From travelling the world as a trumpet prodigy to running his own nuclear consultancy by the age of 23, it’s fair to conclude that Phil Chalk’s journey to the cutting edge of children’s animation has not been a traditional one.
But as he freely admits, that unusual combination of a musical and engineering background – allied to a keen sense of timing – is arguably responsible for the vision and instinct for innovation that now sees his Altrincham-based company, Factory Transmedia, growing at a rapid pace.
Part of the animation ecosystem that has developed in this South Manchester town, Factory has its roots in CBeebies hits Raa Raa the Noisy Lion and Roary the Racing Car and is responsible for groundbreaking CBBC comedy Strange Hill High, which pioneered a new stop animation technique called “hypervynorama”. It’s also involved in the BBC’s revival of Clangers.
Chalk was born in what he says would now be considered a “very challenging” area of Oldham. His father ran a meat manufacturing business with a butcher’s alongside, while his mum worked off and on in local government.
The musical part of his life began seriously as a nine-year-old. He excelled at the cornet to such an extent he caught the attention of Stockport-based Fairey Engineering, the world-famous brass band now known as Fairey Band. Aged just 14, he joined his adult peers as the band travelled the world and won European and British titles. Around the same time he reached the semi-finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest.
Admitting that his passion for the band meant his school days were neglected, Chalk scraped through his ‘O’ Levels and took up the offer of an engineering apprenticeship with the band. For the next five years, he played semi-professional cornet, saw out his HND in engineering and studied privately with the band’s conductor to achieve a graduate diploma in music at Trinity College, London.
Chalk loved it, but then came the realisation that his globe-trotting band days were drawing to a close. Apart from anything else, the itch for something more entrepreneurial had set in.
So he picked up the Telegraph jobs section, plucked out a technical sales role for a Swiss company in Tewkesbury, and applied. He was successful, and the trappings quickly confirmed to Chalk the wisdom of his decision: “Within a month I had a brand new white Ford Sierra and a carphone…”
But before long he was on the move again, as a sales manager for a nuclear reactor doors company. Overnight his salary was doubled to £20,000 – a decent amount in 1989 – and the Sierra was replaced with something even more flashy.
But while the liking for his new wage-earning abilities soon wore off, his drive for something more entrepreneurial did not. Within a year he was “restless”, so decided to branch out on his own, setting up a nuclear components distribution business called Lintran. After growing it quickly – “completely without fear” – to a £350,000 turnover inside three years, he got his first taste of the path his career would eventually take. TV show Gladiators needed some pretty sophisticated engineering for its legendarily over-the-top games – think the Pendulum, Pole-Axe and Travelator – and Chalk’s company got the call.
Time to go it alone
The company continued to do OK and Chalk learned a “massive amount”, but margins were a problem. Before he wound it up however, Chalk’s musical background came to the fore again as he came up with the idea for an animated show called Notezart, an attempt to “graphically represent the language of music”.
He took the idea to Cosgrove Hall, who loved it, and before long he was helping to set up the company’s fledgling digital division. It was 2001, and Chalk’s career in animation and TV had begun.
He set about getting himself “networked” in his new industry while “figuring out how it all worked”. “The technology side of the brain helped, understanding workflows and digital production pipelines,” he says.
While getting networked, he met Keith Chapman, the creator of Bob the Builder. He wanted to set up his own studio outside of Cosgrove Hall, so he asked Chalk if he would establish one for him. “Timing was everything,” admits Chalk.
Hot Animation, the Altrincham-based Cosgrove breakaway behind Bob, were moving to California to take the global phenomenon into CGI. As a result, they no longer required a complete studio’s worth of stop frame animation assets, so Chalk negotiated favourable terms and started shooting Roary the Racing Car under the Chapman banner.
Success flowed – Chapman was the “darling of the kids’ TV industry”, remembers Chalk – but then came the recession. Despite some private equity finance and personal investment from Keith Chapman, the company went bust.
But in another example of being in the right place at the right time, Chalk had a few months earlier bought the assets of Hullabaloo, a post-production Cosgrove offshoot that had also gone under. With the talent and infrastructure therefore in place, Chalk approached the BBC and offered to take the place of the Chapman studio as a partner on a new programme idea called Strange Hill High.
“They said yes, because we’d had a history of producing shows, albeit under a different banner,” says Chalk. “Getting that contract was a pivotal moment. That gave me the confidence to think we had the start of a business, the potential for two years’ work on one project.
“It was a pretty big roll of the dice for us because we had to invest around £500,000 in that show, and that was largely just to keep the lights on. Without that one project there wasn’t really a business.
“We could have just been a post-production company, but that for me wasn’t where it was at. It was about trying to create new intellectual property and long-term value for the business, not just be a factory for hire. It meant having a vested interest in everything we’ve made and that’s been the core principle to everything that we do.”
Even in a world where only one show in 10 fully recoups its investment and one in 20 makes any money, the gamble paid off.
Factory has now made 26 episodes of Strange Hill High, with a Christmas special to follow in December. It has rated well and out-performed its slot by up to 70%. The BBC are “delighted” with it.
It’s also pioneered a new technique, the aforementioned “hypervynorama”.
What is it?
“We take a live action rod puppet, shoot the footage and then track the heads in 3D and apply the mouths in 3D as a digital effect. In terms of producing a long-form puppet animation series, it hadn’t been done before,” Chalk says.
The co-production arrangement with Fremantle Media also brought some star quality on board for Factory: Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein.
“Fremantle had been talking to Josh for a few years, and they pitched the idea to him, he loved it and came on board as show runner, marshalling the writers and setting the tone.” Everything else – storyboards, animatics, voice recording, sets and props, happened in Altrincham. Chalk says the company are working on another couple of ideas for animated comedies with Weinstein.
The Strange Hill success – it’s subsequently been sold to Netflix, around Europe and some Disney channels – has given Factory the means and the platform to invest in and work on other shows.
It’s now – alongside puppet-maker fellow Altrincham company Mackinnon & Saunders – making 52 episodes of Clangers for CBeebies, and there’s also 52 episodes of Scream Street for CBBC. Three other pilots are on the go and there’s a special project with a “major international business” that could become a series.
Turnover this year will be around £4m, up from just £600,000 three years ago, with further growth projected next year (and they are profitable, insists Chalk). Staff numbers are currently around 65, but will need to hit 90 next year to cope with the workload.
Such a pace of growth has created issues in itself. “We’ve effectively tripled in size over a 12-month period, and that’s taken some wrangling, so we’re now at that stage where we’re trying to play catch-up with infrastructure and systems to help facilitate the growth.”
Given his first-hand appreciation of the highs and lows of the animation industry, you wouldn’t expect Chalk to be complacent, and he certainly isn’t.
“We’re pretty sure there is a long-term business here,” he says, “but because as it stands we’ve got finite capacity, we’ve got to make sure we’re working on projects that we’re getting the appropriate return on. If not we’ll just stutter from one production to the next.
“By nature I’m an eternal optimist but that is also tinged with a massive dose of pragmatism because of the experiences I’ve had in the past.”
Chalk owns 73% of Factory, but at the moment says he isn’t tempted to cash in by selling up. “I hate the notion of people thinking about the exit before they’ve even built the business. I just can’t get my head around that. If your primary focus is to try and flog the business, you’re doomed to fail.
“For me it’s about trying to build something and the legacy will be the quality of shows that we make and the innovation we apply to deliver those shows. We want to produce world-class content. At the minute we’re by no means operating on a global scale so there’s still masses of potential.
“If the right partnership came along, I’d never say never if it was a fit and it made sense and it helped to secure the long-term future of the business and a pipeline for great work and there was a meeting of minds, we’d consider it. But that’s not the sole aim. It’s not about the money, it’s definitely about the products.”
Other interviews in our What I’ve Learnt series include Bryan Adams/Ph. Creative, Nicky Unsworth/BJL, Katrina Michel/Marketing Cheshire, Rob Morrice/Stein IAS, Cat Lewis/Nine Lives Media, Neil McKay/Lakestar McCann and Jim Smith/Clear Communications.