Exterminate: Doctor Who animator threatens Australian exit

A Central Coast-based animator that has worked to restore some of the missing early episodes of Doctor Who has said he may move his business to the UK if he can't access faster, and cheaper broadband.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Central Coast-based animation company Planet55 Studios has told parliamentarians that it may have to move closer to the BBC in Cardiff to continue working on Doctor Who.

Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

The classic British science fiction series last year celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while almost all of the 800 episodes of the show between 1963 and 2013 are still on record, approximately 97 episodes of the series from the First and Second Doctors are missing.

The BBC has recently located some of the missing episodes, but in situations where the BBC only has part of a serial, or has the audio but not the video from a particular episode, the broadcaster has begun releasing animated versions of the episodes to fill in the gaps.

The BBC has hired Australian animation studio Planet55 to animate at least three serials so far, with more planned. The company employs approximately 55 people on the Central Coast in New South Wales, and has worked on Doctor Who serials including Reign of Terror and The Tenth Planet.

The studio's head Austen Atkinson told the Senate Select Committee for the National Broadband Network (NBN) yesterday that in the process of animation, the organisation needs to move about 30 gigabytes of data per day. He said that after Telstra was slow to repair ADSL lines in his area, the company has installed fibre to its premises and is paying AU$1,600 per month for a 50Mbps down, 50Mbps up link. He said the upload speed was more important than the download speed, and that while fibre was the best option for the company, even 50Mbps wasn't enough.

"I do not care about the technology I just want the most pragmatic approach. It turns out that fibre is the most pragmatic approach until they invent something else. Because we have 50 people using 50 meg up and down you can imagine that that averages out at one megabyte. It is, quite frankly, pathetic," he said.

"We could do with eight times that but we simply cannot get it. So we installed a line at AU$1,600 a month. We would love to install multiple ones but we cannot because there is not enough bandwidth."

He said that the company had turned to mailing out its work, and sends out between one and three hard drives back to the UK per day, at a cost of between AU$300 and AU$500 per package.

"I will use any technology that works to get this out. At the moment it is called 'post'. That is what we are having to do. It slows down our productivity massively and costs us serious money. It would add about AU$1 million to transfer, which we could easily have spent on talent here," he said.

"We could have trained more talent and spent it on animators, which I would much rather have done."

He said that as the company is taking on more work for the BBC, it was considering to relocating to Cardiff in the UK.

"We will leave. We will take our money and go somewhere else because we have hit a bottleneck and we cannot expand. We are already looking at Planet55 Cardiff, in the UK," he said.

"We have hit a bottleneck — not of talent. I found a massive resource of talent and trained them all myself, but if we cannot get our work out daily and communicate with our partners in LA or our partners in Dublin or our partners in Spain or wherever they are, what are we supposed to do? It is not practical."

He said that support for entrepreneurs was also lacking in Australia, and employment costs were also high compared to the United Kingdom, and the United States.

"The fact is that it is very attractive to look at in the UK at the moment, because the economy is booming again now; it is growing in my sector tremendously. As a result of Doctor Who's success and so forth, there is a huge culture in Cardiff," he said.

"Our big problem is that the realities of employing people here—it is really unattractive, to be honest. If it were not for the fact that I have invested so much in the talent here, we probably would have gone already. It has been very hard birthing process."

He said that broadband also had to be made affordable for start ups to be able to compete.

"To stay, we definitely need at least three times the bandwidth right now and preferably eight times the bandwidth that we have, at an affordable rate. The fact is entrepreneurs create product when there is a supply as well as a demand."

Planet55 Studios may not ultimately need to flee the country, however, with well-known Doctor Who fan former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy jokingly offering to do the construction work himself.

"I have not been able to crack a gig as an extra on Doctor Who. Can you help? It is my final life ambition—can you help?" Conroy asked Atkinson.

"I tell you what, we will look into it—but get me the bandwidth I am after," Atkinson said.

"I will personally dig it for you for that," Conroy replied.

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