After working with some of the top companies in the US, Kerry animator John Rice was happy to set up a festival in his native county, writes Esther McCarthy.
IT was the kind of bad luck that might have seen a less passionate young animator come unstuck. On the first day of his first job with a top animation studio, a young John Rice arrived to work — only to find the company was closing.
It was the mid 1990s and Sullivan Bluth, the Irish-based studio behind An American Tale and The Land Before Time — and the lead driving force in the Irish animation industry — was closing its doors for the last time.
“I was just there for a day. The day I started or was to start was the day that they went into liquidation. There was just everybody in tears running out the door. I didn’t have a clue. I think it came as a shock, actually, to everybody.
“I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, I was feeling sorry for the people who had been in there for a long time. I wouldn’t let things like that get to me too much and I had some other pots on the go, other entrepreneurial pursuits that were doing all right for me.”
Like many Irish animators, he would go on to hone his craft in some of the most exciting creative hubs in America.
Rice, from Abbeydorney in Co Kerry, got a Green Card and sought his fortunes in LA, initially staying with his Ballyfermot College animation classmate Richard Baneham, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on Avatar.
“He was the first one over and it was almost like a processing centre in his place because many people followed from the class. Richie kind of paved the way for all of us,” says Rice.
“Then I got a job in 20th Century Fox in Arizona. Don Bluth (co-founder of Sullivan Bluth) had been asked by Fox to set up a feature studio. He said he wanted to bring over his Irish crew. It was great. It was brilliant and it was working with some of the best artists in the world. I learned so much. I learnt my trade.”
Working his way up to animator by the time he left four years later, Rice fancied spending some time in New York and took up a job with MTV, who were at that time developing some cutting-edge animation of their own.
He was honing his skills in highly creative positions — yet Rice felt that the industry, leaning increasingly towards digitisation, could get away from him in the future, so returned to Ireland to upskill.
“I started thinking it was time to go digital because I was still pencil and papering,” he says now. “The world was all changing around me and I wasn’t changing with it. So I came back and went to Trinity.”
On returning to Dublin with his Irish wife Sarah, the couple started a family and decided to settle in the city. At this time, he established JAM Media with fellow animators and friends Alan Shannon and Mark Cumberton.
JAM is also the driving force, along with the Dingle International Film Festival, behind the hugely successful Animation Dingle. Now in its seventh year, it takes place in the Co Kerry town next weekend.
Geared towards animation students and the public, it has become a leading draw for the international industry, with guests last year from Pixar, Disney, Aardman and the BBC. This year, speakers include Co Cork native and Oscar nominee Nora Twomey, Pixar writer/director Bob Peterson, and Rice’s old college friend, Richard Baneham.
Rice first considered setting up an animation festival after being invited to Dingle.
“A friend of mine, Maurice Foley, runs the Dingle International Film Festival. And he asked myself and Alan and Mark to come down. He got us this lovely room in the convent with the Harry Clarke windows.
“We thought that there could be something you know, if you were to do it properly and focus on animation. We didn’t know what the colleges are doing and they didn’t know what the industry was doing. That’s kind of where it started.
“It started off with maybe 25 people. Now there’s 700 people. Student tickets go overnight, pretty much. A student described it on Twitter the other day as a ‘Glastonbury for animation’.”
There are bigger and more easily accessible places in the country to establish such a festival, but Rice feels hosting it in his home county is what makes it special.
“I think you have to be kind of niche these days when you’re in a festival. We borrow a bit from Sundance in that the harder it is to get to, the harder it is to leave. It’s small and perfectly formed and we just take over Dingle.
As a child, Rice was drawing as early as he can remember, and always dreamed of working in animation, an ambition that was fostered and encouraged by his parents.
“Every copy book I ever had was covered around the borders with little drawings. I was always encouraged from an early age to embrace whatever creativity I had. I got incredible encouragement from my folks. I was lucky that way.”
JAM has become one of Irish animation’s many great success stories, now employing 105 in Dublin and Belfast, a number likely to swell to 140 by the end of the year. They have created several successful shows and characters geared primarily towards children and pre-schoolers, and one of their more recent creations, Becca’s Bunch (named after his daughter) could be one of the most successful of them all.
The series, about a little bird who has a big heart, has been a massive ratings success on Nick Jr and another series is in the works.They have also struck a deal with a major toy company to produce a wide range of products set around the series. "We’ve never gotten a toy deal off of a show before,” says Rice. “They’re like hens teeth so that’s really exciting. It’s killing it in ratings on Nick Jr all around the world. They’re delighted with it. We’re scripting a second series.”
Animation Dingle takes place on Friday and Saturday. 2019.animationdingle.com