Sunday 19 November 2017

Drawing on experience: Ireland's golden age of animation

Song the Sea
Song the Sea

This is not the first time that Ireland's animation industry has enjoyed an international profile. The country experienced something of an animation boom in the 1980s with big American studios Sullivan Bluth and Murakami Wolf setting up substantial operations here.

The former, run by famed US animator Don Bluth, was enticed to Ireland thanks to generous tax breaks. By the end of the 1980s, some 400 people were employed in its studio near the Phoenix Park.

Sullivan Bluth specialised in feature films, rather than the then traditional Saturday morning television slot - and, for a few glorious years, the decision paid off. Among the big-budget films made there were Disneyesque The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven.

One animator who cut his teeth there was Mark Byrne, now head of the country's foremost animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

"I turned up with my art portfolio one day, and without any animation skills, but it didn't matter - they were willing to train myself and many others from scratch," he recalls. "They were exciting days, especially because it wasn't easy to get well-paid work in the Ireland of the time. So many people were having to emigrate, but in its heyday some animators were getting salaries that were like telephone numbers."

As with so many industries, many of the roles associated with animation in the 1980s - such as 'cel painting' - have been supplanted by computing. "If it was open today, it would probably employ 100 rather than 400," he says.

For its part, Murakami Wolf was famed for one of the 1980s' most popular cartoons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But its fortunes waned when animation factories sprung up in the far east and churned out cheaper content more quickly. Sullivan Bluth, too, found it difficult to compete.

By the mid-1990s, Ireland's animation industry was in the doldrums and the "big two" had shut up shop. But the experience gained by hundreds of animators would help fuel animation's second coming over the past decade.

"There's no doubt about it," Byrne says, "today's buoyant industry has its roots in the animation done here three decades ago."

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