When Henry found fame: Ireland’s latest animation success

Remember the name – Irish animator Gary Gill is one to watch, thanks to his hit cartoon and new book, ‘The Day Henry Met’, writes Marie Toft.

Gary Gill created his very unique self-portrait for ‘Weekend’: “Every day off Gilly loves to make the silly things in his head – cocktail ‘sausys’ and cake.”

It was on Killiney Beach in Dublin when animator Gary Gill’s baby son Henry was learning to talk, that the inspiration began for the delightful The Day Henry Met animation series.

“Henry was about one and a half at the time,” remembers Gary - who is universally known as Gilly. “We’d arrive on the beach, and always say ‘Hello Beach’ and when we’d leave, we’d say ‘Bye Bye Beach’.”

So began the long process that led a beautiful animation series which has now been sold to 178 territories worldwide and which young viewers on RTÉjr will be very familiar with.

The Day Henry Met sees a little boy named Henry meet animals and inanimate objects such as the Moon, a Violin and a Camera. When its fourth series - which is currently in production - is finished, it will have produced 104 episodes.

And now the first book to accompany the series, The Day Henry Met a Dog has just made its debut with O’Brien Press.

But the series and the book are also a celebration of Gilly’s son Henry who had an extremely tough start in life.

“Henry was diagnosed with meningitis just ten days after he was born,” explains Gilly. “He spent nearly four months in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin but thankfully he made a full recovery.” Gilly was involved with post production in TV advertising at the time and was working very long hours. He maintains Henry’s serious illness was a wake up call.

“I was hardly seeing him and I knew something had to give,” he remembers.

Gilly had been drawing all his life and had studied graphic design in Dun Laoighre. He had then subsequently gone back and studied for another degree in animation.

So Gilly put his love of drawing, experience of animation and his baby son’s awakening development into The Day Henry Met.

His ability to provide an effective one stop shop for animation - storyboarding, design, sound etc - meant he was able to produce a pilot.

The reaction was immediate when The Day Henry Met presented at the Cartoon Forum in Toulouse in 2013 and the series was funded in just over a year and a half.

“The Day Henry Met isn’t just about what Henry meets,” he explains. “It’s what he becomes when he meets these objects or animals. It’s aspirational. It shows kids they can be anything.” And it’s clear Henry, who is now seven, is still a big inspiration for the series.

“My Henry loves outer space,” explains Gilly, “so in the series, he meets the moon and he becomes an astronaut. Also, we were lucky enough to be shown around a fire station one day and Henry himself suggested he should meet a fire engine so he does, and becomes a fire fighter.”

When Henry meets a shield, he becomes a knight and when he meets a parrot, he becomes a pirate. And for the first book, The Day Henry Met a Dog, Henry and the Dog head off on an adventure to find the dog a best friend.

“Our first book is all about friendship and imagination. It’s like a template for finding a best friend.” But Gilly makes it clear The Day Henry Met is also about teaching children the art of conversation.

“Henry says hello to everything he meets, he asks how they are and he always says thanks and goodbye,” says Gilly, who observes that this is something fewer and fewer children are being encouraged to do.

This delightful combination of imagination, aspiration and conversation has gone on to captivate children all over the world, broadcasting on Nick Jr International, Canal Plus and RTÉjr.

Susan Broe, who Gilly describes as his ‘animation mammy’, is Gilly’s colleague and co-founder of their award winning production company Wigglywoo.

Susan maintains Section 481, which offers tax incentives to animation companies, along with development funding from the Irish Film Board, have been vital to Wigglywoo’s success.

“Section 481 has been a huge part of Ireland’s successful animation sector,” says Susan. “It’s recently been copied by the UK and has really helped kickstart their animation industry.” And the Film Board is also helping to fund Wigglywoo’s first feature length film. It’s based on the company’s award winning TG4 series Tea with the Dead - which sees Frank the embalmer having final chats with the bodies he’s preparing for burial.

But for the time being, the focus is on The Day Henry Met as Wigglywoo launches its first book - with several more in the pipeline - and finishes production on its fourth series.

Henry is voiced by Dara Molloy who was only seven when he started the series and is now 12. Gilly describes him as the most professional actor he’s ever worked with.

And impressionist Oliver Callan of ‘Callan’s Kicks’ has also proved invaluable, as he can provide lots of different voices, considering every single thing - both live and inanimate needs to be voiced for The Day Henry Met.

In the intervening years, Gilly’s son Henry has been joined by younger sister Rose and younger brother Tom.

And The Day Henry Met is definitely a family affair with the whole family pitching in to provide voices for the series, including Gilly’s wife Joanne, who is a teacher.

“I couldn’t have done any of this without Joanne’s support,” maintains Gilly. “We took a leap of faith when I gave up my job and started The Day Henry Met and she was really instrumental in that.” But it’s definitely come good with Gilly and his family setting up a creative microcosm in his native Ballybrack in Dublin.

“I get to work with my friends, who live locally. And I’m able to drop off and collect my children from school.

“I don’t know what lies ahead but I really feel that at the age of 38 I’m lucky enough to have cottoned on to what’s important and I’m lucky enough to love doing what I’m doing.”

Animation nation

Ireland punches way above its weight when it comes to animation and Gilly maintains the production companies listed below forged the path for Wigglywoo’s success.

  • Brown Bag Films: Founded in Dublin in 1994 by Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell, Brown Bag has won several Emmy and BAFTA awards along with two Oscar nominations, one for their beloved Give Up Yer Aul Sins in 2001 and for Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty in 2010.
  • Cartoon Saloon: Based in Kilkenny, this remarkable production house has received three Oscar nominations for its three feature length films - The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and last year’s The Breadwinner which told the story of an 11 year old girl who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
  • Jam: Jam Media which has produced Baby Jake and Badly Drawn Roy, is one of the leading creators and producers of multi-award winning animated content for children, creating series for RTÉ, BBC and Nick Jr.

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