Katherine McQueen started her career as a production assistant with A Productions in 2002, going on to run the business 17 years later.
The joint managing director of a company that has worked on animation for hit children’s TV series, from Sesame Street to the BBC’s JoJo & Gran Gran, is now focusing efforts on not only growing the organisation but providing opportunities for grassroots talent and diversifying the industry.
“What’s important, what we’re doing as a studio – and what the industry is moving towards – is not just representation on screen, it’s representation behind the screen,” explains Katherine.
“It’s so important that authentic stories are told and different voices tell different stories. So, it’s not just about what you see on the telly, it’s about who’s making that show and the voices behind it.”
Beyond an unassuming front entrance next to the construction work ongoing at Bristol Beacon, the main A Productions Colston Street offices are several staircases up. In a glass-panelled board room, Katherine and assistant director Comfort Arthur sit to speak about their respective career journeys.
Comfort had been on her way back to Ghana, where she had spent eight years working on her own projects and teaching animation to women before the pandemic struck. But the opportunity to take on a role as assistant director of a show she already admired was too good to pass on, so she moved to Bristol instead.
JoJo & Gran Gran is produced by BBC Studios Kids & Family Production in association with the team at A Productions.
Comfort tells Bristol24/7: “Prior to applying for this position, I knew about JoJo & Gran Gran and I posted it on my social media because this is the first ever [animation] show that has come out that is focused on a black family. I didn’t know that two years later, I will actually be assistant director.”
Comfort studied animation at the Royal College of Art with plans to get a job in the industry afterwards but, despite numerous applications, it proved incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door.
In the end, she moved to Ghana where she worked as a film editor and led her own projects, which she showcased at international film festivals and events.
Realising Comfort’s talent, A Productions bosses created a role that has enabled her to get hands-on experience of directing while being mentored by series director Ben Halliwell.
Speaking about the collaboration, Comfort says: “More should be done because it’s so hard to get into the field of directing – I don’t think I would have been able to get to where I am now without this.”
While the next goal is to take on a role as sole director, Comfort is also passionate about being a role model for others seeking to enter the notoriously tough industry and spends time going into schools to talk about life as a director and animator.
“Even finding a black female director is very rare,” says Comfort. “There are some but the numbers are small.
“That’s one of the reasons why I was really urging myself to do this just to get that exposure. And also to let people know that there are up-and-coming directors and inspiring more black women that you can actually get into directing.
“I’m always about just making sure young children, whether white, black or Asian, actually know that there’s that opportunity to get into the industry regardless.”
For Katherine, attracting new and future talent is about being prepared to shake up the industry and try new things.
“I think it’s really easy to stick to a model that everyone has been doing for years and you have to think much more broadly,” says Katherine.
“To make these changes is hard, it’s not something that comes automatically, it’s something you have to put time, effort and money behind to make the difference.”
As someone who started from the bottom and worked her way up to become joint MD of an expanding company, Katherine says having the right support – whether that’s at the start of your career or with flexibility of working hours around childcare – is crucial.
Is the industry as a whole going in the right direction in terms of improving in diversity and inclusion though?
“There are shows being commissioned now that, sadly, five years ago wouldn’t have been commissioned and representation on screen is definitely improving,” says Katherine.
“I still don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to get to, and that’s diversity as a whole – people of colour, people with disabilities and people from every spectrum and every walk of life. And I think broadcasters are seeing now that people are wanting that.”
A Productions was founded by joint MD Mark Taylor in 1985 and has grown from a team of just five to 168 – with big ambitions for further expansion.
Katherine is now starting a development arm of the company, which enables A Productions to originate ideas from creatives in the studio, and this is something she would love to see grow.
With work on shows like Sesame Street, A Productions reaches global audiences with its work but Katherine says it is Britain that leads when it comes to children’s TV, with the likes of the BBC helping retain this reputation.
And, of course, Bristol – being home to Aardman Animations among others – is at the heart of this booming sector.
Katherine adds: “I think Bristol is a great city for creatives. The fact that we have other animation companies in the city means people can live here and get work so the fact that we’re in the city that we are has a huge impact.”