‘Tis A Grand Day
From a precocious pig named Olivia to that little gold man known as Oscar, an introduction to Ireland’s vibrant animation scene.
The Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s period of rapid economic growth between 1995 and 2007, may have lost its lusty roar, but Irish animation has held its own economically while attracting international admiration, including three Academy Award nominations. According to the Irish Times, animation “is the only independent audiovisual sector which predicts growth this year. It is now the largest provider of full-time employment in the Irish independent film and television sector.”
Last fall, I got a first-hand look at Ireland and its animation scene as the first guest fellow at the National Film School Institute of Art/Design/Technology (IADT) in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. For two weeks, I taught master classes in animation storytelling and action analysis to nearly 100 students, advised senior film projects, and interacted with promising young animation talent. Before and after two public lectures in Dublin itself, I met industry professionals, toured studios, and viewed several upcoming projects. Though my visit was brief, I experienced a vibrant, creative animation scene filled with gifted animators, producers, students, and teachers.
“The Irish animation industry is young,” affirms Steve Woods, animation historian, animator, and one of my IADT teaching colleagues. “The directors are young, most of the producers are, and all of the animators are young. And ‘young’ also in that Irish animation is recent.” After pioneering experiments in 1909 by James Horgan, Woods places the real beginnings of Irish animation in the early 1960s with Gunter Wolfe’s television ads for Lyons Tea, Quin Films’ model animation, and Aidan Hickey’s paper cutouts. In the 1970s, Jimmy Murakami, the veteran animator/producer/director, settled permanently in Dublin and established Quateru (later Murakami) Films, which trained local animators in producing ads, shorts, and specials for Britain, Ireland, and other European venues.
In 1984, animation activity on the Green Isle exploded when the Sullivan/Bluth studio arrived in Dublin. Former Disney animator Don Bluth and Irish-American businessman Morris Sullivan sought to rival Disney with animated features initially produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, such as An American Tale (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988).
“The [Sullivan/Bluth] initiative came from the Industrial Development Authority and the intended result was to have 200 to 300 semi-skilled jobs created for Irish people, Cel painters mostly,” Woods says. When European rules restricted American animators from working in Ireland, Irish artists were trained to take up the slack.
In the mid-90s, Wood says, “Bluth generously supported the establishment of an animation department at Ballyfermot College of Further Education and Irish kids started the best training in American animation available.” It was Ireland’s only animation training in an academic setting until 2003 when the aforementioned National Film School at IADT offered a bachelor of arts degree in animation. Two years later, Ballyfermot launched a degree program in its re-titled Irish School of Animation.
“It is a testament to Ballyfermot that in this year’s Academy Awards, there were four ex-students who were nominated [including Richard Baneham (class of 1995) who won for Avatar’s visual effects],” says Cathal Gaffney, co-owner with Darragh O’Connell of Dublin-based Brown Bag Films, one of Ireland’s most successful and busiest studios.
Established in 1994 after Gaffney and O’Connell dropped out of Balleyfermot, Brown Bag is a spacious facility employing more than 50 full-time staff and another 15 freelance jobs, with 90 percent of its business export-based. Created as an analog house, it now focuses on state-of-the-art CGI commercials and TV series, such as Olivia. Brown Bag’s first Oscar nomination came in 2002 for the short Give Up Yer Aul Sins (at top); this year it was nominated for Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, produced by O’Connell and directed by Nicky Phalen (from the class of 2003).
Granny introduces a great new character, a dyspeptic oldster with silo-shaped hair whose bedtime stories hilariously veer off into tales of bitter personal recriminations that define the term “senior moment.” The endearingly scary crone is so popular she may have her own half-hour Christmas TV special loosely based on a Frank Capra classic, re-titled It’s a Dreadful Life! “We were easy adaptors to new technology,” Gaffney says of Brown Bag, “always reinvesting everything back into the business. We are at an ad- vantage in that we are a creatively owned and managed studio. The rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger had relatively little impact on us.”
“Ireland is a country of several small and medium-sized studios,” says Barry O’Donoghue, owner of Barley Films, which resides in a cozy two-story townhouse in a quiet courtyard near the sea in picturesque Dun Laoghaire. O’Donoghue’s eclectic background includes a 1994 law degree from University College Dublin, followed by animation studies at Ballyfermot and also night classes in design and animation at IADT.
After working in America as a production manager and animator on features, such as The Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones, and Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, he returned to Ireland in early 2002 to found Barley Films. “I wanted to make hand-drawn films,” he says. “Since then the studio has produced nine short films, most funded by the Irish Film Board in conjunction with three national broadcaster RTE and The Arts Council.”
The shorts, designed in a variety of imaginative styles, have won numerous international awards and been screened in over 100 festivals around the world. I viewed two works in progress that promise more plaudits: Headspace (left), directed by Patrick Semple, focuses on the cyclical nature of physical abuse; it uses intriguing effects animation rather than human characters to express the duality of the abuser who alternates between tenderness and violence, and a child’s attempt to distance himself from reality. Hunter, another short, deals expressionistically with man’s relationship to the environment and looks at issues of redemption and the effects of one’s actions
The latter film is designed and directed by 22-year old Eamonn O’Neill, a recent graduate of IADT’s animation program. His 2008 student film My Day attracted an enthusiastic following on the web, and this fall he begins a masters program in animation at London’s Royal College of Art. The proximity of Barley Films to the National Film School’s IADT—less than a mile away—affords opportunities for select students to learn in a professional environment through internships and summer jobs.
At Barley, I also saw test footage and concepts for Little Caribou (left), an ambitious feature-length, hand-drawn film. Budgeted at 2 million euros, O’Donoghue plans to finance the production through a combination of private equity, tax incentive investments, and grant aid, hopefully from the Irish Film Board. “It’s a tiny budget,” he says, “but it does give us the maximum amount of creative freedom. The story was developed in-house and all the work will take place in Ireland. We are aiming for strong character performances using pencil animation from a dozen animators and a total crew of no more than 25. In my experience this can be best achieved when everyone is under one roof.”
O’Donoghue also served as a consultant/production supervisor on a recent Irish animated feature: the much-admired The Secret of Kells. The gorgeously designed, hand-drawn, low-budget animated cartoon beat out stiff competition (including Hayao Miyazaki) to become nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. (It lost to Pixar’s Up.) “This film is really small compared to American features,” says Tomm Moore, the film’s co-director with Nora Twomey, “so even just being nominated means a huge amount.”
The Secret of Kells, set in 8th century Ireland, tells the tale of 12-year-old Brendan living in a medieval abbey who protects a magical book from invading Vikings. Celtic legend, culture, and graphics inspired by Ireland’s national treasure The Book of Kells, with designs redolent of Miro, Picasso, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, and stylizations of the late, great UPA cartoon studio, resulted in a film of refreshing charm and visual enchantment. Kells was co-directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey at Cartoon Saloon located in Kilkenny, about 70 miles southwest of Dublin.
Based on an idea Moore came up with in his final year at Ballyfermot (1990), “it was a maybe-never-happen kind of idea,” Moore says, “until we met Les Armateurs and Vivi Film.” The production took off in 2005 when Paris-based Les Armateurs [producers of Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003), Kirikou et La Sorcière (1998), among other animation features] and Belgium-based Vivi Film became involved. Les Armateurs producer Didier Brunner called it a perfect fit: “An auteur project with all that entails in terms of production risks, a screenplay that wasn’t formatted, original graphics and a 2-D film. This is the exact opposite of what today’s European and U.S. animated blockbusters offer.”
The 75-minute production cost 6 million euros and took three years to finish. Ireland was “the blueprint country,” Moore says. “We did 20 minutes of key animation, did all the main backgrounds, and the color story boards, in our Kilkenny studio.” Moore also retained artistic control of parts farmed out to various artists and studios in Belgium and throughout Ireland (including Galway where hand-drawn effects supervisor Jeremy Purcell works at the intriguingly named studio A Man In Ink), and image post-production in France.
Song of the Sea, Moore’s feature-length work in progress, weaves an enchanted folktale of the journey home of the last Seal Child, one of Ireland’s mythological Selkies. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Kells and its Oscar nomination has opened doors, giving “a huge boost” to Moore and Cartoon Saloon. But, “it’s very hard to get enough commercials to keep the studio solid,” he says. “We’ve been doing a lot of illustration, design, and service work for other studios. We’re doing more co-productions. We’re doing backgrounds for a French feature film. It’s a more stable way to keep the team together.
“The Celtic Tiger is long gone,” Moore says, “but there’s plenty of healthy business going on. I think it can be stronger. The Screen Directors Guild of Ireland has an animation branch and we started thinking how we could make an alliance between all the animation directors and producers in Ireland. I’m hoping we can make something pretty sustainable and solid with indigenous companies in Ireland, rather than just service work.”
That’s good news for young Irish animation talent, such as Stephen Duignan, a gifted designer/animator who was one of my students at Ireland’s National Film School’s IADT. “If the industry keeps going the way it’s going,” he recently emailed, “I’ll probably be able to [work] somewhere here in Ireland. “I think the recent awards and nominations really only serve to highlight the possibility of employment or even a career in animation in Ireland. So its reassuring to be going out into a workplace like that.”