Now in their 23rd year, Synthetic Dimensions have long been a mainstay of the local animation scene. The two-person company from Wolverhampton, enjoyed many a best-selling game from the late 80's up until they floated in 2000. Now, according to Director and co-founder Kevin Bulmer, they're set to re-enter a games industry that has finally burst into the mainstream."We're getting back into computer games now," says Synthetic Dimensions' Bulmer, "the market's changed a lot; instead of taking about 18 months to develop a game with a team of maybe 20, people are looking at maybe a team of 200 over 4 years to put a game together, so it is a bigger gamble now."But the other thing that's interesting, and the reason we're looking to get back into it now, is the market's expanded. So instead of just being AAA titles in a traditional sense, there are also casual games, serious games, and mobile phone games. There are all sorts of different levels that we can get back into gaming."Formed in 1985 Wolverhampton's Synthetic Dimensions has up more recently been concentrating on merging animation and print with their impressive three-dimensional hologram posters, "They're actually lenticular posters as opposed to hologram posters," Kevin clarifies, "but most people would think of them as holograms when they see them."The first one in the range is the original one sheet poster that was used in the UK for the 1977 launch of Star Wars, but converted to a full deep 3D," he enthuses, "We'd have done it sooner, but unfortunately our printer was hit by the floods last year in Sheffield."
Since creating a simple program to create images and animation on the Atari back in the "dim and distant eighties," without the need for Cinecamera's or expensive external processing, Synthetic Dimensions have been heavily involved with the regions' animation and games industry.
"We spent from '87 through to the year 2000 concentrating on computer games," recalls Bulmer, "We did 14 games in that time, all of which were top 10; nine of them were no.1 games. In December, 1999 we floated the company on the stock exchange and from that point on we've concentrated on developing properties on the TV as well as for computer games."
In 2002, company founders Kevin Bulmer and his partner Kate Copestake dramatically sold their stock in the original business incarnation, bought out the intellectual property rights and started the company all over again; "The capital that we got from the sale of the company we've invested in new technology, which is where our hologram technology comes from."
But back to gaming, having started in the days of bedroom game developers, what does Bulmer make of the sudden mainstream explosion of gaming due to the Nintendo Wii? "Oh that's been absolutely fantastic, especially this year. Instead of the traditional hard-going slog of a computer game: learning how to play it, which keys do what and all the secret moves that mean you have to dedicate hours. It is now the sort of thing that the whole family can get together and play, or as you might see in the news; pensioners in old peoples homes playing games.
"So all the stuff we've had to deal with; computer games being called the bastard love-child of video nasty's and the root of all evil in the known world – which every now and then still comes up I notice – has to stop now. Because now everybody's playing computer games, you can't keep telling them that the games world is evil. So it will be interesting to see how that does change the industry."
Although games seems to be back on the agenda, animation is still the company's speciality. With the company having just begun the arduous process of attracting partners to help fund their proposed CG animated Goofy Ghouls TV series. Kevin is enthusiastic about the possibilities for animators looking to succeed in the industry: "The big thing is to get it noticed, get something to show people. It's all very well walking in with a piece of paper to a potential partner to show to people, but if they can see it, they get a much better indication of what is in your mind. So the more money you invest in taking the property forward before you secure partners; the better. Otherwise you could be wasting your time and theirs.
"But it depends on who you're looking to secure as an investor and what resources you have available. The ideal route at the moment is to put together say, a 7 minute animation, get it on YouTube, and get it blasted around the animation equivalents of YouTube that let you post full-length video. Then get it referenced on as many forums as you possibly can; you'll be amazed how many people will start ringing your phone! It will be incredible."
But in terms of their own project, Bulmer is a little more ambitious: "We're trying to do something a little bit bigger than that, which is going to cost an awful lot more," Bulmer explains, "We've so far put the best part of quarter of a million into the development of Goofy Ghouls; the original designs, the scripts, the character models, location models, and drawing all that together. Ultimately we'll be putting together a twenty minute showpiece which will effectively be the first episode of the series."
Being a 'Wolverhampton Business Champion', involved in the Creative Industries Forum, Chamber Of Commerce member as well as Animation Forum steering group member, it seemed appropriate to ask Bulmer for his advice to the regions small animation companies looking to grow their business.
"The creative industries in general and small micro-businesses (which is generally what we have across the Midlands) are really having a hard time," warns Bulmer. "It's really difficult to come up with a support system to help them get along, because those running the business can end up losing so much time chasing grants, finding support and attending meetings to get financial assistance; that their business goes bust because you're not there running the business."
Besides recommending that small businesses speak to the much praised Business Link, Bulmer told a cautionary tale about keeping your overheads low: "One of the salutary lessons I heard about was a company who got a fantastic, short, three month job in. They got a load of money from that job, blew all the money, and then didn't end up getting a following job because they'd been so busy with this first one.
"But having blown all the money on a couple of nice cars, they hadn't got enough money left in the bank to tide them over while they got the next work in. I mean it's stupid, these are obvious things but budgeting is really crucial to everything. Keeping your eye on the ball at all levels or making sure that your own internal costs are as tight as you can get them. Don't get flash offices if you don't need them and budget sensibly when you're trying to get the work.
"It's great getting work, but if you've had to undercut everybody to get it, the chances are there's not enough fat in there for you to cover any problem that might come up. And it's not always possible to go back to the client and say, 'these issues have arisen and we need extra money,' because animation tends to be viewed as a necessary evil by most businesses."
Beside familiar pitfalls of business, Bulmer is understandingly enthusiastic about the merits of networking as a way of maintaining a business; particularly as Synthetic Dimensions long involvement in games stems from a contact he met through the Birmingham Computer User Group (BUG) in the mid-eighties.
"I think networking with other animators is absolutely crucial," says Kevin, "Just because you spark ideas all the time and you find new technology. There are so many things coming along and new ideas, and just finding forums to post your work on by talking to other people and being pointed in other directions.
"So talking to people in your industry is really great. But I'd network beyond that, the Animation Forum is – I think, absolutely crucial to anyone in the region. Because it gives you that opportunity to talk to other people, find out how they've dealt problems that you're going to be bumping into.
"But also, networking with the wider business community, because there are all sorts of people who would have animation done if they knew they could get it made locally. This is something I have found from the Chamber Of Commerce; there are people who'd like little bits for internal displays; something running in the foyer or stick on their website. Something they put on training videos, or illustrate a new technology. Just little jobs, even if it's just a four or five day job, every little helps when you're a small company.
"But most business people in the region think that if they want animation, they're gonna have to hire a business in London, and haven't got the time to go down and talk to people there. So [animators should try and] get into things like a Chamber Of Commerce do or any sort of business networking event.
"You've gotta be upfront though, it's no good standing in the corner waiting for people to come and talk to you, which is what most people do at networking events. There's no networking, they're all standing round waiting for someone to talk to them!
"If you can be proactive, and perhaps a little bit wacky – because we're all creative people and we're not going to go in there wearing suits, so you do get noticed. Get in there and talk to people; you'd be amazed where it leads. Even if it doesn't lead to anything straight away, people do remember that they've met and talked to you. They might even talk to other people and say, 'You never guess who I met, it was an animator, he does animation on computers,' and it gets your name around.
"We're living proof of that, over the last 20-odd years. The sort of jobs that have come our way from really odd areas that you would never expect, is testament to the fact that going out and talking to people is a really good thing."