Animation nation: Brown Bag

From Oscar nods to BAFTA nominations, Irish animation is going through a golden age.

Animation nation: Brown Bag

NODDY has a murderous look in his eye. Years of tolerating Big Ears jokes, and driving a car that’s too small for him, have taken their toll on his sanity. He’s snapped. The butcher’s knife in his right hand is poised to strike the retreating pig, Olivia.

She trails a skeletal arm and grimaces. Noddy is Toytown’s Freddie Krueger and this is Nightmare on Elf Street.

“Maybe we should clean that up before we take the pictures,” Cathal Gaffney advises our photographer. It’s the day after Halloween and some wag has doctored the cardboard cut-outs that hang on the foyer wall of Brown Bag Film’s Dublin HQ.

I’m here to spend a day with the poster boys of Ireland’s world-beating animation industry. If first impressions are anything to go by, it’s going to be fun.

“They’re calling the animation boom ‘the Celtic Tigger’,” laughs Gaffney, Brown Bag’s co-founder and CEO. “I hope that’s not prescient.”

He needn’t worry. The Irish animation industry shows no signs of slowing down. It’s exploded over the past five years and Brown Bag keep throwing fuel on the flames. Last week, they announced they are making their first feature film. The week before, that they have recreated Peter Rabbit for the BBC. The week before that, that they have been nominated for Emmys.

It’s not all Brown Bag, though. Earlier this year, JAM Media won the Producer of the Year (see page 12), and Monster Entertainment won European Investor/Distributor of the Year at Cartoon Forum 2012. Irish animators have been nominated for every major gong, including four Oscars, four Baftas, and eight Emmys. Irish-made series are being watched by millions of kids globally.

Just some of those topgrossing shows are: Doc McStuffins (Brown Bag, Disney Channel, currently the No1 pre-school show in the US); Octonauts (Brown Bag, BBC); Roy (Jam Media, BBC); Picme (Jam, BBC, broadcast in 95 countries); Baby Jake (Jam, BBC); and The Amazing World of Gumball (Boulder Media, Cartoon Network).

According to umbrella organisation Animation Ireland, the industry is now a central component of our digital and creative economy. The latest figures, for 2011, show that Irish studios employ upwards of 2,321 people.

Animation accounts for one third of the Irish audio-visual market. Of the total spend on productions in 2011, €110m was on animation. The spend on Irish labour costs was €23m — which is good news for the exchequer. The animation industry here is entirely Irish-owned. It’s green, high-tech, creative and, as it’s 100% export-led, it has unlimited potential for growth.

Andrew Fitzpatrick, veteran former head of Don Bluth Entertainment and now MD of brand management company Monster Entertainment, has watched the industry skyrocket.

“When I got involved in the 1980s, there were just two companies producing animation here: Emerald City and Sullivan Studios, which eventually became Don Bluth Entertainment. Now, there are more people working in animation in Ireland than there are in Germany.

“The industry is much stronger now as it’s diverse. It doesn’t depend on one player and the companies involved span feature film, TV, games and commercials. Many of them own the intellectual property (IP) rights to their own original content, which can lead to long-term financial strength.”

Ireland’s success rests with Section 481, which gives generous tax breaks to investors. Andrew believes that retaining the incentive is vital for the future of Irish animation.

“Even though our industry is healthy, we’re likely to face competition from improved incentives in places like the UK. Then there’s the threat of low cost locations such as India and China. We need to ensure that our incentives and cost base remain competitive.”

The threat of cheaper competition from abroad doesn’t faze Gaffney. “Obviously it’s a consideration for us, but we’ve positioned ourselves as a niche player at the very high end of quality 3D animation. There are not that many companies in the world that have the same infrastructure and expertise as us.

“We’re the premier producer of quality 3D TV animation for kids. Doc McStuffins is the number one preschool show in the US. It’s taken Dora the Explorer off the top spot.”

It’s taken a long time for Brown Bag to get where they are. The studio was founded in 1994 by Gaffney and Darragh ‘Doc’ O’Connell. They now employ 150 people and have worked with the world’s biggest entertainment names, including Disney, Nickelodeon and the BBC.

In 2002 they received their first Oscar nomination, for Give Up Yer Aul Sins, followed by their second in 2010 for Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. They have Bafta, Ifta and Emmy nominations for The Octonauts and their TV shows air in 150 countries.

Not bad for two students who dropped out of animation college to pursue their dream. Has being Irish helped them? Gaffney is surprisingly emphatic. “I’m very proud of being Irish, but Brown Bag Films is an Irish company by geography, not an ‘Irish animation company’. We don’t do the Darby O’Gill stuff and take it globally. That’s not our audience.

“We also don’t do animation for the home market. We can’t do work for RTÉ as they spend less than 1% of their independent production budget on animation. It’s a shame, as there’s a brilliant children’s department there. It’s just not given resources.

“I feel really strongly that Irish children have as much right to quality homegrown programmes as their parents.”

It’s RTÉ’s loss, given the standard of show Brown Bag now produce. It’s a measure of their international reputation that they have been tasked with reinventing one of children’s literature’s most enduring characters, Peter Rabbit. I walk through the warren of studios and desks to where the Bunny Brigade are working.

Director David McCamley and producer Erik Vigneau are checking shots for texture and continuity. It’s painstaking work. Lily Bobtail flits back and forth as she adjusts a picture on the wall of Peter’s burrow. Something the untrained eye could never hope to see is discussed and fixed.

“Everything has to be perfect,” says McCamley, who also directs Noddy. “The fur, the way the characters move. The rabbits must behave like rabbits, although they have been humanised.”

On screen, Benjamin hops after Peter and Lily who are walking upright. The realism is extraordinary. The scenery behind them is breathtakingly beautiful.

“We visited Beatrix Potter’s English Lake District and took thousands of photographs. We wanted to get an authentic Potter feel to the series. It took a year to make the opening 22-minute Christmas special. We had to build snow sets. Then we had to create summer sets for the rest of the series.”

McCamley suddenly opens his iPad and shows me something I hadn’t been expecting to see: Peter Rabbit’s debut after a TV absence of 20 years. The screen explodes with colour and movement. There are red squirrels everywhere. They fall from their branches like maple leaves in a gale, fanning out across the snow, swarming, running, jumping, jerking...

At their head is a wild-eyed rodent in an aviator’s helmet. He sniffs the air. It’s Squirrel Nutkin — and he looks like he’s been at the Bolivian marching powder. “He’s a real mad head,” laughs McCamly.

McGregor’s garden is covered in snow. The ‘camera’ traces the flight of a snowflake, passing (and introducing) the various characters before floating through the door of Peter’s burrow. The speed and majesty of the sequence bring a lump to my throat.

Across the corridor, Doc O’Connell is finishing a phone call to the States. “We’re having a revolution here. It all started with Don Bluth and then took a long time to return with its own Irish twist. The Americans sowed a seed and it took 15 years for it to grow.

“I remember wanting to draw comics in the 1980s and there was nothing there. Everyone said I was throwing my life away, but I just wanted to draw. My parents were distraught at the idea. But now we’re offering careers that are safer than banking.”

Success brings obvious financial awards, but the creative process always comes first. “We’re not interested in doing a project unless we’re really drawn to it. We won’t do stuff just for the money. We have to love and believe in it. It has to be something that will reach a lot of people. Something like Peter Rabbit.”

Apart from Peter, there are loads of goodies in development.

“We’ve launched an adult-skewed company called Icehouse and are looking at the computer games market.

“There’s an animated sit-com set in Ireland in development, and another called Midlife Crisis. It’s about a guy who goes away to LA to become an actor.”

How adult will it become? “Ricky Gervais, Family Guy, The Inbetweeners ... we’re not afraid to push things, that’s why we came up with Icehouse so it doesn’t infect the Brown Bag brand.” O’Connell shows me a clip of something currently in development. It’s very rude and very, very funny. It actually features a naked dancing president.

So where does Irish animation go from here?

“Education is critical,” says O’Connell. “Irish animation has been so good at what it does that demand now outweighs supply. Many studios have to outsource abroad. Animation and third-level must make sure that we have enough homegrown talent to feed the industry.”

That’s especially true as Brown Bag are entering the feature film market. Next year they begin pre-production on Night Glider, which will be coproduced with Wind Dancer Films and directed by O’Connell.

“It’s about a flying squirrel who thinks he’s a superhero,” he says. “It’s like Kick Ass with squirrels. It’s very cool and very funny.”

Very cool, very funny and nuttier than squirrel crap. Just like Brown Bag, I conclude, as I avoid Noddy’s murderous glare on my way out.

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