Ready to Climb to the Top

With a strong team and a growing studio producing a rich variety of creative work, Kong Studio’s focus for the near future is to raise the bar and take on more challenges:

“I know we would all love to be able to lock down exciting advertising work and documentary animation,” reveals Bill. “We’re heading in that direction. At the same time, we want to grow our long-term series and feature work.” 

“And enjoy ourselves doing it,” adds Tom.

“Ha! So, if anyone has an animation brief and is reading this – send it our way!” Emma offers. “We won’t disappoint.”

“We’re feeling bright and optimistic about the future ahead!” Bill concludes. “And no matter where it takes us, one thing you can always rely on is that we will forever deliver on our three key principles: craft, engagement and quality.”

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Kong Studio, Wed, 18 May 2022 09:36:51 GMT