Business At 24 Frames Per Second
Saturday, 02 February 2008
John Rice

The first was how RTE broadcast John Rice's award-winning animation "Escape" the day before I was due to interview him (it's a stunningly beautiful composition, by the way). Another was the fact that I happened to be driving right past him when I rang just before our appointed rendezvous to check the location:


"Where are you?"


"Are you looking out the window?"

"Yeah... how on earth did you know that?"

But these are trivial accidents. The most significant twist of fate in this tale is how John came home to this country, loaded with expertise and ideas from a successful animation career in the US, at a time when Ireland Inc's policy-makers - and their engine of entrepreneurship, Enterprise Ireland - were crying out for ingenues schooled in the arcane arts of digital media and entertainment.

John meets me in a pub, then we move to another one. There were very good reasons for this, but it also illustrates the business spirit of the new generation, which accommodates the boardroom and the playroom with equal grace. Although he and his JAM Media co-directors - Alan Shannon and Mark Cumberton, youthful veterans all - are overwhelmed with work at the moment, preparing for the launch of their innovative PicMe childrens' DVD and the PowderPink Girls cartoon series, there's no reason why the many creative aspects of their business should be confined to the office. Plus, it's Friday evening.


Animation may be the world's youngest art form, I propose. What's it like to work in? "For a lot of people it's a vocation, it gets into your blood", John tells me, grinning. It must be in his very bones at this stage: he's at it well over a decade now, starting with a stint at the legendary Dublin-based Sullivan Bluth studios, straight from Ballyfermot Senior College, then taking his burgeoning skills to Los Angeles. That brought further refinements and experience, before he moved to Arizona with 20th Century Fox, where he worked on such major animated features as "Anastasia" and the ground-breaking digital epic "Titan AE".


John moved next to New York, where he worked for MTV after wowing them with his portfolio. The music station - known as a pioneer in the animation world - promoted him quickly to character designer on its innovative "Downtown" series, an ensemble piece of oddball characters, for which he sought inspiration all over the East Village. Factor in a year off to travel, and we're almost up to date.


By 2001 John was back in Dublin, pursuing a Masters in Multimedia at Trinity College, a course for which he has high praise. The next step was quite clear. "We applied to Enterprise Ireland's High-Potential Start-Up Programme", he explains. "Since then it's just been non-stop. EI were invaluable for the business focus - an area we needed a lot of help with!" He admits that his colleagues and himself were initially rather market-innocent. "We always wanted to set up a company, myself and some of my old friends. We had a particularly good synergy", he tells me. "Is that the right word? Synergy?" The term sounds surprising fresh and meaningful when you know it's used without cynicism. "But we needed help with the business side of things. EI were just great. We're finding it brilliant. From the business plan on upwards, funding, everything has been very useful".


Coming from a creative background, did he find the training element of the programme especially useful? "Absolutely", says John. "Mainly the advisory and mentoring components. Very, very useful... We got lectures on marketing, sales, all the important areas, from financial advisors and VCs, on how to locate funding and a million other things... I now know the difference between the 'elevator pitch', where you only have a minute to sell yourself, and the more advanced 'lobby pitch' and even the 'latte pitch', where you've got them cornered for a coffee..." he breaks off, laughing again. But he's utterly serious about the future. "We've always had big plans for the company", he insists. "We want to make over a million euro per annum and employ more than ten people. That's our first goal".




That milestone may not be so far away, thanks to hard work and the backing of Enterprise Ireland. At present, staffing levels reach almost that high on some projects, as particular jobs mandate the recruitment of additional contract help. JAM Media still does expert motion graphics and website work, but since the PicMe project started - after Enterprise Ireland paid for a feasibility study and prototype development - that has been their major focus. The company has now been selected for Enterprise Ireland's Investor-Ready Programme, a group of seven young firms considered sufficiently mature to warrant special attention. This faith is borne out by JAM's snowballing critical successes: John won the Irish Film and TV Award for "Escape" last November, and the O2 Digital Media Awards gong for Best Animation sits next to it in the trophy cabinet. There are surely more to come, too.


But in addition to his own activities, where does John see Ireland's future in information and communications technology (ICT)? Does he believe in the Government strategy to foster digital media and content-related enterprises?


He does. "Watch animation", he tells me, then laughs at the unintentional pun. "It's the future. Ireland has always had a history of creativity and innovation, and with the legacy of Sullivan Bluth we're now in a very strong position as regards animation talent. It's logical to nurture it at this early stage". More generally, he mentions the Digital Hub and other ongoing media and content initiatives. "But animation is definitely one area to watch", he emphasises.


For all the laughing, these boys are working extremely hard, every weekend and evening, and there's a large "labour of love" element to it. Apparently it takes roughly a month to produce one minute of high-quality animation. At that rate, no one could accuse animation entrepreneurs of chasing the fast buck.


And that's all (for now), folks!

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