Animation nation: The Irish creators making their mark on Hollywood

They’ve been nominated for an Oscar, but before they head for LA, the people behind Cartoon Saloon will celebrate Ireland’s booming animation industry at a festival this weekend. Esther McCarthy reports.

Next month, Cork animator Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon, the studio she co-founded, will take on some of the world’s biggest studios at the Oscars. Her film The Breadwinner, about a young Afghan girl who disguises herself as a boy to provide for her family, is nominated for Best Animated Film alongside giants such as Pixar and 20th Century Fox.

The Midleton woman’s nomination is to be celebrated but is no fluke - Ireland’s long-respected animation industry is having a moment, and its creators are now in demand across the globe.

Animation is enjoying remarkable growth in the past decade and now employs more than 1,600 full-time staff, according to the Irish Film Board.

Studios here are working with some of the biggest names in global broadcasting – including Nickelodeon, Disney, Amazon and Cartoon Network – and interest is growing.

Increased demand for great programming content for our kids has led to a thriving industry, and Irish talent is well placed to make the most of it.

“Across all genres and demographics, what’s happening in the world of drama is happening at an equal pace in the world of children’s television. The appetite has increased, the consumption patterns have increased. It’s a very exciting time,” says John Rice of Jam Media.

“It’s an embracing of being able to produce content globally, it’s something that Irish animation companies have a very good eye for, that ability to be able to create content that crosses cultural divides. Straddling Europe and the US, it’s kind of advantageous from a storytelling perspective. I think we’re good at that, generally, as an industry here.” 

Rice, from Abbeydorney in Co Kerry (he also runs the Animation Dingle festival) is one of a wave of Irish animators, many of who studied their craft in Ballyfermot, who’ve helped establish the industry here.

“In my class alone there were the lads from Brown Bag, the lads from Cavalier, the Oscar-winner Richard Baneham.” 

Upon qualifying, he worked at 20th Century Fox in the US for four years, before moving to New York, where he worked in MTV animation. 

“I came back to do a master’s in Trinity because I could kind of see the world around me changing,” he said, anticipating the growth in digital production.

Jam, now 17 years old, has grown organically to become a busy and respected studio, developing series such as Jessie and Nessie for Amazon Prime, Roy for CBBC and Becca’s Bunch for Nickelodeon.

But success does not come without determination and hard work. When many of our leading animators were leaving college, the industry in Ireland was tough. The only significant animation studio in Ireland, Sullivan Bluth, closed its doors for good in 1995.

“You could almost say it was a depressing time in animation because Don Bluth’s studio was just on the verge of closing,” said Darragh O’Connell, co-founder of Brown Bag.

“Ireland had gone through this boom in animation but there were no real Irish-owned companies. There was no real work to find, which is why myself and Cathal (Gaffney) set up ourselves. A lot of people were going away to the States and to London. It was in the doldrums for a while.” 

But he believes that regardless of Sullivan Bluth’s closure, its establishment here in the first place was crucial to our current success. 

“Without it I don’t think there would have ever been the interest in the first place. There were people who were architects, illustrators, and they got interested. People got trained in Don Bluth’s studios, they went to the States and furthered their careers there and a lot of them came back then. It definitely piqued that interest in the beginning.” 

Brown Bag has gone on to enjoy huge international success with shorts like the endearing Give Up Your Auld Sins and series like Vampirina, which has had 90 million hits (and counting) for Disney.

“I’d say right now, internationally, Ireland is viewed as probably the best country doing animation where people would like to work. All of the major studios are working with companies here in Ireland. The tax credit is hugely beneficial. And storytelling - storytelling isn’t just what ends up on the screen. I think the Irish are inherent storytellers, even in how we deal with people from the States. They like working with us.” 

If Brown Bag is the established grande dame of Irish animation, Pink Kong is its exciting little sister. 

Set up just four years ago by Aoife Doyle and Niamh Herrity, Pink Kong has been winning numerous awards for its work so far, including the short film, Departure.

“I knew that I always wanted to start a studio, but that I didn’t have the right people to do it with,” said Doyle.

“When I met Niamh, she was doing event management, managing large budgets for events and running a whole team of people. Not all producers have a background in animation, and I convinced Niamh to set up a studio.” 

“For about a year before we started up we were doing a lot of research, trying to figure out how do we set ourselves up? Where can we get finance from?” added Herrity.

“We never make really big decisions without consulting each other.” Urban Tails, a series where urban animals entertain and inform about city life through a series of rap videos, is currently in development. 

“Education by stealth, that was the idea behind Urban Tails. We wanted to have a really exciting show for kids and to engage them but it feels like fun.” 

I got to experience first-hand Pink Kong’s fascinating new project, Aurora, which will premiere at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival’s two-day conference and exhibition, Immersive Stories.

For the virtual-reality (VR) film, I wore a headset and was immersed into an extraordinary multi-dimensional, 360 degree world of nature and woodlands, surrounded by powerful visuals and attention to detail.

The use of VR is growing in both animation and live-action filmmaking and having developed Aurora, they are fascinated with exploring its potential. They are also developing early concept work for their first feature film. 

“Our logo says ‘we bring stories to life’ and that’s what we want to do,” said Herrity.

“The bigger, and the more of our content that we can produce here, the better.” 

And the international animation industry is certainly taking notice. At the recent Annie Awards, the most prestigious in the business, in the US, the Irish picked up two of the top prizes.

Brown Bag’s Octonauts was awarded best animated production for preschool children, while Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner won best animated independent feature. 

The Breadwinner is also nominated for next month’s Oscars and Cork director Nora Twomey’s feature attracted the support of Angelina Jolie, who came on board early in the project as executive producer. 

For her colleague, Paul Young of Cartoon Saloon, the achievement comes after years of work and development in the Kilkenny-based animation studios. 

Their films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea were also previously nominated for Oscars.

“I think because all the studios are creatively led, the company owners are artists themselves and then learned a bit of entrepreneurship along the way,” said Young of Ireland’s creative success. 

“But the desire to create quality work is at the heart of the business. Animation is labour intensive and expensive, so Irish producers quickly learned to think internationally to raise funding, which is a big factor to the industry’s success.” 

In the case of Cartoon Saloon, the look of the films is very unique. 

“We are drawn to original ideas and design,” said Young. 

“We try to stick to evergreen stories that we hope will stand the test of time avoiding too much current pop culture. Our only chance to stand out is to be visually very different to the rest. We also come from an illustrative background.”

He has sound advice for anyone considering a career in animation. 

“Draw every day. Share your work early with friends to get feedback. Learn to work on a team, be it if you’re a writer or an artist.”

Kilkenny Animated is a brand new festival of visual storytelling, incorporating cartoons, animation and illustration in a series of exhibitions, talks, performances, workshops and experiences that celebrate the creativity and craft of the visual image. 

Hosted by Cartoon Saloon, it takes place this weekend. One of the festival highlights, Drawing History is today, from 5-6pm at the Medieval Mile Museum.

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